Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Making Sense

Keeping a commonplace book allows you to systematically capture the best ideas that come from your reading, conversation, and thinking on many topics. While that alone is worth the effort, there’s an even deeper pleasure that awaits you—making sense of it all.

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Take the information you’ve captured and look at it from many angles. Play with it. Massage it. See if you can link ideas in new ways. Look for connections that no one else has seen before.

The result could be a new blog post, book, course, product, service, career, or relationship.

In his book  Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management, William Jones explains two primary ways of taking isolated pieces of information and making sense of them.

“Top down” methods

One option is to create a hierarchy of ideas with the main topic at the top and supporting details at various levels below it. This is the “top down” approach, and there are many ways to do it.

Mind mapping, for example, is a visual way of showing the links between ideas. It’s useful for brainstorming. To create a mind map, take a blank sheet of paper and write your main topic in the center of the page. Circle it. Then write related topics on “spokes” that radiate outward from the center. For examples, see Brett Terpstra’s posts about mind mapping (starting with How I Mind Map).

Concept mapping is another cool option based on research in cognitive psychology. Concept maps look like mind maps, but the main concept sits at the top of the page instead of the center. And instead of connecting concepts with simple lines, you add words to describe the precise links. For the theory of concept mapping, examples, and a free app, see this website from the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition.

Of course, there’s always the classic top-down method for organizing ideas—outlining. Keep in mind that you don’t have to use the traditional outlining format with forbidding levels of Roman numerals, letters, and number. Any method that allows you to create a hierarchy of ideas will work.

For instance, see Workflowy—a robust online outliner that you can use to organize all your project and reference information. Other online outliners are listed here. And if you’re a Mac user, check out Omni Outliner.

There are tons of other top-down approaches. You’ll get more options from my posts on creating a framework for your ideas and writing a message hierarchy.

“Bottom up” methods

The second sense-making method that Jones recommends is something that you already know how to do. Card sorting is one of them:

  • Write down your ideas on index cards—one card for each idea.
  • Sort the cards into piles—one pile for each set of related cards.
  • When you’re done, survey the piles. Each pile represents a specific category or topic.
  • Place the piles in a logical order. Now you have a rough diagram of the structure for your article, book, or presentation.

This is called a “bottom up” method because the main topics emerge only after you sort through a lot of details. In contrast, a top down method starts with the main topic and proceeds through supporting details.

You can use many tools, both digital and analog, to organize information from the bottom up. For examples, see the literature on affinity diagramming. Also see The Sticky Note System for Structuring a Book, Using Your Commonplace Book for Creative Thinking, and Organizing 11,000 Ideas—Here’s How Robert Pirsig Did It.

More options

Experiment with all these techniques, use them in combination, and invent methods of your own. Also check out apps that are based on the various methods.

But remember that there’s a lot you can do with tools that already own—paper and pencil, index cards, sticky notes, office software, and the way you set up files and folders on your computer.

Any tool is simply a path to unlocking your potential for making sense of information and thinking creatively.