Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What is the takeaway?

This may strike a chord with few of my friends who are voracious devourers of "information" off various media, prominent being the Web.

As a testimony to my eclectic nature, perhaps, I find almost any topic under the sun to arise my curiosity. It inevitably results in long hours spent scanning the sources of info, again primarily the web. The hyperlinks on web pages lead to a drilled down exploration of the subject matter. However, more often than not, the drilling is more sideways than vertical. That is to say, the links to some other allied topic. Few such lateral moves, and I may be reading something quite far removed from where I started. It gives a joy of exploration. On a sarcastic note, some may even call it a manifestation of Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

The problem I am increasingly facing is that of lack of retention of information I gained after spending valuable time in the exploration activity. As the subject matters get diverse, the attention gets spread too thin. The context switch from one topic to another gives thrill in the moment of exploration. But when asked later, maybe just after some hours, to give a brief on what was the takeaway on a particular topic, the brain just skips a beat (or a neuron synapse, to be more correct). It becomes tough to recall what was read. Sometimes, absolute zero looms on the mental projection screen.

This leads to some really frustrating moments. With limited time at disposal to pursue various activities in life (for professional development, personal enrichment or entertainment purposes), it appears that the time spent on the knowledge hunt went a complete waste. Once the moment of discovery of some new fact or information has passed, it is important that the piece of information to be parked somewhere in the memory. It should allow itself to be easily referenced, accessed and retrieved when the need arises.

What is the solution?

An easy one which comes to mind is to assess whether memory retentivity has reduced. It is a scary thought in itself. However, it may very well be possible if the brain is not getting enough "jog" in the daily routine. If one is only devouring info but not explicitly "thinking" about it, brain's memory creating abilities through techniques of "association" and "repetition" do not come into play. On a more general level, if one is not getting to solve couple of puzzles / riddles here and there, not doing quick numeric calculations once in a while, or just not getting exposed to quick witty humor, the brain's overall ability to fire cylinders when required may get reduced. Physical exercise plays as another important factor. A lazy body cannot host an active brain.

The difficult solutions to arrive at are related to changes in habit of such knowledge exploration, limiting exposure to a select set of subject matters or arriving at superior indexing mechanism. Let me take them up one at a time.

Knowledge exploration habit, like any other habit, may be quite difficult to change. It is the urge to explore the unknown which drives one to surf through the endless hyperlinks. The solution may lie not in curtailing the habit but actually taking it one step forward. One can try to write a short note, or just simply recall, on some of the topics he/she read during the course of the day. Forcing oneself to remember the subject matter may enhance the memory of it. Brain does not like gaps in info. It will quickly figure out that if only few disassociated scraps of subject matter are recallable, there must exist missing links. If the source material is ready at hand, one can then quickly glance through and fix the cracks. If the research done on the topic was exhaustive, writing a note summarizing the flow of ideas will be the best way to go about. This also provides a quick personal reference guide when one needs to access that information.

Limiting exposure to select of subjects is again about restraining one's habit. This appears to be a more difficult solution than the first one, depending on the extent of eclectic nature. Moreover, this problem is fluid rather than being static. The topics of preference change over time with new experiences, times and even with mood swings. How does one limit to a select set of subject matters is a difficult one to answer.

A superior indexing mechanism seems to be a clever idea. It does not demand curtailing habits of knowledge exploration and preserve the joy of the act. One scheme can be to use browser bookmarks extensively. You are outsourcing the brain's job to the software. Now, you have to just remember that you filed a particular piece of info for ready reference in a fixed location. If the browser provides for a superior bookmarking features (categories, folder structure, cloud view etc.), the source matter can be quickly accessed.

The clever solution (which does not appear so clever anymore now), will work if one is always connected to the Web whenever the need for such a info arises. It does not work in most practical situations. Especially when one is looking at using the info gathered in business situations and want the anecdotes / figures / facts to come out spontaneously and aid in business discussions. Now, this is what they call getting a bang for your buck. The buck here is the precious commodity "time" spent in consuming information. The bang is the timely and rightful use of it.

We tend to read X no. of blogs, Y no. of new sources, Z no. of dedicated magazines. We live in a connected world. Information explodes around us. Companies like Google realize that just making all this information easily searchable is a big money spinning business. Still, Google's help is only a reactive mechanism. You have to search for information when you require it. Any proactive mechanism ultimately has to reside in the brain itself. Proactive mechanism has to make use of the information already consumed and not start afresh in the hunt for it.

And that is the unsettling question which the post is asking. What is the takeaway? Or rather, how to ensure that you have a useful takeaway which can be taken out of brain when it is required? Those who have faced or are facing this predicament, do post your thoughts and discuss any solutions which come to your mind. That should be a good takeaway to have, once some useful ideas are here.

1 comment:

ferret said...

What a timely post! i have been thinking about the same thing since the last few days too.
And i haven't been able to come to any sort of a conclusion till now.
Anyway i'll put my incoherent thoughts here. These are the kind of improvements that i thought of implementing for myself.
Books are more effective because there is nothing else to divert attention, but then internet comes much easier and is much more up-to-date when it comes to knowledge gathering. SO what can be done, is to try and bring the properties of book reading into internet surfing habits. Don't limit the exposure to select subjects, but limit the subjects that you drift into from the one that you started off from. Take the drifting as footnotes, don't go beyond footnotes of footnotes. Keeping track of how you drifted from one topic to another gets difficult after a few levels. So start off with an agenda and stick to it, make a mental note of the takeaway at regular intervals and definitely summarise for yourself at the end of it.
Indexing mechanism works very well, but make sure your indexes are descriptive enough and organised well. Its a good idea to spend time on this if you don't already have it organised as per your surfing habits. This i am doing currently, because at one point i had so many bookmarks and saved articles lying unorganised that it was as good as starting another internet search.
One more thing, which i wonder if it'll be applicable to everybody else or not, it helps if you discuss what you have read. So all you have to do is find a bakra who will listen to your disassociated pieces of information, and will be additionally wonderful if the said bakra can also contribute to the information. That way there is a symbiotic relation, you can be each other's bakra and you both end up getting more takeaway than you googled for. So for one topic of my regular wasted searches, i have found a bakra and we have created a google doc to document our pieces of information which will be formalised and discussed at regular intervals.
Will come back with more if i think of something new!