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Who needs work-life balance?: A former Google executive says the key to a more organized and enjoyable life is integrating, not separating, the personal and professional -- with technology's help.
[March 29, 2010]

Who needs work-life balance?: A former Google executive says the key to a more organized and enjoyable life is integrating, not separating, the personal and professional -- with technology's help.

Mar 29, 2010 (Star Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- As a former top executive for Google and EMI Music, Douglas Merrill ought to be skilled at multitasking. But he's no fan of it, despite his Princeton Ph.D. in cognitive science.

Merrill, whose self-help book "Getting Organized in the Google Era" advocates using online tools to integrate our work and personal lives, says that he tries to maintain a one-at-a-time focus because it winds up being more efficient.

"Our brains weigh about 3 pounds, slightly larger than the average roasting chicken," he said. "They can only hold five to nine things at once in short-term memory. When you start a task, you pull things stored in your long-term memory into your short-term memory. When you move to the new task, you take the first one out of short-term and encode it back again in long-term. You end up changing contexts more quickly and more often, and going back and forth a lot makes the coding tend to get fragile and break more often. You're actually making each task less effective." Given his background, it's not surprising that Merrill uses computer terminology to talk about brains. Fortunately, he also believes in remembering things by putting them into stories, so the book doesn't read like a programming tutorial. He suggests creating stories around facts or numbers, because our brains remember stories more easily than dry bits of info in a contextual vacuum.

Written with technology blogger James Martin, Merrill's book (Broadway Business, $23) is based on the premise that the old rules of being organized don't take into account either individual differences or all the new technological tools at our disposal, such as the ability to keep all of our vital information "floating" in clouds accessible anywhere by any phone, laptop or PA.

Merrill believes it's not only impossible but wrong to compartmentalize life and work. The key isn't "work-life balance" but judicious integration, noting the difference between checking your Blackberry in the middle of dinner at a restaurant with your spouse and doing so while alone in the grocery line.

We should organize our calendars not according to work-related engagements and personal appointments, but by who needs access to them. For example, you might want to have a Google calendar specifically for business travel and evening work engagements, which you share with your family so they know when they'll see you.

He tends to sing Google's praises far more than those of any other online tool provider, but not exclusively, giving the Web browser Mozilla Firefox a higher rating than Google Chrome. After Gmail and Twitter, Merrill uses Things (, which organizes tasks and to-do lists, most often. Other sites he loves: Quicksilver (quick for desktop searches, and Dropbox ( for online backup, storage and file syncing.

Merrill uses a personal tragedy to illustrate why having organizational systems in place is crucial during crises. In 2006, he lost his former partner to cancer just four months after her diagnosis. During those months, he felt overwhelmed by the flood of information -- learning about the disease, keeping track of her doctor appointments and prescription drugs, and keeping other loved ones informed.

"I should have put everything on one calendar accessible online to her family and friends. But all my creativity and ability to figure those things out just slipped away during that time," he said.

He recommends using to keep track of all family medical activity, from dates of last checkups to lists of surgeries and vaccinations. This tool also integrates with pharmacies. As for the most efficient telephone tree possible, there's, a free service that allows you to dial one number to leave messages for multiple people.

Merrill has some useful tips for making all of our lives run more smoothly and efficiently in the digital age. As he writes in the last paragraph, "organizing your life takes work, but frees you up to fully experience your life." Kristin Tillotson --612-673-7046 To see more of the Star Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2010, Star Tribune, Minneapolis Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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