Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Plight of the Health Actist, a Response

Amy K wrote a great post about "The Plight of the Health Activist". In her post she expresses frustration about the sheer volume of information that today's consumer needs to process, and asks for people's suggestions or advice in terms of how best to manage it. If you have suggestions, feel free to share it with Amy on her blog.

Here is my response, which I also posted in the comments section of her blog:

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Like you said, the frustrations you express are not just those of the health activist, but represent those felt by many who have fully embraced today's technologies for the purpose of seeking, organizing, and understanding information (health-related or otherwise). While it's both a blessing and a curse, it's also an opportunity -- an opportunity to pause (and breathe), like you have, and ask the simple question: "What am I really trying to do here?".

I totally get your frustration. While the problem can be stressful enough just based on information that is delivered to you (via RSS feeds, tweets, e-newsletters, etc), I exacerbate the problem even more by seeking it out! In one moment I find myself hopping from engadget to mashable trying to keep up with the latest gadget and technology news, then suddenly I am slipping down the proverbial "Tube Trail" of Augmented Reality videos! (“Tube Trail” is what I call it when I start watching videos on YouTube, and start clicking on "related videos", and before I know it, hours have passed and I feel like I've been in some kind of hypnotic tube-trance. Know the feeling?).

Because we are not just an "employee" or a "patient" or a "friend", we often find that we have so many different information desires and needs, and each of these can pull is in a different direction, at the same time. Sometimes we end up feeling like our brains are literally being jerked apart. And even if we can find the information we are looking for, then what? What do we do with it? How do we organize it? Who do we share it with? How do we validate and process it? I liken it to being in a batting cage and having all these balls being pitched at me – and I have a split-second to make a decision of either letting it pass or hitting it in some direction -- where hopefully it reaches someone that it matters to. So what, you ask, can we do to deal with all this?

I have no “silver bullet” answer, but I have some thoughts and ideas, most of which I have yet to fully adopt myself. First of all, I try as much as possible to keep a short-list of key information sources that I can draw from – sources which I regularly review and rely on to be up-to-date, relevant, and accurate. In my tweetdeck, these are my "groups". In a browser, these are my "bookmarks". I rely on approximately a dozen key information sources in any one category to deliver 95% of what I need.

In addition, I also try and artificially compartmentalize my day in such a way that I don’t hop between different categories of sources within the same time slot – meaning, if I am doing research on the latest blogs and news regarding Social Media and its use in Pharma, I try not to jump over to Ad Age or Media Week to see what’s happening in the marketing/advertising world.

But like you said, in an "RSS" world we don't necessarily always control information inflow. In fact, it's more the rule than the exception that information comes to us that, at the exact given moment we receive it, is not relevant to us -- and easily threatens to de-rail our mental focus. In such cases, I have made it a habit to “tag it and bag it”. To help with this, for example, I keep a Google spreadsheet where I simply cut and paste headlines and links that I plan to visit later. Another tool I am just starting to use in Twitter is the “favorite” button, not because I necessarily like a story, but because I know that once a day I have reliable place that I can return to where I can review what I have put aside for later consumption.

In addition, I use technology tools to help me. For example, I often use Blogger as a way to simply capture news and articles because Google indexes it and I can quickly search for it later. I also have been using a tool called Twittinesis to help me keep track of my daily tweets. It automatically publishes my day’s tweets into my blog so at any time I can go back and review what I’ve sent out, and perhaps dive deeper if necessary. In addition, because it’s now on my blog, I can also user the Blog Search function to find it easily (keep in mind, Twitter Search only archives a couple of month’s worth of tweets, and then they are deleted. So this is a helpful way to have a publicly indexed record of your tweets).

Also, probably like you, I download dozens of (possibly) interesting reports every day, but I often don’t have time to read them. And like many of us, if I don’t read it within 24 hours it’s likely that I will forget that I have even downloaded the report. To deal with this, I put all downloads in a folder on my local hard drive and then let Google Desktop work its magic. Even if I completely forget about the report, whenever I am doing research I will always search both my desktop and the web via Google – and all the articles I have saved are now part of my entire library, without requiring me to organize them in folders, tag them, make notes, etc…

Like I said, it’s not really just one solution that helps me, but a combination of discipline, focus, and technology that allows me to avoid information overload. The biggest challenge, frankly, is the discipline. If you are an information junkie like me, it’s very easy to find yourself consuming an inordinate amount of information on an hourly basis. Frankly, as wonderful as our brains might be, I really don’t think they were designed to be effective data managers. Yes, the information gets stored somewhere in there (I think!), but retrieving it at the right time seems like an impossible task (#brainfail). So the key to me becomes (a) being focused on what we are looking for; (b) becoming very fast at extracting the necessary details; (c) developing mental shortcuts and systems to process the information so it doesn’t sit in our heads; and then (d) leveraging technology to help store, organize, and index the information for future retrieval.

That last piece is really important. At any given moment, our brain has a way of deciding what’s important based on a specific set of very “local” and “time-sensitive” variables. That automatic filtering process enables us to sift through large volumes of information and quickly decide what’s relevant and discard or ignore the rest. However, that information we are “discarding” might still be valuable, just not at that given moment. So I find it critical to find ways to have 10% of my brain peripherally-focused, looking for keywords that enable me to quickly flag a possible piece of information, and then quickly dump it somewhere that I know is intended for that purpose.

I can’t stress enough how much leveraging Google’s phenomenal indexing capabilities can take away a lot of the mental burden – whether it’s indexing folders and files on your desktop, your blog (public facing or private), or your own set of Google docs, spreadsheets, and presentations.
To be honest, many of these principles were applied in the development of At the beginning, I just wanted to have a single place to follow the twitter stream based on the hashtag #fdasm. From there, it grew to becoming a place to help organize news, articles, presentations, and other important information that was being generated from multiple sources at an incredibly rapid rate. I believe the popularity of the initiative highlights that we are all dealing with information overload, so anything that helps remove the burden of finding, organizing, and remembering large quantities of data can be of huge value.

Anyway, I am not sure that is helpful, but if nothing else, I hope you hear me loud and clear when I say that what you are experiencing, while very frustrating, is actually quite common and I share every ounce of your pain. But more importantly, I applaud you for bringing this issue up, as it once again reminds us all that we need to continue the quest to reduce mental clutter while at the same time enjoying the wonderful adventure of learning.

Fabio Gratton (@skypen)
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