Information hygiene

From Faster Than 20

Our digital devices have profoundly shifted our relationship with information for better and for worse. Understanding how we manage this relationship for the better is critical to our effectiveness and aliveness. We like to think of this process as maintaining good information hygiene. We need to understand how to do this both as individuals and as groups.

The goals of good information hygiene are to:

  • Support you in feeling more alive
  • Manage information anxiety. This includes:
    • Finding what you're looking for when you're looking for it
    • Finding things that you're not looking for but that you're glad to find (serendipity)
    • Avoiding information overwhelm

Information Overload and Contemplative Computing

The average knowledge worker:

Linda Stone's research indicates that 80% of knowledge workers suffer from email apnea — withholding of breath while on our computers. Further research suggests that devices such as tablet computers or workstations such as standing desks can counteract these effects.

Alex Pang has written a book (to be published later in 2012) about how people can be more mindful about how they interact with technologies and perhaps how technology can even help in this regard. He calls this contemplative computing. His 20-minute talk at Lift11 is a good introduction to his work:


Principles of Good Information Hygiene

  1. Always keep a clean workspace
  2. Put things in "Trusted Buckets"
  3. Keep organizational debt manageable
  4. Constantly review, improve, and reorganize

Always keep a clean workspace

Notion stolen from cooking. See Eugene's blog post, "Clean Hacking Stations."

Underlying concept is the "ready state." Concept from martial arts. David Allen describes it in Getting Things Done. Ueli Rutishauser and Erin Schuman at CalTech did a study that found that relaxed minds are better at receiving new information and improving memory.

Put things in "Trusted Buckets"

Another David Allen concept. Get things out of your head and into a trusted bucket. Minimize the number of places you go for the same kind of information.

Sort your buckets according to priority, including disposability.

Other common bucketing strategies:

  • Five Hat Racks (Richard Saul Wurman): Category, time, location, alphabet, continuum
  • LATCH: Location, alphabet, time, category, hierarchy

Keep organizational debt manageable

Every time you say, "I'll do it later," you incur organizational debt. As in real-life, maintaining some amount of debt is practical, and at times, it may even make sense to take on a lot of debt.

The important thing is to always keep your debt manageable. Don't let your debt grow and grow and grow without any controls, because you will literally pay the price.

Constantly review, improve, and reorganize

In theory, if every individual in a group had great personal information hygiene, the group overall would have great group information hygiene. For example, if everyone was good at maintaining their own calendars, task lists, emails, and so forth, your group would have a much better chance to reaching high-performance. Because this is rarely the case, a more typical model is for someone in the group (typically the project manager) assume a "janitorial" role. Ideally, group information hygiene is greater than the sum of everyone's personal information hygiene.

Assessing Information Hygiene

Articulate personal / group goals.

How many information channels are you currently using? (Channel spam analysis)

Levels of proficiency with different tools?

Analyze information flow.

How is your space contributing to your information hygiene? For example:

  • Standing vs sitting desk
  • Slow computer
  • File cabinet close to workspace, only 2/3 filled

See Also