Podcast 110: What’s in your cache?

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This is podcast 110 and it’s about algorithms! If you have math fear, please don’t run away. This isn’t going to be about math. An algorithm, as far as I can figure out, is a process to achieve a particular result. It’s not a single rule or formula. It involves a number of steps.

A friend suggested a book to me called Algorithms to Live By which is about the computer science of human decisions. We rely on computers to be rational and logical and not swayed by the messiness of human lives. But we also use them to help with human issues such as when to leave things to chance and how to deal with overwhelming choices.

The chapter I’m reading now is about caching. In computer terms, the cache is a subset of memory where things are stored temporarily and usually the items in there are frequently used. Other data is stored in places that are less accessible than the cache. In your computer, as RAM, random access memory, or storage. This dovetails quite nicely with how you should organize your physical stuff. Keep the things you use a lot close at hand, and the ones you don’t farther away and less accessible. The authors even quote Martha Stewart!

Even with exabytes of memory, computers have to organize their storage space to maximize speed. There are several methods of doing that. The ones in the book are random eviction; First in, first out; and least recently used.

Surprisingly, random eviction works, mainly because managing your cache of stuff at all, whether on your computer or in your closet, is better than not doing it. That means randomly selecting items that don’t get to stay out and close at hand and putting them farther away. Another reason it works is that things you use a lot will end up back in the cache anyway pretty quickly.

First in, first out, means that you toss out stuff you’ve had the longest. Supposedly, Martha Stewart phrased this as “How long have I had it?” I couldn’t find an attribution for this online, other than the quotation in the book. From an organizer’s point of view, I think this is a pointless question. There are many things we keep for a long time, even forever, that we don’t want to get rid of, and sometimes shouldn’t get rid of. Age has nothing to do with utility or value.

The next method makes sense though. That’s the least recently used criteria. You could relate that to the age criteria in that something brand new hasn’t enough history of use to be evaluated yet, while something old that is almost never used (or loved and appreciated) has got a lot of points against it.

How does this work on your desk? It means the files and books and materials that you’re using for a current project are on the desk, but ones you used for a now-completed project, or that you’ve acquired for future use are stored in drawers or cabinets and not on your desk. That applies to supplies also. You keep your stapler on the desk, but the box of staples is in the cabinet.

At home, you have salt and pepper on the table all the time, but the other spices are in a cabinet. You have the towel you’re using on the bathroom rack, but the rest of the towels are in the linen closet. Your daily workout gear is in a bureau drawer but gear for winter sports is in the garage during the summer.

Here’s a variation I found on Wikipedia: Time aware Least Recently Used. This means the data has a time stamp on it because at some point it will no longer be useful and will be replaced or deleted. You could apply this to clothes you realize you just don’t wear anymore, old newspapers and any product that has an expiration date.

Then there’s a variation on least recently used which is Least-frequently used. That’s a helpful criteria to take into account. You might have just used that three hole punch, but it’s the first time in two years. That has a bearing on whether you want to cache it or not. It applies to holiday décor too. You only use it once a year, but you definitely use it.

So what’s in your cache? What are the things that, based on the algorithm of your choice, deserve to stay out and accessible? You’re already naturally using some kind of algorithm, even if it’s random eviction, but you can up your game by thinking of how often and how recently you’ve used things.

You’ve probably been prompted to clear the cache on your computer or browser. It saves things you’ve used recently but it gets full unless you clear it. In that case, it sweeps the cache out completely; no algorithm needed.

You can be more selective, but you need to keep your cache under control or you have everything out all the time. Podcast 9 was about the 10 minute tidy up. That’s cache clearing, plain and simple. Put away the things you’ve used, choosing either nearby or farther away storage spots.

I cautioned against using random eviction in that podcast because you run the risk of shoving a bunch of miscellaneous items into a closet just to get them out of the way, but retrieving them again on demand is much harder than if you put them into assigned spots. In some instances this kind of cache clearing is indicated, such as when guests are coming over and you’ve been too busy to clear off the table.

I realize I talked about this method in podcast 106 when I mentioned using big trash bags to clear out my college dorm room so I could concentrate on writing a paper. But! I always went back to empty out that bag and get things to where they needed to go.

What you can do right now: take a look at a nearby cluttered surface. What things do you use a lot and can stay? What things have you recently used and most likely will again soon, so they can stay too? Remember that your cache is limited, although you get to choose that limit. Try to be strict about what remains in cache and what needs to go back to storage.