How not to read everything you need to online

Berliners are celebrating today the 20th Anniversary of the collapse of “The Wall”. That great dividing line between East and West was beaten down by ordinary people – and probably you have a “flashbulb” memory of where you were and what you were doing when the news broke. But with their new-found freedom, the East Berliners started to experience a problem they had never realised existed.

The Brandenburg Gate symbolises the opening up to a free flow of information into East Berlin

The Brandenburg Gate symbolises the opening up to a free flow of information into East Berlin

Up until that point, East Berliners were effectively told what to think. In an emotional interview on BBC Radio Five Live this morning a former resident of the East (now the curator of the museum at Checkpoint Charlie) pointed out that in the East people were not free. Of course, that much is obvious. But one of the benefits of being free is also one of its main problems – the free flow of information.

Nowadays – something that could not be predicted when the Berlin Wall came down – is the extensive freedom of information we all enjoy. That freedom meant recently that the “old rules” of preventing us from knowing things was destroyed by Twitter users, allowing the Guardian to publish details which were previously hidden as a result of an injunction. That freedom means that every week Facebook users spend a total of 8 billion minutes on the site; indeed one in every seven pages viewed by UK web users today will be on Facebook. That freedom also means, according to Web User Magazine, that so much information is being published that we are now missing out on new things which appear even on our favourite sites.

We are – in this free world we live in – surrounded by so much information that we are in danger of missing out the essentials. Back in the days of East Berlin, people didn’t really know what they were missing out on; the information was so restricted they did not realise what was not there. Now, like the rest of us (except those in restricted states like North Korea or China) the Berliners are swamped with information. And just like you and me, that’s a problem. As WebUser says, we can miss out on some useful and essential stuff. As the Guardian and Twitter has shown, preventing other people spreading information about us is now almost impossible. And as Facebook use continues to grow, our information free world demonstrates we are sharing even more material with more and more people.

Feel like you are drowning?

Information overload is nothing new – except for some people in Berlin perhaps. As we discover and do more things in free societies, so the information increases. But these days it is an exponential rise. Keeping up-to-date in your chosen field is becoming increasingly difficult; according to Google the Internet is growing by several billion pages each DAY…!

So, what can we do about it? There are three choices available to us:

  1. Try to keep up with everything, spending more and more time reading, sorting and analysing information
  2. Restrict the subjects we want to really know about, narrowing our information topics to those which are truly essential to us
  3. Forget the rise in information and just go about our lives ignoring most of it

It seems that most people try to do the first on this list – they attempt to keep up with everything. Then they get “information fatigue” – where they just stop trying to swim against the tide and essentially give up (only to start again after a break).

Here’s what you need to do: act like a CEO of a major multinational. For decades, these CEOs have known that they can’t possibly read everything they need to about their own company or their industry sector. They would never get their job done. So what do they do to solve this dilemma? After all, if they don’t know everything there is to know about their business and its place in its niche, they are doomed.

CEOs pay other people to sift through the information. They have an IT director who gives them the essential technical information they need, they have an HR director who provides the latest news on personnel matters and they have a logistics director who updates them on distribution information. CEOs pay people in a wide range of disciplines to filter the information they need and provide them with the essentials. This leaves CEOs more time to mix with other CEOs where they share the important material with each other and analyse it.

Rather than trying to swim amongst the mire of information, sort out your “topics” you want covered then pay people in those topic areas to filter out what you need to know and only let you have that information. There are people on Elance, for instance, who offer such research services for much smaller amounts of cash than the money you save by freeing your time. In other words, outsourcing your information collection and filtering becomes profitable.

Strange how the world turns full circle. Back when the Berlin Wall existed the people of Berlin effectively outsourced their information filtering to the state. But, don’t do what they did – having one person who filters all your information. Rather like a multinational CEO, have several different outsourced “information filterers”; that way you can be sure you are not being “fed a line”.

Or you can continue to try and spend every night and half the day reading through all the information you think you need, eventually suffering from information fatigue, stress and the resulting loss in profits.

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