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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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