Book Summary of ‘The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’

'The Organized Mind' by Daniel Levitin (ISBN 0147516315) In the best-selling The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin argues that the problem with the proliferation of information isn’t as much about the storage of the information as it is about organizing and retrieving that information. The human brain is incredible at storing data; the challenge is summoning up the right stuff at the right time, while not being distracted by the rest.

To be efficacious, we not only need to limit the information we consume (by simplifying, limiting our sources, quitting social media, taking digital Sabbaths, etc.) but also need to develop systems to take the strain off our befuddled brains. To do this, Levitin says, we must organize our personal environments to better channel our brains’ unique approach to doing things.

According to The Organized Mind, the trick to efficiently organize and manage information is to “shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world.” Levitin uses the latest brain science to propose “organization principles”—methods and disciplines to regain a sense of mastery over the way we can organize our time, home, and office.

Organization Principle #1: Conquer information overload

The information age is drowning us with an exceptional deluge of data. Simultaneously, we’re expected to make more decisions quickly than ever before. To survive information overload, Levitin suggests:

  • Be much more discerning at what you allow in. Not all input is worthy of being let in. Exercise control and discipline regarding your input choices. Don’t keep what you can’t use.
  • Develop and put into practice an organization system that works for you: to-do lists, 3×5 cards, etc. Whatever that system is, it needs to offload, classify, and be easy to retrieve. A mislabeled item or misplaced location is worse than an unlabeled item.
  • Organize in all areas and facets of your life. “Too much stuff” is fatiguing, no matter which part of your life has the “too much stuff” problem.

Organization Principle #2: Quit multi-tasking and become fanatical about focused work

Quit Multi-tasking Levitin’s pet hate is multitasking, which he describes as “the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy.” Our brains are not designed for multitasking; he writes, “When people think they’re multitasking, 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.”

  • Allow no distractions when you are in “focused work mode.”
  • Limit the interruption caused by email, text messages, visitors, and callers.

Organization Principle #3: Rest more, work less

In our chronically sleep-deprived society, sleep deficit is a performance killer. The general effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance are well-known: scientists have documented that when we are sleep-deprived our immune system suffers, our thinking and judgments are impaired, and our fuse becomes very short.

Studies have found that productivity goes up when the number of hours per week of work goes down, strongly suggesting that adequate leisure and refueling time pays off for employers and for workers. Overwork—and its companion, sleep deprivation—have been shown to lead to mistakes and errors that take longer to fix than the overtime hours worked. A sixty-hour work week, although 50% longer than a forty-hour work week, reduces productivity by 25%, so it takes two hours of overtime to accomplish one hour of work. A ten-minute nap can be equivalent to an extra hour and a half of sleep at night.

  • A calm, well-rested mind is a fruitful mind. Don’t overlook sleep, rest, and vacation as stress busters.

Organization Principle #4: Organize your physical environment into categories so it helps your mind

Organize Your Physical Environment One principle that Levitin emphasizes repeatedly is “offloading the information from your brain and into the environment” so you can “use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.” One appealing example he offers is, “If you’re afraid you’ll forget to buy milk on the way home, put an empty milk carton on the seat next to you in the car or in the backpack you carry to work on the subway (a note would do, of course, but the carton is more unusual and so more apt to grab your attention).”

  • Levitin also emphasizes the importance of putting things away in their designated places, because there’s a special part of our brain dedicated to remembering the spatial location of things.
  • Neuroscientists have proved that the human brain is good at creating and thinking in categories. “The fact that our brains are inherently good at creating categories is a powerful lever for organizing our lives.” Further, “productivity and efficiency depend on systems that help us organize through categorization.”

Organization Principle #5: Spend only as much time on decisions, tasks, and actions as they are worth.

