Organizing the Google Way

I recently read Getting Organized in the Google Era by Douglas C. Merrill (former Chief Information Officer of Google) and James A. Martin. There is a lot of information in here, some useful and some not, at least for me. Most of what the authors talk about in terms of organization has to do with information, most of that being in the digital form. They offer suggestions, hints and tips on how to stay organized in an era where information is being thrown at us 24 hours a days, seven days a week. In many ways, the best part of digital information is the ability to do a search for it. I can see how this is true – there’s so much out there that we need a way to sort through it all. And because there’s so much of it, we need a way to organize it all too.

I found a majority of the book interesting to say the least. I found some of the ideas presented to be more common sense than ingenious (maybe that’s just because I’m so organized to begin with?), but there are some ideas that really struck a chord with me. Here are a few ideas that I just have to comment on:

One of my favorite things the author talks about (all too briefly in my opinion) is the 1980’s trendy student Trapper Keeper. If you grew up in the United States in the ‘80s, you know what I’m talking about. You probably even had one. I did have one, or at least, one belonged to someone in the family, but I didn’t really use it. This was before my organizational days. From where I stand now, looking back on it, I wish I had. Merrill says, “In middle school, I started using a Trapper Keeper—which as anyone who came of age in the eighties knows, is a three-ring binder with folders, tab dividers, and a Velcro flap enclosure. I kept my pencils and pens in a zippered, plastic pouch that attached to the rings inside the binder.” I’d like to hear more about it, actually – how did he physically use the Trapper Keeper? What kinds of things did he keep in there? How were his tabbed dividers labeled? Did he have a special section in there dedicated to notes that were passed back and forth in the hallway? (Because I know I would have!) And if the Internet had been as prevalent then as it is today, would there be an online community for avid users, maybe a blog called TrappyKeepy? Maybe a Flickr group dedicated to its use with pictures of the insides, including that awesome zippered pencil pouch? Would there be such a following for the latest model, the TallDen?

He does talk a little about how it worked for him: “Consolidating my school stuff in one place, as the prevailing rules of organization dictated, helped me focus my mental capacity where it was needed most: my homework.” And isn’t that the point for any planner – to help you consolidate many items into one place (unless you use more than one at once, in which case you have many items in many places)? I wonder what the record is for the number of Trapper Keepers owned by one person…

Eventually, as often happens with planners, Merrill experienced Trapper Fail. “I loved my Trapper Keeper—until one fateful day that turned me against the one-size-fits-all organization systems for good.” (And that is why we all love Filofax – for the way we can choose our preferred size and customize it to what we each need it to be!) “I was the classic eighty-pound, bespectacled geek…In biology class, I sat next to a pretty blonde who was the love of my young life. One day, as I was putting my pencil into the Trapper Keeper’s pouch, she looked over and started snickering. Then, to my horror, she turned to her friend and said, in a stage whisper, ‘He has one of those stupid pencil things!’ Humiliated, I got rid of my Trapper Keeper and my ‘stupid pencil thing’ immediately.” Thankfully, being as we’re all adults and confident in our planner needs, none of us feels humiliated about our devotion (obsession) to (with) them. And no matter what anyone says about my planner, I would never get rid of it, no matter how hot a guy is! (By the way, the Trapper Keeper has an updated look for the 21st Century.)

The book has an entire chapter dedicated to paper versus digital planners. Generally, the book’s push is towards digital planning tools. I don’t think this is very fair. Not everyone can use digital planners effectively. Not everyone likes digital planners. The authors’ point is that digital planners are easy to use, easy to carry around and you can search for anything you save to it. These things may be true, but if your planner is organized, you know where everything is anyway and do not need to “search” for it. You simply flip open to it using your corresponding well-marked tab. The example Merrill uses to make his point his how his wife was so dedicated to her DayTimer, using it for everything and anything, both personal and work related. One day, she lost the planner and had to start over, buying a whole new system and recreating all of her information. I have to admit, I would be lost without my planner. Heaven forbid I ever lose it. And I can’t imagine have to recreate everything that’s in it. But this is not enough to get me to switch to a digital planning device. Merrill eventually bought his wife an iPhone and a Mac and supposedly she never returned to paper planners again.

