Improving absorption

There are a number of ways to improve your absorption of the information you are taking in:

Pace yourself

Don’t aim to learn everything all at once, nor even all of one area all at once. Break up what you need to know into discrete pieces, like a jigsaw that you’re going to assemble. Space out your learning over the first month. Organise your days so that you can learn a bit each day about each piece. That way, you are returning to each bit over and over, and increasing your familiarity and comfort with it.

If it’s possible, organise your day so that you’re learning in different ways, for instance, some time reading, meeting people, attending meetings and reviewing notes.

Take good notes

It’s easy to be blasé about notes if you have a good memory and an analytical mind. However, between your team, boss, task and new organisation, it’s easy to find after a couple of weeks that you are starting to ask the same questions over again.

Even if you are able to recite what you’ve learned verbatim, make notes. Particularly note names and job titles (roles tend to stick, exact names and titles tend to fade), and the definitions of any figures (figures tend to stick; their exact meaning tends to fade).

Most importantly, note down any actions and dates, even if they are months ahead. If something doesn’t have a date or a venue yet, put a note in your calendar to remind you to find out the date closer the time.

Keep your energy up

Keep your energy up and stay calm by attending to what your body and brain need. Don’t skip breakfast, take time for lunch, and drink some plain water every time you have a coffee. Keep a supply of potassium-rich bananas in your office to minimise snacking on chocolate or crisps. Walk between floors or buildings, and go home at a reasonable time each evening.

Outside the office, schedule some ‘me’ time, with some exercise, slobbing in front of the TV or a film, or seeing friends. If you take work home, set a deadline beyond which you won’t work at night, and try not to work at the weekend, or you may quickly cause ructions at home, or begin to resent your job. Avoid getting to the point of diminishing returns.

Review what you know

Regular review is key to absorption. If we learn something and then never review it, we tend to let it fade from memory. Information that sticks is information we go on to use regularly. For this reason, if you attended a meeting or had a one-to-one with somebody, write down what you just learned as soon as you can afterwards. If you are reading material, make notes.

Information isn’t always given to us in a format that suits our personality or learning style, so when you are reviewing, change the format of the information into something you feel comfortable with. If you have an analytical mind, you may want to create a spreadsheet or a chart. If you like models, re-express what you know as a model (also a good way to work out what information’s missing). If you work organically, or like brief notes, consider mind-mapping or putting a list of trigger words under headings in the back of your day-book.

Changing the format can also help you absorb, because you will have encountered the information in two different ways. So, if you sketched a diagram in the meeting, add a commentary to it, if you wrote notes, make a mind map. Add colour, add schematics of pictures, reorganise the information into a flow – whatever you need so that the information isn’t just ‘flat’ for you.

If there’s someone you are working with or trust, get that person’s view on the same information and exchange ideas. When writing up notes, create a side column in which you look at the information through another lens. Use the right brain and draw pictures.

Figure out your optimum time of day for absorbing information, so that you’re primed to take in what you’re working on.

Set up a war room

Large amounts of information are more easily absorbed when it can be spread out, and reassembled into a picture. Consider finding space and setting up a war room. You will need a lot of wall-space, as well as the ability to draw links, move things about, stick things on and scribble all over them. This could be your office, unless you would be uncomfortable with others seeing your workings. You could ask for a separate room, or dedicate your spare room or dining room for the first couple of months until you’ve begin to carry the ‘picture’ around in your head – at which time you don’t need it on the wall, too.