How To Deal With The Piles Of Things In Your Life


Tuesday, 7.55pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The web and physical world is plagued with abundance – people need help sorting through all the good and bad stuff out there. The tyranny of choice is causing major psychic pain and frustration for people. – Jason Calacanis

I hesitate to say things like “one of the good things about this pandemic” given the horrendous experiences many people have had with it – but one of the good things about this pandemic is that it’s given us reasons to engage once more with the world around us, taking time to appreciate the one walk a day we’re allowed or rediscovering the analog world in an over-digitised one that we have to use every day.

And one of the things that you come across all the time is piles – piles of things to do, piles of paperwork to sort out, piles of ideas to work through, piles of notes to file. And these piles accumulate until they stop us being able to do anything or we throw it all away and start again. Is there another way – what can we do about this?

I’ve mentioned the book Algorithms to live by a few times and will probably refer to it again in the next few days – and it has an answer to this problem. Say you have a pile of books and you want to order them alphabetically – you pick up two books and compare them – putting them in order. Then you pick up the third book and compare that with the first two and put it in where it belongs. If you have five or ten books then you can get done pretty quickly. If you have a hundred or a thousand – it gets pretty difficult.

The reason for this is that the effort of sorting often increases with the number of things you have to deal with – often quadratically or exponentially. The larger the pile the harder it is to do the work of comparison and ordering.

Think about notes, for example. Let’s say you take notes in a notebook – you end up with a collection of notes scattered around. The more notebooks you have the harder it is to find common information about a particular topic that you’ve worked on over time. If you take notes on looseleaf paper and carefully file them by topic then you’re going to find stuff much faster. Of course, you then have the time it takes to file as well as write but the more stuff you have the happier you’ll be that you decided to have a system when you first started.

An alternative approach is to start with a pile of notes on slips of paper – perhaps covering all the ideas you’ve had for a paper or a project. Now, if you try and order all fifty notes or so at one go it will take you a long time. A much more efficient approach is to first sort them into the ones that go in the beginning, middle or end, and then sort each of the piles individually to get the concepts in the right order. By reducing the pile you reduce the number of comparisons dramatically using a two stage process.

Now, if you put these two together the best way to perhaps live is to put stuff in piles and then sort it only when you have to. You don’t always need perfectly sorted information but if you know what pile something you need is probably in then you’ll often find it quickly. What this means is that that professor’s messy desk piled with papers might be actually as close to optimal as you can get. Or you can get close to it with file folders as buckets.

What I do – or rather what I’ve rediscovered in the analog world of the pandemic is file folders and plastic inserts as a way to hold information in buckets that can be sorted when I need to go through them. And it makes life easier.

Which is good.


Karthik Suresh

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