The Organized Mind – Book Summary

Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

Daniel Levitin
Rating: 7.4

“An impressively wide-ranging and thoughtful work…The Organized Mind is an organized book, but it also rewards dipping in at any point, for there are fascinating facts and examples throughout.”
-The Wall Street Journal

The way our brain manages information often seems mysterious. With a greater understanding of these processes, you’ll be better equipped to take charge of organizing your life. You’ll also discover how to apply simple techniques, learn the best way to remain productive at work, and even how to cope with situations that are out of your control.

#1: The brain can only focus on a limited number of stimuli at a time

Have you ever told yourself that you’d like to “get organized?” It’s an easy promise to make, but difficult to put into action. So where can you get started?

“If you’re working on two completely separate projects, dedicate one desk or table or section of the house for each. Just stepping into a different space hits the reset”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

Well, before we even approach this challenge, we must first understand in greater detail the way our mind works, more specifically, our attentional system. This is the way our brain handles and categorizes information. The times we live in pose a great challenge to this system because our brains aren’t equipped to cope with the flood of new facts and sights that we face every day. Instead, brains work best when concentrating on one thing at a time.

“No other species lives with regret over past events, or makes deliberate plans for future ones.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

This was vital for our ancestors, who hunted successfully by staying highly focused. Their thoughts would only be disrupted by important events, such as an approaching predator. Nowadays, we’re constantly attempting to do many things at once. Driving a car, listening to the radio, thinking about an upcoming business meeting – it’s not unusual that all these things happen simultaneously. This is something that our brain has not evolved to do successfully, which means that multitasking comes at a price.

When we switch our attention between different activities, our brain is unable to function effectively. This in turn causes us to make thoughtless mistakes, or forget and misplace things. In order to better understand our attentional system, we also need to consider how our brain decides how to divide its attention. It’s all to do with the brain’s remarkable ability to detect changes.

“As the old saying goes, a man with one watch always knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never sure.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

Our brains are more likely to pay attention to changes than constants. For example, imagine you’re driving your car. You suddenly notice that the road feels bumpy. Prior to this, you didn’t even consider how even the street was, simply because this was not useful information. But that realization could be vital, because it alerts you to a treacherous change in surface or a problem with your car.

“The most fundamental principle of the organized mind, the one most critical to keeping us from forgetting or losing things, is to shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

Changing circumstances can pose a threat to our survival.

#2: Because we’re surrounded by more and more information, we’re forced to make more and more decisions.

Decisions are part of everyday life: Should we opt for the cheaper internet plan, or pay more and get unlimited data? Should we respond to this email now, or read these texts first? We confront decisions like these nearly every minute. But how can our brain cope with this non-stop flow of decisions when it originally evolved to process one idea at a time?

It’s simple: we can manage the flood of information by focusing our attention. But how, exactly?

As we learned in the previous book summary, our brain instinctively concentrates on the information that is most important for us.

“Knowing that what you are doing is the most important thing for you to be doing at that moment is surprisingly powerful.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

Here’s an example: imagine you’re on a busy street, desperately looking for your lost dog. You automatically fade out all unnecessary details like the people, cars and buses, and only focus on things that are the same size and color as your dog. So unless there are a lot of other things on this street that are about knee-height, fluffy and brown, your brain immediately makes it easier to find your beloved pet.

This automatic process of honing our focus down to what’s necessary should also be reflected in our decision making. In other words, you shouldn’t spend too much time on less important everyday choices. Instead, find shortcuts and ways to simplify your decision making.

For example, one type of decision we often need to make is about purchasing products or services that can make our lives easier. A good way to analyze these decisions is by thinking about the monetary value of our own time, because it allows us to compare it to the benefit the product promises.

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin

-Book Summary by Make Me Read

Let’s say you’re thinking about hiring someone to clean your home instead of doing it yourself. Just ask yourself: Would you be willing to pay $50 for two extra hours of free time? If the answer is yes, then go for it without deliberating any further!

“It’s as though our brains are configured to make a certain number of decisions per day and once we reach that limit, we can’t make anymore, regardless of how important they are.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

#3: Find a designated place for every single object.

When was the last time you lost your keys, phone or glasses? It seems ridiculous that the objects we need with us all the time are also the ones that seem to go wandering most often. The reason is straightforward: we lose these objects because we carry them around with us. Objects that we only use in one place, like our toothbrush, seldom get lost at all.

There is, in fact, a special part of our brain dedicated specifically to remembering the location of things. It’s called the hippocampus, and it was crucial for our ancestors who needed to know where a watering hole was, or the areas where predators might pounce.

In order to learn more about our hippocampi, researchers studied the brains of London taxi drivers, as they are required to commit the city’s street plan to memory. The tests revealed that the hippocampi of the drivers were larger than hippocampi in other people of similar education and age. These larger hippocampi were attributed to the need to recall many locations in detail.

