Getting organised the Google way
Information can be the bane of our lives. While the right kind of information at a given moment is extremely empowering, there is little doubt that we are drowning in the stuff.
Douglas Merrill knows this all too well. He is the former chief information officer of Google, the company that wants to take all that information and make it universally accessible.
He was with the company for five years, from when it was a mere fledgling with a few hundred staff to when it hit the 19,000 mark.
"The Library of Congress was founded in 1800. It took 200 years to fill it. Since 2000 there has been so much information on the web that it could fill 40,000 Libraries of Congress," explains Mr Merrill.
Even though we have the web, and we have Google to "organise the world's information" for us, our tendency to become overwhelmed is not our fault. No, says Mr Merrill, chalk that one up to Mother Nature:
"We are just not very good at remembering things, by and large. Our short-term memory can only hold between five and nine things at a time. And our brain weighs three pounds (1.4kg) and is just larger than the average chicken.
"Yet it is pretty fantastic. It can identify gender, how old someone is just by looking at a photograph of someone's nose and even recognise a song after hearing just a few notes."
Mr Merrill points out in his book Getting Organized in the Google Era that "your brain was developed eons ago primarily to prevent you from being eaten by carnivorous beasts - not to memorise lists or store facts."
That's me off the hook.
Mr Merrill is dyslexic and was forced to find ways to cope with remembering things. He notes that the "psychology of how people learn is through stories, not facts". His tips include building a story around a fact or set of facts and learning them through repetition.
Mr Merrill also expounds the view that trying to juggle or multi-task is a complete waste of time, not a display of organisational prowess.
I am probably not unlike a lot of people with two computers on my desk, a tape machine with an interview I am listening to, two landlines, my mobile phone, a TV in the background and a radio on low. Then there are Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn beeping in every time a status update drops. And depending on what time of day or night it is, I have my four-year-old and partner vying for attention.
"Multi-tasking is a waste of time and effort. It just doesn't work," says Mr Merrill.
In his book he writes that "when you multi-task, you're interfering with your brain's efforts to put information into short-term memory - a process that is fragile enough to begin with. And if the information doesn't make it into short-term memory, you won't be able to recall it later."
This premise is borne out by recent study undertaken by French scientists which shows that our brain more-or-less maxes out when we try to do too much at once.
Mr Merrill says that even at Google, there was a slow realisation that multi-tasking during meetings meant people were missing important information. The company eventually declared some meetings "laptop-free".
The final whammy of this trio is that along with having a poor memory and not being good at multi-tasking, Mr Merrill says our brains are not good at making decisions.
This, he says, has a lot to do with being swamped by choice and cites examples like walking down the cereal aisle and finding it impossible to pick a new breakfast from the scores of brightly coloured boxes.
Mr Merrill says the way around this is to understand what your goals are and put them in order of priority.
He describes a trick his wife Sonya uses: visualising all the options of a decision. Mr Merrill describes this as "living" with a decision.
Not surprisingly, when it comes to technological solutions, Mr Merrill errs on the side of Google. For example, he tells me that "search is the oxygen of today's world". By that, he means that there is no need to remember everything because we can search for it.
Take e-mail. Forget trying to purge old messages and reach the holy grail of an empty inbox. It's a waste of time, energy and effort, says Mr Merrill, and only causes us more angst.
He says the tendency of people to file e-mail under some useful heading doesn't work because most messages need to be filed under several headings and because it is easier to search for what you want instead of trying to remember a bunch of related filenames.
"This notion of a clean desk or a clean inbox is deep inside of all of us - but just because it has always been done that way, doesn't mean you should do it.
"We need to examine why we do something and choose to make a change. It is more effective not to delete inbox e-mail if you have a search function that works."
Mr Merrill also notes that there is no need to try and hang onto a host of facts because technology allows us to store so much and to do it relatively cheaply.
Examples like cloud computing mean we may be able to access our information anywhere at any time. Video-conferencing saves travel time and using voicemail-to-text transcription is more convenient, useful and searchable.
The hardest piece of advice for a journalist to follow is Mr Merrill's suggestion to just do one thing at a time. In fact, he says that we all need to switch off our e-mail and phones and that by being able to concentrate on one task we can achieve better results.
With so much noise and the feeling that we always need to stay connected in case we miss something, it is a big ask.