Merrill, D. C., & Martin, J. A. (2010). 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. New York: Broadway Books.
This book is about personal information organization during a stressful time. It is about managing the information floating around us and our brains’ inability to contain it all without some help.
A lot of Amazon reviewers’ complained that this book was Merrill’s personal anecdotes about how he coped with information overload during his girlfriend’s terminal illness. This was the reason I picked up this book.
Why? Because most personal organization books are quite matter-of-fact and cover mostly business or normal family activities. His is the first one that I come across who tried to discuss how a person can manage information overload during a stressful and fearful period. Getting sick is a large part of life. Shouldn’t one prepare, even slightly, for it?
A few ideas tossed up by Merrill are quite interesting:
1. Using search as a way to do away with filing digital information
He rightly pointed out that filing digital documents in folders the way we would for physical documents is counter-productive. He suggests using Gmail beyond its email functions to store information. I recall complaining about Gmail’s lack of folders. Then I found out about the search box and I am happier now. He suggests emailing yourself stuff that you think that you might need in future and get it out of your head quickly. I heartily agree.
I am tempted to adopt this same principle with Outlook but I’m not confident of the search function in Outlook. I shouldn’t go all the way and remove all folders yet. I can try moving stuff into broader folders and test out Outlook’s search capability.
2. Some stuff are still better on paper
I went for e-statements when I was asked to do so to save trees. After receiving them for a while, I realized that they are better on paper. I will glance and check them when I receive them in my mail, not when I get an email notification. Dangerous, isn’t it?
3. Shifting contexts require effort
I can’t agree with this more. Whenever I attempt to multi-task too many things, I find myself staring at a previously opened document and asking “Why did I open this for?”.
There are times when one needs to take a mental break but for most times, it takes effort to switch from one task to another, especially if the multiple tasks cannot be completed at one go.
4. Encode This
Lastly, I like “Encode this“. It is a list of key points in each chapter. I start the chapter by reading the introduction and then jumping to Encode this. If I find the points there interesting, I move on to the details in the preceding pages. I think this is an important feature in a non-fiction book. I hope no non-fiction writer assume that their readers read their book from cover to cover.
In thinking about how this relates to the library world, I find myself pondering over the organization schemas that so many people including librarians are so used to. I agree with Merrill that organizing digital information in arbitrary folders and sub-folders can seem meaningless. Why not just leave everything in one big folder and search instead. Weinberger made the same assertion in his book Everything is Miscellaneous (affiliate link).
Of course search assumes you can search the full text of all your information. This works with GMAIL as suggested by Merrill but it may not translate well in other information systems. What if you are looking for a poorly titled attachment?
A colleague once commented that it doesn’t matter what schema is being used as long as it is consistently applied. I wanted to agree with that but then the information context in which the information was created versus the context in which the information is required might change. I find myself having to tweak the way I file my stuff on a regular basis. Perhaps it is like dusting and cleaning, a never-ending task.
I haven’t come to a conclusion even for my own organizing needs whether to organize and file, or search.
I am attracted to the SEARCH proposition. I shall try it out for a while by doing away with my folders and see if I can find my stuff just by searching.