This blog post originally appeared on the site of the Harvard Business Review site.
We all struggle with information overload. If somebody would just push a button and turn off the Internet for a year, maybe, maybe, we’d catch up on our work, organize our contacts, and restore our sanity.
But instead of turning off the Internet, many of us, perversely, turn to it, the very thing that’s creating the pain, in hopes of relieving it.
My version of this: I use a tool called Evernote, a desktop, mobile, and web application that collates all your notes, links, and even snapshots and then uses built-in character recognition to make it all full-text searchable. For example, I could snap photos of business cards with my iPhone. Later, when I want to contact someone, I could search in Evernote on the company name in the picture of the card, and I would find the photo along with text of what’s contained in it.
The value here is the behind-the-scenes process of making any information I collect in any format text searchable. It could also match notes to location and provide context. If I got a business card from a friend who recommended a restaurant, I’d know when I search on that friend, or that restaurant, about that connection. This would free me from having to sit down after returning from a conference and type new contacts into a contact manager, for example, and it empowers me to maintain context that’s otherwise lost.
Evernote has helped me attenuate — not cure — my information overload problem. I turned to Evernote CEO Phil Libin to learn more on managing information overload. He talked about what we overwhelmed users can expect is coming to help us, why much of social media is merely entertainment, and his “extremely lame superpower.”
AS: Do you think we are suffering from information overload?
Libin: If you compare me to my 10,000-year-old caveman ancestor, pretty much every part of my body and what it can do has been magnified and amplified by technology: how much stuff I can haul around, how fast I can move, how many people I can talk to.
My ancestor had a couple of hundred facts in his head he could remember and recall easily — which berries were good to eat, which people in his tribe were trustworthy — and I’ve got the same thing. There are a couple of hundred facts I can keep in my head except instead of berries, it’s Simpsons quotes. For him the facts were the sum total of all info he was exposed to. For me, it’s a small fraction. We are exposed to far more than we can comfortably keep in our meat brains.
But how can tools like Evernote, which come from the very source of our overload, actually help? You don’t put out fires with fire?
A big part of information overload is the anxiety about information overload. For me personally, the feeling I was forgetting things was contributing to the problem. Then I started using our tool, and whenever I had something to keep track of, I would throw it in Evernote and allow myself to feel confident I’d captured it. That contributed to making me feel comfortable about all the information I was processing in my life.
Are you a GTD adherent?
I’m not. I figure five to 10 percent of the population has the “organized” gene. These are the lucky people who will be able to follow any program, GTD or anything else. The rest of us aren’t going to do it. We’re not particularly well organized or we’re lazy.
You think organizational tools like yours can actually improve your quality of life?
When I moved to California three years ago I decided to learn about wine. I’d go to a restaurant and have a bottle of wine and I wouldn’t bother writing it down because I knew that I’d never find it when I needed it.
Now I just take a picture of the wine bottle in Evernote, and I know I can find it by words in the wine label or by geotagging, meaning it will show up when I come back to the same restaurant. Or, I’ll remember I had that bottle with a certain colleague, and then when I search Evernote for his business card, the photo of the wine label will be the note next to it.
It makes me feel like I have this extremely lame superpower: the ability to remember bottles of wine.
What other techniques and solutions do you personally rely on?
Ignoring things. I used to try to keep up on Facebook and Twitter. I just completely stopped doing that. If someone tweets at me they shouldn’t expect me to see it. You have to stop caring about the random stuff on social media and treat it as entertainment, which is what it is.
What has shaped your company’s approach to the overload problem?
One of our big influences is The Long Now, a project dedicated to long-term thinking — 10,000-year long-term. We say the memories you put in Evernote will be around the rest of your life, and for your grandchildren.
What’s in your Evernote notebook that you want your grandchildren to have?
I do a lot of cooking and all my recipes are in there, plus the stuff I’m eating. I took photos of every thing I ate during my last stay in Japan and everything is geotagged. I don’t think about what I want my grandchildren to see but what I would have wanted to see of my grandfather’s. I would love to see photos of everything my grandfather ate in a given week 80 years ago.
Can we expect any technical leaps forward that will help us manage the volume of information?
The other two big influences on Evernote are Gordon Bell and Ray Kurzweil. If you want to know where this is really going, you’ve got to read Gordon Bell’s Total Recall. He recorded everything for twenty years and then wrote a book about what life like this was like. What he’s doing only one in a thousand people would do. We’re taking his ideas and dialing down to what lots of people can do.
Ray Kurzweil talks about how two hundred years ago, nobody was exposed to any technology, but right now it’s everywhere all around you. It’s never more than a few inches away from a phone, computer, pad, et cetera. The next step is on the inside, to get to things by thinking of them. But that’s still maybe 20 years away.
Would you get the Evernote brain chip?
Oh absolutely. I’d be first in line. But our marketing department doesn’t like me to talk about that.