Organize and Implement the Information You Learn

Jackie Pearce offered to help me on Twitter the other day.

I’m really glad she said that, because it’s a topic I’ve been meaning to cover. But honestly, my own system is not that robust, so I’ve been hiding from the idea of writing this post.

Now that Jackie asked for it, I definitely have no excuse to continue holding out. My system might not be that great, but I’ve been thinking about the need to organize and implement more of what I learn for a long time, and I have some ideas for improving my ability to do so.

This piece is intended as a conversation starter and an idea log, not a guide. I do not have it all figured out, and that’s part of the fun!

You Are Not a Hunter or a Gatherer (or Why Does This Matter?)

(Note: if you don’t care about my philosophical musings on why organizing and implementing is important, just skip this part.)

It matters because learning something is pointless if you don’t use it.

That’s clear enough, right? The problem is, using the information we learn has gotten harder and far more complex over time. Especially since the web became a thing.

Why is it so hard? Because of the staggering amount of information we process on a daily basis.

For other animals, using new information is easy and straightforward.

Imagine you are a cute bunny rabbit. You hear a rustle in the bushes—you’ve just learned a predator is in the vicinity (maybe). What are you going to do? Run away! [1]

Rabbit attack from Monty Python
Sometimes though, the rabbit is the predator.

Or another scenario: you’ve found a delicious mushroom. But the first bite didn’t taste so good–it could be poisonous. Put that shit down!

As a rabbit, all of your information, for the most part, is directly actionable. And you don’t have a very long to-do list, so you’re just going to take that action immediately.

Now think about prehistoric humans. Early modern man.

Your input has ballooned. Now you’re part of a tribe, you’re using tools, you’re speaking a complex language–maybe you’re even living in an agricultural settlement.

In other words? You’ve got a lot more shit to worry about.

Communication with members of your tribe is common and often ambiguous. In addition to having a lot more information to process, it’s not obvious what to do about most of it. Many things are not directly actionable. You have to weigh new information against the knowledge you already have, using a complicated conscious decision-making process.

It’s the rainy season, but it didn’t rain today. That’s either no big deal (because it rained the past ten days) or a possible life-and-death situation (because it hasn’t rained for ten days and you don’t know when it will start again).

Even in comparatively recent times, the volume of information was a mere trickle compared to what we deal with daily.

According to Bassam Tarazi, we receive more information in a day than Abraham Lincoln received in his entire life [2].

Building an Information System

What does any of this mean for us?

It means that the times require us to take a much more active approach to organizing and implementing what we learn.

Yet most of us don’t have a system for processing information. Or we have one, but it doesn’t extend all the way to the application stage. Or we simply rely on storage and search functions, probably cloud-based, to take care of things for us. Gmail knows about every email I’ve received since signing up, and I can ask it questions about them whenever I want. That’s powerful, and essential, but is it enough?

Not at all.

It’s not enough, because it doesn’t guarantee that we are going to use what we find. It also doesn’t help us remember that there’s something in our email that we should search for, something that’s relevant to a project we’re working on.

So we need three things. A way to store our knowledge that keeps it organized and indexed, so that it’s searchable, and so that it provokes serendipitous encounters between things we’ve learned and things we’re working on. That means we also need to know what we’re working on, and what information we need to do the work better.

Finally, we need a process that connects those two systems. They must connect in both directions: when you learn something new, not only do you put it into your knowledge store, but you also survey your current projects for ways you could use that new knowledge. And vice versa: when you’re working on a project, you constantly mine your knowledge store for relevant information.

My System

I’ve been keeping a knowledge store for several years (with wavering levels of diligence).

When Evernote first came out, I got good at clipping most of the articles I read and enjoyed into it. But a lot of them slipped through the cracks. At the time I was using Google Reader, and I had way too many feed subscriptions–I was getting thousands of new items every day. I couldn’t even read that much, let alone figure out which of it was worth storing for future reference. The result was a lack of focus on building my knowledge store, in favor of a “drink from the firehose” strategy that clearly wasn’t working.

Of course, you can also treat the entire Internet as your knowledge store, and use Google as your search mechanism. But there is so much content now, on every conceivable topic, that this is impractical. I’ll refer you to my friend Eric’s introduction to his new Evergreen project, which makes a great case for cultivating your own personal knowledge store.