Significantly, Levitin suggests the practice of satisficing—a decision-making approach that aims for acceptable or “good enough” results, rather than the optimal solutions:

Satisficing [is] a term coined by the Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, one of the founders of the fields of organization theory and information processing. Simon wanted a word to describe not getting the very best option but one that was good enough. For things that don’t matter critically, we make a choice that satisfies us and is deemed sufficient. You don’t really know if your dry cleaner is the best—you only know that they’re good enough. And that’s what helps you get by. You don’t have time to sample all the dry cleaners within a twenty-four-block radius of your home. … Satisficing is one of the foundations of productive human behavior; it prevails when we don’t waste time on decisions that don’t matter, or more accurately, when we don’t waste time trying to find improvements that are not going to make a significant difference in our happiness or satisfaction. … Recent research in social psychology has shown that happy people are not people who have more; rather, they are people who are happy with what they already have. Happy people engage in satisficing all of the time, even if they don’t know it.

Organization Principle #6: A Zen mind is an organized mind

Conquer Information Overload Beyond the productivity hacks and the tweaks, Levitin suggests a spiritual composure in favor of mental organization. He advocates practicing Zen-like mindfulness not only to relieve the anxiety that comes with worries over undone tasks and unease over future uncertainties, but also to allot more of your limited attention to the present moment.

  • Instead of seeking to cope with information overload and travel at warp speed, focus on the things you can do to put yourself on the right path to better wellbeing—one thought, one bite, one task, one project, and one breath at a time.

Recommendation: Read Daniel Levitin’s ‘The Organized Mind’

In today’s “age of information overload” you may find yourself continuously distracted and swamped with demands for multitasking. Daniel Levitin’s fascinating The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload explains how to organize your mind, systematize your home and office, and gain control over your life.

Even if The Organized Mind is somewhat meandering and ill-organized (which is ironic for a book getting organized,) Levitin discusses noteworthy capabilities and limitations of the human brain and how to effectively deal with them.

Idea for Impact: Develop a comprehensive plan to audit, simplify, and structure how information flows through your life. Develop personal habits and organizational systems to lead your mind effortlessly to good decision-making. As Levitin suggests, “The task of organizational systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.”

Hoarding and Learning to Let Go

I recently happened upon A&E channel’s reality TV program Hoarders, now in its ninth season. Hoarders shows appalling footage of homes jammed floor-to-ceiling with bewildering amounts of mess. With help from therapists, professional organizers, and “extreme cleaning specialists,” hoarders featured on the show learn to pare down their stacks and cleanup their homes and offices.

Hoarding usually accompanies varying levels of anxiety. Hoarding both eases anxiety and produces it.

Hoarding: Harmless Collecting v/s Serious Disorder

Hoarding ranges from mild to severe. Compulsive hoarding is the unwarranted and excessive accumulation of things as well as the unwillingness and the inability to dispose of them. Hoarders believe that their collections will be needed or will have value in the future.

Beyond normal collecting behaviors and hobbies, hoarders amass vast quantities of possessions that fill up and disrupt functional areas of their homes and offices. They stack stuff everywhere—attics, basements, desks, countertops, garages, bathtubs, stairways, cupboards, and nearly all other surfaces they can no longer be used for their intended purposes. When there’s no more room indoors, hoarders expand their clutter into yards and vehicles, and even get storage rentals. They frequently shift items from one hoard to another, without shedding anything.

Hoarders often fail to recognize it as a problem, making treating their hoarding a challenge.

Understanding Hoarders: The Psychology of Hoarding

Hoarders usually have an extreme attachment to their possessions, and oppose letting others borrow—even touch—their possessions. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the definitive catalog of mental disorders used by American mental health professionals, calls “the inability to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value” a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD.)

Hoarding behavior typically has physical, emotional, social, financial, and legal hurtful consequences. Hoarders have trouble making decisions. They often suffer from chronic procrastination, and have considerable difficulties getting things done.

Hoarding usually accompanies varying levels of anxiety. Hoarding both eases anxiety and produces it. Hoarders feel emotionally secure when surrounded by the things they collect. The more they hoard, the more shielded they feel from the outside world and the more they become isolated from their family and friends. But, sure enough, they feel ever more alarmed at the prospect of having to discard or clean out their hoarded stuff.

