Review: Getting Organized in the Google Era

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Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book or other book of interest.

getting organized in the google eraI’m pretty passionate about organization – after all, I named David Allen’s book Getting Things Done as one of the ten books that changed my life. I’m also (obviously) passionate about how information technology and the internet can change people’s lives.

This book, Getting Organized in the Google Era by former CIO of Google Douglas C. Merrill, hits the joint between those two passions quite firmly. It looks at how people organize all of the information they need to maintain their life on a daily basis and talks about how recent advances in technology (particularly cloud computing – where you save your data on a web server, a la Gmail or Facebook) have potentially changed or improved how we organize ourselves.

Intriguing stuff, but is there enough meat there to fill up a whole book with ideas?

1 | Cocktail Parties & Cap’n Crunch
Our brain is a strange little machine. It’s pretty poor at retaining a large number of little pieces of information, but it is very good at taking lots of little pieces of information and making sense of them. That’s why, over time, successful humans have developed external aids to help with storing those little pieces of external information.

Think of our schedules. Most of us who have a lot of appointments to keep maintain some sort of written schedule – I sure do. Why? Because without it, you’ll have a lot of little pieces of information floating around in your brain (each appointment) and if you forget one, it’s a major problem. So we get into the routine of storing it all externally and just remembering to check the schedule all the time.

2 | Summer Vacations, Suburbia & Factory Shifts
An awful lot of societal structures are woefully inefficient. Many, many people work a nine-to-five schedule (or something close), so there are resultant traffic jams, causing long commutes and tons of lost productivity – I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to be working than sitting in traffic. School students have long summer vacations during which their learning and skills get rusty. The list goes on and on – the way things were always done might have been efficient in the past compared to the alternatives, but society has changed so much that these things have become inefficient.

Instead of just forcing yourself into these inefficient structures, why not see if you can change a rule or two. Do some homeschooling during the summer. Ask if you can shift your work schedule to two hours earlier – or two hours later – so you can avoid the morning and evening rushes. Look into telecommuting if your job allows it. If something seems inefficient – and every time you’re sitting idle, there’s probably an inefficiency – look for ways around it so you can actually fill your time with meaning.

3 | Racecars, Basketball Shorts & Opera
All of us have constraints in life. I work at home with three young children – that certainly introduces some constraints. The big challenge is to determine which constraints are real and which ones are imagined. If you can figure out that you’re just imagining a constraint, then it’s no longer a constraint.

Take naptime, for example. I used to view this as a pretty long constraint on other activities, as I’d stay near the kids until they were asleep (they’re good at going to sleep by themselves at night, but during naptime when the sun is shining outside, they can sometimes get antsy). What I eventually learned is that the constraint was much smaller than I imagined. Once a story is read and they’re laying down, the perfect time has arrived to open my laptop and get a few things done.

What constraints in your life are real constraints?

4 | Climb That Mountain or Chill in the Barcalounger?
What is it that I want to achieve above all else? Why do I want to achieve it? What happens if I don’t achieve it? What exactly do I have to do to make it happen? The more you ask yourself these questions and reflect on your answers, the more you begin to put the big things you want in life front and center.

What do I want to achieve above all else? I want to be a successful writer and a successful father. Those are my front-and-center goals – the other goals I have are almost always subordinate to those two things. Other things really don’t matter in comparison. What does success mean in those areas? That’s a much longer answer, but after a lot of reflection, I think I know what success is there, too.

5 | Beyond Taylorism & Trapper Keepers
Once upon a time, organizing information meant keeping it in hierarchical structures that made it easy to dig down and locate a specific piece of information – think of the Dewey Decimal System or a complex filing system.

Today, though, information technology allows us to have all of that data electronically and, more important, it’s all searchable. Instead of digging for a file in a huge filing cabinet, we can just search for it if we have it stored electronically.

This gets around a lot of differences: different filing methods, different constraints, different personal quirks. Everyone simply searches for what they want.

Think about Wikipedia versus an old printed set of World Book encyclopedias, for example.

6 | Paris, France or Paris, Vegas?
In fact, the best skill one can build for managing information in the future is the ability to know how to search effectively and accurately for a specific piece of information. This means learning the nuances of various search engines, knowing how they work, and knowing how to apply them.

Using Google means more than just going to the search field and typing in what you want, for example. There’s quite a lot of syntax that goes into really narrowing down what you want, from using the “site:” prefix to narrow down searches within a particular site to using “-” as a prefix to exclude terms. There’s even more useful syntax within specific programs like Gmail when you’re searching through old emails.

7 | Colored Markers & Filters
There is so much information out there that it’s impossible to process it all. So where do we begin?

Merrill suggests starting with your goals. For example, you’re probably reading The Simple Dollar because you have personal financial or personal success goals: paying off debt, building up some savings, getting a better job, or so on. This means that some posts apply to you and your situation and some do not. If it doesn’t apply, filter it out immediately. Use your energy to read something else.

This is also true when it comes down to the information you save – old emails and the like. Why are you saving it? What’s your goal with that information if you retain it? This often helps you figure out how to retain it.

8 | Day-Timer or Digital?
Should you have a document in digital form or in paper form? To put it bluntly, you should always have it in the form that takes the least amount of time for you to manage it once you’ve climbed the learning curve.

