Thursday, February 4, 2016

On Getting Organized

I'll start this personal essay by admitting that I'm just not very well organized by nature.  I'm a geographer; I specialize in place and location so you'd think I'd have some pretty good organizational skills at least at navigation.  And I do have a very strong  mental compass, but unfortunately it's poorly calibrated.  I'm sure we're traveling west but we're going south. I'm certain we should turn left -- but no, it's right.  I've written about this before -- my great humiliation -- and that kind of thing happens too often. I also lose my keys, forget people's names and sometimes go downstairs to get something just to wonder what it was.  I once even thought someone had stolen our car, because our parking place was empty as we drove past ... in our car.  "Where's the Volvo!!!?" is now a family joke.  But I do keep trying.  

Link Here
For example I read book recently called The Organized Mind; Very interesting NYT bestseller, with a lot of nice insights.  I started it in a coffee shop and  read a few chapters before I realized I'd left my phone in the washroom.  So that's me.

I've listen to several audio courses on my half hour bike commute and one was on memory. There are different kinds of memory, I learned, and they use different parts of the brain.  One type is echo memory, like the vague recollection that someone has asked you where their book is.  "huh?  what? oh it's in the living room." Vision also echoes for a second or two -- that helps our brain create fluid surroundings from a series of visual snapshots.

Link Here
Then there is procedural memory. This is the kind that lets children pick up the rules of language, this is what we often use to drive.  It's muscle memory, learning by doing.   Flashbulb memories are the kind that are suddenly stamped in your mind --- the car accident, the breathtaking view, the rude remark, the epiphany -- that sort of thing.

Then there's episodic memory, this is "memory" in everyday language.  What did you have for breakfast, what did Ms. X say today, where did you set your binoculars, and so on.   When people age, I learned, they often lose their episodic memory before the procedural memory goes.  They won't remember what they had for lunch but they can still play the violin.  And though our memory parts work independently they collaborate to form a conceivable story line. If there's a gap or contradiction, they make things up.  According to Dan Kahneman (I'm paraphrasing), the mind is a machine designed to find shortcuts. Kahneman and Tversky were the fathers of Behavioral Economics.  He wrote Thinking Fast and Slow.

So what does this have to do with organization?  We can use the different parts of memory to our advantage. For example, there's a trick called "method of loci," which has been around for a couple thousand years, in which you visually attach things you want to remember to a fixed procedural sequence.  That sequence might be a familiar routine 1) waken 2) brush teeth 3) dress, 4) feed cats, 5) make coffee, etc. Each of these conjures up a different physical location.

Let's use it. To remember five grocery items, go through the rooms.  Imagine being awakened with a splash of milk to the face, brushing your teeth with celery, finding a bucket of ground beef in your closet, instead of a cat eating at the bowl, it's a  big loaf of bread on legs.  Stir your hot coffee with a cheese stick and see it soften and melt.  The sequence can go on and on ... eat breakfast, get coat, go to garage, get in car ...  each location provides a "hook"  for a robust visual memory.

It was another course, mental math, where I learned about the "major system" for remembering numbers.  The main idea is that words are more meaningful than digits, so you turn the numbers into sounds.   0 =s, 1=t/d, 2=n, 3, m, 4=r, 5=l, 6=g/ch/sh, 7=k, 8=f/v, 9=p/b, and then turn the sounds into words. The phone number: 367-8212 becomes "magic fountain.". People who are good at this memorize a noun and verb for every two digit number, maybe three.  01=seat/sit 58=leaf/love 74=car/cure.. Then you can put together sentences quickly. I found a few Android apps for this.

The best memory hack was this, however: Half of remembering is learning it in the first place.  If you want to know where your keys are, remember to always put them in the bowl.  A place for everything, and everything in its place. The same principle -- half of remembering is learning -- works in the abstract too.  Let's take the example of  names.  Imagine a group of strangers meeting, six people in all, you're one.  Each shares their name once -- that's five short moments, just at the same instant you may be trying to make a good first impression.  "Hi I'm Justin Devinberg." ... Whaaa? Everyone might as well throw their business cards in the air.  But you can prepare in advance to catch them.  "I'm Eileen Goodwin" [OK... she leans to one side because of a short leg, and that's good, because it's a circular race and she'll win.]   There, but that took a few seconds.  If you need more time, you can buy it.  When I tell someone my name and they ask me "Is that Eric with a c or a k?" I can pretty much guess I am being processed. 

