Monday, January 2, 2012

Finding New Knowledge in Current Places

One of the things I started doing during my Christmas/New Years break (still on it, today is the last day), I made a decision to go through my bookshelf and see what books I have never read. I was surprised to find that I had quite a few items that fit this list. This is not the "I agreed to review these titles and I am going to review them in the coming weeks" list, these are titles that I have had for years and have never opened.

Some of these were gifts. Some were titles I had to pick up for a class I took but never got to (and never really "needed" for the class anyway). Some were handed off to me by others who no longer needed them and I saw some potential future value in them. What they all have in common is this; I thought they would be worthwhile, but never cracked their potential. What these represent is a body of knowledge that is effectively a door stop, and nothing more. It's two cubic feet of processed tree product and a cup of ink. More than anything else, though, it's a displacement of space. That's harsh, but I think it's important to make this point... books do not do anything if you do not actually open them and read them.

I have lots of books that I've read a few chapters of, got the core value out of, and saw that there might be things I could use later on. I have a couple of Home Repair books that meet this criteria. Let's face it, I'm not going to be rewiring my bathroom tomorrow, but if I need to do it (and decide I have the ability and the equipment to make sure I can do a good and "to code" job), then I know where to go to reference that information. This book has value to me, because I know what's in it. This book is what I referred to as an "evergreen reference". It's an evergreen reference because I have read it and I know what the value points are. I have several cook books, though, that I've looked at the cover, seen the pictures, and done absolutely nothing with. I'm talking about years worth of nothing. Why do I keep them? Because I think that, maybe, I'll find some use from them, someday, but not right now. At what point do we say "this has exceeded its real shelf life, and I am really not going to ever use this"?

Often, we fall into a "sunk cost fallacy" when we buy a book or when we are given a book. We or someone else invested in this title on our behalf. We feel obligated to keep it. If we don't, we're throwing money away. The sunk cost fallacy is that the item has value just by its existing. It doesn't. The value is only unlocked if we actually use it. If it truly has no value to us, then "liberate" the title so someone else can get the value of it. The money has already been spent either way. The cost has already been realized. Only we can decide if those titles (or anything, really) is worth pursuing further or seeing if we can get more value out of it.

So what is my solution to this? It's simple. It's called my "15 Minutes a Day Reference Review Chain". I've added to my Goals List the goal of reviewing every single title in my bookshelf for a set period of time in a given day. Fifteen minutes, on a timer, and in that fifteen minutes, I go through a book, and I make a three point decision:

1. Do I have any use for this book today? If so, what can I apply here and now from this book?

2. Will I have a use for this book in the near term future (near term in my world view is 90 days) or can I realistically picture there being value in the title should there be a need for it in those 90 days (see example above regarding wiring of an electrical outlet)?

3. Do I see there being no chance of my using this information in any way, shape or form, for my self or any member of my family, in the long term (long term in my world view is 5 years or more)?

Each day, I do the same thing for a different book. Obviously, if I can answer yes for #1, it goes into "immediate rotation" which means it's no longer a dead reference, but a live active title to do something more with (read a chapter, work on a problem, make a model based on the information, etc.). If it's a number 2 "yes", then it goes to the bottom of the pile, and I see if I actually hit it in the time period (just cause I'm geeky that way and want to see if I really will). If I get through #3, and I've answered "no" across the board, it goes into a box in the garage (and I make a list of what goes in there and keep the list in an easy to find place). I give myself a "mea culpa" buffer of 90 days once a title hits the box. If in those 90 days I have not re-considered, then my local library gets a new title for their shelves. Now, someone else can take advantage of knowledge that I have actively decided I do not need.

Note, this approach requires active review of each title. I have to physically read through each book, at least in a skimmed manner,  and I have to make a decision. This way, I really evaluate every title I own on a regular interval, and in the process, I may find that I cover a lot of ground, learn a lot of things from sources I otherwise might never have considered, and I make a true and objective evaluation of the value of the titles I actually have. What I've already discovered from this process is that I have a ton of hidden knowledge already in my hands that is just sitting there, waiting to be discovered.

How about you? What do you have waiting in your bookshelf that can help you right here and right now? It could be cooking better, it could be a book on wilderness survival, but somewhere you may be able to find something to relate to your current needs and skill set in things you already have. Do some digging, and give yourself fifteen minutes a day in what you already have. I'll keep you updated on what I discover in the two cubic feet of paper that is now next to my door (there so I literally trip over it whenever I walk into my office :) ).


Anonymous said...

In terms of books, it is mainly books about software testing, a couple of books about cooking that I recently got for Xmas.

I also need to read more fiction just to allow my mind to go to far off lands.

I've just rid of about 4 crates of books so that I could focus on the subjects and titles that I really need. It pained me but it had to be done.

Bernice Niel Ruhland said...

I am guilty of collecting far too many books as I become so attached to every single one of them. My business, software testing, recipes, and fiction books. I did donate many books this year and I used a similar system to Michael's but not as thought out - which I think is useful. But my bookcase still has books that fall off of it... plus new cookbooks were received as Christmas gifts... sigh... but I did get a Kindle for new fiction books so that helps the load! Yep I admit it. I am a hoarder of books!