As smart as you think your are, your brain can only handle so much, so stop over-extending it by trying to check Twitter, read the web and use email all at once.At least, that’s Google’s ex-CIO, Douglas Merrill told us on the phone last week.
When we’re trying to do a bunch of things at the same time, we’re just being inefficient, he says.
“Your short term memory is limited to holding five to nine elements. If you do more than that at once, you’ll drop things. The process of moving things from the short term memory to the long term memory is error prone,” says Douglas.
Douglas has a Ph.D in cognitive science from Princeton, was CIO at Google, and a COO at EMI. Now, he’s working on a stealth startup in the financial services space. He also just released a new book called, “Getting organised In The Google Era,” in which he tries to help people stay focused.
Douglas’s advice is pretty straight forward. Here’s the key points of what he told us:
- Don’t try to learn things. You don’t need to. There’s a great story of a journalist walking around a Princeton campus with Albert Einstein asking him questions. At the end of the walk, the journalist asks for Einstein for his number. Einstein walks to a pay phone, grabs a phone book, looks up his number and reads it off. The reporter asks why Einstein doesn’t have it memorized. He says, “I don’t need to, it’s in a book.”
- Get stuff out of your head. Today, it is so cheap to store information, on a hard drive or in the cloud, you should do that.
- Never multitask. We’ve been told to multitask, but it’s a bad idea. If your brain is on the first task, it then switches context for the second task. When you switch to task B, you pull stuff from your long term memory for it. As you switch tasks, you lose focus, so each task is less effective. Multitasking does not improve productivity, it’s worse.
- Focus on one task. Turn the phone away from your eyes, so you can’t see who’s calling on caller i.d. People can generally focus for an hour at a time. So, work for 45 minutes, then get up and take a walk to clear your mind. To thrive, the brain needs breaks.
- Don’t confuse being neat for being organised. Douglas says his office looks like a disaster, but once a week he goes through the clutter and throws stuff out, shreds things, etc. This way he has an understanding of what’s in his office and on his desk.
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