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Information Overload? Seven Learning and Productivity Tips

We often talk in this blog about how to expand fun­da­men­tal abil­i­ties or cog­ni­tive func­tions, like atten­tion, or mem­ory, or emo­tional self-regulation. Think of them as mus­cles one can train. Now, it is also impor­tant to think of ways one can use our exist­ing mus­cles more efficiently.

Let’s talk about how to man­age bet­ter the over­whelm­ing amount of infor­ma­tion avail­able these days.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of new books, ana­lyst reports, sci­en­tific papers pub­lished every year. Mil­lions of web­sites at our googletips. The flow of data, infor­ma­tion and knowl­edge is grow­ing expo­nen­tially, stretch­ing the capac­ity of our not-so-evolved brains. We can com­plain all day that we can­not process ALL this flow. Now, let me ask, should we even try?

Prob­a­bly not. Why engage in a los­ing propo­si­tion. Instead, let me offer a few strate­gies that can help man­age this flow of infor­ma­tion better.

1. Pri­or­i­tize: strate­gic con­sult­ing firms such as McK­in­sey and BCG train their staff in the so-called 80/20 rule: 80% of effects are caused by the top 20% of causes. In a com­pany, 80% sales may come from 20% of the accounts. Impli­ca­tion: focus on that top 20%; don’t spend too much time on the 80% that only account for 20%.

2. Lever­age a sci­en­tific mind­set. Sci­en­tists shift through tons of data in effi­cient, goal-oriented ways. How do they do it? By first stat­ing a hypoth­e­sis and then look­ing for data. For exam­ple, an untrained per­son could spend weeks “boil­ing the ocean”, try­ing to read as much as pos­si­ble, in a very frag­men­tary way, about how phys­i­cal exer­cise affects our brain. A trained sci­en­tist would first define clear hypothe­ses and pre­lim­i­nary assump­tions, such as “Phys­i­cal exer­cise can enhance the brain’s abil­ity to gen­er­ate new neu­rons” or “Those new neu­rons appear in the hip­pocam­pus”, and then look specif­i­cally for data that cor­rob­o­rates or refutes those sen­tences, enabling him or her to refine the hypothe­ses fur­ther, based on accu­mu­lated knowl­edge, in a vir­tu­ous learn­ing cycle.

3. Beat your enemies-like exces­sive TV watch­ing. Watch­ing TV five hours a day has an effect on your brain: it trains one’s brain to become a visual, usu­ally unre­flec­tive, pas­sive recip­i­ent of infor­ma­tion. You may have heard the expres­sion “Cells that fire together wire together”. Our brains are com­posed of bil­lions of neu­rons, each of which can have thou­sand of con­nec­tions to other neu­rons. Any thing we do in life is going to acti­vate a spe­cific net­works of neu­rons. Visu­al­ize a mil­lion neu­rons fir­ing at the same time when you watch a TV pro­gram. Now, the more TV you watch, the more those neu­rons will fire together, and there­fore the more they will wire together (mean­ing that the con­nec­tions between them become, phys­i­cally, stronger), which then cre­ates automatic-like reac­tions. A heavy TV-watcher is mak­ing him­self or her­self more pas­sive, unre­flec­tive, per­son. Exactly the oppo­site of what one needs to apply the other tips described here. Con­tinue Reading

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3 Responses

  1. jenn says:

    I hap­pened across your site when googling Steve Pinker — and I am so grate­ful! I’m a non-trad stu­dent who becomes bogged down by the minu­tia of research. I’m excited to apply these tech­niq tech­niques to the re

  2. jenn says:

    remain­der of my semester.

  3. Alvaro says:

    Hello Jenn, am happy you find them use­ful. Enjoy your classes!

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