How to Stay Informed Without Being Overwhelmed

We’re drowning in dreck, and we all know it, but no one knows quite what to do about it. Today what you read or hear and believe to be the God’s honest truth will just as likely turn out to be fiction; and those things that you found to be inconceivable and clearly imagined or made-up will emerge as gospel. No one knows who or what to trust these days and, sadly, this will be the Orange Monster’s everlasting and most pervasive legacy: the destruction of trust in our country. Not simply in politics and other institutions, but in ourselves and each other. A sorely deluded time where the stupid are sure and the intelligent are full of doubt. Sadly, passion these days seems to be inversely correlated to the availability of real facts.

But I’m not talking simply about the civic cesspool that we call politics. What I’m talking about is the incessant, completely overwhelming, and utterly unavoidable flow of “stuff” — I’m reluctant to call it information or data — that barrages us daily from a million different directions. Everything today is about speed. The media machines that succeed are quickly dominated by two concerns: how can I get something out and how compactly can I tell the story and the story. Accuracy and analysis are secondary considerations at best. The goal is grabbing your attention by means of a big, continual and indiscriminate data dump in the hope of finding what sticks and swiftly spreads. But more data isn’t necessarily better or more instructive information.

Rather, most of the material we’re being subjected to today is consciously designed to be raucous, interruptive, and to elicit strong irrational emotions, negative reactions, and triggered responses. This is a world of outrage and inflammation rather than illumination. One focused principally on corruption, conflict, contests, and failures. Noise shouted loudly and often enough doesn’t always fall on deaf ears. It’s Steve Bannon flooding the zone with feces – – sewage on steroids. Close to half the country believes, to some extent, most of the crap he and his collaborators put out every day.

Considering that sucking you in and selling slices of your attention to advertisers is the entire raison d’etre of the social media platforms and most of the major media sites, the available remedies for stemming the deluge are quite limited. You can mute a bunch of words on Twitter, you can block creeps and trolls on Meta, you can unsubscribe to the dozens of sites you never signed up, or you can go really hardcore and try to turn the whole slop stream off.

As millions of people have already done, you can just stop looking and listening if you’ve got the discipline. Reuters Institute reports that about 40% of Americans try from time to time to avoid the online news entirely. You can also pretty much forget daily print newspapers. They make great weights for doggy bags tossed to your front door, but they’re typically a late day and a few dollars short. In rare instances, a great syndicated columnist will provide some real insight and analysis, but even that content is generally available elsewhere in multiple digital formats. However, the only thing worse for our country than an ill-informed and mercilessly manipulated population is one that is largely ignorant of what’s happening all around us.

So, sticking your head in the sand or trying to shut out the whole mess of non-stop noise and clutter isn’t a smart solution. A better plan is to develop a strategy to manage the stream, sharpen and limit your exposure to the junk, and try to stay reasonably informed and up-to-speed on those matters that are critical to your business, your family, and your life . The trick is to take the abundant information– add context and value to it– and turn it, hopefully, into knowledge and wisdom. To do that effectively takes time, some patience, and a thoughtful and focused effort.

Notwithstanding that, as a columnist myself, I’m right in there along with thousands of others fighting for attention and influence, I’ve still developed a couple of strategies and approaches that have helped me try to stay alert, reasonably informed, and slightly above the deluge.

Keep in mind that the whole process is worthless and empty if you’re too frazzled and FOMO-ed as you try to keep up that you’re actually missing the content, the necessary context, and the joy of learning that’s supposed to be one of the central incentives. Try doing less, better, and you’ll come out way ahead. Being a mile wide and an inch deep is a waste of what little time, attention, and energy you have and — while it might make for impressive “nuggets” and “factoids” to drop into cocktail conversations– you’ll have said and learned a lot about nothing.

The three most important concepts are focus, filter, and flow.

Focus: What’s most important to you, your business and your family? And I’d add, to your health, wealth and happiness. I’m sorry to report that you can’t really afford to worry about the whole world. Be smart, be selective, and be a little selfish with your time and your attention. Your family will thank you.

Filter: What five or six trusted sources can give you accurate (discounted for their respective agendas and political leanings), timely, and objective information which you can relatively then analyze, evaluate, and apply? I’ve made a compilation in five different “channels” of what, for me, are the best of breed. A mix of media and voices across the political spectrum (except the frauds at Fox) is definitely important. I select and rotate from these categories: (1) daily publications, (2) weekly and monthly magazines, (3) selected podcasts and newsletters, (4) individual blogs, and, wait for it (5) actual non-fiction books by writers I respect for deeper background and analysis in new areas.

Flow: How can you carve out some uninterrupted and substantial parts of your day to shut out the world, turn off your devices, and focus attention on the selected information so that you’re actually absorbing and retaining it? This isn’t simple, but I’m seeing more and more efforts by smart operators to ensure that they’re the ones running their days and lives rather than their bosses, peers, phones and inboxes, or anyone else.

We make time for what’s really important to us and what we are interested in – what you pay attention to says everything about where you’re headed, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and how likely you are to be pleased when you get there.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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