Tag Archives: RSS

Tools of the trade, my 2011 edition

One of the most interesting parts of going through everyone’s responses to my question about managing their cognitive load was seeing the similarities and differences in strategies.  In fact, a couple of you wondered what those commonalities might say about us and our work. That may be a post for another day. 😉

I thought it would be fitting end to that series to go over what tools came up as useful, and list some of the changes I’ve made to my information consumption strategies based on your input.

The #1 tool, and the only one that everyone used was Twitter. This may be a sampling artifact, since I use Twitter a great deal, but in my decidedly unscientific pondering of the last three conferences I was at, I can pretty definitely claim that most of the museum people I run into use it as well.  Respondents to my email, like me, use Twitter clients rather than Twitter’s web page.  Filtering is vital if you’re not going to drown in the tweetstream. I have a love/hate relationship with Tweetdeck. I love it’s flexibility, and it’s lists that allow me to sort my incoming tweets. I’ve got my general museum list, hashtags I’m following like #mtogo and conferences, as well as a friends’ list, and even a celebrities list (Stephen Fry is just too interesting!) Being able to sort them means I only have to see the one two lists I feel like listening to on any given day. Things that seem interesting or worth following up on get favorited and go into their own favorites list.

After I’d started this series, I found ifttt.com. It stands for “If This, Then That” and it allows you to set up logical equations using web services. My favorite task has become “If I favorite a tweet, copy the text to a file in my Evernote account called ‘twitter favs’.” Very convenient!

We came, we saw, we looked around… and left.

RSS feeds
Coming in second was relying on RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds to aggregate the websites you want to follow.  I’d given up on RSS some time ago in favor of doing it old school style, slogging from site to site with the Firefox Morning Coffee plugin that lets you add a button to Firefox that will open tabs of any number of sites at once.  RSS readers like NetNewsWire let you corral thousands of sites and group them so you can manage your browsing before you start.  I have my twelve or so museum sites I’m most interested in keeping abreast with, maybe another twenty more tangentially connected to my work, and then a slew of general science and tech sites that spew forth potentially interesting content daily. With a reader, I can decide if I really (need to/want to/can stomach) wading through 317 Slashdot articles today or not, and I’m pretty ruthless now about hitting the “Mark All as Read” button when I don’t want to be bothered. I find it satisfying in fact to see all those little numbers of unread posts disappear. Poof! Like Jasper said in the first post, letting go is important to your sanity.

I’m on the verge of getting moved from Mail to Outlook, so changing my email habits now is bit counter-productive. That said, I did clean out my inbox and outbox and went through my mail filters and updated a bunch. My inbox is a lot more manageable! More to come, post migration.


What was interesting to me about LinkedIn was how many people used it, but not much, and not often.  Off all the responses I got, only one person really invested in LinkedIn, and that was for the discussion groups. For most of the others, myself included, we filled out our profiles, connected with people we knew, and … not much else.  Tweetdeck lets me post to LinkedIn, so sometimes I will send tweets that way, so it looks like I’m on more than I am.  Again, this may be a sampling artifact. Most of the people I asked have jobs and aren’t doing the kind of networking that freelancers and job seekers have to do. I have to admit that the reason I check LinkedIn is usually because I’ve gotten an alert that a contact has changed their profile, usually because they’ve gotten a new job.

Make Learning a Formal Activity, and Do It with Friends
Organizing these local meetups has been very rewarding.  And making them regular, and reliable has been important to them. Getting to the point where people expect them to happen is gratifying, and the pressure keeps me going.  I’ve enjoyed watching people make connections, and actually learn useful things from each other at the events.  Even these ostensibly social occasions can be learning experiences.

Reading about departments with built in learning communities made me a little jealous at first, and I realized how much I enjoy that kind of interaction. As I’ve been writing these responses, I’ve had any number of little epiphanies. One of them was that if I wanted to work in a more learning-centered workplace, I’d better do something about it. The outcomes of this were twofold for me.  Firstly, it reminded me that I really wasn’t doing much to pass on any of the benefits I received at the start of my career. So, I’ve got a shiny new intern (actually she’s a highly skilled, veteran intern) and am trying to figure out what is useful for her to know is a very valuable lens into my own practice.  What do I do? Why do I do it this way? It’s a lot of work, keeping an intern learning and doing stuff that’s not make-work.  Hopefully, she’ll get something useful out of the experience. Stay tuned.

The other outcome has been that the exhibit developers here agreed that we’ll hold regular professional development meetings. There are only three of us, so it can be very informal — read a book or article and discuss.  It’s not hard, it just takes determination to keep doing it.  Got any exhibit topics that you think are hot?




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!