The rabbit hole is a delightful metaphor. It describes all manner of cognitive spelunking, from the exploratory to the imaginative to the downright bizarre.
The origins of the metaphor are, of course, courtesy of Lewis Carroll. In his decidedly fantastical telling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, within the first chapter he has ushered his heroine into the aforementioned lagomorphic portal, in pursuit of the white rabbit (who, like many of us, is seemingly late a good deal of the time). Rabbit hole, in this context, is an entry to an imaginary place where all manner of strange and inexplicable adventures ensue.
While rabbit hole as literary transport is one thing, the term has found far greater relevance to our behaviours navigating the vast expanse of time and space known as the internet. It is a reference to the profound ease with which we can find ourselves investigating all manner of pursuits, spanning a spectrum of intellectual curiosity that ranges from deep exploration to mindless consumption. (If you would like a side helping of rabbit hole with your exploration of rabbit holes, I offer this delightful and hilarious narrative for your reading pleasure).
You might find yourself down the rabbit hole learning a programming language, shopping for appliances, answering a trivia question about the TV series you are currently binge-watching, understanding why “lb.” is an abbreviation for pound, or researching the names of all seven Three Stooges (for yes, there are indeed that many). Of late, many have also been circumnavigating rabbit holes with much darker features through the companion phenomenon of doomscrolling (and please, I beseech you, stop reading the comments).
The wonder of the internet is that it caters to a myriad of topics and obsessions, providing virtually limitless opportunities for exploration and the loss of whole days (and evenings, and nights, and weekends). Pick a subject, and you will encounter vast resources, from instructional guidance to cautionary tales, most often with a healthy dose of commentary, sarcasm and outright snark along the way.
The essence of “going down the rabbit hole” is that the attempt to answer any given question results in exponentially greater numbers of queries, tangents, perspectives and side quests. Many of us emerge blinking in the twilight to discover that hours have passed and the nature of your initial inquiry has transmogrified into something altogether different, if no less interesting. That may be painting an extreme view, but safe to say that we’ve all been there.
The rabbit hole need not be a completely unproductive place, however. There are times when we set ourselves on a journey of discovery because we are genuinely curious and wanting to learn. The most visible of my recent quests has been the study of note taking (and I promise that I am using this as illustration, not as an opportunity to sneak in yet another post on the topic).
That particular journey did not involve one single rabbit hole, of course. There was an entire subterranean warren. From a general take on note taking to a specific examination of the slip-box method of Luhmann to the pros and cons of trying to make sense of the world and commit our observations to writing in the first place. Companion searches explored various bits of software, navigating from developers to reviewers to instructional resources. All with the goal of emerging with a sense of a solution that might work for me.
There have been other rabbit holes that I haven’t written about in recent weeks, also. I know a great deal more about iron filters, water softeners, household plumbing, drinking water chemistry and appropriate treatment techniques than I did in October. I have also indulged an investigation of fountain pens, and while I have resisted the temptation to acquire yet another, I count myself more familiar with manufacturing techniques, nib shapes, ink composition and storage, and the appropriate maintenance, care and feeding of all of the above.
Our perambulations can be procrastination (pens) or they can be instructive (water filtration). Occasionally, they are both, and my circumnavigation of all things note taking arguably sits firmly in the centre of the Venn diagram defined by those two categories. Not all exploration is bad, and not all rabbit holes are unproductive; it is a question of when we embark on an exploration, why we do it and how we accomplish it.
Now, if you don’t want helpful guidance to interfere with your research, by all means abandon reading here. Far be it for me to interrupt your deliberate distractions with structure, relevance and meaning. But if you would like to your excursions to be a little bit more productive and meaningful, then please read on.
What I’ve come to appreciate about how I approach research is that it’s not always particularly efficient. It is also somewhat surprising how late in life I have come to that understanding. I could justify this with the excuse that it allows random serendipitous discoveries to proffer themselves for my attention, but that is exactly how rabbit holes become, well, rabbit holes. We start out looking for one thing, and become distracted by myriad other insights and findings along the way.
For the most part, I allow myself to explore broadly (accumulating far more information than is strictly necessary for the problem at hand). Interestingly, the nature of this particular issue isn’t one of approach per se, so much as lack of an impulse control to stop the search and figure out what I’ve already found. Getting better at this doesn’t just improve our personal pursuits, but also helps us manage our projects, research strategic options and develop meaningful deliverables.
Learning, problem solving and decision making share common thinking modes amongst them. Divergent thinking expands exploration, opening up options and gathering greater perspective. Convergent thinking then distills down discoveries into relevant insights or practical choices. The broadening out of divergence gives you options; the narrowing down of convergence makes sense of things of what you’ve found, and what you want to do with it.
