Podcast 102: Use information

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This is Podcast 102 and it’s about using information. Are you good at gathering information? How about taking notes, on a seminar or a book? Maybe you write in the margins of the handouts, or maybe you create a dedicated binder for all your fantastic notes. But… what happens next?

Unless you’re in school, there’s not going to be a test on those notes. There won’t be a specific, time-sensitive reason for you to go back and refer to them again. To use them for a particular reason; to get closer to getting your degree, for example. What happens to a lot of these notes is that they molder away in your file cabinet, or even in your in box waiting for you to read them again. Now be honest, do you ever do that? Do you ever look at them again? Use them?

My guess is that most people don’t, no matter how well intentioned they are. Note taking is a valuable activity. You are more likely to retain information if you take notes, especially if you do it by hand. There’s something about moving your pen across paper that cements things better into your memory.

But even that slightly improved retention won’t matter after a few weeks. What’s clear and fascinating and motivating in your mind from the seminar you just took is going to fade and be crowded out by new demands on your attention. The poetically named Curve of Forgetting shows that we will forget about 40% of new learning over the first 24 hours. If we wait another 24 hours before reviewing the information, we have lost 60%. And it’s downhill from there.

The magic bullet is to USE that information. Put it to work. Fit it into your life so it won’t slide off into oblivion. If you learned how to tune up a bike, find a friend and tune her bike up. If you learned to knit a hat, knit another one and another one. It’s pretty straightforward to practice a skill like that. If you learned about renaissance art, go get some library books to deepen your learning.

Much information you absorb is more abstract, for example, what you learn from listening to this podcast. Although I talk about specific techniques for organizing and time management, I also talk about my philosophy and psychology and behavioral trends. Even then, I come up with ways you can put those idea into action. Still, it’s up to you to do that. I’m not coming over to your house to make you do it. Well, I will do that, actually, if you pay me.

In other cases, the information is even more abstract or generalized and it’s up to you to figure out how to apply it to your life. Say you take a class about self care. You learn about how important is and all the wonderful benefits you’ll get if you do it. You’re inspired. Maybe you get some great idea you can try out.

Maybe you get a lot of ideas! That can be almost as bad as getting none because you won’t be able to do them all and you’ll have to choose, which trips people up. A weekend conference where you go to 8-10 workshops is a gold mine for this problem.

How DO you choose? I like to keep things simple. I say, just pick something to try. Pick the one that appeals to you right now. Can’t limit yourself to one? Pick three. Three is plenty. Save the others for another time.

What if the class requires you to design your own project? None of the information you so carefully take notes on will do you any good without that critical element. This is another common situation where you just need to pick something to apply all the learning to. It could be a marketing class where the information is totally abstract until you relate it to your own venture.

Trust me, you will learn much better by choosing something to work with in the class, even if it turns out not to be your ultimate idea. Trying to apply the information at a later date doesn’t work as well, not the least because you don’t have the support of the class structure to help you.

Now, the nitty gritty: how do you use these ideas?

Change is hard. Repeat after me, change is hard! Take advantage of anything and everything that will make it easier. That means blocking out time in your schedule to practice, putting your running shoes near the door, taping a note to your bathroom mirror, etc. It means setting aside time to review and practice, calling your study buddy regularly for months after the class ends and planning out the steps of your project to unfold over time.

What you can do now: Don’t just stockpile those notes! Find some notes from a class or project that you were excited about but didn’t pursue. Review them and see if you can identify a skill to practice and make part of your life.