The Organized Mind – Daniel J. Levitin

I write reviews for Foment, the magazine of the Ottawa International Writers Festival.  This was the review I did for the 2015 edition.

Our brains are busier than ever before.  We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumor, all posing as information.  Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting, and at the same time, we are all doing more.  Consequently, trying to find the time to schedule all our various activities has become a tremendous challenge.  Thirty years ago, travel agents made our airline and rail reservations, salesclerks helped us find what we were looking for in stores, and professional typists or secretaries helped busy people with their correspondence.  Now we do most of those things ourselves.  The information age has off-loaded a great deal of the work previously done by people we could call information specialists onto all of the rest of us.  We are doing the jobs of ten different people while still trying to keep up with our lives, our children and parents, our friends, our careers, our hobbies, and our favorite TV shows.  It’s no wonder that sometimes one memory gets confounded with another, leading us to show up in the right place but on the wrong day, or to forget something as simple as where we last put our glasses or the remote. (xx)

This was the first of many insights contained in The Organized Mind, a book that promises to teach us how “any reader can use their (leaders in the information age) methods to regain a sense of mastery over the way we organize our homes, workplaces, and lives (cover flap).”  Daniel J. Levitin promises to show us “how new research into the cognitive neuroscience of attention and memory can be applied to daily life (cover flap again).”  In many respects, Levitin did not disappoint, but if you are looking for some quick tips on how to be organized, this is not the book for you.

The book is extremely dense, moreso than one would expect from a book that purports to be about practical applications, and the science goes into more detail than one would expect to present to people not in the field.  There is so much going on in this book, that at times I found myself lost or couldn’t remember the larger point that Levitin was trying to make.  The tips and insights are left to the reader to draw out, interspersed between the science in a way that makes them not always obvious.  On the other hand, if you have an interest in psychology or neuroscience and want to know why people are so overwhelmed these days (and maybe figure out how to improve the situation), this book would be exactly what you seek.  There are many interesting scientific findings and other tidbits of insight and information to be discovered.

The book is organized into three parts.  The first part goes into a bit about how we ended up with cognitive overload and some of the basics of attention and memory.  The middle, second part, which is also the bulk of the book, talks about how to organize various aspects of your life with each chapter’s title beginning with “Organizing” and ending with a different aspect of our lives.  Finally part three concludes the book with what to teach our children and the power of the junk drawer.  On the surface, this book seems highly organized.  So how could a reader get lost?

The first section sets the premise for the book in many ways.  Levitin introduces the concept of the highly successful person (whom he calls HSPs) as people who perform exceptionally well in this age of information overload, but we quickly discover that these are people who have executive assistants who take care of organizing their lives.  The idea then is to off-load as much of the daily organization in our lives as possible into external processes.  By making as much of the unimportant stuff as possible a routine or ritual that we don’t have to think about, we will have more energy, time, and cognitive space for what is really important.  He further teaches us how to sort our tasks/to-do piles like one of these people.

However, in the same chapter is also the opening paragraph with one thought on why there is so much cognitive overload, a section on how much information we process on a daily basis along with how that has changed through time, a section on categorizing information and how we have come to do that which includes a flow chart on familial relations (which comes in really handy if you don’t know the difference between a second and third cousin and cousins once or twice removed), and then back to how we can use categorization like an HSP.  The flow makes sense if you are looking at it from above in a big picture sort of way.  But if you don’t have time to read all nearly forty pages in one shot and you have to set it down and pick it back up, it is very easy to get lost in the middle of the loop and lose track of the point.  This same pattern continues in all the other chapters as well, some of which are considerably longer than forty pages.

The second chapter of the opening section contains an overview of the basics of attention and memory.  It is good review for people with some background on the subject.  Most importantly here, Levitin sets up and explains the difference between mind-wandering mode and intensely focused attention, concepts he will return to frequently to talk about how the brain works in a variety of situations.  Perhaps the most important thing to gain here is that both modes of thought are important and useful in their own way.

In the main body of the book (part two), Levitin goes about organizing our lives.  He begins with our homes, which makes sense because off-loading where to locate everyday items by organizing our homes is probably the easiest and quickest thing to get organized.  Essentially, the take-away message from this chapter is to do as your mother probably taught you as a child and have a place for everything and everything in its place.

Following our homes, Levitin next sets about to organize our social world.  This chapter contains a number of interesting pieces of information about how the brain work, including the role of oxytocin in establishing relationships and growing trust and how people with Autism show lower levels of oxytocin than average in their brain chemistry.  The chapter also outlines in detail a number of attribution errors that people make that distorts and misrepresents what is going on in the social world. While there are not a whole lot of tips per se in this chapter, an insightful reader could apply what they have learned to maximize the benefits of their social connections while minimizing the feeling of being left out.

