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Getting organised the Google way

Maggie Shiels | 08:45 UK time, Monday, 26 April 2010

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.

Whoa!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.


  • 1. At 3:47pm on 27 Apr 2010, MarkG wrote:

    Getting organised the Google way:

    Get an Android based handset (HTC Hero, HTC Desire, HTC Legend, Nexus One, Samsung Galaxy etc)

    Sign into your google account on the phone.

    Job Done... It's as seamless as that, and that suits me totally. Google Calendar and contacts are really neat how it works with Android handsets.

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  • 2. At 6:15pm on 27 Apr 2010, SewerSide wrote:

    Firstly, a tape machine?

    Secondly, "most messages need to be filed under several headings" - gmail labels work well for me.

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  • 3. At 11:39pm on 27 Apr 2010, Stephen Smoliar wrote:

    The thing about stories is that they take time. The narrative itself is concerned with an unfolding of events over time, and the telling of the story itself requires an interval of time. Stories are one of the few ways in which we get away from the world of the instantaneous, and one of the corollaries of that psychological finding is that there is no way that learning happens instantaneously after exposure. Unfortunately, we have become used to everything being instantaneous, and that includes our information management. Stories provide the one medium through which we are obliged to let time run its proper course, and that turns out to be critical where the functioning of our own memory is concerned.

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  • 4. At 9:01pm on 28 Apr 2010, SheffTim wrote:

    The key to memorising something is repetition, repetition, repetition.

    As for multi-tasking, we often have to juggle varying demands but if you want to do something to a high standard then you have to allow time to concentrate on it, for as long as it takes to complete it. That often means excluding or ignoring other demands.

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  • 5. At 12:24pm on 29 Apr 2010, Alexandereski wrote:

    4. At 9:01pm on 28 Apr 2010, SheffTim wrote:

    The key to memorising something is repetition, repetition, repetition.

    As for multi-tasking, we often have to juggle varying demands but if you want to do something to a high standard then you have to allow time to concentrate on it, for as long as it takes to complete it. That often means excluding or ignoring other demands.


    A fair comment here. I will add that as a fan of using the qwerty keyboard instead of the mouse, where possible, remembering keysets can only really be efficient if you use them constantly.
    As a linux user, i'm fortunate that most developers get this, and try to add not only qwerty alternatives for mouse functions, but give the user an editor to define his or her own, which makes the retention of keysets much easier, as the user can build "global" sets, and minimise the task of remembering.
    Repetition is indeed an important part of retaining the info, but in our tech interface driven world, having the right tools in the first place is definitely part of the picture, and shouldn't be overlooked by devs when building apps, or users who are helplessly chained to the RSI inducing mouse, and want to break free.

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  • 6. At 5:06pm on 03 May 2010, Nayna Desai wrote:

    Maggie, I didn't know that multi-tasking affects people's short-term memory (as per Mr Merrill)... if that were the case why are men, who are allegedly so poor at multi-tasking, unable to remember our birthdays, anniversaries and the like! (And before #4 SheffTim replies - even repetition doesn't seem to work most of the time ;)

    We definitely do suffer from information overload though - not only from the news but also from a marketing perspective. What is lacking I feel is a well-defined additional layer between media and the actual data that fulfils the role of an individual/ small group sifting analyst. Google has its algorithm to do this but just on the web - it would be great if small groups of people could just hire someone to tell them what to pay attention to and what not to in terms of real world information!

    Nayna Desai (Pretty Mauve blog)

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  • 7. At 08:51am on 04 May 2010, Hastings wrote:

    Before this new, supposedly wonderful, techy era, we did it better.

    We knew one person could not do everything so we used a hierarchical pyramid of people, each one with a specific expertise and role.

    When I look back to my father working in a senior position in a major building society in the 60s and 70s, their offices ran just as efficiently as now, possibly more so, and mistakes that were made, being human, were traceable and caught by other humans. If someone was sick, others could pick up the slack without even thinking about it.

    Now, most of those people are removed from the process and have been replaced by unfathomable systems designed by people who have never run an office in their lives, that go wrong regularly and when they do the entire system falls over.

    Our best asset, whether that be in a company, a family or in society as a whole, is the human being. It is far more powerful than a computer, is capable of autonomous, rational thought, and can sort information in a way that would make Deep Thought look like a pebble.

    And yet we are discarding our reliance on this incredible asset and replacing it with a system that is hundreds of times less good. I have lived half a century, so I have neatly crossed the divide from manual/human processes to computer processes. I am now, within my industry, completely reliant on computers. But I am aware that I do not produce better, or faster, or more efficiently now than I did 30 years ago. However, my costs have gone through the roof - especially my energy costs.

    We have let our lives be taken over by inanimate objects and our day to day survival is buried behind a smokescreen of automated decision taking that is less intuitive, less responsive and less appreciative our our needs. We have forgotten that tools are just that - something that we use to lever something else. Instead we try and make our tools not only do the work for us, but make the decisions too.

    The world of "Terminator" has already come about - we simply didn't notice because it is not a superior intelligent force, but rather an inferior, dumb one.

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  • 8. At 9:02pm on 05 May 2010, thepastymuncher wrote:

    5. At 12:24pm on 29 Apr 2010, Alexandereski wrote:

    4. At 9:01pm on 28 Apr 2010, SheffTim wrote:

    The key to memorising something is repetition, repetition, repetition.

    As for multi-tasking, we often have to juggle varying demands but if you want to do something to a high standard then you have to allow time to concentrate on it, for as long as it takes to complete it. That often means excluding or ignoring other demands.

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  • 9. At 08:18am on 19 Aug 2010, zhanxiaoli wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 10. At 12:13pm on 21 Aug 2010, Rob T wrote:

    Hastings are you honestly suggesting that companies are now worse of because of their reliance on computers?

    Human beings are not more powerful than computers; in fact you could argue the opposite. Consider how computer simulations have advanced our engineering industries, how digital storage has compressed hundreds company filing cabinets to a single server room and that a simple digital calculator can provide you with an answer to a complex algebraic problem before you can even touch pen to paper.

    Don’t misunderstand me though; I agree that becoming reliant on computing technologies is very foolish. We still require knowledgeable engineers to design our bridges & trained economists to monitor company’s accounts; a tool (even a computer) is useless in the hands of an unskilled worker.

    I’m yet to have witnessed anyone rely on a computer or automated system to make decisions for them and I certainly disagree that you were more efficient and productive before the widespread use of computers! I firmly believe that people still treat computers as a tool and although we may find certain tasks difficult without them nothing is currently stopping you from sending a letter by post, using pen and paper to do your calculations or plotting your trip with a road map rather than Google.

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