Information overload can be a killer to getting actual work done, and can paralyse the best of us. Working in online business and software development means we all need to constantly learn, so handling information overload is really important.
I wanted to write this article about a particular type of information overload I call the learning rabbit hole. Its definitely something I suffer with, and I’ve seen lots of other people struggling with it too.
What is the learning rabbit hole
Whenever you learning or researching how to do something, whether it be online using blogs and tutorials or reading books, you inevitably find topics within the topic you’re primarily concerned with.
These related and sub-topics themselves are usually pretty complicated and have a huge field of study associated with them, so often you end up taking a turn into one of them. What happens next is predictable, the sub-topic has its own set of related and sub-topics, which again have huge field of study…and so on, and so on.
Its like entering into a burrow of tunnels with turns and twists that get you deeper in, and further away from the surface.
The SEO Example
A real world example I have is when some time ago, I started researching search engine optimization to work out how to give a website of mine the best chance of getting found. I entered into this research quite wide eyed and not realizing how distracted I was about to get. I didn’t want to become and SEO expert, I just wanted a way to give my site the best chance I could.
So I started out researching seo, which quickly led me to white and black hat techniques and uses of seo, which then led me to on-site seo, building backlinks, affiliate marketing and content marketing, which then led me to social media marketing, blogging, buying backlinks, guest blogging, email marketing, drop-shipping, writing e-books, marketing automation, e-commerce….really, the list goes on. And each subject just leads to more subjects until you’re totally lost and not answering your original problem.
The truth is if you don’t have a coping mechanism for handling this you can quickly lose focus and end up with either learning paralysis and/or learning drift.
I use the term learning paralysis to describe the state where the thing your researching seems to grow and grow until you have an insurmountable scope of information to absorb. Once this happens you either end up completely paralyzed at the fear of everything you must become an expert in, or the learning bit takes so long that it severely impacts the results you were trying to achieve.
This happens to software developers a lot, where you need to enter into a new arena of development – say for example you want to create a website with .NET.
- So you start learning ASP.NET – you don’t want to miss anything so you research both ASP.NET Web Forms and MVC (first mistake).
- This then leads you into learning associated technologies like Entity Framework and Web API so you also start learning about those too (second mistake).
- You also think, I want people to find this website so I probably need some SEO…..soon your lost!!
Learning paralysis is a killer to actually getting work done, when really you need to focus on learning what you need to get the job done.
Learning drift is similar to learning paralysis in as much as one thing leads to another. But in the case of learning drift you end up unintentionally veering off topic, spending significant time learning something that doesn’t address your original goals.
I think this often comes about due to just being interested in stuff and having an inquisitive personality. I’ve struggled with this, and as I write this out it makes me feel stupid, but its what happened:
- I was creating an app on Android with no clear monetisation option.
- I identified affiliate sales as a potential solution, so I started researching that.
- As I was learning about that I started to get into blogging and affiliate sales.
- This also led me to drop-shipping and e-commerce.
- Which then pushed me towards sourcing products from China and buying ready made e-commerce and drop-shipping sites.
- which finally ended with me researching building e-commerce sites with Shopify and WooCommerce!
I ended up spending A LOT of time looking into these subjects – I mean every day I checked Flippa for a new affiliate or drop-ship site. I started an e-commerce store on Shopify and spent time playing with how to get it up and running. I spent hours, days, maybe weeks on this – when my original goal was ‘look in to affiliate sales to monetise my app’. I’d drifted way off-course, and my app had suffered as a result.
Dealing With Information Overload
I’m in no way an expert on this matter as I still find myself drifting and paralysed vy information quite often. I do however have a few coping mechanisms and practices that definitely help me keep focus, avoid getting overwhelmed and generally handle the whole thing better.
Having goals for your learning exercise is probably the most important of all the things I’ll discuss. For me its not enough to just have the goals, I have to write them down or put them on some kind of task list. Nowadays I generally use Trello where I create a specific card for my learning exercise – I might even create a short checklist in the card of key things I need to cover.
Clearly, having goals for your learning is an obvious thing, and I’ve no doubt we all have them when we start doing something like this. What’s really important is that your goals are specific and relate directly to some outcome you want to achieve. For example, some examples of bad learning goals are:
- Look into Xamarin.Forms
- Research affiliate sales
- Read up on lead generation techniques
The problem here is that they are very general, and don’t realte to a specific outcome. What would be better:
- Work out how to implement Xamarin.Forms in my comic app project
- MVVM framework
- Dependency Injection
- Work out if affiliate sales can work for my app, if so find up to 5 affiliate scheme providers
- Find top 5 lead generation techniques for IT consultancy businesses. (You may then have a follow-on task to research each one)
The idea is:
- Document your goal
- Make it relate to a specific project or personal objective
- Limit the activity, but acknowledge that you may need to follow it up afterwards
Separate ‘Doing’ from ‘Learning’
This may sound really crazy, but I often find myself starting out dig one task like building the wireframe solution for a project, but end up spending the whole day reading and trying to understand the best way to do it. In this situation I’ve drifted from ‘doing’ to ‘learning’, and its important to acknowledge that.
What I try to do to deal with this separate my learning time from my ‘doing’ time. Of course you may have to spend some of your ‘doing’ time looking something up or looking for solutions to specific problems, but don’t drift into some general learning exercise.
If you do drift like this you’ll likely not have goals for the learning, and your focus will be poor. If you need to do some research before tackling a specific task that’s fine, just separate it out in your task list.
Keep a Future Learning List
This is really simple and probably quite obvious, but maintain a list of stuff you need to look into in the future can really help. The idea here is that if you’re learning about one thing but come across something else that you need to consider, rather than drifting into a different topic just write it down and come back to it afterwards. The big benefit here is that you stay on target with your learning goals, but also get identify learning goals for the new topic.
Just Pay Someone
This is one which I’m getting a lot better at, but something that can be difficult for people to do. If you need to do some significant research into video editing in order to create your new apps video, maybe just pay someone to do it for you. Parting with cash for something you’d rather do yourself can be difficult but you have to remember to value your time.
- Is it the best use of your time?
- Will it come in useful in the future?
- Can you even do a good enough job in the timescales?
- Are you just wanting to do it because its a bit different and interesting?
It can be tough to do, but it can also be quite liberating.
The last thing is that I have to constantly remind myself of these few things:
- We’re all imposters: Remember that everybody feels like an imposter sometimes, and that you dont need to know everything in order to do a good job.
- You can’t be an expert in everything: This one speaks for itself but you cabn’t and shouldn’t try to be an expert in everything. It really helps to know a bit about everything, but trying to be an expert in everything is crazy.
- Do a good job now, rather than a perfect job in the future: This one is something that I feel very strongly about…generally speaking its better to do a good job now, rather than taking a ton of time out to do it perfectly in the future. You may disagree, but the key thing here is that you can improve on it in the future, but at least you’ve done something now. Procrastinating over something to try and make it perfect is a sure fire way to never deliver anything.
I read a lot about not trying to learn too much in the past and I always brushed it off, but I’ve come to really understand that its important if you ever want to achieve anything. These are some of the things that you can do to cope with it, I hope you found them useful and interesting.
I’d love to hear your thoughts – do you see learning paralysis/drift as a problem, what do you do to cope with it?