The authors also have dedicated chapters on Google Calendar and Gmail applications. Since I use both of these products, I found these chapters to be quite helpful. In a later post, I will write about how I organize my Google Calendar and Gmail.

One thing the authors say outright is that there is no perfect system of organization. I, as well as most professional organizers, would agree with this statement wholeheartedly. Each person is different. Each person learns, thinks and works differently. The methods and tools one needs for organizing depend on how one does those things. Something that works for one person may or may not work for another.

I will tell you what I tell everyone who has ever told me that they wish they could be as organized as me: it takes work, a lot of work. I probably end up doing 70% more work than I need to in any given situation, but it is how it has to be if I am to be so organized. The pay-off is great though when I can pull something out in two seconds when it is needed, eliminating those wasted moments looking for something valuable to the situation at hand.

As far as the Google book goes – I would not say it is an all-inclusive organizing book. But if digital information is what you’re looking to organize, there are a lot of helpful and useful tips in there.


  1. I really don't buy any of the electronic organizing argument for a couple of reasons. I tried a Palm syncd to my lap top, and I lost count of how many times the Palm blew up. I wasn't worried about it, until one day my laptop blew up while the Palm was trying to get information from the laptop. Everything was gone.

    The other problem, how long will the technology be available that you are currently using. What happened to the floppy and all the information stored on them. I don't even have a floppy port on any of my computers now.

    Paper, properly archived, is forever, well at least my lifetime, which to me is all that matters.

  2. I can see the attraction to digital devices, but I wouldn't want to rely on one. I do use one when I'm out and about, but that's only for taking notes, which will then be transferred to the planner, or for referring to my schedule. I don't use it otherwise, for all of the reasons you said above.

  3. I had a Trapper Keeper in school and I LOVED it. It was a 3 ring binder, with a flap that velcroed shut to hold the binder closed. The folders that fit on the rings had a special design so that the pockets were oriented vertically, not horizontally (which allowed papers to fall out the top of the folder). So the folders, when shut, completely prevented papers from falling out. And with the binder velcroed shut, nothing was coming out of anywhere. It even had a special mechanism to open the rings: a sliding tab, to smoothly open them without the "Click! Click!" sound metal rings make. It was glorious. It had a photo of a baby seal on the front and I think when I purchased it proceeds went to an animal conservation organization. I felt very socially aware! I wish I still had that Trapper Keeper!

    Crofter I agree with you, digital information has none of the permanence of information recorded on paper. We can look up information written in books hundreds of years ago, now perfectly preserved. Hundreds (or even tens) of years from now, all this digital information will be lost.

  4. Laurie, with all this talk of archiving, I'm surprised you don't still have the Trapper Keeper. ;)

  5. Like Laurie
    I also had a trapper keeper. It was beautiful and I remember the colours were dark blue and yellow ( I think it was a leopard or something) but can't remember exactly. I had got someone to bring it back from the US for me as I didn't like the choice of designs available on my tiny Caribbean island!

    I tried using a palm but it just never worked for me. Now I have an iPhone and iPad and I use google calendar but I still NEED and enjoy my filos as they are much more personal.

  6. Wow, this takes me back. I got a new Trapper every year from about second grade on. I distinctly remember a red one with puppies and a black Mickey Mouse one (with a cool chalk-drawn look). In middle school and high school we were required to have Five Star zippered binders (I think my district kept them in business). I always had a tab for each class, and my spiral, school-supplied planner in front.

    I think this is why I love Filofax... it reminds me so much of my beloved Trapper, and how I used to nerd out in my planner taping things and buying Lisa Frank post-its and markers to write in it. XD

  7. I loved hearing about your Trappers, Princess & Leslie. As I mentioned, I didn't use one, but I remember admiring them at the bus stop. =)


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