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Sorry, folks. You’re No. 8 on my list

Submitted by on Thursday, 11 February 2010 No Comment

Years ago, a reporter handed me a cartoon outlining OSHA regulations covering how many people were allowed to ride her butt at one time. Because I was No. 8 in line I’d have to wait unless she decided to install handrails, the joke read.

I was her editor and couldn’t quite figure out how to take it. Bosses overwhelming reporters? Never!

Twenty years down the road, though, I’ve had an epiphany that makes the elegance of that simple sketch crystal clear.

The light clicked on as I read a chapter in “Born Digital” that covered information overload.

Information overload? Me? Nah, I’ll get to the 408 articles queued up in my RSS reader sometime today. The process actually goes much quicker now that I’ve quit clicking on pieces that are little more than a tease. But I digress …

The chapter in the book mention research that found we can keep only about seven items at a time in our working memory. The rest we begin to filter out, kind of the way I can ignore the guys’ feuding when I really, really need to get something done.

I looked into the theory a little more – it’s known as “Miller’s Law” – and discovered that the magic seven refers to chunks, not necessarily individual bits of information.

Clearly, I need to do a better job of chunking my life.

Today’s list as it appeared this morning: Make sure the guys are clothed, make sure they put their Valentines in their backpacks, picked up cupcakes for Boots’ party, go to Boots’ party not looking like something the cat dragged in, pick Big Guy up after drama class, take Big Guy to his soccer game, write three articles and plan dinner.

Oops. That’s eight things. I’ve written only one article, and I have no idea what we’re having for dinner. Cheerios, anyone? I also forgot to eat breakfast – it wasn’t on my list to begin with – which means Boots wasn’t the only one who left the party with a big-time sugar buzz. I juke, but a mom passed out at Boots’ soccer practice the other night after she’d forgotten to eat. There has to be a better way.

What if, though, I’d chunked my list: Write, make sure the guys have everything ready, gather up stuff for and go to Boots’ party, chauffeur Big Guy and make sure everyone eats.

Oops again. Later research found that memory might be limited to four chunks in young adults, and I’m not so young anymore. I knew there was going to be hitch. I guess I’d still be eating spaghetti at 1 p.m. for my first non-sugary meal of the day even if I’d implemented the chunk system.

So if I cannot trim my to-dos to seven items or narrow the tasks to four chunks, it seems that the only viable solution is a distinctly analog approach in a digital age.

I need to start making lists again.

Copyright 2010 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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