PRODUCTIVITY

Case for a Cluttered Inbox: How to Compartmentalize

In his new book, Getting Organized in the Google Era, former Google CIO Douglas C. Merrill discusses ways to maintain order in an age of information overload.
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In our struggle for productivity, limited attention spans, time, and memory are outflanked by limitless information, demands, and stress. Douglas C. Merrill's new book, Getting Organized in the Google Era, attempts to shift the odds in efficiency's favor. Merrill, the former CIO of Google, talked to Inc. about imposing order on chaotic lives.

Do business leaders have different organizational needs than people working in the trenches?

People in the trenches tend to have longer projects and work on one thing at a time. By contrast, in one day the leader of a small company might worry first about marketing, then pricing, then rent, and a host of other things. Each time he swaps from one task to another, he loses some effectiveness. Consequently, business leaders should try to organize their days to minimize context shifts: clustering similar meetings or tasks so they can worry about one kind of thing at a time.

Should you impose your own organizational habits on employees?

Trying to strap employees into an organizational straitjacket is generally bad for them and a waste of your time. That said, some general organizational principles work across people. Use Search instead of filing; store everything you can in the cloud; try not to shift contexts unless needed.

Which productivity practices are the most misguided?

The drive to file papers and e-mails as quickly as possible. You file information to be able to find it later. You retrieve information later to achieve some goal. Filing information according to your goals will make you more successful at finding the information when you need it. But when you initially get an e-mail or document, you probably won't know which tasks it will be useful for, so you can't really know where to file it. Don't file anything. Leave it in your inbox or in piles on your desk. Use Search to find your e-mails when relevant, and reorganize your piles regularly.

Last updated: Mar 1, 2010

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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