Sunday, April 18, 2010

Encode This

Did you know that the human brain’s short-term memory can only store 5-9 things at once?  What a relief, we’re not losing our minds!

I’m reading a book I’m very excited about:  Getting Organized in the Google Era: how to get stuff out of your head, find it when you need it, and get it done right by Douglas C. Merrill.  Merrill is the former CIO of Google. He has a Ph.D. in cognitive science from Princeton University.  He was Senior VP at Charles Schwab and Co. and an information scientist at RAND Corp.  Oh, and he has dyslexia, so if you’ve got reasons why you can’t deal with information overflow, you’ve got nothing on him.

This book is brilliant.  It is also exactly what I need at a time in my life where I’m having enormous challenges aligning my desire to simplify my life with the increasing complexities of said life, and the staggering volume of information I intake and try to manage personally and professionally. I’ve been giving a lot of spiritual consideration to how to cope, but this book offers excellent practical tools.

Things are all off kilter.  I can recall arcane bits of information from the past as well as volumes of work-related data of late, yet sometimes I can’t recall the word I’m searching for as a sentence is coming out of my mouth. Like many of my generation I joke nervously about possible reasons that in fact are deadly scary, like early onset Alzheimer’s.  However, I’ve had enough conversations with doctors to know that most of us, me included, are not suffering from any disease except the disease of stress.  Throw in a few hormonal issues here and there and you’ve got a recipe for forgetfulness.

So with all this information coming at us from every direction, how do we figure out what to keep and what to toss? (Yes, it’s mental decluttering.)  Here’s where Merrill’s book comes in.   The basic answers are filtering and encoding (storing for long-term memory).  He talks about how our brains work and how search engines—especially Google (which he hastens to add he is not a stockholder in)—work, and what we can and can’t expect to retain and access and use efficiently in our heads, on paper and digitally.  It might surprise you to know he comes down on the side of paper sometimes.  Also surprisingly he has tons of paper on his desk, and to manage that he uses a sophisticated system of—piles.

Merrill is not offering one-size-fits-all solutions.  But as computer-savvy a 53-year-old layperson as I think of myself, I learned a lot about more ways I could be using Google and the Internet to make my life simpler.  Like folders.  In classic inside-the-box thinking, when I moved the bulk of my communications and information accessing and storage to the computer, just as I had been wonderfully organized with paper filing systems, now I set up elaborate filing systems in both my email and my Word documents using digital folders.  When I moved to Gmail, I discovered the magic of labels, instead, and was released from my remaining perfectionist tendencies by the realization that even if I didn’t label and categorize, I would still always be able to find anything I wanted!  And contrary to things I’d been hearing for years (especially from proponents of Outlook) cautioning against using your Inbox as your filing system, I have been doing just that on Gmail—a system Merrill recommends, too.   

Merrill writes in a very easy-to-read engaging style, not tech-speak—your eyes will not glaze over.  My only complaint is that, with the exception of a useful sidebar on password creation, he doesn’t address the very real security concerns people have about all of their information being in “the cloud.”

Merrill puts a name on the increasingly stressing aspect of my work, which I just refer to (distastefully) as multitasking—“context shifts”—and calls them out as mentally draining and depleting (I would add psychically, spiritually and physically, too.)  He offers strategies for managing both voluntary and involuntary context shifts, in how you structure your day, try to prevent distractions, use note-taking as a tool, participate in meetings (YUCK—there go wasted hours of my life I’ll never get back!) and sleep.

Like many other thinkers I’ve been reading recently, Merrill urges us to leave behind the concept of “work/life balance” as our goal (he calls it “a mirage), but rather try to integrate the two.  I still am somewhat resistant to that concept though I admit it does conform more to the realities of modern life.  I’m experimenting with it…any readers out there have thoughts on this debate?

“[R]esolve to use paper or digital tools based on authentic goals for the information you receive or record, not on emotional attachments, engrained habits, generational preferences, or fears.  If you truly want to be more efficient, challenge the ways you’ve been organizing the information in your world and open yourself to new ways of doing it.”
                                                                                Douglas C. Merrill

1 comment:

  1. a sophisticated system of piles? Is that what I can call it? I think this book might be helpful, but first I'd have get through all the other pending piles, er, categories of things to address....