Most of us believe that to cope with information, we have to speed up our learning.
But we've all tried that, haven't we? And it doesn't seem to work at all. This article is about why we are so obsessed with trying to keep up by learning more. And how you can do quite the opposite and still be a lot smarter.
When I was growing up in Mumbai, the two things I loved most of all were cricket—and books.
Cricket wasn't a problem, because Indians are crazy over the game. And though it wasn't always easy to round up a whole bunch of friends at home, I played cricket every day at school. Ninety minutes in the morning and an hour in the lunch break. You could say I had my fill of cricket. But books weren't so easy to get.
We had no public library near our home, and only tiny private libraries existed
The library was often the size of a small room, sometimes no bigger than a bus stop. However, to me, it was heaven because I could get access to books, after paying a fee. But even then, so many years ago, I knew one thing for sure. I could never read all the books in the library.
Fast forward a few decades, and all of us have way too much information
Too many books, too many videos, and far too many podcasts and audiobooks. And if you're like me and love to learn, there's no such thing as too much information. And yet, that information monster does bite. We start to read or listen, and we just can't keep up. Well, I couldn't keep up at all.
So I tried some fancy tricks
I increased the speed of the podcast to 2x. Now I'd be drinking from the fountain of knowledge at twice the rate, I thought. It worked for a while, even though everyone sounded like chipmunks. But in time I realised that I wasn't getting any smarter. I had more information, that was for sure, but it was better for me at least, to slow down to the pace of the author. All the speed reading programs and turning the audio to twice and thrice the speed wasn't helping me understand the concepts any better.
If anything, I needed to listen to audio twice or thrice and have listened to some as many as seventeen times. I hadn't realised that life in the 2x lane wasn't letting me stop and savour the information. Granted, there are authors whose writing needs a bit of jumping over or speakers who could do with a little 2x, but by and large, I found that slowing down, or at least staying within the pace of the book or audio, was what was helping me the most.
Even so, there was too much to learn
If I were reading a book, I'd make pages of notes. Or if I were walking and listening to the audio, I'd try all sorts of systems to capture the information. I'd take screenshots of the parts that were interesting and no, that didn't work because my photos were soon crammed with screenshots.
Then I learned that if I were listening to audiobooks in Audible, I could e-mail a snippet of the audio to myself. It worked for a week, maybe two weeks, but I was soon swamped with information. And it wasn't a lot better with books. The notes would end up in software like Evernote, and I'd never look at them again.
All of this behaviour, it seemed was about two things: trying to acquire knowledge and to retain it as well
Until the day I questioned why I was trying to remember everything. Like most people, I can barely remember what I had for lunch two days ago. And it's not unusual for us to forget people's names. I've even watched a movie a second time with the nagging feeling that something was familiar. None of these failures of memory seems to bother me at all, so why was I so obsessed with trying to retain information from books or audio.
For me, at least, the answer became excruciatingly obvious
Almost all my childhood, my formative years, was a succession of tests and exams. School, it seems, was one extended memory test. To do well, I had to remember what I was taught or what I'd learned from my books. And since I had little or no access to audio and video at the time, books and lectures of any kind were meant to be retained.
My entire future depended on the retention of information. When I moved from university and into business, why would I suddenly change my pattern? I was trained to memorise it all, and it's only natural that trying to remember everything became an obsession.
But it wasn't just the memory bit that bothered me
All of us want to acquire knowledge as well. There's an inherent satisfaction in learning new things or keeping abreast of how the world works around us. And then we run into both internal and external streams of pressure. I was happily reading books at my own pace until I read that author, Jim Collins read 100 books a year. Now I too wanted to read 100 books a year. Which I did, for a few years, but I wasn't sure why I was hurrying through the books at such a frantic pace.
When I added audio, video and podcasts to the list, it seemed like I was permanently behind at all times. No matter how diligent I was, there was no way to catch up. And while we all know there's no way to catch up, it doesn't stop us from trying anyway. At least that's what I did, until somewhere around mid-2018.
I decided to draw the line between memory and acquisition
Learning was going to be my cup of coffee. I was going to savour it and drink it slowly. Not for me was the maniacal “takeaway-paper-cup-on-the-move” behaviour. The coffee needed time and sanity, and so did the reading. Instead of keeping pace with the madness, I decided to slam the brakes and read slowly and more deliberately than ever before.
Not all books got the same consideration, of course. Some books were just okay, so I'd speed through them sucking up what I needed and moving along. I was going to read what I could and the pace that suited me, instead of being dictated by what others read and how quickly they read. The acquisition wasn't going to happen at this breakneck speed. I was going to do it on my terms.
As for memory-bit, I'd had enough of that too.
I was going to make notes, as I always did. And even cartoon-based notes. But it was going to be because I could use those notes as a reference later on. And I found myself increasingly pausing for long periods on a podcast or a book. Let's say I am on the road, listening to a podcast and there's an excellent idea that pops up. I stop the podcast. I don't listen any more. Instead, I'll think about what was said and possibly even discuss it with Renuka.
