Managing Information

I’m studying and working. Plus, working in a field that is changing everyday. Everyday something becomes obsolete and without learning something new, one’s skillsets can become obsolete very fast. And then, I like to do a lot of reading outside of my field. What this means is, I have to be on top of a lot of information. I have to keep track of it. I have to revise it periodically.

So, because of this requirement, over the years, I have developed several techniques and I thought, I’d share it. The first step is to classify or categorize this information.

However information is not like carrots and potatoes. You can’t separate one from other so easily. Sometimes you can but not so often. It flows from one category to another like our conversations flow. We start discussing cars and end up debating religion. You can’t say where one ended and second began. That is because conversations are basically an exchange of information. Of ideas.

This makes it pretty difficult to create a system that can handle all kinds of information. One of the reasons why pen and paper are so successful is because they are very flexible. However most of software aren’t. Most software work on definite structure and this structure restricts it from being used for certain kinds of information.

But, let’s get back on track. As I said, first task is to classify. I’d basically like to classify the information in three sections. One, small tasks. Two, big tasks. Three, detailed studies.

  1. Small tasks: Small tasks are things that you can do in a small amount of time. In this section, I basically define tasks that can be completed under 4 hours of time. However, about 80% of these tasks take less than 1 hour. Also, sometimes I take big 4 hour tasks and divide them in subtasks of smaller amount of time.
  2. Big tasks: Big tasks are things like a project. Reading a book. Detailed study of a particular subject. Things that can’t be finished in one sitting. I normally work on 1 or 2 big tasks at a time. These big tasks get divided in smaller tasks and then I schedule these smaller tasks.
  3. Detailed studies: In this section, I put all my studies and reading. All the things I read go into this section. I’ll talk about this later.

Managing tasks

Small ones

Did I ever tell you that I use Emacs? Well, I do. I use it a lot. And I use it for task management also. In fact, there is so much written about it for task management that I’m not going to go into it. I’ll just tell you to go here.

Big ones

Well, here be the beasts and dinosaurs. In here you’ll see things like “Read: The art of computer programming (all finished volumes) by Donald Knuth” However, finishing this task will take hundreds of hours. All the projects and ideas go into this section as well. And then one by one, each one get divided into smaller tasks when I get around to actually do these things.

Detailed studies

This is basically things like reading essays, books or documentations to learn and understand new things. The irony of this activity is, without doing this, you can’t do anything else. Yet, nobody will tell you to do this. They will only tell you to do other things…

The way I do it is in the following order: Read, revise, reference. First I’ll tell what I do in each of these things and then, I’ll talk about the tools that I use.

  1. Read: Does the thing that you are doing right now need an explanation of how? If so, then the end of the world is upon us! But, I do one little thing that you might not be doing. I highlight the main points and phrases. I highlight key information points. Why?
  2. Revise: Because it helps me to revise. If it took me an hour to read a particular article, and I have highlighted it, it will take me only 10 minutes to revise it. However, for this to happen, the highlighting should be accurate. If you are too liberal with the highlights it will do you no good…
  3. References: By God’s grace, I have very good memory. Once I read and understand something, I can recall the concept anytime. But what I can’t recall is the exact phrases used in describing it. I might forget the terms. That’s why when doing something else, I might recall a particular concept but can’t recall how exactly to phrase it. So, I go back to that original article/book whatever it was and search for it.

So, those are the three activities I find myself doing frequently. Now, first and second activity can be done on printed media quite well. However, I don’t know if the third can be done. And even if it can be done, it won’t be as efficient as in electronic media. I’m talking about web pages and ebooks. If you want to search for some word or phrase in a document you just need to give it a command. That’s why I choose ebooks over printed books.

The tools I use are the following:

  1. Emacs: You might be wondering what the heck is this emacs thing… well, it’s a thermonuclear word processor. It’s on the verge of achieving sentience! It’s a wild beast. But once you tame it, it becomes your greatest ally.
    • Org mode: Org mode can be called as the crown jewel of emacs. It can do so many things that I’m not sure that there is a complete list anywhere. I use it to write notes, capture notes and tasks(org-capture), write blogs (org2blog), do study assignments (export to pdf), manage and schedule tasks, track habits and so much more.
    • Deft: This little extension of emacs can be used to do access your notes very quickly. Basically you just start typing and it will search for that particular word in all your notes contained in different files. It basically does a full text search.
  2. Evernote: This piece of software is absolutely awesome. It is basically designed to be a note taking program. But it does much more than that. It syncs those notes across different platforms. If you haven’t tried it, you really should.
    • Evernote clearly: Evernote clearly is an extension for chrome and firefox web browsers. It does few things which are very useful. One, it makes the web pages easy to read by removing all the other useless things and advertisements from the page. You can also annotate things on the web page using clearly. Once you are done reading/annotating you can save that web page to your evernote notebook. Available to you any time you like. Even if the original web page moves or gets deleted, you’ll still have a copy of that web page. It’s just great tool.
  3. Xournal: I use this program to annotate pdf files. In other words, ebooks. So it is easy for me to review/revise what I have just studied.

With the help of these tools, I can easily do things that I need to do with information. Read, revise and reference. And I can also manage the information regarding my time with the same tools. Which is a bonus.

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