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5 Keys to Simplifying Any Concept

Photo by Bruno Monginoux

We live in a world ruled by information. Much of our lives are involved with the consumption of information. We read the newspaper in the morning. We sit in meetings at work. We check our email every hour. We read billboards on the highway while driving home. We watch the news on television. We surf the internet and check blogs. Our minds become so full of information that the words become noise. We feel tired from the constant demand on our attention; at work, at home, on weekends. More is not less. Less is more. Clarity is more. Personally, when I am hit with a lot of information, my mind shuts-off and I move on to the next thing. To be heard and understood, it is vital to keep things simple.

The ability to simplify any concept is an incredibly valuable skill in this information rich society. Not only is conciseness a vital skill in business, but in any and all communication. It demonstrates clarity of thought. It allows you to communicate information and ideas to be easily digested and understood.

But how do we distill information down to just the most important parts? My dear friend David Margolis is an expert at simplifying information. I recently asked him, “What are your suggestions to becoming a master at distilling information?” Here are the most important points from that conversation:

1. Find the Pattern – Make a habit to look for patterns in words and pictures. For example, if you picked up a copy of a new magazine, you will not notice any patterns apart of its style consistency. But if you saw the last 12 copies of the same magazine, you will start to notice patterns.

2. Capture the Essence – Pick out the main points and key principles. Try reading 100 pages of a book and pretend that you had to explain it to a large audience, in only a few sentences. This is a good practice to help simplify your thoughts. I do this with every personal development book I read. After each chapter, write down one sentence that clearly exemplifies and captures the meaning of the chapter.

3. Ask Questions – Be proactive as you read or listen by asking yourself questions. Some example questions might be:

  • What are the most important points here?
  • What is the author trying to say?
  • What are the conclusions?

4. Find What Jumps Out – Take note of what leaps off the page. Be sensitive to and feel what resonates with you. What would you highlight if you had a highlighter? What points do you feel will be helpful to know and valuable to pass on? What were the ‘ah-hah!’ moments you experienced while reading it?

5. Consume More Information – I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but the more information we consume, the better get at filtering for what truly matters. Similar to finding patterns, this one is more to do with practice. Here’s what David said:

“Read voraciously, listen to audio books and attend conferences – after a while you’ll start to notice the same messages filtering thru everyone’s book or talk – those are the most important points – the ones that universally keep cropping up

When I read my first book about the law of attraction, 100% of the info was new to me. The next book I read, 80% of the material was new. The next one I read, 60% of the information was new. These days only 2-5% of the info is new. You know the key information and supporting info and while we’re always open to learning – there’s a shift from books to real life experiences that help to apply the theory

What do you think? Do you find it challenging to simplify information? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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About the author

Tina Su is a mom, a wife, a lover of Apple products and a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) for our motivational community: Think Simple Now. She is obsessed with encouraging and empowering people to lead conscious and happy lives. Subscribe to new inspiring stories each week. You can also subscribe to Tina on Facebook.

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36 thoughts on 5 Keys to Simplifying Any Concept

  1. Armannd

    In my analysis, 5 keys are overkill. :) 2 would have been just enough and simple to remember…

    Here’s why: no pattern can be found without capturing the essence and no essence can be captured without consuming more information. This means that all of these 3 points (consume more information, capture the essence and find the pattern) are included in one: finding the pattern.
    And discovering what jumps out of the page can’t be done without asking questions. So asking questions is included in finding out what jumps out of the page.

    From 5 keys, we’re down to 2: finding the pattern and finding out what jumps out of the page (out of the pattern). :)

  2. Repetition, re-exposure and new perspectives tend to validate the information we retain and the newly learned skills we master Tina. I see the merit in these implementing these five skills, especially their utilization at a subconscious level. Learning then seems to be more natural.

  3. Excellent Post. I recently disovered that mind mapping is an excellent tool for clarifying complicated concepts as well. Mindmapping forces you to pick out keywords that link to other keywords. The keywords used in your mindmap will trigger related ideas or information. You can master any subject or career by following the steps in your article. Thanks again for the great information.

  4. This is so fascinating. My life is so hectic and ever-moving, it’s great to read these thoughts on distilling everything. We don’t NEED all this crap in our heads. I really love these thoughts…

  5. Hi Tina,

    I like the example on reading. When I first started reading personal development books, everything was new and fascinating to me. As I read more, the patterns started to form.

    This is also related to experiential knowledge where Masters of any domain can easily pick out the nuance of an issue. Whereas a novice is totally blind to these hidden pitfalls or considerations.

