The Organized Mind

Summary Written by Jill Donahue
"A funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century: The plethora of information and the technologies that serve it changed the way we use our brains."

- The Organized Mind, page 16

The Big Idea

Decision overload

"Millions of neurons are constantly monitoring the environment to select the most important things for us to focus on"- The Organized Mind, page 7

Three hundred years ago, someone with a college degree in “science” knew, well, everything there was to know. Now you can have a PhD in biology and barely cover the nervous system of the squid.

In 1976 when, as a kid, I went grocery shopping with my mom, there were about 9,000 products from which to choose the 150 items she would typically use. Now, when she goes grocery shopping with me, we choose our 150 items from a whopping 40,000 choices.

While she was exposed to the equivalent of 1 newspaper of information a day, I am exposed to the equivalent of 175 newspapers of information daily.

Our brains have the ability to process the information we take in but at a cost. Processing the trivial from the important burns energy. Neuroscientists have discovered that lack of productivity and loss of drive can result from decision overload.

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 any more. Every Tweet, text, Facebook post is competing for resources in our brains to make decisions.

On a daily basis, you likely think about what foods you are feeding your body for maximum performance. How often do you think about what information you are feeding your brain, or your children’s brains?

For maximum performance, you need attention filters. Steve Jobs wore the same black t-shirt every day to remove that one decision from his day. What filters can you add to your day to reduce the energy consumption required to process decisions? Here are some ideas I’m incorporating:

  • Automatic payments
  • Once a week menu planning
  • Create daily routine like scheduling exercise with a friend
  • Password systems

Please share below your ideas to reduce the number of decisions you need to process each day.

Insight #1

Multitasking simply doesn't work

"Cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot smoking."- The Organized Mind, page 97

With the plethora of information available to us, you may want to cut some corners by multitasking. Not so fast. There’s a fly in the ointment of multitasking. Even when you think you are successfully doing many things at once, it is actually a diabolical and powerful illusion.

Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world’s experts on divided attention, says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well…. When people think they’re multi-tasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

Ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient by:

  • increasing the production of the stress hormone cortisol
  • increasing adrenaline, which can cause mental fog or scrambled thinking
  • creating a dopamine-addiction feedback loop – which rewards the brain for losing focus and causes us to continually search for external stimulus

In the end, instead of reaping the rewards from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little and insignificant tasks.

I was on a transatlantic flight the other day and had the most productive workday I’d had in months. I spoke with my colleague who admitted he is always most productive on a plane. Why? Distractions are eliminated.

The secret then is to trick our brains to stay on task. I therefore plan to

  • block “flight times” to focus on specific projects. During that time I will close my door and turn off my cell to avoid texts and calls. One of my favorite tricks is to escape to my local coffee shop with just one project to focus on for a specific amount of time.
  • book just 3 times of the day (7am, 1pm, 4pm) to answer email
  • change my settings to remove the notification that “I’ve got mail” so I don’t invite the “squirrel” to show up.

What about you?

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Insight #2

Winning the productivity battle

"Studies have found that productivity goes up when the number of hours per week of work goes down…."- The Organized Mind, page 307

You may think that you need to just work longer and harder to manage the overload. Given the vast number of vacation days that go unused each year, it seems that is how many of us have dealt with it. The irony however, Levitin discovered, is that the companies that are winning the productivity battle are those that:

  • allow (even encourage!) employees productivity hours, naps and exercise
  • create a calm, tranquil, orderly environment

As you may have heard, Sweden has recently (Oct, 2015) switched to a 6-hour workday and it’s turning out great! In North America take Google for example, who put Ping-Pong tables in their headquarters. Safeway, a $4 billion grocery chain has doubled sales in the last fifteen years. They are encouraged through salary incentives to exercise at the corporate gym.

Consider these interesting facts about work, sleep and vacation time.

1) Work time: Leisure and refueling time pays off for everyone. A sixty-hour work week, although 50% longer than a forty-hour work week, reduces productivity by 25%. It takes 2 hours of overtime to accomplish one hour of work!

2) Sleep time: A ten-minute nap can be the equivalent of an extra hour and a half of sleep at night.

3) Vacation time: For each additional ten hours of vacation their employees took, their year-end performance ratings from their supervisors improved by 8%.

Living in this era of information overload poses new challenges for our generation. Getting organized can bring us all to the next level in our lives. Levitin suggests that we must consciously find areas in our life that need cleaning up, and then methodically and proactively do so. And then keep doing so.

Read the book

Get The Organized Mind on Amazon.

Daniel J. Levitin

Daniel J. Levitin is the James McGill Professor of Psychology and Music at McGill University, Montreal, where he also holds appointments in the Program in Behavioural Neuroscience, The School of Computer Science, and the Faculty of Education. He is also Dean of Arts & Humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI. An award-winning teacher, he now adds best-selling author to his list of accomplishments as “This Is Your Brain on Music” , “The World in Six Songs” and “The Organized Mind” were #1 best-sellers. His work has been translated into 20 languages. Before becoming a neuroscientist, he worked as a session musician, sound engineer, and record producer working with artists such as Stevie Wonder and Blue Oyster Cult. He has published extensively in scientific journals as well as music magazines such as Grammy and Billboard. Recent musical performances include playing guitar and saxophone with Sting, Bobby McFerrin, Rosanne Cash, David Byrne, Cris Williamson, Victor Wooten, and Rodney Crowell.

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