What’s the best way to think?
A colleague recently sent me a link to this article at the Harvard Business Review, which suggests it’s a waste of time to organize your email and, by extension, your life more generally. Where possible, use technology to search so you don’t have to spend your time organizing needlessly.
She asked what I thought, and it’s kind of an interesting issue, so I thought I’d post my reply here:
It is interesting. I had heard that bit about how it’s better to not sort email into folders, but just to do a good search (assuming you’ve got a good search engine, that is). I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I rely heavily on Spotlight [the Apple search program, for those of you who aren't Mac users] to find files, and (usually) it works–although when it doesn’t work, I’m glad I have a system of folders.
I’m not completely convinced about where he ends up. It makes a kind of sense–my wife loves having an administrative assistant to do work for her, and if computers can do that for the rest of us, then why not? It’s not like organizing and filing are inherently virtuous activities. However, he ends with an assumption that you can divorce outcomes from organization, and it seems to me that thinking about organization is part of thinking about outcomes. You don’t know how to organize effectively unless you know what your goal is and how to get there; therefore, part of organizing is thinking about what your goal is and how to get there. And I’d be concerned that without that reflection on organizing yourself, you’d end up approaching the task in a not-thought-out and therefore not efficient way.
It seems to me this is a variation on the books-vs-internet debate that is sort-of ongoing. Those who bemoan the lack of books say it will hinder concentrated, focused thinking. Those who celebrate the decline of the traditional book say it allows a new, better, more free-form and associative form of thinking. I tend to put myself in the former camp, but recognize that may be because of my personality, my upbringing, and my preference. But if you like the “internet way of thinking” then you’d probably like the “there’s no need to organize yourself” approach. The assumption for both is that free-form, open-ended thinking is most productive. While that may be true for some, extremely creative people, I’m not sure that’s true for everybody, or even for most people.