“There’s no such thing as information overload only failure to filter”

In a recent article John Gaudiin from Cisco recounts how, at a conference one of the attendees half jokingly said:

"There’s no such thing as information overload only failure to filter."

LindisfarneI’ve heard this view before, and probably used it in a few situations myself. I am an avid filterer myself. Of the hundreds of emails I receive every day the number that make it to my inbox is quite small, but I also think that it’s an overly simplistic view.

One of the problems I have is that this statement places all of the responsibility on the person receiving the information and the systems transporting it. It places no responsibility with the person or system sending the information.

I can filter all sorts of things if people or groups of people behave consistently, and the technology can do the same. The problem comes because people are not consistent, and groups of people are even less consistent.

Taking email as an example, it can be categorised in all sorts of ways, but the category is set by the person sending the information and their view of the category is probably different to mine. Just because an email is marked as urgent doesn’t mean that it becomes urgent to me, my idea of urgent and theirs are rarely the same. If I’m added as a cc: doesn’t mean I can always ignore it because sometimes I should really be at the heart of the activity. In some ways categorisation makes it worse, because people believe they are communicating something that I’m likely to ignore.

The other challenge with filtering is that it’s secret. The person who has sent me some information has now knowledge of whether I have let the information onto my field of vision or not. There is only room for a certain number of players on the pitch so a lot of people have to be happy to be a spectator, but current filtering systems don’t even tell people whether they’ve made it into the team, the reserves, a spectator or have already been ejected from the park.

The final challenge with current filtering systems is the scope of context. Current filtering systems work within their context (email, IM, etc.) they understand very little about each other’s context. They definitely don’t collect all of the context – voice is an obvious omission. The email system has no way of knowing that someone has phoned me to tell me to look out for an important or urgent email, if it did I would want it to tell me.

That leaves me in the situation where the ultimate filter has to be my eyeballs.

My approach to filtering is a version of the zero inbox approach. It’s only going to get worked on if it’s in my diary or it’s in my ‘to action’ folder. It only gets into my ‘to action’ folder if it’s not been deleted by a filter, or I’ve moved it there from one of my other filter folders like ‘newsletters’, ‘expenses system’ or ‘travel system’ which is highly unlikely, or if I’ve personally filtered it in there from what remains of what remains in my inbox. At some point in every day my inbox is empty. By using different automatic filter folders I am able to apply a different approach to reading in the different folders. In the ‘expenses system’ folder I’m only looking for one thing and that’s the ‘rejected’ word, everything else is noise. In the ‘newsletters’ folder I filter on title, if the title isn’t very interesting it gets deleted.

I don’t filter on individuals although I have seriously considered putting some people into a ‘too chatty’ filter to let me filter them separately.

While filtering items I also operate a 30 second rule, if I can respond completely in 30 seconds I will. The important thing is that I can respond completely if I’m not sure about something or I only have half the answer it goes into the ‘to action’ folder. I don’t send ‘I’ll get back to you tomorrow’ type emails, because I don’t see any value in them and they just annoy me when people send them to me.

Most of the time this works very well for me and I rarely feel completely overloaded.

My filter regime for other systems isn’t anything like as sophisticated primarily because the technology isn’t yet there.

Do you get that overloaded feeling or is your filter system working?

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