Today, I have a few different places I can go to find stuff. My primary reading medium is Pocket–when I see an article I want to read, I send it there. (In reality, a lot of times I’ll read the article right away, and then send it to Pocket if I want to reference it later. I’m trying to avoid this, though [3].)

After reading, I save the article to my Pocket archive. And if I favorite the article in Pocket, my IFTTT recipes share the article to Facebook and Twitter, and adds it to my Delicious account.

So my Delicious has all the articles I’ve favorited, and my Pocket has all the articles I’ve read. (I use the word “all” very loosely.)

Lately I’ve been working on the habit of also clipping the articles into Evernote (full circle, baby!). My ultimate goal is to have all the content that I’d like to have in my arsenal indexed and easily searchable.

For now, the easiest way to do that is in Evernote. But I’m planning at some point to try out a piece of software called DevonThink, which is used by researchers and scholars. It’s similar to Evernote, but it’s much more powerful. DevonThink allows you to see which other articles in your knowledge store are related to the one you’ve selected, based on a robust textual-analysis algorithm. If that intrigues you, check out the author Steven Johnson’s summary of how he uses it. (I found that article in my knowledge store!)

What about books? That one is tricky. I really love reading (and marking in) physical books. The downside to that is, it’s difficult to extract those passages and comments into a digital medium. So far I’ve just been typing them out into Evernote, which is where I keep my commonplace book. (Check out Ryan Holiday’s explanation of why it’s so great to have a commonplace book.)

I’m not so good at doing this right now. If you have any suggestions for me, please leave them in the comments!

My Current Projects

I have virtually zero organization of my projects. This is a problem, because if I don’t totally know what I’m working on, how can I know what knowledge from my store might apply? Maybe the next step for me here is to just keep a simple log of my most important projects and what I did with them each day. Although I’ve tried that before… any ideas?

Apply New Knowledge to Projects

Here’s another thing I don’t do in any organized manner at all. When you add something to your knowledge store, it would be nice to do a survey of your current projects, determine whether you can apply any of that knowledge to them, and then immediately implement an improvement or a solution, while the new knowledge is fresh.

Sometimes I do this by accident. For example, if I am building a landing page, maybe I search for some articles about landing pages, find a good one, and try out some of the techniques on my landing page.

That’s great, but the impetus for doing all this still lies with the project. I want finding a piece of knowledge itself to be the impetus for using that very knowledge. This strikes me as something very difficult, that only a mature system would handle. It may take me a long time to get there, but it’s worth shooting for.

Finding Knowledge to Apply to Projects

This is the inverse case. As I mentioned, it’s important to be able to utilize information from your knowledge store when you’re working on a project. This is much easier, because it can be as simple as doing a search of your knowledge store.

However, in the ideal case, this would go well beyond a conventional keyword search. What if there’s something valuable in there that I don’t even know is there? And if I don’t know it’s there, how could I search for it? This is the promise of software like DevonThink. You need something that is smart enough to know what you are looking for, based on a given set of inputs, and surface it for you. This is the whole point of storing large amounts of information–you shouldn’t rely on your brain to recall everything that’s in there. That task is perfect for outsourcing to your computer’s brain.

Obviously I have a lot of work to do to build up my own system so that it meets the theoretical standards I’ve set for it, but I also realize that it’s way better than nothing. Just having searchable access to a set of knowledge that I’ve learned before, and that I decided would be valuable to me, without any other clutter, is a valuable tool. In fact, I used it to pull the articles I’ve referenced above.

So what have I got right, and what’s probably wrong? How do you organize and implement the information you learn?

Notes

1. Of course, most of the time, it’s just the wind. But it’s clearly in your best interests, as a cute but defenseless bunny rabbit, to GTFO of there. (As a human, though, this instinct hurts you. My friend Bassam wrote a great post explaining how.)

2. This and much more wisdom is to be found in Bassam’s insightful book, In 5 Years You’ll Be Wrong.

3. Nir Eyal explains why this is a bad idea. (It’s because on the web we all have the attention span of a cocker spaniel.)