Monthly Archives: August 2011

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part one of four

The summer vacation season is almost at an end and the ramp-up into a new school year has begun. I had hoped I’d get out the follow up to my post about managing information overload ages ago, but you all are so insightful and generous with your thoughts that I’ve been sitting on a mass of really interesting replies trying to synthesize. In the end, I think I’m going to have to break this up into manageable pieces, quote a lot of you liberally, and point out the commonalities and surprises that I’ve seen arise. In broad strokes, I’ve seen four themes appear; managing information intake, storing information, separating inspiration from information, and the importance of making time to learn.

Set up systems to manage information intake
Being mindful and deliberate about how you expose yourself to the firehose of information that is the Internet is one strategy that many people employ.

RSS logo from Flickr user HiMY SYeD

One clear theme that emerged was the utility of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds for aggregating the sites that you find worth following and alerting you when they change. I gave up on RSS several years ago for reasons I don’t recall, but reading your responses, I clearly need to revisit that decision. Bruce Wyman sums up the power of aggregating content using RSS, “I follow around 500 rss feeds broken down into about 20 different categories. I certainly don’t read everything every day, but I scan a lot of it… I fought rss feeds for a long time because I *liked* visiting websites and seeing their design and having the intended experience. But, it just took a lot of time and when I’d circle back periodically I’d need to make a mental note of what I’d last read and resync myself with the new content. It just became a pain in the ass at some point. Moving to a newsreader made a huge difference.”

Jasper Visser has a simple twofold strategy to managing his information intake; namely, “RSS and letting go. I use RSS feeds to keep up with the stuff that’s really important. If – on top of that – I accidentally read twitter, scan Facebook or (even!) peek at Google+ I consider that a lucky moment. With all these social networks I trust on serendipity to take my side.

Hardly any of the myriad of updates I miss every day really mattered in the long run. I don’t have to speculate on the iPhone 5 design (nor, really, does anybody) so I made peace with twitter just scrolling along on its own. If there’s stuff I’m really missing out on over and over again, and there’s no RSS feed to fix that, I consider it a business opportunity ” Jasper’s strategy of “letting go” I find very important. It took me years to reach the point where I could accept that I would never again keep up with all the information out there on the Internet.

Email overload by Flickr user kristiewells

Email accounts for a huge percentage of the digital information coming into my computer every day, and systems for coping with the dreaded inbox are a vital tool. Bruce Wyman and I both share a longing for an old Mac mail client called Eudora. Bruce said, “I used to do a ton of automatic filtering in Eudora and save things into discrete categories of people / organizations… Eudora was *fantastic* at searching, Mail less so.” This has been one of my greatest rants against Apple’s Mail app; it’s mail filtering is clunky, and searching is sloooooowwwww. I’ve got pretty much every email I’ve received since the Museum shut down its VAX mainframe in the mid 90s, and quite a few older ones I forwarded in time. I’m a geezer, I know…

In happier days, the bother of setting up mail filters that were accurate enough to capture and route the right messages to the right folders was more than repaid by the ease with which I could look at my incoming email stream, see where the activity was, and choose where to direct my attention at any given time. I can do some of that with Mail, but with nowhere near the granularity I used to. My inbox tends to be much more cluttered now and it is a drag on my productivity to have to wade through all those messages.

My favorite response regarding email was from Nancy Proctor. I had emailed several friends with personal requests to share their thoughts and strategies, and her reply began, “To start with, I tend not to read emails this long but prefer a phone call if there is this much info to exchange (not being snarky, seriously!)” Granted, the email was 577 words long, but this was certainly not the answer I was expecting! We had a good long talk and in the end I appreciated her insistence on having a single high-bandwidth discussion rather than a series of emails. The level of engagement that direct voice communication allows, with clarifying questions and answers and the back and forth about issues I find to be almost impossible with email. This point was echoed by Kate Haley-Goldman, who said, “I’m still thinking about a Curator article that Nancy, Titus, and I were discussing over drinks in the middle of the night a few weeks back.  (Was it useful because we were talking about it in person?  Because it was an in-depth article?  The drinks?  The middle of the night? Perhaps all of the above.) Personally, I think it had everything to do with talking in person. This is the reason I go to conferences. The conversations that happen in the sessions, in the halls, in the bars; that’s where the really valuable information is exchanged.

As a postscript to the email discussion, I offer this thought on “efficiency” and its pitfalls. A vendor I worked with had this annoying habit of never responding completely to emails. I’d thoughtfully gather up and email him all my thoughts on the latest version of what he had sent me, and he’d reply to the first question and ignore the rest. If I sent him three emails, each with one question, I’d get three answers. If I was efficient and sent one email with three questions, I’d get one answer. In hindsight, it was much more efficient to confine myself to one question per email. It seemed to reduce the length of time it took to get an answer. It certainly reduced the time I spent afterwards searching the email chain for that response on file formats that was buried in that email about the home page, or was it that email about the new comps? Since then, I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to treat work emails more like telegrams or IMs. If she had her druthers, Nancy would ditch most of her emailing for IM.