Alleviating Hoarding: Reducing the Chronic Stress from Clutter

'The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up' by Marie Kondo (ISBN 1607747308) If you’re a hoarder, take small steps to tidy up. If you feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of your possessions and the decluttering task that lies ahead, remember to take small steps (try my “10-Minute Dash” technique to overcome procrastination and get a task going.) Under the supervision of a trusted companion, tackle one small area at a time. But, psychiatrists recommend, don’t let someone else (a friend, domestic help, or organizing professional) clean for you—long-lasting behavioral changes necessitate talking through the process as you make decisions. Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s bestselling self-help book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, suggests that you should appraise (“touch”) each of your belongings one at a time to determine whether they “spark joy”—if they don’t, thank the belongings for their service and get rid of them. Sort items to one of a very few categories—“trash,” “donate,” “sell”, and “must keep.” If you haven’t used something in a year, toss it out assuming that you’re unlikely to find it useful in the near future. Idea for Impact: Reducing clutter and getting organized takes time, patience, and courage. If necessary, find a cognitive behavior therapist that specializes in treating hoarding disorders to delve into why you feel compelled to hoard and learn how to discard and organize your possessions.

If you have a hoarder in your life, don’t be embarrassed, sad, or angry with the hoarding habits of a loved one. Don’t force the hoarder to change—your loved one may change for a short time, but unless there is a compelling reason for change, she will go back to her natural state. To be effective in the long run, resist the urge to clean up for her. If the underlying behavioral patterns aren’t remedied, the hoarder will likely replenish the clutter or even intensify the hoarding behavior to make up for the loss. Even if the hoarder doesn’t realize the chaos she’s imposing on her family, friends, pets, and neighbors, try to help her or get help for her. Nevertheless, understand that you can control only your efforts—not the results—despite doing your best. Idea for Impact: Avoid enabling your loved one’s hoarding behavior. Offer to help her if she needs it, but expect change to be a long and slow process. Temper your expectations—changing this problematic behavior is her journey and her battle to fight. If all else fails, seek help from a cognitive behavior therapist that specializes in helping families and friends of hoarders.

The Gift of the Present Moment

People Tend to Live a Fantasy … They are Unable to Remain in the Present Moment

Most people tend to focus on things that aren’t happening right now. They get easily distracted. Through their bodies are present physically, their minds are elsewhere. They become easily absorbed in the past, get depressed, and compulsively pick over the past with the purpose of learning their lessons. Or else, they project themselves into a hypothetical future, get anxious, and worry about things that may never occur.

'Present Moment Wonderful Moment' by Thich Nhat Hanh (ISBN 1888375612) According to the renowned Vietnamese-French Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (b.1926), life can be found only in the present moment. In his Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, a persistently insightful discourse on the Zen-Buddhist philosophy of dwelling in the present moment and living a meaningful life, Hanh writes,

When we are driving, we tend to think of arriving, and we sacrifice the journey for the sake of the arrival. But life is to be found in the present moment, not in the future. In fact, we may suffer more after we arrive at our destination. If we have to talk of a destination, what about our final destination, the graveyard? We do not want to go in the direction of death; we want to go in the direction of life. But where is life? Life can be found only in the present moment. Therefore, each mile we drive, each step we take, has to bring us to the present moment. This is the practice of mindfulness.

When we see a red light or a stop sign, we can smile at it and thank it, because it is a bodhisattva helping us to return to the present moment. The red light is a bell of mindfulness. We may have thought of it as an enemy, preventing us from achieving our goal. But now we know the red light is our friend, helping resist rushing and calling us to return to the present moment where we can meet with life, joy and peace.

The prominence on living the present moment is perhaps the defining characteristic of the Zen philosophy. This attitude tries to get you to understand that life exists only in the present, or nowhere at all. There’s no purpose in getting anywhere, if, when you get there, all you do is think about yet another future moment.

The Gift of the Present Moment

Reclaim and Expand the Present Moment

'Calming Your Anxious Mind' by Jeffrey Brantley (ISBN 1572244879) Life is only available in the present moment. The past is just a memory and the future is merely a projection. The American psychiatrist Jeffery Brantley writes about the importance of awakening to the present moment by way of discipline and deliberate practice in Calming Your Anxious Mind:

Everything happens in the present moment. It is in the present moment, the now, that you live. All of experience, whether it occurs inside your skin or outside your skin, is happening in this moment. In order to live more fully, to meet the stressors and challenges of life (including fear, panic, and anxiety) more effectively, and to embrace the wonder and awe of life more completely, it is fundamental that each of us learns to connect with and dwell in the present moment.

