Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Using “R&D” Projects to Stop Information Overload

by Andre · 1 Comment

Information overload is a misnomer. Whatever new information channels emerge over time, overload is the inability to prioritize. This was as true in the 18th Century as it is in the 21st Century. Anyone afflicted with information overload is preoccupied with information’s value rather than its relevance. Most information is valuable to the right person at the right time, but that’s not a good enough reason to consume it unless you’re that person at that time.

Enabling information

Productive information enables a specific action you need to take that couldn’t be taken without that information. Otherwise it’s just “stuff.” You need to pass a Chemistry exam. You need regional demographics to plan a marketing campaign. You need to learn how to use a certain feature in Photoshop. Enabling information responds to an explicit need.

Not all information needs to be productive, but here we’re only concerned with information’s role in completing projects with as little wasted time and effort as possible. Because information requires attention, the difference between getting sufficient and complete information is the difference between focus and distraction.

Research projects

Sometimes we think about something we’d like to do without ever turning that desire into action. We might simply lack sufficient desire to pursue it further, or maybe we lack the resources. But sometimes we just need to get more information to decide whether or not it’s worth pursuing further. Then we can either take action on it or eliminate it to move on to other things.

You’re thinking about starting an e-commerce site, but have no knowledge of all the different technologies involved, the advantages over physical storefronts, or the best niche. If you start surfing the web on “e-commerce” without a specific research target — one that enables a next action to be taken — you risk allowing yourself to be lead by the information itself rather than your intention.

You read an article that has a paragraph on how simple it is to set up an eBay store, so you spend the next several hours reading articles about eBay. If, instead, the paragraph had been about shopping cart solutions, you would have spent the next several hours reading articles about shopping cart systems. You need to define your point of entry before starting your research.

So we create a research project on our project list. Like many GTD users, I usually denote them with the shorthand, “R&D.” In order to have a successful outcome, the research goal can’t be general, like “R&D e-commerce.” Different people will have different research objectives:

  • Determine viability of e-commerce (i.e. whether or not it’s a worthwhile endeavor to invest in)
  • Compare ROI of e-commerce to brick-and-mortar retail
  • Assess startup costs of different e-commerce models
  • Build domain knowledge
  • Determine most profitable niche

Any one of these could be valid points of entry, but I’ll select “Build domain knowledge,” since I’ve already determined that I want to put serious effort into launching an e-commerce enterprise. If I had previous experience with a fast food retail franchise, I might have started with “Compare ROI,” since that would probably take less than an hour of searching — then I would define and move on to the next R&D.

“Build domain knowledge” means getting familiar with the systems, considerations and terminology associated with our objective, which in this case is to start an e-commerce business. The goal of building domain knowledge is to enable further learning and discussion. You want to be able to have an intelligent conversation with entrepreneurs doing what you want to be doing in this field, so you’ll need to be able to understand at least most of the technical acronyms they throw out when giving you advice.

So you define a next action to build domain knowledge: “Read The Beginner’s Guide to E-Commerce.” If you didn’t already have a title in mind, your next action might be putting “Borders: select appropriate primer on e-commerce” on your @Errands list. Whatever verb you choose — browse, select, evaluate — the end result should be a purchase. You’re not looking at books for the sake of open-ended deliberation, but taking action to build domain knowledge.

When you’re done reading the book, you’ll be past building general domain knowledge, so you can check that off your project list and define another research target, such as “Determine most profitable niche.” For domain knowledge, we deliberately used a single book instead of the internet to avoid entropy, but a book won’t necessarily be current enough to spot a lucrative trend.

Googling “most profitable niches in e-commerce” can be done immediately, without writing it down as a next action, unless you’re not at a computer. Scanning through the listings to filter out the hype-addled titles, you come across what appears to be a well-researched, recent article that will probably take more than two minutes to read, so you either print it out to read at your discretion or, if time permits, read it on the spot.

Once you’ve checked this action off your list, you’ve determined that the future is an plaid widgets, so you put, “R&D: wholesale manufacturing costs of plaid widgets,” then do a search of plaid widget manufacturers. I could keep going with this example, but you get the idea. At each step, we’re getting specific information to enable a specific action that required that information. We’re either taking action to move a project forward, or taking action to get the information we need to take action to move the project forward — but there’s always forward motion.

The role of info surfing

Information can be used for production or recreation. Designers will read articles on how to do something cool in Photoshop without knowing how or if they’ll apply that information. They read it because it’s interesting. Then one day they figure out a way to apply that knowledge to a project in a highly original fashion. That’s re-creation. Differential geometry had no practical application for 150 years until Einstein saw it’s role in the physics of space and time.

When you’re in “surfing” mode rather than problem solving mode, there are no rules for how much information is too much. You can only rely on your time constraints and intuition. But when you’re engaged in a research project, begin with the end in mind and ask yourself from moment to moment, “What problem am I trying to solve?”, and confine yourself to looking up information that solves your immediate problem. If you come across something during your research that’s too interesting to pass up, but not relevant, write it down and come back to it later. Know when to wear blinders and when to take them off.

(Photo credit: miz_ginevra)

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Tags: GTD · Productivity


  • Henry LewkowiczNo Gravatar // Oct 9, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    Even with a vigilant approach to utilizing information it is difficult to shake off the feeling of information overload. This issues is at the center of my own work on Context Organizer (Context Organizer). I like your observations and I posted them on my Context Discovery blog (Context Discovery blog).