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Organizing Information

OK, this is the final and possibly most daunting stage of sorting through your research. It’s important that you design a personalized system to suit your needs, particularly because this can be a low point in the decision-making process. It’s typical to be exhausted from all that research and to be doubting the whole endeavor.

I’ll give you the basics for organizing research with several sound principles. Start with these, and develop it as you go along.

1. Change Your Environment

Get out of your kitchen, office, library, study, or wherever you have been planted during your research. This will both refresh you and get you thinking along new lines. If you have a favorite place to visit, take the weekend off and go there.

2. Expect Conflicting Information

Nothing as complicated as a life choice is going to be laid out for you solely with laboratory-proven facts. You’re going to have different opinions from different experts, and that’s just life. However, some of the conflicts may be caused by the motivation of the writers. Again, access which source is more credible: the CDC’s thirty-year study or Miss Sarah and her anti-vax crusade?

3. Pick Your Tools

This is about your comfort, your goals, and your life. Want to use pen and paper? Go for it. Same with Post-Its and index cards.

If you’d rather use the computer, there are many helpful programs, including Microsoft Office and Google Docs (which thankfully come with their own tutorials). The internet is also full of data-sorting tools. I recommend taking a few for a test drive.

  • Evernote is an intuitive tool that sorts and groups of many types of information (evernote.com).
  • OneNote can be enhanced by a number of third-party apps and integrates well with other Microsoft Office products (onenote.com).
  • Trello, often used in software development, is easy to master (trello.com).

4. Sort

Here’s the hardest part of this stage (but it has a nice pay-off). You need to read through everything and tag it for later reference. In addition to tags specific to your needs, be sure to use these all-purpose tags:

  • Credibility (low, medium, or high?)
  • Detail Level (broad overview or heavily populated with specs and statistics?)
  • Reasonableness (real-life examples from professionals in the field or someone’s conspiracy theory?)
  • Opinion, Science, or Fact?

While this last seems self-explanatory, remember there’s a marked difference between “science” and “fact.” Science is an ever-evolving exploration of the world around us. It is never “done,” never complete (which is why we call them “theories” of relativity and of evolution). A fact can be tested and proven indisputable.

Science explores the cause of gravity. A fact is that objects of different weights fall at the same speed.

5. Study, Take Notes, and Form a Foundation

Now, here’s the best part (and the promised pay-off). While you’re sorting through all this research, your brain is going to be working hard, not just by assessing and tagging, but also by developing opinions of its own. People who complain they can’t think of something to write haven’t done their research. Reading through all those facts and opinions automatically causes you to form your own ideas and arguments, and that’s when you’ll find your energy and your enthusiasm returning.