To teach yourself the art of attention and presence is both a difficult and beautiful undertaking. The habits of inattention and absence are strong, yet the experience of life, moment by moment, is precious.

Bear in Mind, Your Present Life-span is Only One Moment Long. So Live It Now.

'Fear Essential Wisdom' by Thich Nhat Hanh (ISBN 0062004727) In Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that mindfulness lets us become “aware of what is going on in the present moment—in our bodies, in our feelings, in our perceptions, in the world.” Hanh advocates grounding ourselves in the present moment via mindfulness meditation:

When we are not fully present, we are not really living. We’re not really there, either for our loved ones or for ourselves. If we’re not there, then where are we? We are running, running, running, even during our sleep. We run because we’re trying to escape from our fear.

We cannot enjoy life if we spend our time and energy worrying about what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow. If we’re afraid all the time, we miss out on the wonderful fact that we’re alive and can be happy right now. In everyday life, we tend to think that happiness is only possible in the future. We’re always looking for “right” conditions that we don’t yet have to make us happy. We ignore what is happening right in front of us. We look for something that will make us feel more solid, more safe, more secure. But we’re afraid all the time of what the future will bring—afraid we’ll lose our jobs, our possessions, the people around us whom we love. So we wait and hope for that magical moment—always sometime in the future—when everything will be as we want it to be. We forget that life is available only in the present moment. The Buddha said, “It is possible to live happily in the present moment. It is the only moment we have.”

Establish Yourself in the Present Moment

Idea for Impact: Whatever adverse happened or whatever bad looms, don’t let it spoil the present moment.

Learn how to pay attention to the present moment rather than getting tied up in negative thinking about the past or the future.

When you establish yourself in the present moment, you can live life and make the most of those stimulating, refreshing, and nourishing elements of life that are always within you and around you. As the American psychologist and yogic scholar Richard Miller said, “In the end, we realize how simple life is when we accept this moment, just as it is, without pretending to be other than who we are.”

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize [Two-Minute Mentor #9]

Focus on What You Want to Achieve Many of humankind’s greatest feats are accomplished by people who have a singular desire that becomes the foundational element for everything they do.

The 13th-century Turkish poet-philosopher Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, undoubtedly the most celebrated mystical poet in the Islamic world, purportedly advocated being absorbed in the task: “There is one thing that we all must do. If we do everything else but that one thing, we will be lost. And if we do nothing else but that one thing, we will have lived a glorious life.”

Don’t Have Too Many Irons in the Fire

  • Ask yourself this question: “What is my one thing—the singular objective that could make the most positive impact and meaningful shift—either on the present moment, or on my life as a whole?”
  • Just as the comical and wise Jiminy Cricket accompanies Pinocchio on his adventures serving as his official conscience, have a persistent voice persistently prompting you, “Are you doing your thing?”

Focus on What You Want to Achieve

The ability to prioritize, focus, and achieve is one of the most useful skills you can master. Learn to focus fully on the task at hand, and shut out everything else. As I mentioned in my world’s shortest course in time management, focus on things that you must do and avoid everything else.

It is truly amazing how much possibility, joy, and fulfillment you can add to your life when you shift your mindset to realizing and focusing on your one thing—in whatever timeframe you’re taking into consideration.

Keep your eyes on the prize.

Heaven and Hell: A Zen Parable on Self-Awareness


Your Mind Renders the Outer Condition into Inner Pain and Suffering—or Joy and Happiness

The state of your mind plays a vital role in shaping your everyday experiences of joy and happiness, and your general physical and mental well-being.

If you can maintain a peaceful and tranquil state of mind, the external conditions can cause you only limited disturbance. However, if your mental state is tense, restless, and agitated, you’ll find it difficult to be at peace even in the best of circumstances—even if you’re surrounded by the best of your friends and family.

When you truly become aware of how much damage negative emotions can cause—for yourself and for others—you will not indulge them even a bit.

The following Zen ‘koan’ parable (see source in postscript) validates the potential dangers that can occur when you fall prey to your negative emotions.

When you become aware of how much damage negative emotions can cause, you will not indulge them even a bit.

Heaven and Hell: A Zen Parable

A tough, brawny samurai once approached a Zen master who was deep in meditation.