But there's so much more to organization than remembering things, names, and numbers.  I picked up a new and popular book called The Life -Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo,  a Japanese woman with a bad case of OCD.  She talks about hurrying home from school as a girn to tidy up her siblings' closet. She's horrified by soap residue on a shower rack. She recommends touching your stored clothes now and then to reassure them that you care.

But she also has some good ideas, one is folding all your clothes in rectangles and filing them in
My actual drawers.
drawers, but upright, like books.  I've done it, even to socks, sweaters and underwear. You can see everything you have when they're not piled up and flopping around; and it's very democratic -- every item has an equal voice. And there is no "off season" box in the basement because there's more room.  This is because you apply another critical principle: if it doesn't bring you joy, get rid of it. She recommends applying this to clothes, books, papers, and mementos -- in that order.  She also talks about jewelry and kitchens, never mentions workrooms, tools, or digital files, but the principles are easy to transfer.

It was surprisingly easy to go through my stuff. I found I had been wearing some clothes I don't like just to save wear and tear on those I do like. Gone.  I'd been keeping some mementos that had lost their meaning or even brought me pain, not joy.  Gone.  My book collection contained whole sections I was done with, and which had no sentimental value.  Gone.  Bag it up, move it out, but don't let anyone pick through it first, Kondo says, because they might want you to keep something for their own sentimental reasons, or because they just don't understand what's going on: you're getting orkondoganized.

Try this one: look at your stuff -- if you found that in the alley, would you bring it in?  If not, maybe it belongs in the alley. And that's not even Kondo; I came up with that one myself, years ago.

Technology is so useful for organizing.  One tool I've adopted is Microsoft Access, although others would do as well.  This is a "relational" database with which you can take any number of tables of information and link them together with a shared unique field which is simply an ID for that row of information.  That's why, say, student ID, neighborhood name, Census tract number, etc are so useful; they can reach out and shake hands with any other table containing that same information.  And if Joe can shake with Sally who can shake with Sue, then Joe can talk with Sue as well.  I have linked tables for faculty, students, courses, and schedules ... and with a button now I can generate reports: when a particular class was last taught and by whom and what was the enrollment, with percent attending on a sample day and a summary of student course evaluations ... bam.   What different courses did a particular faculty member ever teach, and its average enrollments when taught daytime, or night ... bam.  Checkbox the courses a new advisee might find most interesting and print out their description, frequency and usual term its offered ... bam. How well does this draft schedule satisfy every major -- daytime/nighttime students, graduate and undergraduate? ... bam.  What are the enrollment trends in the last 10 years, for all courses combined serving one major concentration? ... bam.

Some databases just don't lend themselves to handshakes -- they have no linking field. But you might still be able to map them if you have street address, zip code, an intersection, latitude/longitude, police beat, City ward, or any other geospatial identifier. And if you can map it, you can use location itself as the linking field -- it can shake hands with that.  So all the data in a table that contains street address can now pour over into the table that contains police beat.  You can calculate new information too: distance from, number within, area, length, buffer zones, average values of something in x for all the x's inside each area of y. And this is the easy stuff.  GIS is the sandbox where databases that didn't know each other, can meet and play. 

There is nothing like a map to organize information than includes some sort of spatial marker.  Like some of these I've linked below. I basically make maps all the time.  

