Browsing the archives for the information overload tag.
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Eight Ways to Organize Information and Ideas

Strategies and goals

1. In my last article, I talked about the huge benefits we can get from funneling information into an outline. Outlining is helpful for a single person (or sometimes a group) to take a lot of information and make regular use out of it. In this follow-up, I’ll talk about other ways to organize a lot of information or ideas, with pros and cons for each.

Wikipedia Concept Map by Juhan Sonin

2. One option is to remember only whatever happens to stick and be reconciled to forgetting a lot of it. This is often our go-to method, for instance if we watch a documentary out of personal interest. It’s perfectly appropriate if we’re not going to need to put the information to direct use but just want to be exposed to it. For instance, I haven’t done anything specific with what I’ve learned from seeing God Grew Tired of Us, but it added to my perspective and my understanding of other people’s lives, and I’m glad I saw it.

3. We can go over it repeatedly until it’s memorized, which is the way, for example, we try to learn foreign languages, because we need that information be available in our heads. If I want to go to France and speak with other people there, it’s not going to help me to have a laptop with me so that I can look up verbs > subjunctive > irregular in my outline to help me say “Would it be a problem if I were to go along?”

4. We can leave it unorganized and just go through the whole thing when we need something from it, as most of us do or have done with notes from classes. This can go along with the memorizing approach, but it’s very inefficient if you want to be able to interact with your information and find things in it quickly.

5. We can use a tagging system in which we label each item with all the terms that apply to it, so that in addition to looking at the information in order, we can also filter down to just a particular kind. This is the way most blogs are organized. For instance, you can click the word “organization” in the tags for this post to see other posts of mine on the subject of organization.

6. We can index it, as we traditionally do with books, but this is a lot of work, and my experience is that indexes aren’t used very often unless a person knows exactly what they’re looking for.

7. If it’s information that we can somehow make into images, we can visualize it as a chart, graph, map, or diagram. Visualizing information usually means losing or hiding most of the detail and often comes with a limit as to how much information you can add, but it creates a big-picture perspective that can be difficult to come by otherwise. One approach to this is drawing or using  software to create a “concept map” (also called a “mind map” or “spray diagram”). There’s an introduction to concept maps at http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newISS_01.htm . I must say that I don’t find concept maps especially useful, but they do seem to be fairly popular. If you get a lot of use out of them, your commenting to offer perspective on the issue would be much appreciated.

One popular (and free) concept mapping tool for Windows, Mac, and Linux is FreeMind.

8. Finally, we can link it, making connections between one chunk of information and other chunks of information. This is a lot of work, but it creates an environment in which we can flow freely from topic to another. Wikipedia (one of my favorite inventions of all time) and other wikis are organized this way, as is the Internet as a whole. It’s useful for information that keeps expanding, especially from different sources, but it’s nearly impossible to link together all the topics that might be related to each other, and it’s hard to find all of the pieces of any one particular area of knowledge; more often, we’re just led from one subject to another related one with no clear end in sight.

All of these approaches have their uses, but my sense is that outlining is the most underused and under-rated tool in the toolbox. If you’re comfortable with computers and have a mass of information or ideas to sort out, it may be just the thing to toss into your organizational mix.

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How to Make Sense of a Flood of Information and Ideas

Strategies and goals

When I began to get serious about professional speaking, it was clear to me that regardless of how much I knew about my subject (teaching people how to change), that I had a lot of research still to do–on professional speaking itself. I needed to get much more familiar with types of events, presentation practices, ways to structure talks, compensation, how to deliver the most value for my audiences, and so on. To that end, I started reading books and articles and hunting down videos to watch online. A flood of information began pouring in, and I found myself coming up with a steady stream of ideas for presentations and ways to connect. The problem then was to find a way to make sure I could use everything I was getting, that it wouldn’t get lost or forgotten.

This is the same situation a person runs into, for example, when writing a book, getting immersed in a new topic, planning a business, or organizing a large event. What do you do with all this information?

You outline it.

Why an outline?
To make use of a lot of information, we need to categorize it. This isn’t just for convenience: our brains are used to dealing with just a few things at a time. (The limit used to be thought to be around 7 items, but it turns out it’s probably more like 4: for example, see http://www.livescience.com/2493-mind-limit-4.html .)  So if I have 2,000 individual pieces of information to keep track of, I’m going to want to group them into few enough categories that I can easily navigate through the whole thing. Within those categories, I’m still going to have hundreds of items, so I need to group that information further, and so forth. These categories-within-categories make up an outline.

Once I have my outline, I may have sections that have a special purpose, like a to do list (or items to add to my main task management system, whatever that is), questions that need to be answered, people I’ll want to remember, and so on. The great thing about using an outline for this is that I can find a piece of information whether I know what I’m looking for or not. For example, here’s a screen shot of part of my outline for my speaking business. You can click on it to view it at full size. Each of the little folder icons represents either a category or a chunk of text (or both).

If I’m putting a new topic together, I’ll be looking at my Speaking section under “delivery techniques,” and I’ll be reminded of the tip about having one key point under “structuring a talk.” If, in a different situation, I’m trying to remember exactly what I thought was important about structuring a talk, my outline will make the information easy to find.

Creating the outline is easy
The actual work involved in putting an outline together isn’t hard, because all you have to do is take one thing at a time and decide where you want to put it. If you don’t already have a good place to put it, you make one up. If one part of your outline is getting too full, you break things down into a greater level of detail. If you have too many branches off of one item, you can group them into larger branches, for instance grouping a bunch of recipe ideas for an event into desserts, entrees, side dishes, and so on.

When I’m gathering information or brainstorming ideas, I usually start by taking down a whole lot of unstructured notes. Whenever I’m ready, whether with all of it at once or just one section, I can start putting those notes into an outline.

Of course, you’ll need something to create the outline in. Less complicated outlines can be kept in a word processing program, but what’s more useful is a specialized kind of program called an outliner. The screen shot you see is of a free one I’ve been using called Treepad Lite, which you can get at www.treepad.com . There are more sophisticated outliners too, and I’ll probably upgrade to one of those before too long. Suggestions are welcome.

Outlines are made up of “nodes.” Each node can contain information and can also contain other nodes. With a good outliner program, you can have as many levels of nodes-within-nodes as you need, which means that you can branch or group or expand your outline however and whenever you want to.

If the information you’re gathering is meant to end up as a single written piece in the end, I can wholeheartedly recommend Scrivener, which is a kind of hybrid outliner-word processor that can take a lot of material and help you cook it down into something that flows from beginning to end.

In the second article in this series, I’ll talk about the alternatives to outlining and the pros and cons of each.

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