Three Ways for Coping with Data Overload

In 2011 I took the year off to write a book. Well yes and no. As many authors will attest “the book” takes over. I intended taking three months off but the book became the master and I the servant and it ended up being a year after which I had written over a third of a million words, got a very stiff back from too much time at the pc, and written two different drafts of similar books. The “final” (“not yet published” – something else budding authors recognise) version stretches to 650pp – “Beyond the Silos” – is about the end of the Modern Era. The “Age of Reason” is at an end – we have had centuries of “reason” as our supposed guiding principle and what do we have? Well we are rapidly trashing the planet and we are working longer hours than ever, stress and stress-related conditions – physical and mental – are at epidemic levels.

Anyway onto my point. The book is a vast undertaking – the heart of the book is 10-15,000 word chapters on Science, Religion, Philosophy, Language, Psychology and Sociology. It is very much a Big Picture enterprise, a helicopter overview.

Well be that as it may – and the whys and wherefores I will write about one day. For this article though the key issue is “coping with data overload”. As you can imagine there was an enormous amount of research on a whole range of topics – and while my head was full of that everyday things like car tyre pressures, website parameters, bank addresses, that phone number I wrote down, the quote I was sure I wouldn’t forget and a zillion other things needed to be remembered.

It was all too much and I learned the valuable lesson that the brain is not an efficient store for a vast number of facts – its why we have to cram for exams and then a couple of days later have forgotten the lot. That is also a stressful process – we all know that feeling when our head is “over-full”. So what to do about it? How did I cope with a zillion pieces of information on a host of topics?

The first key tool which an increasing number of people have but I still see many struggling who don’t is one system for contacts details, calendar appointments, emails, birthdays etc. I use Google which synchronises nicely and automatically between my PC and my Android Phone. No more “aaargh I have that phone number on my PC but not my phone”, no more forgetting Aunt Agatha’s birthday. For emails on the pc I use Mozilla Thunderbird (also free) which pulls all the emails and the blogs I follow into one place.

So that’s first base.

Second base is a personal wiki – your own wikipedia. There are many out there. I ended up using WikidPad which whilst basic in appearance, is very simple, takes no time to learn and acts as a dump storage of all the things I need to know at some point. Of yes it’s also freeware 🙂

Personal Information Management

How do you manage all of the random bits of information in your personal and professional life? Word documents, text files, Microsoft Outlook folders/notes. If you’re an expert user maybe you have a weblog, or a personal database, or possibly an outlining application. Where do you track your wife’s favorite food, your bosses kids names, your personal todo list, the name of the movie you just read a review of, the name of the book a friend recommended. wikidPad was created to address this issue of personal information management. It provides a place to manage the massive amounts of information you have stuffed in your head, on stickies, or on your computer.

Now about this phrase “massive amounts of data”. You may be thinking you know your tyre pressures, you ain’t writing a book, and there isn’t much info in your life. I have forgotten where I read this – maybe Lifehacker in its earlier days – but the comment was “it will take you a week to recall all the data”. “Nah!” thought I. I don’t have that much data in my life and I work quickly. Well the Gods never like hubris and 10 days later I was still recalling random pieces of information and entering them.

Now words are one thing – I can write about ice-cream – but the experience is something completely different right? So unless you have done something similar you cannot believe how much “freeing up of headspace” one gets as a result. The brain is great at making connections and seeing patterns but in our data overloaded society its overly-crammed with trying to remember stuff. You don’t even have to remember where you put the information in the personal wiki as you just search it like wikipedia … whether for tyre pressures, electricity account number, or those dumped chunks of text you might need some time.

Third base is where we are not just dealing with easy mass data storage and retrieval but where we are not sure of the structure as well. Here mind mapping comes into its own – especially on a PC with a mouse where we can move whole chunks of things and drag and drop. I have noticed that the younger generation often make notes in this way – it must be taught in schools. I use and thoroughly recommend the freeware Freemind:

So you want to write a completely new metaphysics? Why don’t you use FreeMind? You have a tool at hand that remarkably resembles the tray slips of Robert Pirsig, described in his sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance called Lila. Do you want to refactor your essays in a similar way you would refactor software? Or do you want to keep personal knowledge base, which is easy to manage? Why don’t you try FreeMind? Do you want to prioritize, know where you are, where you’ve been and where you are heading, as Stephen Covey would advise you? Have you tried FreeMind to keep track of all the things that are needed for that?

I use it for keeping track of business opportunities, brainstorming business development, key points from books I read – anything where the thinking itself is in flux or the structural layout says as much as the content. On Android Thinking Space used to be the App of choice, it’s now been taken over by Mindjet. Oh yes and I keep them synchronised automatically by Dropbox.

So what’s fourth base?

Well I don’t think that exists yet.

The tools I have mentioned (or their equivalents) are excellent. I have used many others of which Evernote comes nearest to being a key recommendation.

If your life is in a mess, pieces of paper, half-remembered and half-forgotten things on countless topics – which is the modern zeitgeist – then I really recommend you sort it all.

You will be amazed at how much “stuff” there is and how much of a relief it is when you get it all down and reliably and automatically backed up and synchronised. It’s one of the simplest, easiest to implement ways of improving your quality of life and stress management.

Let me know what approaches you find helpful. Have you found a fourth base yet?

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