Beyond Test Taking: Learning to Handle Information


I read lots of books. I follow several blogs. I take classes. I’ve learned enough new information I want to incorporate into my work that I know I haven’t got a chance of remembering it all. There have been times that all that information consumption has felt like a waste, because the human brain just isn’t built to remember so many details and act on them. Not just a waste of time, either — my college classes cost enough to make the thought of missing even one abhorrent.

It’s worth my while, then, to make the effort to process the information that I learn and apply it in real life. All of the tricks I have for learning new information when I was still in school just don’t work out in the real world. So many learning techniques focus on a test or classes where you have a clear chance of how to build on specific ideas. We need more practical solutions.

Create tasks.

As I read, I try to keep the question of how I can apply my newfound knowledge. I want specific things I can do to follow up on a given piece of information. My actions can vary a great deal: if I’m looking at a blog post about ten tricks to improving a website, I might just move each of those ten tricks directly on to my task list. If, however, I’m reading a biography of Mark Twain, I might write down specifics as ideas for blog posts or articles — which wind up as tasks slated for a certain date.


I’m ruthless about my tasks, though. I try to avoid adding tasks that aren’t going to help me. Even then, I have to keep a task list dedicated to ideas and tasks that I know the odds of getting too aren’t so great. I consider those tasks my “rainy day” list: when I don’t have anything else worth doing, I pull a task off that list.

Pass on information.

There used to be people who hoarded information, usually for the information’s own good. Monks saving libraries from marauding barbarians, a nobleman hiding an important tome in his library: these are archetypes we recognize. But the Internet has allowed us to move past them to a certain extent. Sites like Digg and are based on the idea that we want to tell our friends about all the cool stuff we learn. Even better, I’ve found that if I learn something, pass it along to someone who will find it useful and promptly forget it, I still feel like I’ve done something worthwhile with that information. Passing along a link or making a copy of a file is a great action item, I think.

Organize your notes.

Even if you’re on the ball about getting rid of material you don’t need to keep, some notes will probably accumulate. Some people don’t need to go much beyond keeping their notes — they’ll be able to handle any necessary research from their stack. Some of us, however, need some method of organizing our notes so that we can find them again easily.


I know plenty of people are vehemently against handling information anymore than they absolutely have to, but I do find filing my notes to be a great opportunity to review them and check for any new action items I can develop, or information I can pass along.

Prepare to forget.

If you aren’t willing to flat out forget some information, you can go crazy. And there are plenty of things that are worthwhile to forget. Forget, here, really means that you don’t need to make an active effort to remember. You’ll probably remember plenty of things that fit into these categories — the human brain is funny that way. But if something slips out, you’re still okay.

Facts you don’t need regularly — I know that at some point, I learned a whole list of facts about Honduras, including the total area of the country. My apologies to any Hondurans reading, but I just don’t need to know that. I know that I can easily look it up if I need to know it.
Things you’ve already written down — There’s no need to actively try to forget upcoming tasks, but once they’ve hit paper (or the electronic equivalent) there really isn’t a reason to actively try to remember them either.
Details you pay someone else to remember — Some of us are lucky enough to have a secretary or administrative assistant (while others of us have just worked as secretaries). Assuming you have a capable assistant, leave the details that they are paid to handle with them.


Please note that I didn’t suggest forgetting about things that don’t relate to your current projects. I’m a big believer that interdisciplinary knowledge is the real clue to breakthroughs, whether you have a case of writer’s block or you’re designing a new house.

Prepare to remember.

All of my suggestions for forgetting aside, there are plenty of pieces of data you need to remember. You may have a big presentation coming up, or an interview on a certain section. Heck, you may even need to write a term paper. Instead of stressing out about remembering details, however, I’d like to suggest a simple tool: the review.

I set aside material that I know I’ll need for a given project and, when the project is actually near enough to be worth working on, I review my information. I don’t prepare for presentations weeks in advance, because the information may not stick in my mind. My ideal prep time is much closer to a week — long enough that I have time to practice and review as many times as I feel necessary but not so long that I run the risk of forgetting necessary material.

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