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on (not) doing it all

Journalists know their beats. Even when they’re specializing in multiple topics — like international politics, vegetarian cuisine and online gaming — they know everything about what’s going on in their beats and everyone else’s beat, too. They’ve read all the latest books, essays and articles. They keep up with blogs, court cases and military incursions. They know everything about everything.

Or at least, they seem to. And I have no idea how they do it.

Hanging out with other journalists during my fellowship last fall, I was astonished by how connected and knowledgeable everyone else was. They were talking about South American elections over coffee, debating African health initiatives in the elevator and discussing the latest books about journalism and mass media on the Metro. I didn’t even know how to participate in those conversations.

So maybe I’m not that kind of journalist and writer.

I realized I’d been spending a great deal of my time trying to keep up with news sources, blogs, book reviews and more. The stress of trying to know everything and stay on top of what was happening — everywhere, all the time — was simply exhausting. And for someone who’s easily fatigued, I just can’t afford that kind of pursuit.

I’ve accepted that I can’t know everything all the time, but I can break down what I want to know and track into manageable — and more sane — chunks.

I have a list of blogs, websites, authors and news sources that I want to follow, but this list has been seriously pared down from what I tried to keep up with in earlier days. And I don’t visit every site every day. I’d like to say that I have a schedule for checking in — e.g., Salon.com on Tuesday, Wired.com on Thursday — but my solution isn’t quite that elegant just yet.

For now, I’m comfortable with the fact that I know more about what makes a 70-year-long marriage successful than I do about election campaigns in Egypt. I know a lot about e-book publishing, but not as much about the latest hepatitis vaccines, and that’s okay. I may not know all the details of the latest crop of Android phones — seriously, I still don’t have a smartphone — but I have a close understanding of the issues facing religious minorities in the U.S. and Ireland.

Despite the media’s attempt at convincing all of us that if we’re not doing it all then we’re failing, I’m learning to be more comfortable in the niches I’m carving out for myself. This goes hand-in-hand with a writer’s need to specialize in a single or a limited handful of topics, but it goes deeper than that. This is about recognizing and embracing limitations, and choosing balance over driven mayhem. I can’t do it all, and I’m not going to try to. Instead, I’m working on being more conscientious about where I invest my time and attention, and doing my best with what I choose to put in front of myself.

So I’ll throw this question out: How do you manage information overload and pressure to “keep on top of everything”?

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