J.D. Meier's Blog

Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness

Organizing, Reading, and Writing Information Faster

Organizing, Reading, and Writing Information Faster

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“Information is not knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

What if you could streamline your way through vast seas of information to find the needles in the haystacks, or make sense of an ever changing landscape?  Information comes at us so fast, from so many directions.  The world changes fast, and, in a knowledge worker world, what you don’t know can hurt you.

One of the FAQs I get asked by colleagues is, how do I make my way through so much information so fast?

If I just say lots of years of deliberate practices writing and reviewing prescriptive guidance in patterns & practices, that doesn't help them much.  If I say, I spent hundreds of dollars on books each month and that forced me to read a lot faster, that doesn't help either.  So, I started paying attention to where the speed comes from.  It’s ultimately a system of things and habits from practice, but here are a few keys you can use …

Organizing Information

  • Alphabetize long lists -- It makes it easy to spot duplicates, and it makes it faster for you to do lookups.
  • Chunk things up -- If you have a long list, simply bubble up the most important things and then create some space.  This gives you the simple + complete view.
  • Optimize for your scenarios -- If your main scenario is filing it away, then keep that super simple and as flat as possible.  Don’t add little traps or tricks that complicate it.   Make it so that you can do it in batches.  For example, I have one folder for all the mail I read.  It’s fast filing.  If your main scenario is retrieving, then make it easy to do so.
  • Wherever you keep looking for it, that’s where it should be -- One way to figure out where to put information is to simply put it where you keep looking for it.  Then you will leverage your natural pattern and thought process.

Reading and Analyzing Information

  • Identify your objectives – By knowing your goals, you improve your clarity, focus, and motivation.  You can also choose better strategies.  You can identify your objectives by asking what you.
  • Make a short list of questions or problems you want answers to – Questions focus your mind, and engage it in a way that’s more resourceful and active, versus just going along for the ride.  If you’ve ever read a page and then realized you just read a page and didn’t realize you read a page and you have to backtrack, then you know what I mean.  Wanting to answer a few questions or solve a few problems will make the information more interesting and it will help you focus on what counts.
  • Switch gears -- Think sprint not marathon and actually flip the switch so your brain is ready to rumble.  Think “race to the value” vs. “walk in the park.”
  • Ask, "How can I use this?"  -- If you can't turn the information into action fast, then it might not be useful or relevant, or there might be a better way to figure it out.  The simple act of asking yourself how you can use it, will cause your brain to look for useful and actionable insights.  You’ll find that lots of useful information, tends to be garnished in unnecessary wrapper.   Your job is to hack through the information jungle with your mental machete to get to the good stuff.

Writing Information Faster

  • Write with a plain text editor that’s fast – This helps you focus on just the bare-bones value, and not get caught up in look and feel.  The most important thing is to not be waiting on your editor to catch up with you … that will break your rhythm and your pace, and it will break your flow.  Your flow is where the speed gets exponential.
  • Make it work, then make it right -- This is another way to say write it down, then edit later.  If you self-edit your way on every line you write, you create your own worst bottlenecks.  Let the information fly free, then go through and tune and prune it.  It will also be easier to think on paper, once you have it looking back at you.  The trick is to keep the information terse, so you can easily rearrange or reshape it, and later embellish it, if need be.  Just breaking free from your inner-editor, will exponentially increase your ability to write faster.  Get used to multiple passes though.
  • Sketch it, then elaborate it – This is the key to information engineering and information architecture or knowledge engineering.  Think in terms of a backbone and start with that.  Simply write down the big ideas and big framing concepts first.  Set the frame, then add the meat to the bones.
  • Think master and details or “hub and spoke.”   This is a useful model for when you need to create a bird’s-eye view of a space.  You can summarize the most important points, and then point to the details.  The master is the hub, and the details are the spokes.
  • Frame the space, then elaborate – This is another way of thinking in terms of “sketch-first.”  In this case, what you’re doing is setting the frame.  The frame is what’s in and what’s out of the picture.  The frame is how you look at or what lens you create for the information.  It’s the frame that helps bound the information.  Once you have the frame, it’s easier to and faster to know which information is relevant, so when you elaborate, you have some guard rails in place.
  • Iterate and version it – Don’t think “one pass.”  Think “as many passes in the timeframe to balance beauty, benefits, and effectiveness.”   In an age of information overload, and where people are used to edu-tainment, and info-tainment, beauty counts for something.  However, information that solves a valuable problem and actually delivers some benefits never goes out of style.  If you measure against effectiveness, and problems solves, you have a measuring stick for the value of your information, and this will help you stay on track as you write with might.
  • Set time limits – For example, I set a time limit of 10 minutes for this post.   I didn’t want to over-engineer it, and I wanted to just solve a very simple problem – give people that need it a few strategies that can help them deal with information overload and speed up their own ability to organize, read, and write information faster.  Having this time limit means I won’t second-guess myself and I won’t word-smith things to death, and I’ll avoid analysis paralysis.  Instead, it’s how quickly can I solve this problem in a meaningful way, and if I test it against the key scenarios, does it hold up “good enough for now”?  This also helps me focus and prioritize, and chop the stuff that just doesn’t add enough value.  The downside is, I don’t have enough time to write a shorter post, but the upside is … I’m done Smile