One of the first tasks that anyone who is determined to overcome information overload is an unexpected one. The first task to take (just after you have decided to overcome information overload) is to set some boundaries. Why boundaries? Let me tell you a story.
I work with lots of PhD candidates, and I enjoy it very much. It’s fun working with people who are pushing the edges of knowledge through their research. But there is always one question that comes up, “How do I get this thing done when there are so many questions that need to be answered?” This kind of statement reflects the widening of their circle of understanding. As we widen the circle of understanding, the edge of new knowledge just gets bigger. And it is natural to begin to see all manner of new questions.
The candidate’s mind moves out and out, and the dissertation gets bigger and bigger. Suddenly the candidate, in an attempt to cover an impressive amount of territory, is overwhelmed with the breadth of the topic. Lacking the experience or training to create her own limits, she needs someone to impose discipline and focus the topic to a targeted goal. This is when I tell the candidates a great secret to writing a dissertation. I tell them, “When a new question comes to mind, ask yourself if is part of your original question. (Every dissertation is in search of answers to “the question” defined as the purpose of the dissertation.)
If it is, then you must deal with it. BUT, there are many more questions that are not part of the original ‘question.’ At this point, make note of the question where you won’t forget it. Then as you are writing the last chapter of your dissertation, list all of the questions that you didn’t answer there.” By listing the questions that come to mind but are not dealt with, the candidate shows some interesting questions that can be researched in the future, and it shows that they thought of them even if they chose not to deal with them in the dissertation. Neat. Everyone is happy, and the dissertation gets done.
With this approach, the dissertation is more likely to be successful and depth within the chosen topic becomes possible. The candidate has moved from feeling imprisoned by her boundless surroundings to feeling free to begin an efficient and effective writing process, working within a well-chosen container.
No one I know argues against setting goals, but many clamor when I suggest that with goals come limits. They get over it when I explain that limits change – they grow or shrink, are permeable, and disappear altogether when the goal is achieved. Limits are meant to serve goals, not frustrate achievement. Limits are the container, the vessel in which your learning occurs – the vessel that will take you to your destination.
Photo by Henry Burrows