For example, I keep my schedule electronically because it takes far less time to enter repeated appointments or to share my schedule with others than it does with a written schedule. On the other hand, it’s often easier to receive statements in the mail because electronic distribution of paper statements is still sometimes very poor. Paper is still also superior when it comes to jotting down quick notes, though that may change in the near future.

9 | Beyond Send & Receive
Merrill is a huge fan of Gmail for organizing email and contact information and I have to agree with him. The ability to search through mountains of email effortlessly, tag key emails easily, sort them as I wish, and retrieve email from any web browser makes Gmail an indispensable tool for me (and for others).

Much of this chapter focuses on Gmail power tips. In fact, Merrill often argues in favor of just emailing information that you need to retain to your own Gmail account because of the ease of searching it in the future.

10 | Thanks for Sharing
Similarly, Merrill makes an argument for using GCal here, for similar reasons as Gmail – accessibility and ease of searching. He rails quite a bit against the “locked system” of Outlook/Exchange and Domino, mostly because of the barrier they put between work appointments and personal appointments.

I find Gmail and Gcal to be essential tools for my work and for my personal life thanks to things like integrating weather forecasts into my personal schedule (so my calendar alone can indicate whether today is a good day for an outdoor activity).

11 | A Browser, an Operating System & Some Cool Stickers
Here, Merrill proposes moving collaborative documents online to Google Docs, enabling you to easily work together with others that have access to a web browser, as well as store all of your documents at a place easily accessible via the web and, of course, searchable. I also use this for some documents, while keeping others offline for my own privacy.

While Merrill does focus pretty heavily on the Google apps, he’s right on in terms of two key points. First, the more searchable all of your emails, documents, schedules, and other information is, the more useful it is. Second, no one is putting this all together as smoothly as the Google apps do – and they’re free.

12 | Avoiding Brain Strain
The best technique for avoiding brain strain is to focus on one activity at a time, because every time you switch activities, some focus and some information is lost in the process. If you’re about to switch activities, take the time to note your current train of thought on your current activity so that you can pick it up easier when you return.

If your job and life seem to constantly push you to switch focus with frightening regularity, seek out spaces in which you can minimize those focus switches. Turn off your distractions (like your phone) and shut your door so you can bear down on a task.

13 | Checking Email from the Beach
It’s all about “work-life balance.” In other words, the more efficient you are at your required work tasks and life tasks, the more time you have free for genuine relaxation and enjoyment of life. That’s why, if you have pockets of down time that don’t allow for sustained relaxation, you should try to find ways to fill those pockets with some sort of useful activity.

Yes, that does mean you should do things like check your email during a fifteen minute downtime on a Saturday. Doing that, however, frees you up to spend more sustained time involved in activities you care about later. The more efficient your tools are, the easier it is to do these microbursts of tasks.

14 | Dealing with the Unexpected
You’re going to make mistakes along the way – no one is perfect. The key is to learn from those mistakes and look for solutions so that these mistakes don’t repeat themselves.

The book closes with one of the best parts – a long list of “stuff we love,” web applications that solve particular personal information management concerns.

Is Getting Organized in the Google Era Worth Reading?
This is a really useful read if you are already fairly organized as it does a good job of outlining a large number of ways that you can use many recent advances in information technology to organize your personal and professional information. I fall into that category, so I found lots of interesting things in this book.

This book isn’t a useful read if you’re not already pretty organized. If you’re in that group, the stuff in this book won’t necessarily help you get organized – it’s not an organization system in itself, but a bunch of tactics to help improve what it is you already do. If you’re starting from scratch, I really recommend David Allen’s excellent book Getting Things Done (which I’m planning to cover in detail in an upcoming series).

I got a lot of good ideas from this book. You might, too.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Getting Organized in the Google Era

  1. I use some of Google’s free apps and it boggles my mind that just ten years ago those same free services would cost more money then I would care to spend.

  2. I read Merrill’s book recently as well and also found a ton of helpful tips in it for fine-tuning my personal organization and work habits. I’m so glad you reviewed it here – I feel it should get more attention than it has been thus far.
    Trent, in your review, you mention that you’ve found a way to integrate the weather forecast into your Google Calendar and iCal. Can you provide some info on how you did that? Thanks!

  3. I think we are spoiled by technology that we have fallen into a trap of modern inefficiency. I wonder what Frederick Taylor would have to say about this.

  4. I love the idea of having 2 main goals in your life and everything else being subordinate to them. Mine is to run a successful blog and to grow.

  5. You realize that all those “free” services are as expensive as ever, right? It’s just that advertisers are footing the bill.

    Once you give a piece of data to Google, it’s in there forever, just as if you’d posted it publicly for the world to see. And you never know if something you wrote today will come to haunt you in 10-20 years.

    You may decide it’s OK to use “free” services in spite of the risks, but at least be aware that there are risks, and that there are very serious trade-offs you’re making every time you use them.

  6. I could not agree more related to shifting your work hours. I get to work at 6am. So I begin my morning commute much earlier than other commuters. I love it !!! Very little traffic=much fewer accidents= less traffic jams!!!

  7. Your great article covers so many aspects of day-to-day working issues. I am one of those people who do not accept change graciously. I still use my Day-Timer along with Act and Outlook and an organizer phone (or whatever we are supposed to call this now). When I am speaking to someone on the phone I have to keep notes which is too hard to do electronically. Maybe someday I will take the plunge and try some of the listed suggestions!

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