Braindump: Managing Documents II

It’s a dreary Wednesday morning, but my spirit is lighter because my backlog of immediate to-do items is very short. As a result, I’m feeling like tackling one of the back-burnered projects on my Trello board! However, as I ticked through the list of candidate projects, I felt a gnawing discontent at the required effort to gather and organize the source materials just so I was ready to start the real creative work.

This has always been a sore point with me, and when I was in grad school I had stumbled upon a paper as part of my research on user interface design that echoed my feeling of discontent: most of my time was spent doing dumb stuff before I could do the actual work. I’d forgotten which paper it was, mistakenly thinking it had been something Douglas Englebart had written; it was actually J.C.R. “Lick” Licklider and his 1960 paper Man Machine Symbiosis that had struck me. It is a fabulous paper, and it was incredibly inspiring to me back when I was defining my philosophy of software design.

Anyway, in section 3.1 of Man Machine Symbiosis, Licklider writes about logging just what he did as “work”, and was dismayed at what he found. He summarizes his findings as follows (emphasis mine):

About 85 per cent of my “thinking” time was spent getting into a position to think, to make a decision, to learn something I needed to know. […] Throughout the period I examined, in short, my “thinking” time was devoted mainly to activities that were essentially clerical or mechanical: searching, calculating, plotting, transforming, determining the logical or dynamic consequences of a set of assumptions or hypotheses, preparing the way for a decision or an insight. Moreover, my choices of what to attempt and what not to attempt were determined to an embarrassingly great extent by considerations of clerical feasibility, not intellectual capability.

The reason I bring it up is because I’m facing this issue from a slightly different direction: document management. In April I wrote about the pain of managing documents that were numerous in both type and location, and I’d found it irritating that I had to spend so much energy re-establishing my “working context”. This is very much related to what Licklider was talking about with regards to “85 percent of ‘thinking’ time” going into clerical/mechanical work before he could do the actual thinking. There’s got to be a better way, right?

I know, I know…how long does it really take to open a few directories and launch some applications? It’s probably about 30 seconds, tops, going by the clock. For me, though, those 30 seconds are like running through a minefield, distractions waiting to detonate whenever I open a new window, every step of the way. I have a terrible memory, probably because I don’t like having to remember things in the first place, so my initial few seconds are spent overcoming that resistance. I try to recall exactly where the files are, and where I left off. Then, I have to somehow load those files without having ANOTHER thought while I’m waiting. For me, that is quite difficult; although my short-term memory is terrible, my associative memory is really good. EVERYTHING I see immediately reminds me of SOMETHING ELSE, often with considerable detail. So, every step I take to load all files, applications, and web pages is fraught with the potential for distraction. I’d like to reduce that as much as possible by reducing time and mental effort to “load the context” so I can work. I’d love to be able to quickly switch between projects at the speed of thought.

How might this work? It might be like git checkout <branch> for the brain, to use a software development analogy. A real-world analogy might be having dedicated rooms for each project, with every tool and resource exactly where you left it next to the giant project on the main table. To switch projects, you just walk to its room, and everything is there waiting for you.

That’s what I would like my document management solution to do.