The fifth chapter delves into organizing our time.  This is a subject about which much has been written and there are millions of different organizers on the market to help people organize their time.  Levitin does not focus at all on these organizers and does not offer an organizing solution here.  Instead, he discusses the psychological factors that go into time management:  dopamine in the prefrontal cortex (including implications for Autism and ADHD), the problems with the constant attention shifting involved in multi-tasking, and when and why we procrastinate.  There is an old saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person.  Levitin points out that this is true because busy people have developed the tools necessary to be able to organize their time especially effectively.  Interspersed throughout are tips and tricks for how to avoid the pitfalls of poor time management.

Levitin moves from time management into organizing information for the hardest decisions.  This is actually one of the most focused chapters of the book as he sticks mainly to how to make medical life and death type decisions.  Levitin points out our tendency to conflate factual probabilities that can be tested and proven (such as the odds of rolling a dice and getting a particular number) with subjective probabilities (such as the odds of attending a particular event) which are not really probabilities at all, but more just speculation on how a person feels at the given moment in time.  Perhaps the most important piece of advice to come from this chapter comes in the form of a quote:  “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. (228)”  Realistically speaking, the odds are that any person will be in the majority and a person should make a decision based on that fact alone, rather than playing the “what if” game and wondering if they are in the 5% (or 10% or 1%).

After organizing all the personal parts of our lives, Levitin next focuses on the business world.  Levitin discusses optimization and different possible hierarchical structures.  He adds a few useful ideas about leadership and teambuilding and prepares for the worst.  Perhaps the most noteworthy thought to take away is this:

It is now well known that some of the most productive companies – Google, Twitter, Lucasfilm, Huffington Post – provide perks such as in-house gyms, gourmet dining rooms, nap rooms, and flexible hours.  Google paid for 100, 000 free employee massages, and its campus boasts wellness centers and a seven-acre sports complex with basketball, bowling, bocce ball, and roller hockey.  The statistical software giant SAS and Toyota distributor JM Family Enterprises feature in-house health care; Atlantic Health System offers on-site acupressure massage; Microsoft’s campus has a spa; provides free yoga classes; Intuit lets employees spend 10% of their time on any project they’re passionate about; Deloitte encourages employees to donate time to nonprofits for up to six months by offering full benefits and 40% of pay.  Giving employees environments like these seems to pay, and it makes sense from a neurobiological standpoint.  Sustained concentration and effort is most effective not when fragmented into little pieces by multi-tasking, but when apportioned into big focused chunks separated by leisure, exercise, or other mentally restorative activities. (308)

While the average person may not have the benefits of such a luxurious work environment, we can learn to take restorative breaks and not spend so much of our time multi-tasking.

Finally Levitin discusses what we should be teaching our children so that they can grow up to be effective and organized adults.  Critical thinking and the ability to detect the bias of a source of information were key points.  He points to research that shows that people tend to view a bias in their favour as a neutral piece while viewing neutral writing as biased against their point of view.  Levitin also ranks problem solving and the ability to estimate reasonably as essential and impactful skills that will be the key to the quality jobs of the future.  He discusses the future of education and how things will need to change to adapt to the changes going on in the world at large.  A key element of this is having students doing more finding and using of the information (as opposed to the learning/memorising of facts that are emphasized now).

As the old saying goes, a man with one watch always knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never sure.  We are now less sure of what we know and don’t know.  More so than at any other time in history, it is crucial that each of us takes responsibility for verifying the information we encounter, testing it and evaluating it.  This is the skill we must teach the next generation of citizens of the world, the capability to think clearly, completely, critically, and creatively. (369)

In order to teach the next generation of citizens these skills, it would be prudent for us to develop these skills.  The Organized Mind is a good place to begin.

Levitin discusses at length the value of the junk drawer, that place where you put things that don’t fall neatly into other categories.  The junk drawer comes up again and again throughout the book, and the book concludes with an entire chapter dedicated to the junk drawer.  Junk drawers are essential as they hold things that cannot be categorized well, giving you a place to know exactly where an item is, even if it doesn’t have a logical home grouped with other like objects.  Junk drawers allow for successful organization of everything else.

The Organized Mind might very well be the junk drawer on cognitive research into attention, memory, and organizational skills – a very well organized junk drawer, but a junk drawer none the less.  It contains much valuable information and several brilliant insights into how and why people forget and/or confuse information and how we can organize our lives to off-load information out of our memories, making our lives more manageable.  Like the junk drawer, it is full of some of the most useful stuff.  The items in the junk drawer are well organized, but the drawer is so over-flowing that it can be overwhelming when you are looking for something specific.  Make sure you have plenty of time and try to off-load as much of your daily cognitive overload as possible before delving into this fascinating book.

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