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How to Organize Information and Tidy up Your Thoughts

How to Organize Information and Tidy up Your Thoughts

Over 4 million blog posts are published every day.[1] That is a lot of information and it’s only getting bigger. While the vast majority of people won’t be reading that many blog posts, people still consume a lot of information.

Maybe not through blog posts, but through social media, and the news. But that doesn’t change the fact that our intake of information is larger now. And some people have been calling the issues that we face with this larger intake of info as information overload. There are all kinds of strategies to help us mitigate but, what is we’re going at this the wrong way? What if the problem is because we don’t know how to organize information?

I believe that is the case when we consider our own behavior around information. This, in turn, explains why we need to organize information and find methods to do so effectively.

While there is nothing wrong with the amount of information available, it is up to us to determine how we use it. In so many cases, people have had no self-control or that they haven’t bothered to learn how to organize information. This fact amongst a few other reasons is why this is important.

We’ve Grown Addicted To Consuming Information

As Karol Krol put simply in an article at Lifehack:

“The sole fact that there’s more and more information published online every single day is not the actual problem. Only the quality information becomes the problem. The amount of epic content on the Internet these days is so big that it’s virtually impossible for us to digest it all. But we try anyway.”

This creates a situation where we are constantly digesting information mainly because “we have got to know this.” Even if we never apply that information in our own lives.

All of this behavior is similar to the idea of attending seminars hosted by motivational speakers or thought leaders. People walk out of those seminars and most never practice what they learned.[2]

Consuming information on your own is not that different.

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Too Much Information Creates Clutter

A while ago, I explained a scenario where you are reading and focusing on a book on the bus. Suddenly, someone sits near you and is in the middle of a loud personal conversation about their friend’s love life.

Even though you are a bystander in that conversation, that’s still information and can create a lot of clutter. It’s similar to having other distractions on your desk that pull you away from work or some other productive activity.

But one other aspect I failed to bring up is that, clutter can exist from build-up too. In the case of information, reading several articles on the same topic can create a lot of clutter.

What sort of information is important?

This post said this is important while another post said it wasn’t important. What information is relevant here?

What information should you internalize and apply?

In the end, the information creates noise and it can be tough for us to organize that information based on our feelings and current devices.

How to Organize Information Effectively

How to organize information can be simple once you have a plan. There are also a variety of tactics to consider using to best organize information.

But the most important thing about information is how much we consume is up to us. We have complete control over our information diet and how we distribute it.

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1. The LATCH Principle

An effective method is one that Richard Saul Wurman developed in 1996. In his book Information Architect, he took a previous existing theory – the Five Hat Racks – and formulated what is known as the LATCH principle.

Now, what does that mean? Wurman explained:

“Information may be infinite, however…The organization of information is finite as it can only be organized by LATCH: Location, Alphabet, Time, Category, or Hierarchy.”

Indeed, this method is all about organizing information in a broader sense. You’re not focusing so much on your own priorities but better organizing your information diet.

According to Wurman, this is the best method to organize information mainly because he tested the principle a thousand times. Every time he tried something different, he went directly to one of those five methods.

He may have a bias since he is the creator of this principle but, it does work wonders. I argue this because of two key reasons:

First, to organize anything, you must first remove a lot of things you don’t need. Going back to clutter, it creates a lot of noise and it distracts us from our current goals and priorities in life.

Second is that, organizing alleviates a lot of anxiety. And in order to organize properly, there has to be some kind of method or system. It’s not really organizing if there is no method to how you’re sorting things.

This is where LATCH comes in. LATCH provides five methods that we can choose from to organize anything in our lives:

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  • Location can be used in a variety of situations. It’s akin to giving directions. We focus on the most relevant things to be within reach. Similarly, we also use it to show how things are connected to one another.
  • Alphabet is organizing the information alphabetically. This can be helpful when organizing a list of people and statistics. Or maybe a dictionary of industry lingo or official documents.
  • Time works great with communication. Information revolving around scheduling appointments, or organizing projects. It’s good to use this method when providing step by step instructions or when things have to be in chronological order.
  • Category is the method to organize information by similarity or relatedness. Think back to the collection lists I mentioned earlier.
  • Hierarchy is about organizing information that is used collectively to compare things. Think t-shirt sizes or how you’d rate food or a product or service. Everyone uses that same metric to organize information.

While in most situations, people would wear multiple hats, the fact still remains that we instinctively use at least one of these methods. Whether we’re organizing information or collecting it, the LATCH method is the way to go.

2. Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a method of capturing thoughts and organizing them in a visual way. In the industry, it’s been a sort of buzzword despite few people actually explaining what it means or how to make one.

The overall idea with mind mapping is to create a detailed to-do list. You have daily tasks that you want to accomplish, but it goes a step farther.

