ThinkingOvercome information overload by tuning the signal to noise ratio

Overcome information overload by tuning the signal to noise ratio

Two weeks ago I talked about information overload and suggested a model to explain it:

Information overload

Information overload

The model shows two drivers of information overload:

  • The sheer volume of information hitting you.
  • The narrowing of your “processing funnel” due to the fatigue caused by having to deal with this information.

In other words, a vicious circle starts to operate where more and more information further narrows and narrows your ability to process it.

So what to do about all this?

Shane Parrish, over at the great Farnam Street blog, suggests “filtering the noise” so that the signal is easier to find in all the information hitting you. He is a great advocate for actually taking in less information, and being more selective in what information you do choose to consume.

The principle is simple: take in less, so that you can think about it and assimilate it more deeply. Here are some ideas.

Tune your social media input

Tune your social media input. The ratio of signal to noise in most social media is very low. How do you tune up the signal?

I follow over 1800 people on twitter, which is a ridiculous number. But I actually don’t look at their tweets that often. Instead I rely on lists in Twitter and I only look at those lists on Tweetdeck – where my chosen lists are displayed in clear columns. I have only about 100 people on my twitter lists – these are the best people who are curating the best information. That way I have dramatically reduced the amount of input I am receiving and I have turned up the quality of the information I am getting at the same time.

I try not to look at Facebook that often. Remember, Facebook is motivated to keep you on the site for as long as possible, and it will pander to your weaknesses through its algorithmic feed. The recent downgrading of news stories in the feed is one example. As John Gruber in Daring Fireball comments:

“Facebook doesn’t really care about the news industry. The idea that Facebook was going to “save” the news industry, or even that Facebook traffic is something that news organizations should bank on for the future, is just goofy. Facebook’s first goal is to keep users using Facebook — as many users as possible for as much time as possible. If videos of cats walking around on two legs are more popular than analyses of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU, well, that’s what they’re going to prioritize.”

More cat videos? Facebook is not your friend if you are trying to increase the signal to noise ratio of the information you take in.

Prioritise old information over new information

Prioritise old information over new information. That is, spend time on the information that has stood the test of time. Shane Parrish also discusses this idea at his blog, and I think it’s interesting. Parrish doesn’t read the newspaper – both because there is too much noise in that feed anyway, but also because a lot of knowledge has a very short half life. Neither does he read bestselling books. Instead, he focuses on the older stuff that is still around. The signal to noise ratio is better in information that has stood the test of time.

Question all of the reporting in your business

Noah Lorang has a great piece in the “Signal v Noise” Medium stream – “Real time dashboards considered harmful“. He says that managers can’t help themselves but react to every new piece of information hitting them – and that real time information is often the worst. Before he creates any new dashboard he sits back:

“I ask myself one question: what’s the point? What’s the action or decision that this reporting is intended to impact? When someone consumes it, what can they do about it? Can they make a decision? Can they go do something personally or ask someone to do something? If there’s nothing that can be done in response to a report, does it need to be reported in that manner?”

It’s a good principle. Are you drowning in data that is actually not helping you to think clearly or make good decisions, but is instead just narrowing your “processing funnel” contributing to information overload?

Over to you

Over to you – what strategies do you have for tuning the signal to noise ratio of all the information hitting you? Let me know. And if you haven’t yet signed up to this blog, drop me a line at and I’ll pop you on the weekly email list.