Book Review: Getting Organized in the Google Era

by Dr. Luanne Fose - The Tweed Geek on July 7, 2010

Bookcover: Getting Organized in the Google Era

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In his book, Getting Organized in the Google Era, Douglas C. Merrill shares his learning struggles resulting from dyslexia that pushed him to become a much more organized person. He eventually earned a Ph.D. in cognitive science and a position as the CIO of Google, where he spearheaded the overwhelming task of organizing the world’s information for one of the most popular internet search engines.

The main point of Merrill’s book is that in this world of information overload, we need to take a new approach to how we organize data for our brains and be a bit more choosy about what we decide is important to store there. I, myself, find that many of the faculty I work with, who didn’t have the internet at their disposal when they were young, shake their heads in disbelief at the Millennial students who have no inclination or desire, for that matter, to memorize data. Most likely this current generation’s philosophy is largely due to the fact that they have been taught that any information they may need is available anytime at their fingertips by just “Googling it!” Although I believe there are a few essential facts in one’s discipline that merit memorization, in this information age explosion can we really blame our students for this mindset?

In the first chapter of the book, Merrill tells an amusing anecdote (fact or fiction?) about Albert Einstein. As the story goes, a reporter was interviewing Albert Einstein and asked him if he could have his phone number, in case he needed to follow-up with any questions before the article was published. The reporter said that Einstein walked over to a pay phone on the street where they were walking, picked up a phone book and proceeded to look up his own phone number in order to read off the numbers to the reporter. When the reporter expressed surprise that Einstein didn’t have his own phone number memorized, Einstein responded: “Why remember my phone number when it’s in the phone book?” The veracity of this story is hard to confirm but what I take away from it is that Einstein was even far ahead of us in his understanding about what information was truly necessary to store in the brain!

Merrill talks in depth about how to organize your life to minimize brain strain by following some of the principles he developed to cope with his own dyslexia. Near the end of the book, he summarizes eighteen points to recap his Principles of Organization (pp. 174-175):

  1. Organize your life to minimize brain strain.
  2. Get stuff out of your head as quickly as possible.
  3. Multitasking can actually make you less efficient.
  4. Use stories to remember.
  5. Just because something’s always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it should be.
  6. Knowledge is not power. The sharing of knowledge is power.
  7. Organize around actual constraints, not assumed ones.
  8. Be completely honest (but never judgmental) with yourself.
  9. Know when to ignore your constraints.
  10. Know exactly where you’re going (and how you’ll get there) before you start the engine.
  11. Be flexible about the outcome of your goals.
  12. Don’t organize your information; search for it.
  13. Only keep in your head what truly needs to be there.
  14. Break big chunks into small ones.
  15. Dedicate time each week to reviewing key information.
  16. There’s no such thing as a perfect system of organization.
  17. Whenever possible, use the tools you already know.
  18. Add relevant keywords to your digital information so you can easily find it later.

* Points 12, 13, and 18 (above) are really the essence of this book.

A confessed music fanatic (as am I), Merrill’s constant musical references throughout the book to song lyrics made his points more memorable for me. For example, when discussing the problem of tapping into your long-term memory for recall, he quotes from Steely Dan’s popular song:  “Rikki don’t lose that number… Send it off in a letter to yourself.” Later he discusses how emailing yourself things you wish to remember can be extremely helpful if you are fortunate enough to have access to your email from any location (as is true with a Gmail or .Mac mail account) because this process allows you to later search digitally for the information you sent off to yourself in an email. This is one of the strongest points that Merrill keeps hammering at us, over and over, throughout the book: Creating digital documents allows you to search (in a matter of moments) for information that you need at your fingertips. Digital documents can truly act as a personal database for all the information that cannot be contained within our cluttered brains. Take advantage of such an approach and you’ll reap the benefits of a life that is better organized and less stressed!

~ Dr. Luanne Fose (The Tweed Geek)

Note: Cal Poly faculty, staff, and students can check out this book from Kennedy Library at Call Number 650.1 M

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