Impatient and discourteous, the samurai demanded in his husky voice so accustomed to forceful yelling, “Tell me the nature of heaven and hell.”

The Zen master opened his eyes, looked the samurai in the face, and replied with a certain scorn, “Why should I answer to a shabby, disgusting, despondent slob like you? A worm like you, do you think I should tell you anything? I can’t stand you. Get out of my sight. I have no time for silly questions.”

The samurai could not bear these insults. Consumed by rage, he drew his sword and raised it to sever the master’s head at once.

Looking straight into the samurai’s eyes, the Zen master tenderly declared, “That’s hell.”

The samurai froze. He immediately understood that anger had him in its grip. His mind had just created his own hell—one filled with resentment, hatred, self-defense, and fury. He realized that he was so deep in his torment that he was ready to kill somebody.

The samurai’s eyes filled with tears. Setting his sword aside, he put his palms together and obsequiously bowed in gratitude for this insight.

The Zen master gently acknowledged with a delicate smile, “And that’s heaven.”

Self-Awareness & Self-Regulation: The Bases of Emotional Intelligence

'Emotional Intelligence' by Daniel Goleman (ISBN 055380491X) Retelling this Zen parable in his influential bestseller, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, the Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman comments, “The sudden awakening of the samurai to his own agitated state illustrates the crucial difference between being caught up in a feeling and becoming aware that you are being swept away by it. Socrates’s injunction ‘Know thyself’ speaks to the keystone of emotional intelligence: awareness of one’s own feelings as they occur.”

In Emotional Intelligence (1995) and in his legendary Harvard Business Review article What Makes a Leader (1998), Goleman further argues that self-awareness and self-regulation are essential elements of emotional intelligence. In What Makes a Leader, he writes, “Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs and drives. … People who have a high degree of self-awareness recognize how their feelings hurt them, other people, and their job performance.”

With reference to self-regulation, “Biological impulses drive our emotions. We cannot do away with them—but we can do much to manage them. Self-regulation, which is like an ongoing inner conversation, is the component of emotional intelligence that frees us from being prisoners of own feelings. People [with high self-regulation] feel bad moods and emotional impulses just as everyone else does, but they find ways to control them and even to channel them in useful ways.”

The Stoic Philosophers Advocated an Equanimous Outlook to Life

Equanimity is an essential state of mind that you must maintain when interacting with people who rub you the wrong way or push your buttons.

Equanimity (apatheia in Greek and aequanimitas in Latin) was one of the ideals of Stoic philosophy, the third great philosophy of the Ancient World. The ex-slave and leading Stoic philosopher Epictetus teaches, “Man is troubled not by events, but by the meaning he gives them.”

Marcus Aurelius, who finally carried Stoic philosophy into the emperor’s seat, writes in Meditations, “When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.”

Equanimity is an Essential Buddhist Virtue

In Buddhism, equanimity (upekṣā in Sanskrit and upekkha in Pali) denotes a mind that is at peace notwithstanding stressful and unpleasant experiences. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, the Vietnamese-French Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh defines upekṣā as “equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upa means ‘over,’ and iksh means ‘to look.’ You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other.”

In Dhamma Reflections, the American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi describes equanimity as “evenness of mind, unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. Upekkha is freedom from all points of self-reference; it is indifference only to the demands of the ego-self with its craving for pleasure and position, not to the well-being of one’s fellow human beings.”

'Comfortable With Uncertainty' by Pema Chodron (ISBN 1590306260) In Comfortable With Uncertainty, an excellent discourse on overcoming the many challenges that life presents us, the renowned Buddhist nun Pema Chodron discusses the above Zen parable and comments,

The view of the warrior-bodhisattva is not “Hell is bad and heaven is good” or “Get rid of hell and just seek heaven.” Instead, we encourage ourselves to developing an open heart and an open mind to heaven, to hell, to everything. Only with this kind of equanimity can we realize that no matter what comes along, we’re always standing in the middle of open space. Only with equanimity can we see that everything that comes into our circle has come to teach us what we need to know.

Equanimous Outlook to Life Through Mind Training

Transcending Turmoil through Mind Training

If life is what you make of it, you can shape your attitudes and behavior by possessing a calm and stable mind.