When I get back to breakfast-land, back home, I make a note and then we set about implementing that concept. Some implementation can take weeks, even years to put in place, but we've gotten started. And having gotten that part going, I go back to that podcast to listen or that book to read.
Which isn't to say I won't listen until the implementation is done. I'll keep listening and continue reading. The difference is that it's not important to implement everything. That need to remember it all, and implement it all isn't important any more.
If you're struggling under the weight of too much information there's a sobering thought
Every library you entered, even as a child, had more information than you could consume. Yes, the Internet did change the volume of information and how you could instantly access it, but there's an underlying set of factors that you need to consider. The first is competition.
Do you really need to read dozens of books a year? Are those people who read the books any smarter, or just seem smarter? And why are we desperately trying to remember it all? The human brain is after all nature's finest spam filter. Is it crucial for us to remember it all, especially when most of it can easily be stored and accessed in today's software?
If we ditch the need to remember it all, we will find our reading to be far more pleasurable.
Just like we read books when we were young, or kids of today read Harry Potter. There's no need to remember. You read for the joy of reading alone. And if there's one thing to implement, stop, make a note and then continue on your reading journey.
That's what I decided to do, anyway. And it's been a lot of fun. I'm about 40 books and 100 podcasts behind. But I don't care any more.
Information from books and audio is one source of information.
However, there are other sources, and not everyone would be agreeable or happy to use the other sources.
Why? For two reasons:
1) They're engineered to challenge my ideas. Hence they may either question my system or bring roadblocks I hadn't considered or expose weaknesses. Not everyone is happy with being exposed and certainly not happy with their ideas being challenged. I'm more than happy because it improves the idea. If you're not keen on a challenge, it's a bit difficult to use other sources.
2) I often have the same conversation with different groups or different people. This conversation is mostly through the medium of chat, rather than e-mail because of the immediacy of the system. Contrary to most productivity experts, this means I have four-five conversations running and may run at the same time (though that's not always the case). It forces me to focus on five different angles to the same information.
In plain terms, a combination of pushback and volume of chat would be considered “too much information”.
And it's precisely to re-examine the ideas because different people think differently. If an idea is presented in just one manner, it's easy for the client/student to feel it's not their way of doing things. However, when an idea is “attacked” or “questioned” from many sides, you get a far better understanding of how various people think. You can then design something that fits the way the client best processes the information.
Take, for example, something straightforward like “drawing circles”.
In the early version of the cartooning course, the clients had to draw circles like a two-year-old. What this meant was that the circle could be completely imperfect and we even called it “circly circles”. Would that cause any confusion? It did. The questions that poured in were:
• Can I draw an object with these circles?
• Can I draw them in colour?
• Can I draw them with pen or pencil or on the tablet?
It's impossible to work out these issues unless the client comes up with the questions (or gets stuck).
As a result of the questions, we created examples. And in all courses, you'll see the same kind of method of examples rolling out. The examples are purposely diverse. In the case of cartooning, the samples showed people drawing complex animals with circly circles, while others simply drew them with crayons.
Some filled a page, while others didn't. You'd wonder at this stage if you needed examples for every situation. And the answer is: you don't. If you've got about 4-8 examples, it's enough of a sample size for the clients to figure out what's possible and what's not.
The feedback mechanism is how I process information that enables me to clear up an idea or fix a system. It's ongoing, relentless and will be re-examined many times over if needed. I see my goal as being a scientist, rather than a preacher.
A scientist presents their work to be proven “wrong” and to then go back and fix the holes. A preacher presents their work as “final”, and there's usually never any discussion.
This is a different level of information processing, which is different from learning. But in a way, it is learning about how to fix things and get clients to become more skilled rapidly.
What I've found more useful when it comes to information—or life in general
What do we mean by the term “life is short?”
You and I know what it means. We would like to artificially stretch the days and get more done. More of our hobbies, more learning and ironically, more rest. And yet, eight days a week would only add to the confusion. The way we've had to deal with this problem has been to allocate segments so that we can function even on hectic days.
Most of my learning has been on the road
When I first started, I discovered audio learning. Instead of music, I'd listen to tapes, CDs, anything that I could get my hands on. As technology marched on, I used the iPod, and ever since, the iPhone to listen while out walking or when washing dishes (one of my favourite activities). The days, weeks, months and years were hectic, so instead of waiting for the chance to read, I'd listen to whatever I could. I did feel intense pressure to remember it all until I realised it was an utterly futile exercise.
For reading, I need to use the concepts of time slots
And I feel that life has become less hectic for me, so I'll slip away for two days in a week in the afternoon. I'll savour a few pages of a book, over an hour or so and sip a coffee. A few pages of a good book are more than enough to keep me busy thinking for the rest of the week. And the rest of the week, I'll listen to a mix of podcasts and audiobooks. Some are business based, some history, geography and others are personal storytelling.
I used to be hassled about the need to absorb more information
That isn't the case any more. I still go through a lot, but at my own speed and usually in fixed spots during the week. My life doesn't operate at 2x or 3x. Neither should my information.