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How accurately can you assess information when there are a myriad of angles to consider? How do you organize your thoughts to arrive at the best possible conclusion? Sometimes we seem to be talking in circles unable to arrive at any essential decisions or courses of action. This is a phenomenon that is common to all of us, and it is often a byproduct of trying to hold too many pieces of information in working memory while simultaneously trying to draw conclusions about that information.
Did you know that once you reach the human capacity of 4,5,6 or even 7 units, your mental clipboard is full so you need to shift something into long term memory in order to make room for more information? The problem is, once you move something into long-term memory, it becomes subject to subliminal influences such as emotion and biases. So when it is retrieved, it is unlikely to be a copy of the original thought or piece of data. These are the very real shortcomings of brain’s working memory.
So what are the practical implications of this limitation? In the complex world we live in today, there are more pieces of information and more choices than ever before. How do you plan and make decisions when the number of variables to consider continues to expand? There are several strategies that can be used and I’d like to share a few of them here:
1. Card sorts: Card sorts are an effective way to evaluate information. One strategy is to separate the cards into 2 piles of “this but not that”, or “applies, does not apply.” Or card sorts can be sequenced in order of most to least based on a given parameter. The possibilities are actually quite endless. The key is to know what outcome you are seeking for it will dictate how you sort the information. An added benefit of card sorts is that you can manipulate the information endlessly without having to erase or start the process over if you change your mind.
2. Mind maps: Mind maps are a way to visually map out information. There is usually a central theme with subsequent thoughts and ideas stemming from that. Mind maps help an individual see connections that may not be accessible when trying to keep information in working memory. An additional benefit is that mind maps can also encourage creativity by allowing divergent thinking to happen and to be harnessed.
3. Visual Overviews: Visual overviews are a way to organize information so that the pieces work in concert with each other. Some of the essential components of an overview might be our the current scenario (e.g., economic environment) our values, our capabilities (skills, tools etc…), and our desired outcome/impact. With an overview, the pieces are laid out in a way that they reinforce each other and inform each other. This is not a manual written over several pages but a visual schemata of these variables. A couple of the many advantages of an overview are that it helps an individual be creative within a central focus and, from a team perspective, it helps members of a team coordinate forces in a harmonious way.
Working memory is the capacity to hold several ideas or units of information in mind, and manipulate and analyze these parts. Unfortunately, the capacity itself is rather limited and it also uses a considerable amount of brain energy. The answer to this dilemma is to have the units outside of the mind and into a written or symbolic format. It’s even better if you can physically manipulate the information. The key is to free brain energy that can be used for analysis, planning, problem solving and other higher level functions instead of trying to do it all in your head. I’ve listed 3 strategies here in this blog. What techniques do you use?