You can learn and work most effectively by balancing approaches to information. Seek and gather, organize and analyze, reflect and synthesize—all three approaches are needed at various times.
Information seeking is important when you are exploring a new topic and when you need answers to specific questions. When exploring a new subject, an unstructured approach is appropriate, as it maximizes opportunities for serendipity. Cultivate “beginner’s mind” so that you are open to new ideas. Unstructured approaches include:
- Web browsing; following links you find through general search engines and on blogs, Wikipedia, Twitter, social bookmarking sites, etc.
- Asking people you know about the topic
- Looking through books and periodicals at libraries and bookstores
- Subscribing to free reports and email newsletters
- Watching videos
When you’re looking for answers to specific questions, however, structured information gathering is more efficient. Structured approaches include:
- Interviewing an expert or paying for expert advice
- Using back-of-the-book indexes
- Searching a subject-specific database and/or search engines
As you gather more and more information, it’s easy to slip into information overload. Feelings of overwhelm are a signal that it’s time to shift to organizing and analyzing the information you’ve found. In this phase, useless information is eliminated, and information gathering is focused on filling gaps in information. Close down your web browser, e-mail program, and other information-gathering tools while you work so that you aren’t distracted. Review the information you’ve gathered so far. Is there information you don’t need, at least right now? If so, discard it or save it for future use. Are you missing some key pieces of information? Then search for that information, but don’t be distracted by other information you come across. Useful activities for the organizing/analyzing phase include:
- Developing a mind map of your topic
- Talking about the information with a friend, colleague, or adviser
- Taking a workshop or a course
- Summarizing the main points
- Creating a chart, spreadsheet, or database
After organizing and analyzing the information, you’ll have a basic understanding of it and how pieces fit together. Now it’s time to reflect on it and synthesize a new understanding or “big picture” by adding your own perspective. Reflect on the information you’ve analyzed, and add your own twist by creating something new or sharing your knowledge. Examples include
- Writing an article or paper
- Explaining the topic to someone just beginning to explore it
- Making something using what you’ve learned
After achieving a degree of mastery by moving through this information cycle, you can begin again. Research the same or related topic in greater depth to develop your expertise, or explore a new subject. You may be in different stages of this cycle with different topics at the same time, but limit the number of topics to just a few at any one time. Lack of focus leads to overwhelm and inaction. Take a focused, balanced approach to beat information overload.