These are just some of the ways I organise my day to avoid information anxiety

Feel calmer already? Image by Christian Kortum

In a post preparing for the start of a new academic year of the MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism and MA in Data Journalism, I thought I would write down some notes on techniques I’ve developed over the past decade for dealing with the pressures of information overload, and staying productive.

First, an admission: like anybody, I get overwhelmed by the various demands on my time, I feel frustrated at not getting anything meaningful done all day, and anxiety about the things that still need to be done. Here are some of the tactics I’ve developed over the years to avoid this.

1. The morning belongs to me — not to my phone

If one of the key causes of frustration and anxiety is the feeling of being out of control, then it helps to take control of your day from the start. Checking social media when you wake up — or, worse, email —can steer you in a different direction straight away, so I try not to do it.

My priorities in the morning are simple: eat, shower, help my family get ready for the day. If those things aren’t done because I’m distracted by a tweet then it’s already off to a bad start.

But there are other things I like to get done in the morning, too: yesterday’s crossword; practise Spanish on Duolingo; talk to the people I share my life with. If I’ve done any of those, it’s a good start to the day.

Using the commute to plan the day

For me, the morning commute is the first of two slots for checking email during the day. In fact, really what I am doing is mostly filing emails to action later using the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach:

  1. If the email needs a response which will take less than a minute, I respond
  2. If the email can be deleted, I delete it — if it just needs filing, I archive it.
  3. Those emails that are left I put to one side for action or follow-up

I have folders for emails that are urgent and important; and those that are urgent and not important. When I get into the office I’ll deal with them in that order (more below). Anything else will go into a to-do list.

I also spend the commute updating Trello with my to-do list for that day: I have a ‘board’ for each day of the week, which is split into different lists of different priorities. (At other times I’ve had boards for different projects — more in this post on beginners tips here.)

Emails from mailing lists are pre-filtered into a different folder. If I have time left I look at some of those too.

The good thing about a commute is that it lasts a limited amount of time. But on days when not commuting, I try to set a deadline to stop looking at emails (e.g. 30–60 minutes).

Do something productive early in the day

Once the work day has started and I have dealt with any urgent tasks from those emails, I try to make time as early as possible to do something that is going to make me feel positive for the rest of the day. In other words, the idea is not to arrive at the end of the day thinking ‘What on earth did I do today?

This will probably be something on the to-do list which is not a chore, something which makes me feel like I’m making some sort of progress with things.

Once I’ve spent an hour on that, then it doesn’t matter how badly the rest of the day goes: it’s been a success.

Spend some time on email strategy

With that done, then, I can go through my emails a second time — again, setting a time limit so that it doesn’t take over the day.

Email is such a big cause of information anxiety that I’ve written a separate post outlining how I deal with that, but it boils down to 6 things:

  1. Create filters to do some email management for you
  2. Have one or two set times of the day for checking emails
  3. Take one of 3 actions: respond, archive/delete, or file for action
  4. Don’t use email as a to-do list
  5. Accept that inbox zero is an unnatural state
  6. Accept that your email management techniques won’t always work, and that’s fine

Sometimes there will be days when email management has gone so astray that you need to spend the whole day ploughing through and sorting out the mess. That’s also fine, and actually quite a productive day in its own right.

Use Slack effectively

Slack is a great alternative to email, and is particularly useful in reducing information anxiety when used effectively. Things you can do include:

  • Set what times to allow notifications: in other words, if you work 9–5 then only have notifications turned on for those hours. If people try to message you they will be told that you have notifications turned off at the moment.
  • Set your status and availability so people know if you’re on vacation, working remotely, in ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode, and so on.
  • Join and leave channels, and customise notifications for channels: channels are basically Slack’s version of ‘cc’ messages — a way to stay in the loop on a project or topic without messages clogging up the same space as more direct communication (which are brought to your attention using the @ symbol). Set your notifications according to whether you always want to know what’s being said in a channel, or instead just want to check yourself from time to time.
  • Use the ‘reminder’ functionality in Slack: if you can’t, or don’t want to, respond to a message straight away, you can tap and hold on a message and select ‘Remind Me’ to be reminded about it later. You can also create more specific reminders.

If you have to work outside working hours, make sure it’s not the dull stuff…

It’s easy for work and study to creep outside normal working hours, so I try to make sure that any work I do in the evenings and weekends is work that I enjoy, or at least something productive rather than drudgery and admin. That can wait for the next day.

Again, the point here is to avoid feelings of frustration. If you have to do work in the evening, at least let it be something that is positive.

I also find it useful to avoid working for at least an hour before I go to bed. There is some evidence that staring at screens before sleep may not be a good thing, but even aside from that it helps to give yourself the reward of watching the latest episode in a box set (yes, still a screen) or, even better, reading a good book. A disturbed sleep pattern can have a big effect on productivity, and mood, so some years ago I made it a priority, and I found I worked a lot better since.

Some other tips: if you find yourself sinking into social media time-sucks you can try one of a growing number of internet restriction apps — or the tips listed here. And if news consumption causes anxiety too there are some basic anxiety-reducing techniques listed here, including taking real-world action, keeping a sense of perspective, and accepting that feelings of anxiety can be normal.

Finally, accept that you can’t do or be everything

Image (via Anna Noble) by Hugh Kearns

It’s great having access to the world’s information — but it brings a lot of pressure too. One particular source of anxiety is the sheer amount of opportunity out there, and the vast range of skills and experience you come across in the people you meet and see.

I’ve spent two decades learning all sorts of skills and after all that time my to-do list is longer than ever.

I will never learn all the things I’d like to learn, play with all the tools I want to try out, or complete all the tutorials I’d like to do. That’s fine. Just like the never-empty inbox, it is perfectly natural.

Like everyone else, I look at other people and wish I knew what they knew; could do what they can do. This is natural, too.

Comparison is the thief of joy”.

What do I do? I imagine being one of those people, looking back at me, thinking exactly the same thing.

We cannot live someone else’s life. Sometimes I get my students to list all the skills that they have developed, and all the knowledge they have acquired, just so they can see what they do have, rather than all the things they have yet to get on to.

Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”

We are part of a generation that not only benefits from an information revolution, but that also has to come up with solutions to its new problems. A world of habits and routines built on finite information is having to adjust to the inbox that never empties; the to-do list that never ends; the limitless library; the networks we will never meet; the map which will always have unexplored territories.

I hope some of these techniques are useful, but if you have any more, I will be happy to add them to my neverending to-do list…

UPDATE: Interesting to see that I’m not alone in trying to create alert-free spaces in the day…