How to Consume Information, Rather Than Let Information Consume You

Today, you will be presented with an amount of data equivalent to that found in 174 newspapers. Much of this data will be relatively meaningless – social media posts, train timetables, local news – but some of it will matter. Some of it will be critical to your career, your relationships, your future.

The problem is that, for all the knowledge we’re presented with, people generally aren’t any more knowledgeable than their relatives were 80 years ago. Simply receiving the data does not provide enough stimulus in and of itself to ensure it’s remembered. And just because it is remembered doesn’t mean it won’t be forgotten in the future. When it comes to memory, we must use it, or lose it.

Still, the true issue isn’t memorisation. It’s learning. It’s focusing on the knowledge that we see as important, and employing tools that will allow us to absorb it, and retain it.

Earlier this year, Zarvana founder Matt Plummer and sustainable productivity coach Jo Wilson wrote Become a Productive Learner, an article which highlighted a few ways to do just that. While the article’s primary interest is the retention of general civic knowledge, the points it lists are just as applicable to any other form of information.

So let’s take a look.

1) Don’t Take the Bait

How often do you let titles and headlines dictate the information you receive on a daily basis? Probably more often than you’d like to admit. Don’t be embarrassed; that’s their entire goal.

From today onwards, don’t take the bait. Decide where your interests lie, and let that dictate what you consume.

As we’ve discussed before, learning is mostly about forgetting. Forgetting the irrelevant information that seeks to bait us, and keep us on the line as long as possible. By avoiding this irrelevant information in the first place, we offer ourselves a greater ability to remember what matters.

2) Think Inside the Box

In 1923, psychologist Jean Piaget introduced the term ‘schema’ to describe the framework through which the human mind organises and contextualises information. They are the archetypes through which we define our understanding of the world.

Schemas are automatically produced and referenced in the brain, but that doesn’t mean we are incapable of analysing or changing them.

While researching that in which our interest lies, it is critical to consider how our schemas impact our interpretation of the data. Are your biases blockading the chance to truly learn from the material? Can your established understanding enlighten that which you are consuming, in order to give it context, or prove it wrong? These questions must be asked if we hope to learn productively.

3) Reflect and Revise

Remember how I said that if we do not use the information we’ve learnt, we risk losing it? That’s true no matter how much effort we put into the learning process.

It is important to take the time to consider what you’ve consumed, and recognise when revision may be in order.

Of the three points, this might be the hardest to achieve. Once we’re off school grounds, people rarely take the time to think about what important information they may have forgotten, especially in an age where so much new information is being presented day by day. And that’s why it’s also the most important point.

Learning is an active process, and to do it well takes time, attention, and dedication. We’re living in a time of information overload, and much of that information is driven by deception and greed rather than altruism and enlightenment. It is not enough simply to consume, lest we find ourselves consumed in the process.

Read Become a Productive Learner in full at HBR here.

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