In Search of Less Data Waste

Data waste is an awful yet potent nemesis.

Here €™s the problem: every day, every person is bombarded with 16 hours of information. This information might be ideas in your own head about what you want to say, who you want to talk to, projects you want to tackle, improvements you want to make (to yourself or at work), or… anything. It might be something as nuanced as this blog. It might be as simple as remembering who you intend to thank. But every day, there is a lot of data being generated by our head.

Meanwhile, there is as much or more information relayed to us by those we interact with. People tell us how to improve ourselves, a great hike, where to shop, how to be productive, what it will be like to grow old, how to make a million dollars, what funny TV show or web site we should visit. Or any of millions of other things.

As one receives their 16 hours daily data, there emerges three choices.

Choice number one, which I think is probably used by at least half of all people, is to sit back, listen to all that data, and trust that the really important stuff will get captured by your memory and occur to you again when it becomes applicable. If none of the data you are receiving is imperative to your well-being, then you can certainly continue to exist while you arbitrarily remember some data and forget other data. But this choice puts a great deal of faith in the subconscious mechanisms that are choosing (based on factors we largely don €™t understand) what to remember and what not to remember.

Choice number two is to employ a few key systems to stay organized in things that matter most to you. Choice number two is what is used by people who keep a calendar of upcoming events and a filing cabinet of tax documents and a list of passwords and the like. Choice two is basically choice one, but for people who need a simple way to capture esoteric data that affects their well being. You €™re still at the mercy of memory for 75% of the data you receive every day. Different flavors of choice number two are what I €™ve employed to this point. I have slowly accumulated a sundry collection of what’s now about 15 different organizational systems, including Google Calendar, a filing cabinet, and various Gmail “drafts.”

Choice number three is to constantly quest for the Panacea to All Data Wasting (PADW). Looking at the piecemeal list of organizing systems I currently maintain, it €™s clear that my ad hoc organizational network isn’t working as well as it could, nor as well as I need it to. Speaking as a computer scientist, the essence of the problem seems to be that there are gigs of incoming data available for us to learn, but we only have megs of memory in our brains to store it. If that. Off the top of my head, I think the following are the key components of PADW.

1) Figure out somewhere with the capacity to store gigs
2) Ensure that the time it takes to retrieve data from said place scales well with large amounts of data
3) Come up with an algorithm for organizing that data such that we €™ll know where to look for it and
4) Make a plan for what happens if the storage medium fails.
5) Design medium such that it is accessible anytime, anywhere

It is true that I might be getting overly geeky about this, but with each day it becomes increasingly apparent to me that without PADW, I am going to be throwing away perfectly good data. For example, here’s some data I’ve received in the last 16 hours that fits in none of my systems (and is thus likely to be lost by the time I need it): Katy tells me that the REI online outlet store has great prices and delivers to Redmond REI free of charge; Ben tells me that there are monthly meetings of “lonely programmers” (programmers without projects) in Seattle that I can attend if I Google the right terms; a friend mentioned, which is officially the many-eth time I’ve heard of that site without visiting it (unless I did visit it and forgot about it). Where would I file these sorts of information? Let alone information I get from people like my grandparents when I visit them and they tell me about experiences in their life that aren’t applicable to me today, but that I would do well to remember for future situations.

It breaks my heart to let this perfectly good data go to waste. It’s even worse when I visit a bookstore and read random books about Argentina or life as a single mother — lots of fascinating and someday useful data that would never fit in the 2 MB memory the human designer has outfitted me with. Anyone got a clue about how to fix this?

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