We’ve all been there. First you start following a couple of people on Twitter. What’s the harm in following a couple more? The next thing you know, tweets are flying by faster than you can say hashtag.

It’s natural to go on an unfollowing spree in cases like this. Why not? Those friends who use Twitter like a chat room probably won’t notice, and if they do, you could just blame a Twitter error. But the truth is, you don’t have to. Instead, you can turn to one of the many apps, options and tools out there that can help you manage Twitter and keep tabs on as many accounts as you want.

Create lists for special interests

A key distinction on Twitter is that you can choose to either follow an account, add it to a list, or both. Following someone is the typical behaviour – it means their updates will appear in your main Twitter timeline. But an alternative to consider is to create a list and add accounts to it, but then not actually follow those accounts.

Tweets from those accounts don’t appear in your timeline, but if you’re using the right Twitter app, your lists and the tweets in them are just a couple of clicks or taps away.

By adding accounts to Twitter lists, you can basically create alternative timelines for just about any purpose you can think of. You can then unfollow the person if you choose, because their tweets will appear in your new list.  

You can view your own lists in the free iOS Twitter app, but it currently doesn’t allow you to manage them. If you want to do this, you’ll need to access your lists at Twitter.com by clicking Lists.

A useful option in the app is to see the lists others have created: go to their profile and click on the Lists link. Click on a list to see the option to follow it.

 Use Twitter lists to create separate timelines of people who talk about your various interests. You can include an account in a list without following them

Get a good app

Using the official app is one way to keep up with Twitter from your iPhone, but it’s certainly not the only method. You can choose from many different apps to track your tweets. Some Twitter client developers focus on polishing their list experience, as well as a host of other useful perks beyond Twitter’s official clients. (Twitter for iPhone, as we mentioned earlier, doesn’t even let you add to your lists.)

On the iPhone, look at Tapbots’ £1.99 Tweetbot (itun.es/iPF4Yp – not the similarly named rival product), Stone Design’s £1.99 Twittelator Neue, and Twitter’s other free client for Mac and iOS power users, called TweetDeck.

On the iPad, Tapbots’ £1.99 Tweetbot for iPad (itun.es/iPF4Yt) offers a strong choice, with easy access to lists and other tweet management tools. DW:design’s £1.99 Tweetings HD and Naan Studio’s £2.99 Echofon are also decent options for managing and reading your Twitter lists.

A mute point

Let’s say you like the current flock of Twitter accounts you follow, but every now and then a handful of them get chatty. Maybe they liveblog dropping their kids off at school too often, or they can’t resist jumping in on every hashtag that climbs up the trending list.

Whatever the reason, some Twitter clients offer the option to mute things like users, hashtags, or even clients. This is useful when you don’t want to see any posts from anyone about, say, children, as well as for uniformly giving Instagram photos the boot.

Twitter users or topics is a great way to get a temporary reprieve from a chatty tweeter or a topic you want to avoid

Note that Twitter does not yet officially support any kind of ‘mute’ feature, much to the annoyance of many of its users. But some apps offer the feature anyway, including: Echofon for iPhone and iPad; Tweetbot, both iPhone and iPad versions; Tweetings; and Twittelator Pro for iPhone.

Generally, mute options are offered in increments of time such as a day, a week, a month, or forever. So if you need to, you can give in to that one persistent friend begging for a follow, but never have to actually see their tweets – as long as you use an app that supports the mute feature.

Search instead of follow

Who says you have to follow anyone at all? One of Twitter’s other useful tools is Saved Searches. These let you see what everyone across all of Twitter is saying about a particular keyword.

Enter a keyword such as ‘iPhone’ in the search box, then click Save Search at the bottom of the screen to save that query for easy access later. Most Twitter clients, including all the ones we’ve mentioned so far, have long offered various types of advanced data mining like this. As a bonus, if Twitter isn’t your thing but you still want or need to use it for business, you typically don’t need an account in most apps to use saved searches.

Get picky with alerts

In times of Twitter overload, it might prove useful to remember a saying from the service’s early days: “You can’t read them all.” If organising lists seems like overkill, but you don’t want to miss tweets from a handful of accounts, maybe turning on alerts for a chosen few is more your style.

A few apps allow you to receive alerts for tweets from specific accounts, among a slew of other content and services. Appremix’s free Boxcar, for example, is a good choice across iPhone and iPad (and on Mac too). Use it to enable Push Notifications on iPhone and iPad for specific accounts. Fabien Penso’s £2.99 Push 4.0 (itun.es/iPF47L) is a competitor focused on iOS devices. It also does Push Notifications.

This useful (and free) Twitter app for the iPhone allows you to arrange timelines and searches into columns

If all else fails: unfollow

If these other solutions aren’t what you’re looking for and you really do need to do some serious timeline trimming, there’s a range of services that can help you make the right decisions. iUnfollow.com, for example, does exactly what it says on the tin. After logging in with your Twitter credentials, a handful of tools make it easy to find the right people to unfollow (such as users who never followed you back). There are even keyboard shortcuts to ease particularly arduous unfollow sessions.

Have it your way

At the end of the day, Twitter really is what you make of it. You can follow just a few friends to create your own little slice of the Twitterverse, or you can follow hundreds of accounts and deck out your lists to build a massive social media hangout and news dashboard for every facet of your life.

With a couple of these tricks and maybe a new app or two, you can easily get just what you need out of Twitter, instead of allowing it to take too much out of you.