Former Google Executive On Getting Organized

In this era of information overload, the experience of being stressed, forgetful and overwhelmed means your mind is perfectly normal. Douglas Merrill, author of the new book Getting Organized in the Google Era, writes about his own struggle with dyslexia, and how that forced him to develop techniques for remembering information.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Okay, so in this era of information overload, you're feeling stressed, forgetful, overwhelmed - that means your mind is perfectly normal. So says Douglas Merrill in his new book "Getting Organized in the Google Era." He's a former Google executive, and he writes that his own struggle with dyslexia forced him to develop techniques for remembering information. His early fascination with the brain led him to earn a PhD in cognitive science.

We spoke to Douglas Merrill about what the brain can and cannot do.

Dr. DOUGLAS MERRILL (Author, "Getting Organized in the Google Era"): Everyone has the same limitations. I have slightly more as a dyslexic, but generally speaking we all have quite poor short-term memories, we're all quite bad at storing and encoding information for later, and we all get overwhelmed, and when we get overwhelmed we forget things. But, unfortunately, we don't know that we've forgotten them.

MONTAGNE: Well, talk to us about our ability to multitask. You're just saying that no one is really that good at multitasking?

Dr. MERRILL: Even more than that - no one can, in fact, multitask. Your brain has a short-term memory which it uses to store the things that happen around it in the world, and then it takes from that short-term memory and encodes into long-term memory so you can find it later. That short-term memory can hold between five and nine things and that's all. And if you're multitasking, you're more likely to forget the things that are in that short-term memory.

Everyone feels like they're tremendous multitaskers. It's a little bit like Lake Wobegon - everyone thinks they're better than average, but you're not. You can't multitask. When you shift from one context to another, you're going to drop some things. And what that means is that you're less effective at the first task and at the second task that you're trying to do at the same time. It's much more effective to spend time doing your first task, take a small break, and then do your second task. Managing the context shift is much more effective than pretending to multitask, even though we all think we're good at it.

MONTAGNE: There's another aspect of all this that you write about in the book, and that is trying to shift gears.

Dr. MERRILL: If you think about it, changing from one task to another involves you changing context entirely from one slip to another - this is a phone call, that's an email. They may be related, but probably they're not. And so when you move from the phone call to that email, your brain has to stop what it's doing, move everything from short-term memory to long-term memory, and then reload your short-term memory with whatever you're doing next. That requires work. You don't perceive it as work but you're using your brain muscles, if you will, and you're using them in a relatively inefficient way.

It's much more efficient to take that phone call and then do the work associated with that phone call and to then take a break and then deal with your email or whatever. So basically, try to minimize the number of context shifts you can have. Tactically, for example, if you looked at my calendar, you would see that I try to clump all meetings related to a particular topic together. So I have, you know, three or four meetings related to a certain project rather than jumping back and forth between contexts and therefore making it harder on myself than it needs to be.

And another sort of facile but important tip is to put context data into your calendar or into your email trials. So instead of having to recall everything from long-term memory, you can simply look at your calendar and say, oh, right, this is an interview related to the book with the following elements. That at least allows you to, as you move into that new context, do so more efficiently.

MONTAGNE: Do you consider yourself, at this point, a very organized person?

Dr. MERRILL: No, I consider myself a disorganized person who's hanging on with it by tooth and nails an organization system. It's why I built these systems, because I have to manage my own tendency to be very disorganized. If you walked into my office at home, you would see piles of paper all over my desk and often some on the floor. You'd see yellow stickies on the walls and big pieces of paper that I've taped to the walls. You'd see books in various piles all over the place. You'd walk in and you'd say, wow, this guy has no idea what's going on in his life.

But it's not just looking organized, it's being organized that matters. So my piles of information actually have meaning, and once a week I go through and I reorder them and I throw things away and I add things, et cetera. I take time to repeat and understand what's in my pile. But, no, if you walk into my office, you would not perceive me as the world's most organized person.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Dr. MERRILL: Thanks for having me on.

MONTAGNE: Douglas Merrill, for several years, was the chief information officer at Google, and he now, along with James Martin, has written the book "Getting Organized in the Google Era."

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