Empty your head

Research suggests that your short-term memory can only hold about seven items at any given time.

So if you have more than seven things going on in your life (ha!), don’t even attempt to keep track of them in your head. “Much of our stress comes from the fact that we’re trying to manage a lot of our world in our psyche instead of in a system,” explains David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. “As a remember-and-reminder mechanism, the brain just isn’t very good.”

The brain’s other organisational flaw is its tendency to dwell on incompletion. This is called the Zeigarnik effect, after the Russian psychologist who first noticed that people remember interrupted tasks better than finished ones. Worrying about what needs to be done puts the brain in a sort of subconscious reminder loop that instigates stress.

“I used to wake up at night worrying about things I had to do,” says Merrill. “Now I don’t even try to store stuff in my head. It’s impossible, given the amount of information being created. The first step to organisation is recognising that you’re human and you’re going to forget most things.”

Swop filing cabinets for scaffolds

The traditional approach to organisation involves putting things in folders, either manila or electronic. Tax receipts go here, banking information goes there, investment advice gets put on that pile, holiday ideas on that stack, and so on. While this method works for a while, we eventually end up with cluttered hard drives full of information that’s neither easily accessible nor useful.

“There’s a common perception that organisation is innate, and that it looks the same for everyone,” says Merrill, sipping from a bottle of water. “Both of these assertions are false. Organisation is learnt, and it’s learnt in a way that’s special to you.

For me to cram you into the traditional filing-cabinet model is a disservice. A much richer way of helping organise people is to give them a set of tools that can be personalised.”

Merrill calls these tools “scaffolds” and encourages us to think of the information we’re accumulating as an ever-expanding building. This scaffolding represents the means of quickly gaining access to any floor.
It’s your network of virtual assistants or, to continue the analogy, access workers. Just realise that your brain is only one storage option, and paper is just one way to record something. Open up to other options and you free yourself from mental overload and paper at the same time.

Aim to search, not organise

This is key. Rather than hoarding information in your head, home or computer, deposit it in “the cloud”, as Merrill refers to the Internet, where it can be retrieved when you need it. In other words, don’t try to anticipate answers and file information accordingly. Instead, use online tools to build your personal database – and then search it later as important questions arise.

“It is much easier to be organised if you think of the world in terms of ‘search’ rather than in terms of ‘filing cabinets’,” says Merrill. “For example, when I come across something interesting on the Internet, I don’t worry about whether I’ll ever use it. I just dump it into my personal online cloud.

Organisation then becomes this loose pile of information that’s always growing – and I don’t care, because every time I ask a question, I get back everything that’s relevant.”

There are practical advantages to this strategy. If your office burns down, your system is hacked or your laptop is stolen, your life can go on with minimal interruption. You reduce the stress involved with warehousing and protecting information the conventional way. However, like all forms of letting go, this approach involves trust – trust in technology, and trust in security.

“The saying ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ makes sense in some contexts, but not this one,” says Merrill. “The most common sources of data loss are hardware theft and machines dying. There’s a huge benefit to not having to worry about that.

“To me, search is the oxygen of life,” he adds. “I can’t live without oxygen, and I can’t live without search. I store everything I have in the cloud, because I know I’ll always be able to find it later.”

Leverage off other people and their ideas

One of the secrets to Google’s success is that it’s an exquisitely diverse company that isn’t afraid to attack problems from different perspectives. “My job (was) to hire great people with fascinating, unusual backgrounds and facilitate their working together,” says Merrill.

The result is an 11-year-old company with a market cap of US $200-billion. The organisational benefits of such a corporate strategy are twofold. First, once you recognise who you are and what you do best,you’re free to surround yourself with people who are not you and who have different skills. This eases the pressure on you to do it all and simplifies life. And just like that, you’re better organised.

Second, the same approach works for information management. When you come across great ideas or intriguing thoughts, don’t file them away. Instead, throw them in with other people’s great ideas and see what percolates. Whether you do this via email, a blog, a website or a smart search doesn’t matter; the sharing is what’s important.

“Value comes from the conjunction of multiple things,” explains Merrill, who also has a doctorate in psychology from Princeton University in the US. “Collaboration is cool. It allows you to leverage your strengths against the strengths of others. Different perspectives yield better answers and better people.”