    I face these all the time at my work. This is even more apparent when I’m training new team members. They display a lot of blind spots to issues at work or in a project; an experienced team member can straight away see a pattern out of the situation.

    This is a very fresh topic, and I like it. Thanks for sharing.

    @Armannd: I love the way you just simplified Tina’s 5 steps. Very apt comment for the topic of simplification.

    Having said that, it’s going to be a challenge for Tina’s readers to understand/apply if there’s just 2 steps, isn’t it?

  6. Eric Liao

    Thanks! It’s great tips and I will apply it.

  7. Armannd

    Hi Lawrence, I’m really glad you enjoyed my simplified, essential version.

    I strongly believe that anyone who reads these tips and then applies them to simplify this very article will arrive to the same conclusion as I did. That would be proof that people really use what they read. :)

    In my case, the ability to simplify is a native skill, one that is both good and bad. Why is it bad? One example: when writing, I am usually able to express my ideas in only a few quick sentences and even if people believe they love simplicity, 3-4 sentences is considered to be *too* simple… so I have to work harder, to make the ideas more complicated. :)

    To answer your question, Lawrence, I think that understanding and applying these tips *it will* be a challenge for some… I love what Tina has done with this article, even if she’s done it unconsciously: one can’t apply these tips in life unless one applies them here first.

  8. Hi Tina, great article. This is what we have to do in this crazy world. I certainly agree with your and David’s points. I think i have been doing that unconsciously for about 2-3 years, but i liked to see from your article that there is some logic behind that :) Looking forward to see your next article…

  9. I found starting from a point of stillness and relaxation goes a long way to absorbing any information that is being conveyed.

    The idea of “and”, that’s the key I found to keeping things simple. Don’t have to stress myself out trying to choose ‘or’.

    I also come from the persepctive that if what is presented is not integrated, I don’t even bother with it. Random thoughts associated in ways where nothing makes any sense is a waste of my time to even try to integrate into any understanding

    If reasoning isn’t there in the first place, I’m not taking on the responsibility of making sense out of it.

    We can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

  10. In this day and age I find myself reading, learning and absorbing more information each and every day. This can get incredibly overwhelming at times. You point out some critical ideas in your post that for me highlight the importance of organising information into chunks, and filtering through these chunks in ways that bring to light what is most relevant and useful to my life at this very moment.

    To learn and take in new information is a lost cause if one isn’t able to apply it in the present.

  11. The law of attraction is truly amazing. Just yesterday, I was reading a book by Harry Beckwith. “What a Client Wants” is the title I think. Anyway, the author is a big proponent of the clarity of communication and states that we will be heard, understood and considered an authority when we learn to simply state our ideas in as few words as possible. It’s great advice that I am trying to implement. Thanks for the great article.

  12. I love point number 2.

    It helps (at least for me) :)

  13. hey tina, love your website’s content and layout. i’m into personal growth too, as you will see from my site. i find these five steps to understanding concepts novel. keep it up!

  14. Hey Tina,

    Nice article. For me, Point 1 is what I always do. Every book/article has an essence and the whole book revolves around it. When you find that all the information are consistently supporting an idea, you have found the essence.


  15. Nice things to gather up… I read them but am not sure if I’ll be applying them to perfection. I am reading and gathering a lot of information lately and true, majority is absorbed scrambled up. I need to be systemmatic as u suggest but its hard to change.Thanks for the article though, I now know what exactly is, and what exactly must be.

  16. Great article, Tina! I love the idea of writing a one sentence summary of each chapter. I think I will start doing that.

  17. Great article.. I developed this habit of summarizing anything I read after I go thru a book from Dale Carnegie. It helps a lot to remember them for long and implement the essence in your daily life. :)

  18. Chris Sharp

    Hello Tina, Thank you for these 5 key steps. #4 is an interesting one to explore. When you have an “ah-ha” moment, sometimes it occurs when reading something way back when or even yesterday. then re-reading it again. Time has passed and you’re a different person from one experience to the next. Suddenly, lights turn on. “So that’s what it means!” I find it useful to re-read the same book or concept, etc. as much as possible. You’re reading 0% new material, but you’ve experientially integrated something. Now suddenly, what didn’t fit into your consciousness when you read it the first, second, third time, now clicks; or, you’ve caught something new that was transparent before.

    From the last sentence, “You know the key information and supporting info and while we’re always open to learning – there’s a shift from books to real life experiences that help to apply the theory“. When I read that, I’m reminded of the ReSurfacing workbook of the Avatar course that Harry Palmer developed; where he refers to the difference between the ‘word lessons’ and ‘world lessons’.

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