Have you ever found yourself doing research or trying to learn about something and feeling overwhelmed with the amount of information and contradicting opinions you find on the subject?
Every day, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created in the world. To give you a better idea, 90 percent of the world’s data was created in the past two years. We are talking about social media sites, digital bank transactions, videos and pictures and texts, your own personal data that gets stored in online shops, and so much more.
And this is just the digital world. Think about how many billboards you see on your way to work, how many products you have to ignore on the supermarket shelves during your weekly shopping, and how many objects and faces and pieces of news your brain processes every single day of your life.
I know, I know — why would you care about all that information? You can just ignore most of it and get on with what really matters.
But that’s not really how it works.
Making decisions takes up energy, as does ignoring information. So every time you ignore a commercial or an unhealthy snack at the shop, you are spending energy. According to neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin:
“When trying to concentrate on a task, an unread email in your inbox can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.”
Our brains simply weren’t meant to process the amount of information that is being thrown at us during an average day in the 21st century. How do we cope with this?
Finding an Oasis in the Middle of the Desert
Apart from the overload of information you choose to ignore, there is the information you consciously choose to explore. This is what we will focus on.
Let’s say you’re starting a business, looking to increase your productivity, or simply trying to become the best version of yourself. You want to find the information that will show you how to do it.
You start by reading one article on Medium, which tells you how to build the perfect morning routine to boost your productivity. What a great start! In that article, something grabs your attention: a link to another article that talks about the foods you should be eating in the morning. Fascinating! You click on it and move on without finishing what you were reading first.
You really want to learn, and you genuinely want to make progress, but you keep getting lost. You want to stop consuming and start producing, but it seems like the world is conspiring against you with all its options and temptations and flashy ideas.
“What Will I Remember This Day For?”
A while ago, my partner started an interesting journaling practice.
He took up a few pages on his notebook and filled each with a few three-by-three squares. At the end of every day, he fills one square with a few initials and numbers. They all have meaning; they represent moments or important pieces of information related to his day.
“The most important thing I write down every day is right in the middle of the square,” he told me. “It’s the answer to this question: What will I remember this day for?”
I was fascinated by the simplicity and effectiveness of this practice: By taking 10 minutes at the end of the day, he is able to register the information that matters (what he learned, what he ate, who he met), and by organizing it in such a minimalist fashion (two pages contain more than 60 squares), it’s pretty easy for him to get a good overview of his overall progress.
Minimalist Journaling: How to Do It
After seeing the benefits this practice is bringing into my partner’s life, I decided to adapt it to fit my own routine.
I decided to come up with a simple 15-minute minimalist journaling routine that would help me: 1) organize the huge daily input of information I get in my life, 2) process it and get some clarity and perspective, and 3) proceed to taking action — producing instead of consuming; making a change.
This is what I will be sharing with you.
1. Organize the Information
To select the information you want to absorb, you need to know what’s valuable for you. To do that, you need to observe your own life and routines and assess the quality of the information you are currently receiving.
Before you go to bed, take 10 minutes to fill in your daily square. Here is a list of examples that you can choose to include:
- The most important thing you learned today.
- Something that fascinated you and made you want to know more about it.
- The wisest thing someone told you today.
- People you met today.
- Activities you did with other people today.
- What you would like to have done but didn’t manage.
- Your greatest accomplishment of today.
- One thing you could have done better.
- Unhealthy substances you consumed today (alcohol, fast food, cigarettes, etc.).
- Physical exercise you did today (strength training, swimming, running, etc.).
- Your weight.
- The most powerful emotion you felt today.
- What makes you feel the most grateful.
- Amount of time spent meditating.
Pro tip: Use initials to save space and make it easier to analyze the information later on. For example:
Exercise you did today: j=jogging, y=yoga, u=upper-body strength, d=dance
Of course, you can — and should — adapt your journaling practice to your own preferences and requirements. I recommend choosing three to five items at a time — within the topics that are the most important to you — and testing their relevance for at least a week.
For example: Let’s say your biggest goals right now are strengthening your relationship with your partner and learning about gardening. For the first week, you can try answering these questions every day:
- What was my favorite moment with my partner today?
- Which interaction with my partner triggered the most anger in me?
- What did I learn about gardening today? (Be as succinct as possible: “the importance of consistent watering” or “how to care for roses.” You don’t want this to be a detailed study book; you just want to be able to recognize the most important things by using memorable keywords.)
- What did I notice that I don’t know about gardening today? (Examples: “good brands of fertilizer” or “best pruning techniques.”)
2. Gain Perspective
You might need to check in with your progress once in a while.
You can do this by verifying if the information you have been getting is useful. Maybe the problem with your relationship is not because of anger, but because of jealousy, so you might want to change that question.
The more you answer the right questions, the more you will be able to extract useful information from your life. For example, after a week it might become very clear that most of your gardening problems come from your lack of knowledge on creating the perfect soil conditions for your plants. If that’s the case, you will have a good idea of which books to read next — you will know what to learn.
3. Take Action
“Education without application is just entertainment.”—Tim Sanders
After a while of observing and assessing, you will likely notice a much clearer path in front of you. It will become easier to decide what to learn and what to do with that knowledge.
Don’t let yourself drown in the ocean of information around you. Learn how to sail it. Once you start balancing your information input, you will feel less overwhelmed. Once your ideas and priorities are clear and organized, you will feel in control and the motivation to take action will come naturally.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”—Albert Einstein
Our lives can be as simple and our paths as clear as we want them to be. However, it can be easy to get distracted and feel overwhelmed with the apparent chaos of the world we live in.
The good news is there is always a way to get back to the roots. All complexity is based on the most basic details, and if we find a way to focus, we can access that simplicity and be in tune with ourselves and the important things in life.
Whenever you feel overwhelmed with the amount of clutter in your life — objects, people, thoughts, information — you can find peace in knowing that there are tools to help you simplify. All you have to do is be aware of them and be open to letting them change your life.