On being an information packrat - Part II

Stratego

Knowing that I have a tendency to hoard information, what can I do to help myself? This post will talk about some big-picture mindsets that may help me to reframe the problem so that, looked at from this new perspective, it isn't a problem any longer (or it's a smaller problem that causes less pain). The next post in this series will get down to translating these mindsets into specific behaviors and tactics.

(As with all of the posts in this series, I have culled these bits and pieces from many different sources. All of the sources I used for reference are collected at the end of the first post in this series.)

One of the statistics I remember from school is that only 2% of the books in a huge university reference library are ever checked out. Likewise, you will only ever reference 2% of all the files you keep. Now, that 2% will be different for everyone. So surely it’s safer to keep the other 98% too, just in case. Right?

Of all the sites I scoured, web developer Adam Kayce's post on information management was the most sensible, level-headed, and universal. The punchline: You don't need as much as you think. A lesson he learned on his path was that he could let go of things that no longer served him, knowing that he could replace them later because, as he says, we always have what we need when we need it.

What I like about this philosophy is that it's gentle: it's about letting go rather than acquiring, and it comes from a place of abundance. Holding on to information because you're afraid you won't have it later is a scarcity mentality, which keeps you playing small. A better, bigger stance to take is to acknowledge that you have all you need right now and, if you do need something, you can easily lay hands on it whenever you want.

A Slashdot thread on this topic yielded this gem of a comment:

You are young, and have not met the big disasters of life yet, like a divorce with children, the death of a loved one, the bad decisions with life-long consequences. At your age I liked keeping track and archives, even bank statements many years back. Not a good idea. Your past starts to grow on you, and can slow you down on your way to new pastures. So remember to build in mechanisms for forgetting all but the most essential stuff. Use Facebook and Linkedin to keep track of people, keep some nice pictures, but learn to delete and forget. You will thank me later.

Letting go of what you don't need is a key idea that is also echoed in Mark Hurst's Bit Literacy, a book I reviewed in a previous post. A key paragraph from my review:

Hurst’s big idea is Let the bits go. Similar to the basic instructions on organization–do, delegate, defer, or delete–Hurst’s advice is to act on what’s actionable, deliberately save only what you think you need, and let the rest go. This enables one to move swiftly through all the RSS feeds and downloaded files while still being able to find the one file you really need. “Just in case” is not really a good reason to save anything.

The just-in-case vs just-in-time mentality is too big of an issue to cover here, but suffice to say: lose the just-in-case thinking. Just-in-time will work for me 80 percent of the time, and in building a system, I want to solve the frequent, most annoying problems first. The exceptions and special cases that make up the remaining 20 percent can be dealt with as they arise. (Nothing stops a good-enough solution in its tracks faster than trying to solve all the exceptions at the outset.)

The just-in-time position is also expressed in the Extreme Programming precept of You Aren't Gonna Need It:

"Always implement things when you actually need them, never when you just foresee that you need them."

Even if you're totally, totally, totally sure that you'll need a feature later on, don't implement it now. Usually, it'll turn out either a) you don't need it after all, or b) what you actually need is quite different from what you foresaw needing earlier.

One of the phrases that pops up on the interwebs for this type of subject is the Bright Shiny Object syndrome. That page, that link, that YouTube video -- each is a siren's call to click, watch, read, listen, absorb, engage automatically, without even thinking. It's a common experience that someone begins a web session searching for a specific piece of information and then looks up an hour later blinking like they've just emerged into daylight from a dark movie theatre.

I want to draw a line (however crooked) between the fascination I have for the web's bright shiny objects and meditation. Meditation is defined as many things, but one of its purposes is to demonstrate to you – through experience – that you will always have bright shiny objects flashing through your consciousness: memories, ideas, conversations, voices, songs, desires, hunger, images, an itch on your knee, the dog barking next door, etc. One of meditation’s goals is to show you that you can detach yourself from that parade of imagery and noise -- that you are not that parade -- and that you will be OK if you let the parade pass by without comment, without attachment, without engagement.

It may well be a stretch to say that browsing the web is a meditation, but I certainly spend a lot of time doing it and I do fall into a trancelike state staring at the screen. Let's say, for the sake of experiment, that web-browsing is like meditating. Would that change the nature of how I surf the web? How I interact with links on web pages, how I spend my time and attention? It's something for me to think about some more.

In the next post, I'll review several different tactics and tips for managing information that I found in my informal researching. Stay tuned, infovores!

 

 

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