A primer on information processing

Posted by in Productivity

A primer on information processing

There are two types of information: actionable and inactionable. How well you separate the two is directly linked to your level of productivity; here, you’ll learn not only how to do this, but also the why and how to take your game to the next level.


Imagine, if you will, the world as an endless stream of information in which you are fully immersed. Much as if you didn’t know how to swim, you would drown in a sea of information had you no innate protection against it: your span of attention. Surrounding you much like an invisible sphere, it works with your short-term memory to exclude superfluous information which our brains deem unnecessary – according to a set of rules based part upon instinct and part upon intellect, thus allowing us to function normally.


How well, though, do you think the brain has kept up with the rapid increase in available information over the course of especially the past 30 years or so, given that it took us a few million years to get this far?


Here’s my take: not very well.


As humans in the information age, we constantly get distracted, go off track, digress (guilty) and enjoy impulse control that’s about on par with what happens when a dog sees a lamp post. So, it stands to reason, that the more information is available to us, and the more resources the brain must expend on processing it, the less time it has for all of those other things.


Which is why we should be thankful for our spans of attention. Once our brains have filtered out the worst of what’s going on around us without conscious effort on our part, we’re left with two basic types of information: actionable, and inactionable.


Inactionable information


The defining trait of inactionable information is that it doesn’t require you to do much. There’s a simple choice to make about it: keep it, or throw it away – and in the case of the latter, be indiscriminate. Storing unnecessary information, even when using digital tools, consumes valuable time which could otherwise be applied towards archiving and labelling what’s important to keep in such a manner that it can quickly and easily be retrieved.


Examples of such information could be anything from magazines to advertisements, bus tables, manuals for power tools and the measurements of your car’s windshield vipers; anything that you don’t use on a day-to-day basis but may want to consult. Given proper tools, such as the excellent Evernote, you can store such information and create your own personal mini-Internet of sorts, populated with information that offers extremely high personal relevance.


There’s one thing particularly worth noting that I’ve often seen confuse people, and that’s when people would like to keep inactionable information to remind them of something. If you are, please tattoo the following in reverse on your forehead so as to remind you: wanting to be reminded does not stem from a wishing to simply gaze upon the information once more; it stems from wanting to consider (once more) acting upon it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a bonafide action, and goes in your task manager (not your calendar) as a properly defined task.


After all, that ad for that hotel in Aspen is useless now that this year’s Christmas vacation is already planned, but it sure would be nice to have it pop up on your radar in, say, September next year. So, for September 01 next year, create the task ‘Plan Christmas vacation’ if you haven’t already, and use your task manager’s notes field to indicate that you have reference material of interest and where it’s located – or link to it if you’re using digital tools and they support it.


Actionable information


Is what may go on your task list. Emphasis on the may; just as you can easily archive something, you can easily place something on your todo list – but more so than an endless archive, an endless todo list will render you miserable. Stock too many items, and you’ll end up distracted and disillusioned as your brain will generate resistance towards the apparently massive effort required to complete it all.


As with inactionable information, the trick is to be discriminate and to have as little of it as possible. David Allen’s GTD methodology, for instance, solves the above conundrum in a simple and elegant way, and dictates as follows: in your system, create a separate space or category for items that are for later consideration. Then, peruse this on a regular schedule to see if there’s something that warrants moving from Perhaps into Just Do It Already.


Universal capture is your friend


Making the distinction between actionable and inactionable information is important, because if you fail at it, you will pay for it with mental exertion every time you wade through a pile of ‘stuff’ in an attempt to decide what you’ll do next. Clearly, what’s needed here is a bit of good, old-fashioned sorting – but how can we sort something that we don’t have complete control over?


That’s where universal capture comes in.


The worst thing about information is its tendency to arrive at utterly inpportune points in time. E-mails, phones, your brain, letters, advertisements and God only knows what else triggers your brain to fire off thoughts along the lines of ‘Oh, I have to remember to pick that up on the way home, or ‘Hmm, I should check that out later’, or ‘Crap, I forgot to water the lawn’. This happens all. The. Time.


Now let me ask you this: say you’re a musician, and receive a jolt of divine inspiration while you’re out driving. Do you a) pull up your keyboard and start jamming with one hand whilst still driving, or b) pull out your 8-track recorder and tape it while it’s hot? Between the two of us, we should have the collective intelligence to get this one right, so I’ll just move on to point out why you should use something other than your brain to hold this stuff for you until you can process it intelligently.


What we need is either a scrap of paper, the most advanced smartphone in the world or anything in between that is a) with us all the time and lets us b) quickly record something that we can get back to later. Then, once a day, or once a week, or however often your gut indicates, simply sort what you’ve captured into actionable and inactionable piles.


When you’re done sorting, you throw out the inactionable trash and organize your newfound reference information. Then, you make tasks from inactionable information you want to be reminded about. Then, you throw out the actionable things you don’t want to do (even though you were smart enough to capture them just in case), and place the actionable things you may want to do later in a Perhaps category.


Lo and behold: you’re left with a manageable list of todos that you can execute in the order you prefer, as well as an tidy archive that’ll let you get to what you need quickly and easily.


Oh, and don’t tell anyone this, but you may just have participated unvoluntarily in an episode of the mental equivalent of Hoarders.