How to turn information overwhelm into action by @_ChelleShock

by Michelle Nickolaisen | Featured Contributor

Who among us doesn’t have a pile of books that we’ve read, with little stubs of paper scattered throughout them marking the reallygood stuff? Or pages of notes from conferences, which, after we get home, just kinda languish uselessly in a notebook, growing dust?

But the process of going back through all of that information and turning it into something actually usable can be a major pain. Even if you know that you need to do so to turn your knowledge into action (action that’ll grow your business!), it can be overwhelming when you don’t have a process.

How to turn information overwhelm into action: part one

  1.  Find somewhere to store your information. You can use Evernote (my personal favorite), Springpad, or even Google Docs. Set up an account and set up any relevant folders (to get started, you’ll at least want a “References” folder and a “Someday” folder, but depending on how much information you’ve got to go through and how many topics, you might want to set up a folder for each conference or for different topics – i.e. “References: Business”, “References: Home Life”, etc.)
  2. Have somewhere to store your tasks, so that they can actually get done. I use Flow for this and have a detailed blog post explaining how I use it here, but you can use anything from Wunderlist to a simple paper checklist as long as it works for you. (Check out my other project & task management review tools here to help you find something that’ll work for you.)
  3. Get all your bits & pieces together in one spot. All those bookmarked magazines, all those conference notebooks – granted, this is going to seem like a lengthy process right now, but once this is set up, it won’t take hardly any time to maintain. Make yourself a margarita and settle in for some organization, yo.

Part two: Sorting your information

The sorting method I use is a slightly modified version of the Action Method. If you’d like a more in-depth explanation of the Action Method, check out the website or read Making Ideas Happen (which you should read either way, because it’s fantastic!).

Here’s the key to effective sorting – you have to sort it into categories that are useful for you. Not someone else, but you & your habits.

Here’s the categories I use, which are fairly adaptable to most peoples’ needs:

  • Actions. These are – you guessed it – the takeaways that are actionable, and that you can do immediately. Not that you will do them immediately (you don’t want to give yourself a miles-long to-do list on one day and then get overwhelmed and throw your hands up at it all), but that you can.
  • Somedays. These are the items that you want to do, but aren’t feasible ideas right now, for whatever reason. You don’t want to lose them, so they go in the “Someday” file, to be reviewed and cleaned out periodically. (I have a “Backburner” folder in Flow, with a task list for each someday project. This way, whenever something new comes up, I can just add it to the appropriate task list or create a new one!)
  • References. These are the pieces of information that aren’t actionable, whether immediately or in the forseeable future, but that you want to hang on to for some reason – inspiration, usually. They’re just as important as the other two, because by going back through your inspiration on a regular basis, you’ll come up with new & exciting ideas.

I even made a flowchart to make the process easier:


Part three: After the sorting

 (Resisting the urge to make a Harry Potter joke and moving swiftly onwards…)

After you’ve got your information sorted, you’ll want to:

  • Decide which of the actions are higher priority and schedule them to be done first; schedule the rest over the next week/month/etc. as you have time. (For more about prioritizing, see this post.)
  • Set a reminder (in your task management program or in your calendar or wherever works for you) to go over the Someday & Reference items on a regular basis
  • Designate one day a week to getting caught up on your information overload, turning any leftover notes from that week into nice, organized, usable information + action

Now, take a step back and look at things. Feels a lot better, doesn’t it? This is how I process all of my notes, and it’s the only thing that keeps me actually using the information from them instead of letting it sit somewhere, wasted.

Photo credit: Chris Campbell


Get it Together Guru for Creative Entrepreneurs – Michelle Nickolaisen of Bombchelle Austin, TX

Michelle 2 copy 2Michelle is a project + operations wrangler for creative businesses, who also writes & teaches about productivity, organization, & systems (that don’t suck) for creatives. She lives in Austin, TX with her Shiba Inu & loves Buffy, dark chocolate, and tacos. Find her on the web at Bombchelle, on Facebook, or on Twitter.

From Michelle’s site: “My name is Michelle, and I’m an expert at finding out how + why something works (and then putting that knowledge to usually-good use), being grade-A curious, & getting things Done with a capital-D. I work with with creatives who have an established business, who are ready to launch something new or who want to go in a new path, who tend to get stuck going from innovation into action. If you’re working with me, you can expect sass + laughter, fun surprises, and lots of action.”

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4 Replies to “How to turn information overwhelm into action by @_ChelleShock”

  1. Dani

    Yes! I love when you share gems like this Michelle. You really are the bomb! (I’m sure you hear this pretty much always). Thanks for spelling this one out for me, I’m so there.

    1. Michelle Nickolaisen[ Post Author ]

      Thank you Dani! So glad you got a lot out of the post. ANd you know…no matter how many times I hear it, it never gets old. 😉 xoxo!

  2. Jeff Tidwell

    Hi – Thoughtful piece and I think it will be helpful to many of your readers. I must ask, however, how there could be no reference to David Allen and his book “Getting Things Done” – Much of what you write about has origins in his work. The flows, the regular reviews, etc.

    Keep it up and share the knowledge when you can.


    1. Michelle Nickolaisen[ Post Author ]

      Hi Jeff!

      Believe it or not I’ve never actually read GTD, so I don’t feel comfortable referencing it. I *think* that the Action Method (that I reference above) bases a lot of their things off of GTD but attempted to streamline it. When I did look into GTD, I got overwhelmed by the complexity of the system quickly, so I haven’t done much more research (which makes me a bad productivity nerd, I know 😉 ).

      Thanks for your comment!

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