Can’t see the wood for the trees?

I thought I’d share how people chunk information and why it would be useful to understand this, but the more I’ve worked on it the more complicated it has become.  I started off with a clear idea of what I wanted to say and began to map it out.  Then other ideas jumped up and started shouting at me that they were just as important.  I’ve got to the point where I can’t even remember why I wanted to write about this topic.  I now feel under pressure to produce something and quite frankly a bit overwhelmed, which was sort of the original purpose of wanting to write about chunking.  So what was it I actually wanted to achieve in the first place?

I wanted to talk about how people sort information into different sized chunks which they can comfortably digest.  Specifically because I think that understanding this makes a difference when we feel overwhelmed. It means that we can try organising our thoughts in different sized chunks and see if that helps us get greater clarity and opens up choices.

Some people are happier with big chunks of information and others prefer the detail of smaller chunks.  There is no right or wrong with this, we are all different and most of us will move flexibly between the two most of the time.  (In NLP this is one of the meta-programmes of behaviour).

George Miller’s work suggested that we tend to chunk (or group) information by:

  • deleting bits that don’t seem important to us,
  • distorting things to make them fit in with other things we know and
  • by generalising.

Whilst this means we lose a lot of detail it does mean that as we chunk up into bigger categories we can cope with a wider range of information.

Just for a moment let’s think about this.  If I have a very strong preference for big picture thinking and someone starts to explain something in lots of detail I’m going to get pretty overwhelmed and before long find myself distracted and not able to focus.  Conversely for the person who needs lots of detail to feel comfortable, me coming along and saying something like “Can you get me some figures, sort of soonish for the meeting next week” would leave them with their head in their hands.

So how about an experiment? Part 1: Listen to what you are saying over the next week, how you structure it and what words are you using?  Do you use a lot of detail and specifics?  Or do you tend to present information as an overview, in summary, in less detail?  Do you tell a story or do you stick to the highlights?

Experiment Part 2: Next time you are feeling stress listen to yourself and your thinking – what is happening to your chunk sizes?

If you find yourself unable to say anything other than “It’s just terrible” or “I’ll never be able to find my way through this”.  It probably just feels too bit to get to grips with.  How about chunking it down to get a bit of detail that you can work with?  What specifically is terrible?  What is ‘this’ made up of?  (Make a list). How does this work? Who else is involved?  Where does this happen, when does this happen?  The questions are endless – it’s like detective work.  Then when you have some more detail check out what will be happening when it’s not terrible or you have found your way through it – what is your goal – what do you want?  Then look again, you’ll find new options and a way forward, a first step.

And if you find yourself drowning in detail start to chunk up; ask yourself – which bits can I get rid of, which bits are like other bits and what can I put together under a more general heading.  Now have another look, check that the outcome you were seeking is still relevant and then see what options for action you have now.

I wonder how it works for you and what happens when you change the chunk sizes.  As for me, the minute I asked myself ‘what am I actually trying to achieve here’ I felt more focussed and able to silence all those other ideas – for now.

Photo by libookperson