“The constant nagging in your mind of undone things pulls you out of the present—tethers you to a mindset of the future so that you’re never fully in the moment and enjoying what’s now.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

However, the hippocampus can only provide us with information about objects whose location doesn’t change. This isn’t a problem for a taxi driver trying to remember how to get to a particular building, but is a constant problem for us when we try to remember where our frustratingly mobile keys are.

To ensure that you don’t always have to seek out these essential items, simply find a designated place for them. A special bowl next to the door for your keys always does the trick!

If you can’t set aside a certain place for an object, then it may also help to purchase duplicates. For example, if you need reading glasses, having a single location for them might prove frustrating as you may need them in different places. Instead, you could purchase a pair for your bedroom for nighttime reading, while another pair remains at work.

#4: Give your brain a break – move your organizational processes outside your head.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by all the different ideas and thoughts floating around inside your head? The best way to ensure you can keep track of them is to organize them outside your head.

A time-tested trick to unburden your brain is to write things down. Good old-fashioned flashcards are an easy and effective way to record and organize ideas as soon as you think of them.

For example, you might be on the bus and suddenly remember that you still have to buy a birthday present for your aunt. Don’t stress, just write it down and you’ll no longer have the burden of trying to remember it all day!

“Neuroscientists have discovered that unproductivity and loss of drive can result from decision overload.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

On the other hand, if you think of something that you could do right away – such as calling your aunt to say happy birthday – then don’t think twice, do it immediately. Think of it in terms of the two-minute rule: if the task takes longer than two minutes to complete, then write it down. Otherwise, do it straight away.

Another effective approach is to organize your written thoughts into categories. This mirrors the way our brains are constantly categorizing new stimuli and helps simplify our thinking, thus saving time and increasing our attention capacity.

For example, if we see a flying object with feathers, our brain recognizes it as part of the category “bird.” Though this bird might be a hawk or an eagle, it’s easier to place it in this broader category rather than identify it specifically.

The same goes for our flash cards – collect them together and sort them into different groups according to the topics they relate to. These could be categories such as “Personal Life,” “Work” or “Kids.”

This way you’ll be able to keep your thoughts and ideas organized and accessible.

#5: Junk drawers for miscellaneous items are incredibly effective – use them every day.

We’ve seen how creating categories is a great way to organize our thoughts and our lives. But what should we do with objects and ideas that don’t seem to belong in any pigeonhole? Well, these miscellaneous items can form their own category.

The categorizing tendencies of the brain can be seen in the way that we organize our living spaces. In our homes, there’s usually at least one place where random objects like single light bulbs, paper clips or car-cleaning products go. Why? Because it wouldn’t make sense to have a special drawer for light bulbs if you only had a few – combining them with other spare objects is much more space efficient.

You could even use one of these junk drawers at work. A miscellaneous folder, perhaps, containing documents that don’t fit into other folders but are also too important to dispose of. However, junk drawers will only be effective if we perform a little bit of maintenance from time to time.

“In order to understand one person speaking to us, we need to process 60 bits of information per second.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

The first way to do this is to keep checking their content regularly. This stops us losing track of what’s in there, which would reduce its organizational advantage. Some items can be eliminated from a junk drawer – if you’re sorting through objects that you haven’t yet felt the need to use, it’s unlikely that you’ll need them in the future. These can be thrown out.

You may also find that items in junk drawers can be moved to other places for more specific types of objects later. For example, perhaps you’ve recently developed an interest in scrapbooking. If you go through your junk drawer, you’ll almost certainly discover objects that could find a new home in the scrapbooking drawer – that extra pair of scissors, maybe, or the double-sided sticky tape.

#6: Set aside time to refuel so you can increase your productivity later.

Everyone knows that you tend to be far more productive after a good night’s sleep. And yet, we’re often tempted to skip a few hours of kip in order to work just a little bit more.

This, however, is a mistake. Our brain works incredibly hard while we sleep, processing new information from the day, and integrating it into our existing knowledge. Memories, problems, and ideas often appear in our dreams and we may find ourselves better positioned to solve a problem after “sleeping on it.”

“Conscientiousness comprises industriousness, self-control, stick-to-itiveness, and a desire for order.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

This phenomenon is backed up by studies. Researchers found that students attempting to solve a problem performed better following a night of sleep than they did working on it for the same length of waking time.

Ultimately, you’re twice as likely to solve a problem after you’ve slept on it. This shows that sleep is essential, and attempting to work when you’re tired is counterproductive.

Sleep isn’t the only way that we can refuel our minds. Many companies have discovered the benefits of decreasing employee work time and providing facilities and opportunities for rest.

For example, at Microsoft, employees are welcome to use the in-house spa to relax and recharge. This is not only great for employees but, as studies have shown that productivity increases when working hours drop, the use of downtime in facilities such as these may well be a driving force behind increased productivity.