Interactive Org Chart, try it!
My maps have evolved such that I now also make flow diagrams and charts, which in a sense are maps in a different dimension. They are linked in the appendix.  One is a spiral showing five years of work that goes into one university budget.  There's one that identifies amazing complexities in the hiring process for part time faculty members. There's is a circular calendar showing a full cycle
Student view of college
 of department chair duties.  In another, I offer an alternate policy on the making of policies, elsewhere I suggest a more efficient way to update course schedules, and here's two of my favorites: top left #1: an interactive full-university organization chart. Rather than the traditional top-down org chart, with one person at the top of a pyramid, this one puts each employee into center stage, surrounding them with their supervisors and direct reports.  Cooler still, I think is #2 to the right: an organization chart from the student's perspective: there's
Constitution Explained (a video)

academics, support services, extracurricular activities, etc. Step in and follow your interests.  Both of these are prototypes, because they were well ahead of their time -- but that's another story.

Maybe my best traditional flow diagram is of the Faculty Constitution (explained in a video to the left); it's an unreadable, convoluted set of articles, that parse out like this.  And a close read suggests, to me at least, ways to improve it.

This brings me to the best and deepest organizational tip for today.  It's an organization
system called Getting Things Done, created by David Allen in 2001.

The basic idea is that you clear your mind by downloading all the "actionables" into an elaborate to-do list, with all then tags and features you could imagine -- and a robust retrieval system that might contain a search tool you've designed like this: "What can I do, when I'm in my office, in 10 minutes time, on project X, sorted by priority."  Or "who did I ask an important question more than a week ago, to which they didn't reply, and get me that email please."  My GTD copy was old; Allen was talking about physical file folders in desk drawers, rolodexes, etc., but I searched for a 3rd party app and found plenty.  I settled on one called IQtell, by Ran Flam circa 2013 because it's super robust, very customizable, inexpensive and they have great support. I wrote a blog about it when I started; I like it even more now.    
Now that I've been using the system for awhile, I gave a little talk on GTD and IQtell to colleagues at the Faculty Research and Creative Activity Symposium  this year. Finding my paper sandwiched between "“Extinction by by hybridization? A probable fate for a native cattail species" and "Using worms to understand human neurodegenerative diseases" I personally invited friends who I know are busy and might like the program.  And I was right. Mostly they were too busy to attend.  But a half dozen sent regrets and for them I packaged up my presentation, added some live parts, and posted it on YouTube. Someone apparently shared it with others who shared it again and this video has had more than 1,000 viewers in just a couple of months.  For me, that's viral.

I had an interesting conversation with my son recently, who is 22 and becoming nuanced in political skills and group dynamics.  He's like me in being naturally absent minded -- let's say distracted -- and although the messes he leaves around don't bother me so much, they do bother his mother. We talked about the unspoken communication between people -- things like body position, eye contact, and the welcoming pauses in conversations. They're obvious when you think about them, they are hugely influential, but generally go unnoticed. And while we were talking about this, another obvious/subtle communication occurred to me.  When you exit a room, you may leave traces of yourself behind, and these continue to remind people of you.  "Let's say you leave a tidy place when you go back to college," I suggested to him.  "Every time we walk past your bedroom it'll sing your praises. "He's neat!  He's clean! He's organized! He's considerate!  He's respectful!  He's appreciative!  He likes his room!  He likes us!"  And that will go on for months with no further effort on your part..

Leave this behind and it represents you for months or more.
So I thought that conversation went well, and I took a look in his room after dropping him off at the train station. What exactly was the room saying about him?   I couldn't quite tell; it had it's mouth full, maybe I didn't want to know. So I took this picture and then went all Kondo on it: I cleaned it myself, No big deal... but I've learned that while some people don't care much about a mess, everyone seems to be ok with order.

1 comment:

  1. Eric (with a C) I simply love the way your brain works and your willingness to share these explorations. Entertaining, insightful and fun all wrapped up with a tidy bow. I'm waiting for you to link me with the app that taps directly to your brain, as I am still either, A: too technologically challenged to perform all of this organizational mapping (do not have a GIS background)
    Or B: just too damn lazy too self teach and slog through the trial and era steps to get me there.

    Your blogs and posts do keep me quite entertained and hopeful. Do let me know when you develop that mindmeld app instead! I'll even pay monthly dues! Thanks. Kathy


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