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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 10, 2010

Coping with growing digital clutter

Associated Press

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The Google Desktop search engine eliminates the need for creating and maintaining an unwieldy number of electronic files.

AP file photo

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We've got multiple e-mail accounts, social networks, media streams, blogs, websites, electronic calendars, instant messages, phone contacts, online bills, passwords coming out of our ears and screen after screen after screen of computer stuff to back up, share and sync.

That doesn't include the virtual reams floating in the ether, enough to fill the Library of Congress more than 40,000 times, said Douglas C. Merrill, former chief information officer for Google, Ph.D. in cognitive science and dude who wants to help us better manage our digital clutter.

"That's 32 feet of books for every man, woman and child in America. We're drowning in information," said Merrill, who nearly wrecked his health helping to manage the details of taking Google public.

Merrill, once an information scientist at the Rand Corp., struggled with dyslexia as a kid, so de-cluttering digital and otherwise is a priority for him, so much that he's written a book on the subject with James Martin, "Getting Organized in the Google Era."

We all know about clutter offline, but our digital selves have filled up too. We're suffering, but we can't dig out or keep up with rapidly changing and proliferating tools. Geeks do. They track products and reviews and have the time and skills to test them. The rest of us fret and stress.

Merrill, who left Google for the music company EMI, then his own financial startup in Los Angeles, said a good place to begin a digital de-clutter is accepting that our brains are lousy multitaskers, among other bad things. They need all the help they can get in clearing out space, just like our computers and smart phones.

Another good place to start is taking heart in the array and flexibility of today's tools. He offers these tips, acknowledging there's no one-size-fits-all answer:


Abandon the notion of "filing" and "folders" as a way to alleviate anxiety over a messy computer desktop, Merrill said. Folders, the paper and digital kind, must be maintained, and your brain must remember what you've put in them.

"The problem is we can never find the information we've stored, so we wind up with folders and folders we don't know what to do with," Merrill said. "Search is the new organization. Search can set us free from the clutter of our imperfect minds" by allowing us to get a little messy. No time is lost on meticulously filing and hunting for folders when well-defined searches are used.

Desktop tools don't have to be fancy or expensive. They're everywhere, including right there in Windows and operating systems for Macs and other computers. Tools like Google Desktop or Spotlight allow you to search with the same ease you enjoy for the Web. Quicksilver is popular with geeks.


You'd think Mr. Google would have no use for paper. Not true.

"I think paper's great for certain things," Merrill said. "It's still important."

He uses huge sticky sheets that he plasters on his walls when he's brainstorming a big idea. They're easy to move around as his thoughts firm up. He also uses paper for legal and tax documents that could be scanned into electronic files only to be retrieved and printed on demand.

The goal is to be more efficient, so evaluate digital tools versus paper, or digital as a backup to hard copy when trying to decide. Are you looking for storage alone? Do you need to share information with many people at work, or with a small group of trusted loved ones in emergencies? We need wills, contracts and life insurance policies on paper, but should we take the time to scan them for sharing and protection?


Storing numerous login names and passwords can be done on paper, but since it's recommended that passwords change substantially at least every six months, that could be time consuming. Merrill suggests e-mailing yourself password hints.

Plenty of software power and browser tools are available for sorting dozens of passwords. The important thing, he said, is to actually change passwords and make the changes substantial.


A paperless real-world desk isn't realistic at the end of each day, but well organized piles by subject, project or function will do a lot of good to relieve the stress and guilt of walking away from a cluttered work space that looks like a pile of loose ends.

Merrill suggests taking an hour each week to evaluate what's on your desk, determining what can go, what can be converted to digital, what needs to be in a physical file cabinet and what remains on your to-do list.

Having several e-mail accounts may be another of your unavoidable realities, but they don't need to be a source of stress. Use Gmail or smart phones, for instance, to check accounts for you so you're not constantly jumping from one e-mail server to another.