“It’s not just that we remember things wrongly (which would be bad enough), but we don’t even know we’re remembering them wrongly.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

Accounting firm Ernst & Young has also improved worker performance by allowing additional vacation time. In fact, for every additional ten vacation hours taken by employees, the employees’ performance rating increased by eight percent.

#7: It’s important to think about the worst-case scenario so you’re always prepared

Imagine this: you’re on vacation and have just found out that the airline has lost your luggage.

How would you react? Of course, it’s good to be optimistic – perhaps they’ll find your bag! But it’s better still to be prepared. Good thing you brought that extra toothbrush!

“No other species live with regret over past events, or makes deliberate plans for future ones.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

Each time you plan something, you should consider all the things that could go wrong and think of a solution to them before they occur. Planning for failure in this way needn’t be difficult – it’s as straightforward as placing an extra key under the flowerpot by your front door.

A plan B is especially important in business situations. It’s true that sometimes things just happen. You forget an important appointment, or you lose the contact details of someone you need to speak to.

“The best-remembered experiences are distinctive/unique or have a strong emotional component.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

But, if you plan your time ahead, these mistakes will be less likely. With the assistance of an electronic calendar, either on your phone, computer, or both, you can ensure you’ll never forget about meetings again.

A plan B at work can also include keeping an extra shirt in your office, in case you accidentally spill your coffee before an important appointment with your boss!

It’s also important that we don’t rely on technology alone to prevent us from slipping up. Phones, computers and other technical devices aren’t perfect and at some point will let us down without warning. This is why you should also prepare non-technical solutions as a backup.

This is something that your taxi driver does. They always keep a plastic credit card press in their car in case their electronic credit card machines doesn’t work. This way, they can ensure they don’t lose any fares due to technical failure.

“Writing them down gives both implicit and explicit permission to the rehearsal loop to let them go, to relax its neural circuits so that we can focus on something else.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

#8: We can’t know the answer to every question, but we can know where and how to find it!

Today, we lead very different lives to our grandparents. One of the greatest changes is the way we can easily access vast amounts of information in no time at all. Googling something takes less than a minute! Nevertheless, there’s one important question we should continually ask ourselves: Is this information reliable?

Many of us have used Wikipedia before. The information it can provide us on a wide range of topics is hugely helpful, but is subject to a major drawback. Anyone is able to edit the information on a Wikipedia page, so we can never immediately be sure whether it is reliable. This means we should take the time to verify the information.

In order to evaluate whether a website is a valuable source or not, we can first investigate whether any reliable websites, such as established news services or government websites link to the website. If so, the site itself is likely to be reliable, and information can also be verified by cross-checking it with the content on several other websites.

However, not every problem can be solved by checking online. In complex dilemmas, particularly in the workplace, you’ll need to think for yourself in order to find solutions. Inventive and innovative thinking is something you just can’t google for! In such cases, the ability to reason, estimate and develop hypothetical assumptions is vital.

“Alternative medicine is simply medicine for which there is no evidence of effectiveness.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

For example, in Google’s own job interviews, potential candidates are confronted with a question that has no correct answer. Here’s one for you to try on for size: “How much does the Empire State Building weigh?” Google was interested in whether the candidate could use their logical skills to work through a problem on their own, for example, by calculating the approximate size and weight of the concrete used for the building.

#9: Get to grips with probabilities and gain a vital skill for assessing information

Imagine you’re at a university where ten percent of students are engineers. Look, here comes a student wearing a pocket protector: a plastic sheath for holding pens in your shirt pocket. Now, what would you say is the probability that this is an engineering student?

The fact that a pocket protector is a standard accessory for the stereotypical nerdy student might cause many of you to think he very likely studies engineering. But remember the ten percent ratio. If 90 percent of students aren’t engineers, it’s far more likely that our pocket-protector friend doesn’t study engineering.

Our initial misconception reflects the way in which a person or situation that seems a perfect example of something can cause us to ignore the base rate. A base rate is the probability of an event occurring without taking other factors into account.

“Two of the most crucial principles used by the attentional filter are change and importance.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

Along with base rates, we must also keep in mind that our perception of probability is often relative to the situation we are currently in – our starting point.

Imagine that you’re very sick. Your doctor offers you a treatment that will increase the likelihood of your recovery by ten percent. If the treatment increases your likelihood of recovery from zero to ten percent, you’ll go from certain death to a ten percent chance of living. And, if it increases from 90 percent to 100 percent, your recovery is guaranteed. In both cases, you’ll likely opt for the treatment.

But what if it increases from 20 percent to 30 percent? Then, you might hesitate and inquire about the side effects and cost of the treatment before agreeing to it.

From a statistical perspective, this is bizarre since in all of these cases, the increase of ten percent is the same. The scenarios just feel different because of their varying starting points.

“We all want to believe that we can do many things at once and that our attention is infinite, but this is a persistent myth.”

-The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin – Book Summary by Make Me Read

Though our brains often have difficulty dealing with probabilities, by remembering the mathematics behind them, we can make our choices with a greater and more objective understanding of their implications.

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