Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Review of Bit Literacy

Mark Hurst. Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload. New York. Good Experience Press. 2007. $22.99.

I've just gone from reading Finding Time Again — the final volume of In Search of Lost Time — to reading Mark Hurst's Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload, which is, in another way, about finding time again.

Bits are 1s and 0s, binary digits, the stuff of all digital data. Bit Literacy develops the implications of two incontrovertible statements: "Bits are heavy," overloading us with ever-increasing amounts of stuff, and "Your bits are your responsibility" (i.e., no piece of software can save us). The overall strategy to attain bit literacy: "Let the bits go."

Mark Hurst unpacks this strategy in chapters devoted to managing e-mails, to-dos, files, and online reading. What does a bit-literate person do? He or she empties the in-box of its e-mails daily (but not by replying to everything), tracks to-dos online, creates files that avoid proprietary formats, names and organizes those files in a coherent system of folders and sub-folders, and reads online sources with careful discrimination. (The goal here is not to Rule the Web, but to get in and out as efficiently as possible.)

Bit Literacy is a sharply-defined alternative to David Allen's Getting Things Done. Hurst mentions neither Allen nor GTD by name, but references to folders, "next actions," and a "complex paper-based system" make the point. I can't imagine keeping David Allen's 43 folders either, but I also can't imagine agreeing with Hurst's general claim that paper is an ineffective tool for managing to-dos.¹ Hurst's to-do strategy uses his own Gootodo, an elegant web-based tool. But the great advantage of paper-based tools, or at least some paper-based tools, is their portability and immediate availability. I can enter call numbers in my datebook (Moleskine page-a-day) and have them at hand when I'm in the library. And scheduling future tasks can be simple on paper: I can write "pick up dry cleaning" (to use a to-do example from Bit Literacy) on the appropriate page in my Moleskine when I'm at the dry cleaner, instead of having to hold the thought until I'm at a computer.

About paper, Mark Hurst and I will have to disagree. But in all other respects, I found Bit Literacy persuasive and inspiring (so persuasive and inspiring that I ordered a copy within an hour or so of getting the book from the library). I recommend Bit Literacy to anyone interested in bringing clarity and sanity to life among the bits.

And now I shall contemplate the emptiness of my in-box.

Bit Literacy (Book website)
¹ Why 43 folders? 31 + 12 = 43. One folder for each day of the month, and one for each month of the year.

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