The Self-ordering Heap

I want to introduce you to the best ‘productivity hack’ I have ever come across. This system works with your brain rather than against it as most productivity systems do. There is literally nothing to learn or remember, no software to install, no special equipment necessary. You can begin using this system right now, no setup or installation required!

Sound too good to be true? Wondering how much such an all-encompassing productivity suite will cost? Will you believe me when I say $0, as in FREE!?

The truth is, God has already done the hard work on this one. You have behind your eyes and between your ears the most advanced ordering and cataloging software ever devised, yet most people use it less the more elevated they climb in the professional world.

After 20 years of testing the system I am about to explain, I have found it to be robust, adaptable, platform agnostic and technology independent. No other organisational system I have tried comes even close to the reliability of the self-ordering heap. The principle was taught to be by my boss in 1989, he had truly perfected the system and several others in our department were also experts in its use.

The hard copy system

The idea is very simple. In the eighties offices were primarily paper based so I will explain the implementation in that environment before discussing how it works electronically. Imagine your desk with a clear area where you work. Surrounding this area is a semi circular heap of paper, like the rim of a crater. As you work away in the centre of this circle the current document is in the middle and if something more important or urgent comes in you plonk it on the heap. It doesn’t matter where, it will simply be on top somewhere.

You carry on working on the currently most urgent document. Then a phone call comes in asking about something you did yesterday so you shuffle through the pile and find that piece of paper, bringing it to the clear centre. On finishing the phone call you either toss the relevant bit of paper back on the heap, chuck it in the rubbish if it is no longer needed, file it if desired for future reference or mail it to the appropriate person. Find what you need to work on next from the pile and carry on.

Occasionally as you riffle through paper on the desk, something will fall off the edge. This attracts your attention so it is retrieved and quickly scanned to see if it is important. In some cases you realise it is extremely important and should have been delivered yesterday so you drop everything and attend to it. Most times it is still important but not yet urgent so back on the heap it goes. Other times you discover that it is way past it’s due date and thereby now useless, so it goes in the rubbish. This is how the heap becomes ‘self-ordering’.

The beauty of this system is it’s absolute simplicity, you don’t need to do any organising at all, just respond to the triggers as they arise and you know that everything you need to do today’s work is right there somewhere in the heap. This is the complete opposite of the “GTD” methodology or any of the other supposedly sophisticated task management systems. The heap requires no specific upkeep and builds itself. It utilises the natural power of your own mind to make discrete, immediately actionable decisions, giving a sense of achievement while also keeping a clear view of the work to be done.

The heap is so incredibly easy to use and implement because it rests upon a fundamental law of physics; entropy. All systems move towards a state of maximum entropy (disorder), to maintain any system in a state of ‘order’ requires the input of energy. Why waste valuable energy and time maintaining order in a system which has the sole purpose of making you ‘efficient’? This is not efficiency, it is directing energy and time away from the work you should be doing plus adding distraction and stress each time your precious productivity system is nudged yet again back towards it’s preferred state of chaos. Go with the flow man, use the self-ordering heap.

Harness the laws of physics to enable you to focus upon the important work rather than on maintaining a productivity system.

On your computer

As I mentioned, the heap works completely independent of technology. You could try it using a notebook but unfortunately the lines and pages of a notebook do act as constraints upon the heap’s self-ordering tendency. Computers, however, are a fantastic facilitator of the heap. Consider your computer desktop (and why such a metaphor is so apt for that space!) or email inbox as examples.

The natural tendency is for a large folder of computer files to become increasingly messy as more stuff is added. Do not fight this. Instead harness the power of your brain, the heap and your computer together to allow the heap to work for you.

The only thing you need to do is put everything in one big folder (well, and to resist sorting it!). Due to software constraints it may be necessary to have several heaps on your computer, such as an email inbox and desktop folder. Most computer stuff is happy in one of these two places. Then simply let the heap work for you – you know exactly where to look for anything, desktop or inbox. For the desktop folder it may be worth making the folder view sort by date modified rather than by name, and now just focus on the recent stuff and let others remind you of anything else.

Occasionally you may want to scroll down a bit and allow serendipity to draw your attention to some old document that has gathered gamma rays. If it is still useful then use it, if not use the trash can – it is there for a reason.

If you can’t find something, the computer has a search function, and by keeping everything in one place it is even more efficient, only one folder to search!

But what about the ‘falling off the edge of the desk’ function? For a similar mechanism on the computer wait until you begin to run out of hard disc capacity then go the the bottom of the list when sorted by ‘last modified’ and start deleting. If anything important is there you will see it and have an “Oh my God!” moment. Epiphanies are good, savour them.

So I say “phooey” to Inbox Zero, Getting Things Done and the Pomodoro Technique. Entropy all the way for me!

(By the way, this is what is commonly called a piss-take, but there is truth in here too.)

Update (September 2015): A somewhat related concept that I stumbled across well after writing this post: Time Sort (Noguchi) Filing System.