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Beyond Test Taking: Learning to Handle Information

Beyond Test Taking: Learning to Handle Information
Books

    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.

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    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.

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    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 del.icio.us 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.

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    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.

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    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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    Last Updated on September 17, 2020

    5 Practical Ways to Get Over a Mental Block

    5 Practical Ways to Get Over a Mental Block

    There’s nothing quite like a state of “flow” when you’re working. The rare moments when your inspiration aligns with your motivation likely lead to some of your most creative work. Plus, it feels great to actually check a task or project off the list so you can move on to the next thing. Meanwhile, a mental block — its opposite — can cause work to feel laborious and uninspired. Forget creativity when you have a mental block — it makes it difficult even to start working on what you need to do.

    A mental block can manifest in several ways. Perhaps your imposter syndrome is squelching your creative ideas, for instance, or you’re overwhelmed by the breadth of a project and its impending deadline. Maybe you’re just tired or stressed.

    Either way, having a mental block feels like being trapped in your own head, and it can seriously dampen your ability to think outside the box. The problem is, you’re so locked into your own perspective that you don’t see more innovative approaches to your problems.[1]

    Luckily, jumping over these mental hurdles is simpler than you think. You just need the right strategies to get your flow back.

    Try these five practical ways to overcome a mental block.

    1. Break Your Project Down

    A few years ago, I was working on changing a company product that I believed would hugely benefit our customers. Sounds great, right?

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    As inspired as I was to make people’s lives easier, though, the sheer magnitude of the task at hand felt overwhelming. Every morning, I cracked open my laptop to work and felt totally paralyzed. I loved the idea, yes, but actualizing it felt risky. What if it didn’t turn out the way I pictured in my mind? More importantly, where would I even begin?

    A former colleague gave me great advice over coffee:

    Change how you think. Start by breaking the big project down into small tasks.

    When a major project overwhelms you, you only see the entire forest instead of the individual trees. And as you stare it down, you start to feel discouraged by your own lack of progress, thus slowing you down further.

    Breaking down a massive task into smaller chunks makes the work feel more manageable. You’ll have multiple clear places to start and end with, which will lend a motivating sense of productivity and mastery to your process. Learn more about it here: The Motivation Flowchart: The Mental Process of Successful People

    Think of it as accumulating small wins. When you realize you’re more capable than you have once thought, you’ll develop the momentum and confidence needed to get your big job done little by little.[2]

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    2. Change Up Your Scenery

    Of course, there’s a time and place for sitting down to get things done. But if you’re experiencing a mental block, switching up your surroundings can make a big difference in your output.

    Have you ever noticed how your environment directly impacts your performance and mood?

    Your brain associates your physical surroundings with certain feelings and activities. So, if you feel mentally stuck, your mind may need some new sensory stimuli.

    During this time in your life, it may not be possible to set up shop at a cafe or move from your cubicle to a conference room, so you may need to think outside the box. If you’re working remotely in a home office, try going to your dining table or couch. If the weather cooperates, sit outside for a bit with your computer or take a walk around the block.

    You can also simply rearrange your workspace. Not sure where to begin? Try decluttering. Some studies show that an organized desk enhances productivity.[3]

    The point is to stimulate your brain with new sounds and sights. You may find a much-needed dose of inspiration when you work while breathing in the fresh air, listening to city sounds, or staying in the comfort of your own living space.

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    3. Do an Unrelated Activity

    When it comes to productivity, a bit of distraction isn’t always a bad thing. That’s especially true if your chosen distraction helps you get things done in the long run.

    Have you realized how your most creative thoughts tend to bubble up when you’re, say, lying in bed or taking a shower? In their research of the “incubation period,” scientists have discovered that people’s best ideas seem to surface when they aren’t actively trying to solve a problem.[4]

    In a 2010 study, participants needed to look for a roommate or new employee based on the profiles that the researchers gave. The people who had a brief “incubation period” — in this case, working on an anagram — consistently made better choices than those who spent more time weighing their options.

    If you can’t seem to prime your brain for a project, try doing something completely unrelated to work, such as washing your dishes, working out, or calling a friend. Some experts say finding another low-stake project to work on can help jump-start the creative part of your brain and activate your flow.[5]

    The key is to allow your unconscious mind to do its best work: eliciting the new knowledge your conscious mind may be ignoring or suppressing.[6]

    4. Be Physical

    Feeling antsy? When your mind won’t seem to settle into a state of flow, it may help to swap out your mental activity for a physical one and see how it impacts your perspective.

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    While any physical activity is beneficial for your body — and getting up to move can serve as a helpful form of distraction — certain forms of exercise can more directly impact the mind. To be specific, relaxing, flow-based exercises like dance, yoga, or tai chi can create a gentle sense of momentum in your body, which can prime your brain for the same state.

    Stress-reducing activities may also be necessary. Meditating or taking slow, deep breaths will also calm your nervous system if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Evidence shows that the logical, creative part of your brain essentially shuts off when you’re stressed.[7]

    On the flip side, when your mind and body are relaxed, you can think more clearly, be more creative, and focus for longer periods — all of which will help you overcome a mental block.

    5. Don’t Force It

    It can be frustrating to fight against your own mind. If your mental block won’t go away after some effort, it may be time to take a break. Forcing creative thoughts only adds to your stress levels, which in turn inhibits your ability to think creatively. And if you sit and stare at a project for too long, you’ll not only waste valuable time but also begin to associate this specific work with frustration and produce work you’re not proud of.

    “I know that forcing something is not going to create anything beyond mediocre, so I step aside and work on a different project until it hits me,” the artist Ben Skinner said about his creative process.[8]

    If your work isn’t time-sensitive, then it may make sense to step away for a while to focus on something else, be it an administrative task that requires less creativity or a project that you feel motivated to work on.

    When the time is right, you’ll find your way back to the original task with a fresh, creative perspective (hopefully).

    More on Getting Rid of a Mental Block

    Featured photo credit: Jonas Leupe via unsplash.com

    Reference

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