Mind mapping encourages you to think longer term such as what you wish to do in five years with anything in your life. It doesn’t largely address the intake of daily information, however, this is an extremely effective tool to organize what matters most to you.

This combats information overload as it gives you another way to evaluate information. If it’s relevant to your goals and desires, jot it down. If not, remove it from your mind.

Here’s a guide to help you start mind mapping: How to Use a Mind Map to Organize Your Life

3. Create Lists

Besides using the above frameworks, you can start a simple habit of using post-it notes or big notepad to create a series of lists. Make a to-do list every day and use that to organize the most important tasks for you to complete that day.

If you feel the need to add routine items, make a separate list with those. Either way, lists help to organize what must be done and give you a sense of time management as well. After all, you’ll know roughly how long something ought to take you to complete.

4. Create Collections

Similar to the lists, make collections too. What I mean by this is put the notes that you make into specific groups of information. For example, if you have a lot of information on business ideas, or opportunities, write them in a book or place them in a digital document. Keep it separate from your list of self-improvement and mindset tips.

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Also, consolidate those collections. Toss out the information you no longer need or have tried before.

5. Place Priority on Key Information

Most times, blog posts will contain a lot of essential information. If you’re the type to consume a lot, it’s going to be tough to manage it all. This particular strategy takes the idea of making lists to the next level.

The idea is summarizing the information or placing the key points in a list you can consult later. It doesn’t have to be organized in a collection or anything. The idea is that it’ll be easier to digest and process later when your brain has energy.

Bottom Line

In a world where we are addicted to hoarding information in ourselves, we risk getting distracted and move further away from our true priorities.

By learning how to organize information better, we can remove the things we don’t need. Better yet, we can learn to place a higher priority on things that are more important to our lives.

When we begin to organize information and our behaviour, we become more in control over our lives and what we let in.

More About Organizing Your Life

Featured photo credit: Matthew Guay via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Published on November 23, 2020

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

Your neighbors downstairs are playing loud music. Again. How do they not get tired of partying? And why do they choose songs with such a heavy downbeat that the glass in your cupboard is vibrating every two seconds? What can you do to get some peace that you deserve? What should you?

Human mind tends to go in circles whenever faced with a problem without a clear solution. It becomes easy to forget the big picture and get lost in anger and self-pity, wasting our precious time, energy and enthusiasm.

Would it not be nice if we always remembered to put things in perspective?

Would it not be more efficient to face all kinds of problems, from tiny annoyances to life-changing emergencies, with a calm demeanor, sharp focus and fearless determination to promptly take the most efficient action possible?

Alas, humans are not like that. All too often we let anxiety or greed get the best of us and make a rushed or shortsighted decision that we quickly come to regret. Other times, we spend weeks or months at an impasse, rehashing the exact same arguments, unable to accept the compromise required to move forward with any of the available options.

Buddhists talk about getting lost in the “small self.” In this state of mind, we literally forget the big picture and focus on the small one. We start taking our daily problems too personally and, paradoxically, becomes less capable of solving them in an efficient manner. And this is the opposite of big picture thinking.

Let me share with you a story related to big picture thinking…

In 1812, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia.[1] After a decisive Battle of Borodino, the capture of Moscow and therefore Napoleon’s victory in the war seemed inevitable.

Unexpectedly, the Russian Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov made a highly controversial decision of retreating and allowing the French to capture Moscow. Much of the population had been evacuated taking supplies with them. The city itself was set on fire and large parts of it burned into the ground.

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After waiting in vain for Russia to capitulate, Napoleon had to retreat in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. He won the battle but lost the war. The campaign ended in a disaster and the near destruction of the French army.

What can we learn from this historical lesson?

1. Focus on the Consequences

Napoleon focused on the important part: capturing Moscow. Nobody could accuse him of thinking small. Yet he overlooked that the Russian army could still fight even after giving up the country’s most important city.

So was Moscow not an important target after all?

Success expert Brian Tracy has a litmus test: things are important to the extent that they have important consequences. Things are unimportant to the extent that they have no important consequences.[2]

When faced with a choice, ask yourself, what would be the consequences of each option?

  • Want to spend an hour studying or watching the new series on Netflix? What would be the consequences of each option? Netflix can sometimes be a better choice, but it helps to put things in perspective.
  • Want to maintain your apartment by yourself or to pay a cleaning service? Would would be the consequences of each option?
  • Want to meet up for coffee with this acquaintance of yours or catch up on your work instead? What would be the consequences of each option?

The choice can be different for different people. An aspiring filmmaker may have a legitimate reason for choosing Netflix. Personally, cleaning your own apartment can be relaxing and nourishing even if the economics of hiring a cleaner looks compelling because you are earning a high hourly rate.

This is where you will need a basic idea of who you are — what are your goals, values and aspirations.

