Podcast 111: Quit sorting

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This is Podcast 111 and it’s called quit sorting. Like last time, this podcast is based on what I’ve gotten from reading a book called Algorithms to Live By. There are a bunch of sorting algorithms. Sorting is a common task a computer is asked to do.

I’m not going to discuss all the methods in detail but I’ll tell you that three main ones are bubble sort, insertion sort and merge sort. Since we’re talking about computers, mostly what they are sorting is numbers. With bubble sort, the computer compares two numbers and puts them in order (whatever order is required), then it goes to the numbers in the two and three place and sorts them, and on down the line. This sort repeats until the numbers are in the desired order.

Insertion sort takes numbers individually and puts them in order into a new queue, so it only needs one pass to do so. Merge sort divides up the numbers by halves until it gets to individual numbers. Then it merges them back together in ordered pairs, which combine with other ordered pairs, etc., until all the numbers are sorted. Got it?

Okay! I thought that was worth describing because although computers do this quickly with numbers, when you do it with physical stuff it can be pretty time consuming and tedious. This is why we have piles! No one wants to bubble sort their piles and I don’t blame them.

There are situations where using one of these sort methods makes sense, such as in your clothes closet. I favor insertion sorting for clothing, combined with purging your cache (listen to the previous podcast to learn about that). This means you take all your clothes out of the closet and put them on the bed. Look at the empty hanging bar and assign areas for types of garments. One example is short sleeve tops, long sleeve tops, skirts, pants, dresses and jackets.

Now pick up garments at random and ask yourself first if you still want them. If no, donate or toss. If yes, put them back on the hanging rack in the area you’ve assigned above. If you want to get fancy you can buy clothes rack dividers like the ones you see at stores to separate your categories. Continue discarding and putting away clothes until they’re all back in. Done!

I just watched a video that described the best way for sorting books on a bookshelf but honestly it looks like too much lifting to me. Books can be heavy! This method calls for moving 10 books at a time, sometimes just one spot over. For numbers, that makes sense. For physical things, not so much.

I’d go with bubble sort for books. It’ll take a while, but you only move one book at a time. Plus, with each iteration, your books are more sorted, so you can chip away at the sorting when you have time, since you’re probably not a robot who can stand in front of the bookshelf for 47 hours getting it completely in order.

Time to get to the real topic of this podcast, not sorting at all. There are plenty of areas in your home and office that you should just not bother to sort. It’s a waste of time. One such area is email. I’m not a fan of folders in my email app. I do have a few, but they are basically archive folders, places where I stash stuff that I rarely look at but when I do I want them to be in the same place.

I also see the utility of having folders for work projects if you find yourself constantly referring back to email conversations for information not recorded elsewhere, or it’s important to have an immediately available paper trail. Otherwise, folders often turn into lots of little trash bins that you fritter away time organizing and tending to.

If you never sort any of your email, how do you find a particular one again? Well, there’s the handy dandy search function that lets you find anything on your computer provided you know some key words to search for. It’s not instant. It may take a few searches to get the exact thing you’re looking for.

But! And this is a big but. You have already saved a bunch of time by not sorting up front, so the time it takes you to find this one email is already extra time. That’s the concept I’m getting at. If the chances of needing to find any one thing are small, sorting is not called for. It’s overkill. It’s a waste of time.

You can apply this to physical paper files too. I always recommend broad folder topics because subdividing is too time consuming. In my experience, people like to file their bills into folders by vendor. But ask yourself, when is the last time you looked at any of those bills? I’m talking about garden variety bills like phone or energy provider. Just put them into one big folder that’s naturally arranged by date.

Back to the books. Mine are organized by topic and that’s it. I don’t mind hunting a bit and I can’t be bothered to put a book back exactly where I found it. Another non-sorting spot is holiday décor. Half the fun of decorating is getting all your stuff out and looking at it again! I’d lump keepsakes in here too. Most of the time you won’t be searching for a particular item; you just want to feel some nostalgia.

Here’s what you can do now: Find a spot where you’re doing too much sorting. To determine that, ask yourself what the point of the sorting is. “Because they’re all phone bills” is not a good answer. Your answer needs to be based on why you might want them in the future. Make the search worth the cost.