My first kindergarten assignment was to go home and find out the family home phone number. The next day we practiced memorizing those digits. As I recall the teacher helped us put the number sequence to some kind of rhythm not dissimilar to those 800 ads that help you remember where to buy a mattress or donate your car to charity. To this day, I still remember the Longfellow Street number.
This all came back to me as I read a very practical book, “Getting Organized in the Google Era,” written by former Google CIO, Doug Merrill. My hope is what I share will challenge you to rethink how you see and use information while you deal with the enormous amount of data we are all bombarded with each and every day. There’s a gift for adaptation.
Douglas Merrill is a student of many topics; one is neuroscience. He is particularly interested in the brain because he has had to deal with his own dyslexia. One of the challenges for people with dyslexia is short-term memory deficits. They find it hard to hold on to names, numbers, and assorted unrelated pieces of information. If you haven’t had to cope with this yourself, I’m sure you know someone who has.
Our short-term memory is not the most efficient or reliable aspect of our brain. It has not evolved to the sophisticated level of other parts of the mind. It also seems to be most susceptible to aging and injury. Its fallibility has added to the lexicon phrases such as “senior moment” and “it slipped my mind.”
Merrill suggests we look at information in two basic categories. The small amount you must know and instantly have access to, and all the rest. As I am writing this, I’m having a hard time thinking of many things that fall into the first part. Maybe names of people in my family, how to get home from the office, and it always seemed more efficient to memorize multiplication tables than whipping out a calculator or asking Siri to figure out what 8x9 is. Before you say, “Jane, I get it,” really think about how little you need to memorize. As Paul Simon sang, “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all.” Einstein, a man ahead of the curve in many ways supposedly didn’t know his phone number because he said, “Never memorize something that you can look up.” Today we don’t even need to memorize our phone number, or write it on that piece of paper I brought to school; we open our cell phone and there it is, along with a thousand other people’s names and numbers.
With all of this freed-up space, assuming you don’t then clutter it by multitasking, what is possible? That is the gift -- creative thinking. We are given the time and room to see patterns, relationships; put a new spin on an old idea. We can imagine the future without the burden of the past or present prejudges. We can daydream. This is something few of us feel we have the time to “indulge” in. I argue it is where the great ideas come from and of highest value in the workplace and on the planet.
Merrill believes filing is a waste of time. He also rarely deletes e-mails. To place documents in a virtual folder that might have more sub folders with more documents is unproductive, he says. Why? Because of the wonders of search. Yes, search has made it so easy to retrieve everything; no one should care where it sits. Oh, and with high capacity services, such a Gmail, you can save every e-mail you ever sent or received since it is retrievable instantly and forever.
I tested his approach with a bit of skepticism. Must admit it was faster than and just as accurate as my more traditional methods. This simple notion, and brilliant idea, threw my entire perception of information out the windows. I know, I was slow on the uptake on this one but it was not until I was in serious information overwhelm did I actually apply what I guess I intuitively knew — my laptop isn’t a miniaturized filing cabinet for perceived neatness. While I was using many of the same terms — files, folder, documents; I wasn’t adapting the mindset. That shift allowed for freedom of thought and reduced stress. It opened space for creative thinking.
Here’s my challenge to you. Go 100% search for one day. Search everything except the kinds of things you would need to recall in under almost any circumstance. See where your thoughts go when your mind has space. Then, if you must place things in folders go ahead, acknowledging you just might be wasting time and energy. Consider holding on to those e-mails.
Our immediate memory only holds a small amount of the information needed in our everyday lives. Rather than forcing ourselves to learn additional recall tricks, we should increase our use of technology with search. With the types of high capacity memory available, there is no need to decide what should be saved or deleted. We can assume all has value and everything will be available. This mindset allows for brain freedom, enabling the creative process.
(c) Jane Cranston.
Jane Cranston is an executive career coach. She works with success-driven executives, managers and leaders to reach their potential, better manage their boss and staff, as well as develop a career strategy to reach goals and aspirations. Jane is the author of Great Job in Tough Times a step-by-step job search system. Click here to subscribe to her twice monthly Competitive Edge Report.