Centuries of eastern contemplative practices have posited that regular physical yoga exercises and mindfulness meditation can train your mind to regulate your emotional states and bring about positive effects on your physical health and psychological well-being. In the last two decades, thanks to the Dalai Lama’s collaboration with the scientific community through programs such as the Mind and Life Institute, a growing number of scholars in the biological and cognitive sciences are convinced that such contemplative practices are a substantially beneficial introspective laboratory into the effects of negative emotions on overall wellbeing.

Given that your mind is the cause of all emotional upheaval, you can attain an enlightened state of mind by transcending turmoil. Practice of yoga and meditation can help you develop a compassionate assessment of the feelings of pain and suffering, and pleasure and happiness that dominate your existence.

In several well-known books and lectures (such as the Habits of Happiness TED Talk,) the French biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk Matthieu Ricard has popularized the practice of mindfulness meditation as the key to mind training. In Motionless Journey, his awe-inspiring photographic journal of his retreat in the Himalayas, Ricard writes,

A [practitioner] begins by understanding that true happiness does not fundamentally depend on changing external conditions, but rather on changing his own mind and the way it translates the circumstances of existence into happiness or frustration. He sees that as long as he is still not rid of hatred, obsession, pride, jealousy and the other mental poisons, it is as hopeless to expect happiness as it would be to hold his hand in a fire and hope not to be burnt.

Postscript / Source: The Zen Koan “The Gates of Paradise”

Japanese-American Buddhist teacher Gyomay M. Kubose‘s Zen Koans (1973) includes a faithful translation of the parable from Shasekishū (trans. Sand and Pebbles,) an anthology of koans by the thirteenth century Japanese Zen monk Mujū DŌkyŌ:

Nobushige, a soldier, came to Hakuin, a famous Zen Master, and asked, “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”

“Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.

“I am a samurai,” Nobushige replied.

“You, a samurai!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of lord would have you as his guard? You look like a beggar!”

Nobushige became so enraged that he began to draw his sword.

Hakuin continued, “So you have a sword. It is probably too dull to even cut off my head.”

Nobushige brandished his weapon.

Hakuin remarked, “Here, open the gates of hell.”

At these words the perceptive samurai sheathed his sword and bowed.

“Here, open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

Everything Takes Longer Than Anticipated: Hofstadter’s Law [Mental Models]

Think of your weekend days. You typically wake up and think of all the free time at hand. You plan a day of leisure. You intend to run some errands and get a few things done around the house. Yet, at the end of the day, you’ve done barely half of what you originally set out to do.

People Habitually Underestimate the Time Tasks Take

Almost everything that humankind has ever wished for—from renewing a driver’s license to achieving peace between countries at war—seems to have not completed within the time originally planned.

As the following case studies will illustrate, interruptions, deferrals, and delays characteristically result in cost overruns, benefit shortfalls, and disputes.

  • Sydney’s Opera House was originally forecast in 1957 to be completed in 1963. The magnificent performing arts complex formally opened only in 1973 and cost 15 times the original budget.
  • Hofstadter's Law: Boeing 787 Dreamliner Delays and LossesWhen Boeing first launched its 787 Dreamliner aircraft in 2004, it ambitiously planned for first flight in September 2007. After six delays in the design and prototype phases, the 787 first flew only in December 2009. First aircraft delivery was scheduled for 2008, but didn’t happen until September 2011, more than three years behind schedule. Then, after a series of early in-service technical and operational problems, Boeing embarked on serious drawn-out repairs on 787s. Following yet more production delays, the 787 started flying full-fledged only in 2013. The innumerable delays and cost overruns associated with the 787 program became a financial nightmare for Boeing’s investors. Boeing took nine years to get the Dreamliner off the drawing board and into mature service at a total development cost of $32 billion—twice as long as the company’s original estimation and more than five times more expensive.
  • Less than 50 days before the start of last year’s Summer Olympic Games in Brazil, the state of Rio de Janeiro declared a “state of public calamity” citing severe delays and acute cost overruns. The New York Times reported, “The city is a huge construction site. Bricks and pipes are piled everywhere; a few workers lazily push wheelbarrows as if the Games were scheduled for 2017.”

