Prepare Your Brain to Manage Information Faster and Better

Thank Google and the Internet for creating this problem. From the comfort of our personal computers and homes we can now read millions of pages of information on every topic one can imagine. Is the best use of our time to try to read it all?

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

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 learn how to manage information in systematic ways. How do they do it? By first stating a hypothesis and then looking for data. A person lacking scientific skills may waste a lot of time reading thousands of pages of random information. 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. Link the new information to previous one. One cannot process, or remember, millions of fragmented, random facts. Preparing concept maps, either in paper or using software tools, is a great method to build expert knowledge and pattern-recognition over time, the opposite of being lost in a sea of random tidbits.

4. Define clear objectives for this week. Maybe 3-5. Please write them in a notebook, and check often. Why is this useful? Because by stating those clear goals you are building you own lens through which to filter information, and focus on the information you really care about. You set up your own agenda, and not be at the mercy of someone else’s brain. You don’t need to know, you really don’t need to know (unless you work in Entertainment Weekly), what is going on with celebrity XYZ this week.

5. Review those goals at the end of the week/ month/ quarter. Did you achieve them? What could you have done differently?. The goal here is to ensure a learning loop. You can “evolve your brain” in your lifetime by making sure you learn a bit every day, every week, and accumulate knowledge and abilities over time.

6. Stress and anxiety are enemies of good information processing. They can narrow your focus of attention too much and make you miss the big picture. Why is this so? Well, imagine you are a gazelle about to be attacked by a tiger. You only care about running as fast as possible to escape. It is not the time for complex thinking, for learning new skills. In fact, most of the blood flow that usually goes to the brain gets diverted and gets sent to your main body muscles, to run faster. The same happens with humans, when we see a real or imaginary “tigers”: one can not think clearly.

7. Another enemy: 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 minds and brains contain billions of neurons and connections. 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.

I hope this is helpful and equips you well for the challenge.

Copyright (c) 2007 SharpBrains