As a result of this, I’ve downloaded NetNewsWire and started trying to tame my RSS feeds, I’ve cleaned out my inbox for the first time in months, and if trees stop falling down, I might even take another whack at making better filters in Mail.

Next up, systems for storing the stuff you find once you find it. From there, I’ll delve a bit into a brilliant point Kate Haley-Goldman made about separating inspiration from information, and wind up with thoughts about making time to learn. Thank you all for your replies!

Next Boston Museum Tech Meetup, August 18th, 7PM

Well, July got away from us, but August won’t escape without another gathering of museum technology/media types at The Field in Central Square, Cambridge, on Thursday, August 18th, starting at 7pm!

If you’re into in new technologies in museums, either as a producer, developer, vendor, or just interested party, then come hang out. We’ll talk shop, swap stories, and bask in the end of Summer! I’ll see you at the Field at 7PM, in the back room where the tables are. If I can get there early, I’ll try to claim as much space as possible. Agenda items for the event will include where to meet in September, and getting our mailing list in order. And if somebody wants to take pictures, feel free. My camera stinks, so I won’t be.

Can’t wait to see y’all there!


The Field
20 Prospect St., Cambridge, MA 02139


Success! Me met, the Field’s lovely outdoor patio was open and a good time was had by all! See?!

We also decided that our next meetup would take place at a new venue, Cambridge Brewing Co. in Kendall Square in mid-September.  Stay tuned for a date. If you want to get on the email list, let me know and I’ll put you on.



Hey friends, So July flew by and now we’re staring mid-August in the teeth! Yikes! Wanna get your drink on next week?  I know it’s know it’s not a lot of notice, but I’m thinking next Thursday looks good.  Let … Continue reading

Dealing with your cognitive load

by Flickr user The Shopping Sherpa

It’s grant proposal season, so I’ve been quiet. But no longer!

I was having coffee with Loic Tallon a couple of weeks ago when he was passing through town, and our conversation had turned to Google+ and what it was good for, whether it was viable, etc… I’m sure many of you have been having the same conversation. We both felt at  least part of Google+’s appeal was that it was small, the same way Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc… all used to be small enough to be manageable.  It was interesting to me that we very quickly turned to the topic of general information consumption strategies, and I realized I had one, but I’d never really articulated it. It was an outgrowth of the path I’d taken through the technology jungle.  Loic was interested in how I managed and I was interested in how he coped, especially since he gets around a lot more than I do.

So, I want to try an experiment with you good people. If you had a few moments to spare in your busy lives, would you be interested in sharing with me your information consumption strategies? What social networks do you use, what do you use them for, when do you use them? How do you keep track of the delicious morsels people lead you to online? Do you treat that repository (or repositories) like a garden (pulling out weeds and dead things) or like a vault (it all goes in, nothing comes out)?  I’ll put together a post that combines the answers.  You can leave comments below or email them to me at erodley at gmail dot com.

To give you an idea of what I’m looking for, here’s my partial modus operandi. More will follow later.


I tend to use Twitter as a primarily professional network. It’s where a lot of my networking happens and where I do most of my informal professional development. Beth Kanter has a great post on personal professional learning.  You should read it. Tweets that point to interesting resources get favorited, and when time allows, I go check them out.  If they seem like they’ll have long term usefulness, they get saved as PDFs and saved to my Mendeley reference manager, with a link to the original URL. That way, when (not if) the URL stops working I still have the goods.  Lately, I’ve gotten even fancier, and use Readability to strip out all the junk and save only the main content, before I turn it into a PDF.

Facebook is primarily a personal space for me; friends and family.  The boundary is never clean though.  There are some people in my professional network who are more Facebook people, and there are friends who live on Twitter.  Such is life.

LinkedIn is an interesting case. I don’t think I’ve used it for anything, but it is a useful landmark, it seems. If I were job hunting or doing more consulting I can see that it might be more useful, but for now…  I try hard to only add people my network whom I’ve met at least once. That seems to keep the list reasonably short. And it is useful to see when friends have changed jobs.  Sometimes, I cross post there from Twitter.

Google+ is still an open question. Aside from being small (at the moment) I haven’t found the thing about it that would make we add it to my stable of networks, or ditch an existing to move to +.  The design and UI are certainly appealing, but is that enough?

Google+ according to xkcd

Other things I’m interested in include Repositories (like and Flickr) and Habits and best practices.  So let me know. How do you swim in the sea of information?