Avoiding being drowned by information

Long before emails were invented, and before the days of the fax and 24/7 news,  in fact the year I first became a headmaster, an older and wiser man gave me an excellent piece of advice.  “Every morning divide the contents of your in-tray into two piles… one for the important items, and the other for the urgent.  Deal first with the important, and by the evening most of the urgent problems will have been solved by somebody else.”  What wise advice, but oh so hard to follow now that the in-tray has been replaced by emails arriving at any hour, and with a media hyping-up every issue to create a sense of crisis.

Most people are neither super-human, nor work-dodgers.  We each want to do a reasonable job whilst most have never heard of the poet W.M. Davis they would readily agree “What is life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare.”  In the world we have built around us “to stand and stare” suggests to many that we aren’t working hard enough and so have spare capacity to undertake something else.  That is a dangerous assumption, for if we don’t regularly take stock of where we are, we get into enormous muddles.

Four important documents have recently landed on my desk; the White Paper, “Your Child, your Schools and our Future;” the Nuffield Foundation’s Report on Education for 14-19-year-olds entitle  “Education for All”; “Every Family Matters” from the Centre for Social Justice, and most recently, Alan Milburn’s “Unlocking Aspiration”.  With a total of some 750 pages of text, how do I stop myself being drowned in such an ocean of information?  How do I decide which parts of these carefully nuanced words may be important for the long-term, and what are only of passing significance?  Long ago I had to escape from my English A Level teacher’s insistence that I start at the beginning and read carefully through to the end of every text.  I still do that, of course, with a novel, but such reports are different – in essence they are setting out the case for a particular course of action which they wanted to pursuade me to adopt.

Here my knowledge of the human brain is handy.  At its most basic the brain is a survival mechanism; it takes in all kinds of information, analysises it to see whether or not this means that I need to change my thinking, and then decides what action to take.  Further, as a survival mechanism, the brain is quick to alert me to when someone is trying to manipulate me.  But I have to be careful; the brain is loaded with ‘crap detectors’ that automatically disregard anything it thinks I’m not interested in.  I have to watch this carefully because my assumptions of time passed can all too easily block out things that I now need to think about.

I won’t study any of those reports line-by-line.  Early in the morning, when my brain is fresh (and refusing to accept incoming phone calls or read new faxes), I will analysis each in turn to see how such ideas challenge, or reinforce, my present thinking.  That’s hard.  Having just written the Parliamentary Paper I will obviously see how these new ideas fit within the framework that I have already created to hold such a parcel of ideas together.

Time to stand and stare is a necessity, not a luxury.  The moment you find yourself doing something (which could be done by somebody else) instead of thinking through a difficult issue, you know you should backtrack.  Thinking is often not immediately as interesting or attractive as doing something, so always give thinking the priority it needs.

See Parts Seven and Eight of Briefing Paper