Rachel Reuben is a marketing communications professional in higher education.

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Tackling digital overload: Simplify & standardize

Aug292010

Are you overwhelmed by one or more inboxes? Is your todo list a bunch of post-it notes all over your desk? Do you have a pretty good organizational system but could use some efficiency fine tuning? Go read Bit Literacy. (Big thanks to Karine Joly for turning me on to this Friday.) I’m only six chapters in, and I’m already applying the author’s advice and practices. (Side note: This is the first book I’m reading on my iPad, as well as my first Kindle app book. I’m a fan already.)

I’ve become digitally overwhelmed and overloaded. I’m completely in love with my new job, but we sure do use a lot of different systems there. I’m adapting to a new way of managing my calendars (personal+work), contacts (personal+work), and email (work). In addition to these systems, I’ve been trying to integrate my todo list manager, Remember The Milk (still failing on that for work, but active user for personal stuff). Throw in that mix the following that I now use:

  • One paper notebook full of notes & scattered action items
  • Paper files in a desk drawer and in my commuter tote
  • network drive for department file sharing
  • network drive for personal files
  • myHome (portal) community groups for some committees / working groups (files+discussions)
  • activeCollab for web and recruitment marketing projects (project management status, discussions, files)
  • FileMaker Pro for print projects
  • Google wiki as a repository for some documentation and notes
  • Google docs
  • Dropbox

To add to this digital overload, there’s also messages coming at me via social media on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, and via SMS. And, I’ve just started using Evernote as a test to see if this might help me organize. The jury is still out on that one.

It’s too much! I can’t remember where virtually anything is saved. I need the Mac’s “Spotlight” feature in my brain! I’m on a mission to simplify and standardize. Reading Bit Literacy is just step three. (Step one was identifying all of these items, step two was ordering a label maker and new file folders for work. Hey, it’s a process.) Once I feel more in control and organized personally, I’m going to attempt to take on these systems at work and see if there’s any way we can simplify and standardize as a group.

Reading this book has also been effective in helping me realize I’m not a total disaster. I actually have some really good organizational practices in place – I just got hit with a whole lot of change at once, and it’s piled up to the point that I’m digitally overwhelmed. Time to take control of all those bits.

Today’s success: I had an email induction ceremony to achieve personal inbox emptiness. I have only one message in my personal inbox that requires me to make a decision on tonight. I’ve never seen my inbox this size. Step two – my work account. Tomorrow.

I think this could be an interesting process, and I’m going to try to keep up with documenting my personal progress with this effort here. I’m always on the lookout for new tools that will help me simplify and be more efficient. I’ve heard lots about GTD and Things. I’ve also read and watched a video about goodtodo.com, which was developed by the author of Bit Literacy. I’m actually not convinced to switch to that, as Remember the Milk has been working just fine for me — it’s integrating the work stuff and keeping track of who I delegate certain tasks too that I don’t have a good process for yet. (Delegation & having a “someday” list are two features I wish Remember the Milk would implement.)

How do you handle digital overload? What tools and processes do you have in place to not let the bits overwhelm you?

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  • Shelby Thayer

    Rachel – really great post and so timely for me. I’m really feeling a bit overwhelmed with a lot of things and could really use “simplify and standardize” for my life! : ) nnI’ll have to check out Bit Literacy. nnI fear I’m a bit behind. I just signed up for LastPass (yes, I’m going back to basics) and am so excited to be using it. I find myself missing family birthdays now. I really need help *goes to Amazon, searches for Bit Literacy* nnHere’s to simplifying!

    • http://rachelreuben.com rachelreuben

      I had to look up and see what LastPass was! I started using 1Password a little over a year ago, and what a lifesaver that has been. However, it could also use some cleansing, as they’ve come out with newer versions & features since I first started. One step at a time. :)

  • http://twitter.com/shelleyKeith Shelley Keith

    Now that I’m taking 18 hours, working more than full-time, and prepping for a 4 hr heweb workshop I’ve found myself starring at the literal and digital pile in abject terror. I’ve got to get a grip on it if I’m going to succeed at all. Right now I’m exploring tools to help me do that. Thanks for the post, your list is coming in handy :)

