There’s a simple key to making Twitter more useful: Follow fewer people.

I realize that sounds counterintuitive. You have to follow enough interesting people so that your Twitter feed has plenty good stuff in it. But, enough can quickly become too much on Twitter.

For newbies, Twitter doesn’t get useful until you find enough worthwhile people and brands to follow so that your stream becomes a mix between a news feed and a quick way to keep tabs on awesome people and niche topics.

The problem is that following people and brands on Twitter eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns.

I started using Twitter in June 2007 and a lot of my friends that have been hanging around Twitter that long (mostly journalists and people in the tech industry) are now following over 1,000 Twitter accounts. Some follow 2,000 or 3,000.

Several of these friends used to follow even more than but got to a point where their Twitter feed was so overloaded that they just unfollowed everyone and started over. I want to help you avoid that.

Instead of needing an unfollow forest fire to clear out your Twitter feed, I’m going to suggest that you do a little bit of work on a regular basis to keep your Twitter stream healthy. You need an unfollow strategy. It’s not that complicated. It mostly involves three things:

  1. Figure out your noise tolerance and set a limit on accounts to follow
  2. Mentally divide the accounts you follow into three different categories
  3. Regularly scan to stop following accounts that are too noisy or not useful

Remember, it’s not personal, it’s social. Twitter can be an amazingly useful business tool, if you manage it properly and apply the right kind of discipline. Here’s how.

You can find me on Twitter at @jasonhiner.

1. Set your noise tolerance

First, you’ve got to figure out the volume of tweets you can handle in your Twitter feed, and that mostly depends on how often you check Twitter. What I recommend is setting a limit on the number of accounts you follow, based on the average of how regularly you scroll through your Twitter feed.

Here’s my general rule of thumb (you can come up with your own):

  • Once a day: 100
  • Twice a day: 200
  • Every 2 hours: 300
  • Once an hour: 500
  • Twice an hour: 700
  • Every 15 minutes: 1000

I cap mine at 300, even though I check Twitter somewhere between once an hour and every 2 hours (and more than that during busy times such as the morning when a lot of the news happens).

I always hover between about 280 and 300 accounts that I follow. When I follow new people and brands and I get near my limit then I know it’s time to unfollow a few accounts (see step #3).

2. Think of the people you follow in three buckets

One of the best ways to know who to unfollow — and when — is to mentally think of all the accounts you follow on Twitter as living in one of three buckets:

1. Real life friends, family, and co-workers – I rarely unfollow these. Most of them don’t honestly tweet a lot, so following them is as much about being able to quick @mention them and keep up with quick updates, rather than links and news. However, if family and friends start tweeting a lot then I usually unfollow them. Since these are people I know personally I’ll typically send them a quick email to let them know why so that they don’t get offended (and I tell them I don’t mind if they unfollow me). For co-workers who leave the company, I often unfollow after a couple months unless they are people I want to stay connected with or who regularly post great stuff.

2. Brands and feeds – These are the news outlets, publications, and brands that I follow and they are always ripe for unfollows. Most of them tweet a lot and my interest tends to wane pretty quickly with a lot of them, honestly. The ones that provide great information, good interaction, and dollop of humor once in a while are the ones that are most likely to stick around in my follow list. You can lump celebrities in this list as well, since most of them tweet like brands more than people. I don’t follow many of them, but the ones I do tend to be easy targets for unfollows when I’m approaching my cap and need to shed some dead weight.

3. Social media friends – We all regularly meet people on social media who have similar interests and post interesting things about the topics that matter to us. Many of these I have followed for a long time and had countless conversations with on Twitter. In fact, many of them I’m often surprised when I realize I’ve never met them in person because I feel like I’ve known them for years (a handful of them I’ve ended up meeting in person at conferences or events — in which case they often transition into the real life friend category). But, in general, these fall somewhere in between the real life people category and the brands category. If I have a long-time connection with them then I’m unlikely to unfollow them, but if the connection has gone a little cold and I haven’t interacted with them in a long time and I can’t remember the last time I clicked on something interesting that they posted then a quiet unfollow is a real possibility.

3. Do a regular unfollow scan

The key to making this strategy work is that you have to take 5-10 minutes to scan your follow list and do some unfollowing on a regular basis. The best way is to develop a weekly routine. I typically do it on Friday afternoons, since there’s not usually as much news or buzz happening on Twitter. It’s an ironic habit when you consider the old #FollowFriday meme on Twitter.

I typically unfollow 2-3 accounts per week, which balances out for the new ones I picked up naturally during the course of the week. The exception is if I find a bunch of new accounts to follow all at once — which happens sometimes if I come across someone (or something) really interesting and start following some of the accounts they follow or I start tracking a new topic and follow a bunch of new experts on that topic all at once. When that happens, a lot of times I’ll just balance it out by jumping into my Twitter follow list and clicking a few unfollows.

Of course, you can also start looking for people to unfollow in the course of your regular week as well. If people post too much useless information or just not enough unique stuff that you aren’t already getting from other sources then that can make it an easy decision to unfollow them. Sometimes you might also run into serial retweeters — people who just retweet way too much stuff. Don’t forget that Twitter also lets you follow someone without seeing everything that they retweet. To do this, just go to someone’s profile or profile card and click the settings (gear) button to the left of the Follow button and then click the option “Turn off Retweets” and then you can keep following but decrease the retweet pollution in your feed.

The guilt factor

You may feel guilty about unfollowing people. That’s natural. You just have to re-orient your thinking around the fact that Twitter is a tool. There are lots of people that I like, love, or respect but don’t necessarily follow all of them on Twitter. You need to focus your Twitter feed around the ones who are interesting, useful, and meaningful to the way you use Twitter.

Obviously, this is why it often becomes easiest to unfollow brands when you’re looking for accounts to unfollow. Most of them tweet a lot and we don’t have to worry about them discovering we’re longer following them and getting their feelings hurt. For brands, this means the bar is set very high for them to remain useful and interesting enough to keep our loyalty.