2. Flip Defeat Into Victory

Kutuzov managed to turn Russia’s defeat into a historic victory by recasting the problem in a wider context: losing Moscow need not mean losing the war.

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Despite the symbolic meaning attached to the Kremlin, the churches, the priceless treasures that had been stored in the city for centuries, the outcome of the campaign was ultimately determined by the strength of the remaining armies.

If you can adopt this result-oriented perspective, many of your personal defeats may be flipped into victories as well. Few events in a human life are absolutely good or absolutely bad, and it usually takes many years to recognize in retrospect, what role a particular encounter did play in your story.

Therefore we have every reason to look for the good in the things that happen to us.

This is a very practical attitude, far from baseless “positive thinking.” After all, if something unfortunate has happened to you and you find good sides in this circumstance, you will then be better positioned to take advantage of those good sides.

Say your noisy neighbors are affecting your productivity. What if it is a blessing in disguise? How can you turn this defeat into a victory?

  • Perhaps you are too serious about life and could learn how to have more fun. Join your neighbors or go out for a walk instead of working;
  • Perhaps you only wanted to be productive while instead procrastinated on social media. Now that your procrastination has been interrupted, stop and acknowledge this much greater obstacle to your productivity;
  • Perhaps you are too sensitive to interference. Take this opportunity to practice ignoring the noise and doing your best anyway;
  • Perhaps you have a victim mentality and the feeling of unfairness drains you more than any actual nuisance your neighbors might have caused. Try accepting this lapse in your productivity the way you would accept bad weather.

Get used to finding opportunities in your problems. This is the quintessential big picture thinking.

3. Ask for Advice

Both Napoleon and Kutuzov had trusted advisers to discuss their affairs with. In general, getting a different perspective — or several — can only help inform your understanding and lead to better decisions. Just ensure that the people giving you advice are competent in the particular area where experience is needed.

Paying money for advice can also be a wise investment. Lawyers, tax accountants, medical doctors spend years learning how to assist people like yourself in living more successful, more fulfilling lives.

A quick legal consultation can save you a fortune down the line or even keep you out of big trouble. A medical check-up can uncover potential issues and help keep you healthy and active for years to come.

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Even big, complex dilemmas at your job or in your romantic relationship can be tackled more effectively by partnering up with a coach or a therapist or, of course, with the help of a wise friend.

4. Beware of Biased Advice

Many imperfect decisions occur in response to an imperfect piece of advice that you choose to act on. This advice often comes from a biased party.

For example, we are often encouraged to buy something that we supposedly need:

  • Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a special lotion.
  • Fortify your health by taking multivitamins.
  • Connect with your friends by sending them elaborate gifts.
  • Brighten your weekend by consuming a delicious pastry.
  • Become more productive by getting a faster computer.

However, most purchases are unnecessary.

Some, such as the sunscreen, do have legitimate benefits when used properly.[3] Others, such as multivitamins, only make a difference for a small group of people.[4]

Advertisers of those benefits inevitably want to narrow your focus in order to overstate the importance of their product. They frequently present it as the only solution to your problem, whether real or imaginary.

After all,

  • Skin can also be protected from the sun by wearing appropriate clothing.
  • Health can be better fortified by consuming a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Spending time or talking on the phone with your friends is the foremost way of connecting with them, and it is virtually free.
  • Your weekend can be brightened by doing something that you love.
  • You can become more productive by focusing on the tasks that have the most important consequences. A faster computer can, in fact, decrease productivity by making it easier to multitask and by enabling your favorite distractions.

There are other sources of imperfect advice. Politicians also frequently want us to focus on a particular “big picture,” to the exclusion of the alternatives.

Even loving parents can be guilty of the same. They can advise their children to pick a career path that is safe and respectable, based on their “big picture” that in life one has to make a living. A child may disagree, however, based on another “big picture” that one’s life has to have meaning and fulfillment.

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Bottom Line

It is human nature to make rushed, emotional decisions based on incomplete information, then regret those decisions later on.

You can protect yourself from poor judgment by striving to attain the big picture when careful consideration is called for.

Focus on the consequences of your decision before considering how you feel about it.

Play with the cards you’ve been dealt, but look for opportunities in each situation and you will find them.

Ask knowledgeable mentors for advice, but beware of biased people who have an opinion, but do not necessarily have your best interest in mind.

Yet remember, true big picture thinking comes from hard-won experience. Legendary military commanders Napoleon Bonaparte and Mikhail Kutuzov were both injured on the battlefield.

Clear thinking comes from putting your big picture to the test of reality.

More Tips on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Haneen Krimly via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Wikipedia: French invasion of Russia
[2] Brian Tracy: No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline
[3] American Academy of Dermatology: Say Yes to Sun Protection
[4] Harvard Medical School: Do multivitamins make you healthier?

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