  • Andrew Careaga

    Good for you, Rachel! I am all about simplifying life and workflow. I’ve read Getting Things Done and Lifehacker (the book; I also peruse the blog on occasion), and I found both to be extremely helpful and liberating. I’ve also read many articles and blogs about simplifying and organizing. And what I’ve discovered is that some tips work for me but others don’t. The most important trick I’ve learned is to write everything down in order to get it out of my head and on to paper (physical or virtual — take your pick).nnI’ve also committed to taking a zen approach to some matters that don’t really matter (to me). It doesn’t matter to me that my Google Reader streams are overflowing with unread posts, or that my inbox is not at zero. We simply live in a time of information overload. We are swimming in a crapflood of info and we must learn to deal with that reality. Sounds like you’re off to a good start.

    • Karine Joly

      Andy,nnThat’s what I thought but Mark Hurst in Bit Literacy explains there’s a way out that is less stressful and yet simple. I’ve been living the dream for 2 weeks now – and these are really busy times for me. nn”We simply live in a time of information overload. We are swimming in a crapflood of info and we must learn to deal with that reality. “nnThe solution to what you describe above is plain simple: emptiness and a reasonable diet (very close to staying fit and eating healthy in the approach actually – requires some discipline, but you can create habits to help you along the way).nnI might start a cult around this book, because it is THAT good and simple.nn

  • Mark Hurst

    Rachel – thanks for the post! Glad you’re finding the book to be helpful. And great to hear that you’re on your way to emptying. How did it feel when the personal inbox got to zero, btw?nnAs for todo lists. You can set up a “sometime” list easily in Good Todo – just create the “sometime” category and put the items in there. In general, though, if you have a tool (RTM or something else) that already works well, stick with it :)

    • http://rachelreuben.com rachelreuben

      It’s incredibly liberating. I can’t remember ever seeing it at zero before. I’ve been attacking my work inbox this morning, and am down to two in the inbox at the moment. It’s exhilarating. Next step is to get all of my action items out of my paper notebook into my todo list, prioritized and dated where appropriate.

  • http://andrew-meyers.com Andrew

    Rachel, thanks for your post on a really important topic. I’ve had a lot of success with Remember the Milk, but I recently moved on from it because it just wasn’t offering some of the features I was looking for, primarily delegating tasks (or a “waiting for” designation) and nested tasks/project management.nnI was looking at Things, but at $50 it was a little steep for me. Then I found Nirvana, which is web-based and offers a lot of the same features, at no cost. I’ve really been liking it, and it follows the GTD method of task management.nnGood luck with getting everything in place!

  • http://kevinwbishop.name Kevin W. Bishop

    Hey Rachel! How curious to find your blog via the Good Experience newsletter. (How long ago was it that Glenna and I presented on blogs for higher ed. admissions at SUNY New Paltz?) By the looks of it you must be doing very well.
    I read Bit Literacy a few years ago and found its advice — zero inbox! — to be very difficult to follow. I even used GTD for awhile but it didn’t help. Ultimately, it was a quasi-religious devotion to keeping things as simple as possible that keeps my sanity and inbox in check, much like Bit Literacy advises. I haven’t achieved anything near perfection yet but I take solace in the idea that “zen is the art of doing one thing at a time.”
    Hope all is well!

  • Kevin W. Bishop

    Hey Rachel! How funny/wonderful to see your name appear in a Good Experience newsletter! (I believe the last time time we saw each other was when Glenna and I presented at SUNY New Paltz on using blogs for admissions purposes? How many years has it been?) You appear to be doing well and I’m very glad to see it. nnI read Mr. Hurst’s book Bit Literacy a few years ago, tried a few tricks (apps) in the meantime too, but nothing works like acquiring a quasi-religious devotion to emptying that inbox on a daily basis. As a friend of mine paints on her bathroom mirror, “zen is the art of doing one thing at a time”. nnBe well!

  • http://www.simplyzesty.com Niall

    You are right to try and simplify things because as soon as you turn on your computer it just comes at you from every angle these days and there is so much that demands your attention! Like you say pen and paper can go a long way because unlike online to do lists you actually have to do the stuff on pape before you can cross it off!

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