Tools for Managing [digital or physical] Clutter

I was re-reading Algorithms To Live By by Brian Christian this week–which is a book that draws analogies between computer algorithms and human problems. The chapter on memory caching has great advice for personal organization.

Here are the tools:

  • Least-recently-used is the best guide for what goes where
  • Use the left-side insertion method when storing anything
  • Create a system with with multiple levels of caches
  • Use geographic proximity to manage your storage

Sorting vs. Searching

The author makes a straightforward point before sharing the tools: you should never spend more time sorting that you will save by being organized in the future. The easier it is to search, the less you should sort. So – start by putting your mind at ease: it can be optimal not to organize, depending on the items you’re dealing with.

Least-Recently-Used (LRU) as a Guide

The best method for knowing when you will need something in the future is when you used it in the past. The things you’ve used most recently are the one’s you’ll need again most quickly. Unless we have reason to think otherwise, we should expect the future to mirror the past.

Left-Side Insertion Rule

Because least-recently-used is the best estimate of the future, you can use the left-side insertion rule to manage your filing system.

  • You can use this method for files in a filing cabinet, books on a shelf, clothes in a closet, or anything else you keep track of
  • Whenever you use a object put it back on the left-side of the storage space
  • When you run out of space, evict from the right-side to longer term storage

The best part: you don’t need a big effort to get started. Instead, implement this rule, and you’ll gradually sort your items optimally with this principle, simply by putting them back into place.

Multiple Levels Caches

It’s best to have several different types of storage based on how easy you need access to be for the objects you’re using.

Instead of having one large closet for all your clothes, consider having a closet and a storage area in the basement. Instead of one large filing cabinet, have an inbox on your desk, a small filing cabinet in your office, and an area for papers in a storage room.

This allows you faster access to the things you need, while still keeping track of all the things you want.

One interesting take-away: no matter how you use it, having a cache makes memory systems more efficient. So – no matter how you choose to move things between short and longer term storage (even randomly), having both makes the system more efficient.

Use Geographic Proximity

Design your shortest-term storage so items are placed near where they’ll be used. We keep our coats and shoes by the door. But also keep the books we’re reading by our office (if that’s where we read), our correspondence by where we write, etc.

I thought these were helpful tools–and will be implementing the left-side rule right away. Hopefully they help you stay organized with less effort as well!

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