Where most of us run into trouble is in how we manage divergence, and I am certainly no exception. What I have observed as behaviour is that a search for any given topic results in a mildly chaotic frenzy of tab-opening, to the internal narrative of “Oh, that looks interesting. That one, too. And this might have a few insights to offer also.” While this is a hallmark of divergent behaviour, it is one that lacks boundaries and guardrails.
A more appropriate and useful strategy involves addressing a couple of specific questions in advance. Firstly—and while this should be obvious it is all too frequently overlooked—be clear about the question you are trying to answer, the problem you are trying to solve or the topic that you are trying to learn more about. Craft that as an objective statement. If need be (and taking notes as you go will be useful) actually write it down.
The second and equally important question to consider is identifying what constitutes a meaningful and reliable source in answering the question. What are trustworthy resources? What kind of information are you looking for, and who would be the most appropriate source in finding an answer. You may not know the answer to this by name or site, but identifying a general category can be helpful. If you want reviews of a television set, you might limit this to credible consumer research organizations, or at least to well-respected audio-visual publications. Being clear about the preferred source of information helps to winnow through all of the advertising-as-fake-review sites that might otherwise distract you.
A refinement on this strategy is to use divergence and convergence in waves. In other words, don’t open up virtually every potentially interesting site on the first five pages of Google search results (please, do as I say, not as I do). Start with a representative sampling. If your search is specific, that might be two or three (or hopefully no more than five) pages. If your question is broader and exploratory, then perhaps the first ten pages is a good place to start. The point is, draw a line, and make it earlier than your natural tendencies might otherwise indulge.
Take the time to read what you find. Assess what is meaningful and useful, and separate (but don’t yet necessarily discard) what is distracting or less relevant. As well as reviewing the content, review how the content relates to so far to what you are trying to accomplish in your stated objective. What pages were more valuable, and which ones weren’t? How might you refine your search going forward? To the extent that more information or perspective is valuable, then use these insights to guide and refine your search approach going forward.
You can use these insights to progressively expand and refine your search, until you’ve found the information of relevance. How you subsequently manage this depends on you and your systems. My tendency now is to capture useful resources to PDF files (meaning they continue to be reference sources, and I don’t have to go back down the rabbit hole once again when I want to revisit the search, unless my objective is to refresh content or explore what has changed since last time). If you want to stop short of that level of acquisitiveness, you might bookmark the pages, save them to a reader application like Instapaper or Pocket, or save the files in something like Evernote.
From there, distill down, but do so actively. Take notes of what you learn. Identify additional questions that the material raises (and decide whether exploring those questions is pertinent to your current inquiry, or food for a future search at a later date). Identify contradictions or disagreements, and in doing so consider the source of each perspective. Tempting as it might be, you don’t have to pick sides—at least, not yet. Disagreements and divergent views can lead to different answers whose conflicts need to be understood, or even a third way of proceeding.
As you take notes of what you learn and the insights you gain, also keep track of the sources that led you there. You might presume that what you read will continue to be retained in the grey matter of your brain (or worse, that it is all common sense anyway). Doing so runs the risk of reading and re-reading many times over to find references you know you have seen, or undertaking the whole search again at some future date when you are finally ready to do something with the information.
Finally, take the time to capture what you’ve found, your reactions to it and where you should go next. While the material is fresh and the insights are new, think about what additional actions—now or in the future—are relevant to moving forward. Categorizing these actions can be helpful; make distinctions between what you need to do now to make a decision, what you need to do next once you have made a decision, and what you may consider doing someday in the future that is inspired by your search, but not specifically related to the topic at hand.
Rabbit holes are fascinating and intriguing places to explore. They can entertain and enlighten, and they can bewilder and baffle. If your interest is diving to the depths of the internet and pursuing what tangents present themselves, by all means do so. That can be an entertaining distraction, and has been the source of a wealth of relatively useless but nonetheless retained and strategically deployed trivia. If what you seek is specific knowledge or insight around relatively well-defined questions, a more strategic and deliberate exploration of the rabbit hole might be more appropriate. Caveat lepus; let the bunny beware.
Michael Hilbert says
Thanks for the insight on rabbit holes. We have all been there and I am sure will revisit them again. Maintaining focus and direction are the (difficult) keys to staying on point. However an occasional trip down the hole may be what we need from being too overloaded. Climbing back out and getting on track is the hard part.
Have a Great Holiday Season!
Mark Mullaly says
Many thanks, Mike. You are absolutely right that a random distraction can be just the thing we need, as long as we don’t stay down the hole too long or lose the ability to retrace our steps to the surface. This week, I explore a similar challenge, mostly around what occasionally prompts us down the rabbit hole.
Take care as well!