Hofstadter’s Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things Take

Hofstadter's Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things TakeThe American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter conceived an ironic and recursive rule to characterize the observation that everything takes longer than planned.

Hofstadter’s Law states, “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law”

Hofstadter first discussed this law in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a book popular among American computer programmers.

Underestimating Task-Time Means Constantly Rushing to Finish Things

According to planning fallacy, when people predict the time it takes to complete a task, they make their estimations by considering the various steps they have to take, but fail to imagine the pessimistic conditions where things could go wrong.

Project Delays: Hofstadter's Law, Planning Fallacy and Optimism BiasIn other words, thanks to optimism bias, people are generally too optimistic about the time it takes for them to complete a task, even when they are explicitly asked to think about potential obstacles.

Hofstadter’s Law also alludes to,

  • Superiority Bias where people overrate their own positive qualities and abilities—and underrate their negative qualities—when compared with others. “This takes three hours for the average Joe, but I am smarter, and I can do it in two hours.”
  • Beneffectance Bias where people perceive themselves as selectively accountable for the desired—but not the undesired—outcomes. “Last week, this took me 45 minutes, but the delay was because of conditions beyond my control. Today, I have full control; so I should take just 20 minutes.”

Idea for Impact: The problem with unforeseen delays is that you can’t foresee them, no matter how comprehensively you plan

Though somewhat silly in its recursive character, Hofstadter’s Law observes that, irrespective of how carefully you plan, every project will be prone to something unanticipated that will hinder its timely completion. The law’s recursiveness affirms that, even if you know a project may overrun and build that expectation into your planning, the project will overrun even your new estimated finish time.

Zeigarnik Effect: How Incomplete Tasks Trigger Stress [Mental Models]

Zeigarnik Effect: How Incomplete Tasks Trigger Stress {Mental Models}

People Remember Incomplete Tasks Better than Completed Tasks

When you listen to a song that’s unexpectedly cut off in the middle, your mind will repeatedly inject your thought stream with bits of the song in an attempt to remind you that you’re not yet “done” listening. But, once you listen to that song completely, your mind moves on.

Psychologists identify this tendency for interrupted tasks—and thoughts—to be evoked better than completed tasks the Zeigarnik Effect.

Ruminating about Unfinished Tasks Causes Anxiety

Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik who reported Zeigarnik Effect when working with research advisor Kurt Lewin at the University of BerlinThis phenomenon was first reported in the 1920s by the Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. Working with her research advisor Kurt Lewin at the University of Berlin, Zeigarnik observed that restaurant waiters seemed to remember a complex order just so long as the order was in the process of being prepared and served, but not after it was finished.

Zeigarnik Effect and Cliffhangers

Zeigarnik effect is in force when an episode of a TV series ends with a cliffhanger leaving the audience in suspense until the next episode. Teachers who conclude their lectures by posing a perplexing question stimulate the class to think about the answer until the next class.

In another prominent use of the cliffhanger and the Zeigarnik Effect as a literary device, the English novelist Charles Dickens released most of his novels in the form of serial publications, i.e. in monthly or weekly installments. Dickens’s cliffhangers initiated such anticipation in reader’s minds that his American fans would gather at New York City’s docks for the latest installment to arrive by ship from England. The installment format also allowed Dickens to rework his character development and his plots depending on audiences’ reactions.

Zeigarnik Effect and Cliffhangers

Zeigarnik Effect and the Need for Closure: Task Management

Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik’s research showed that the human mind hates unfinished tasks. Zeigarnik theorized that incomplete tasks incite “psychic tension” in you, which can be a persuasive impetus to complete the task. As long as you leave the task unfinished, your brain is in an uncomfortable position. Thoughts of the task serve to remind your brain of what it needs to do to get “comfortable” once again. As soon as you complete the task, this tension is alleviated, and in so doing, your brain lets the mind to release thoughts of the task from consciousness.

In other words, much mental effort is required when your tasks are interrupted or are still in the process of being completed.

From a time-management perspective, uncompleted tasks and unmet goals have a propensity for popping into your mind and worrying you persistently until the task is completed and the goal reached.

Emptying Your Mind of Nagging Tasks to Get Things Done

'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength' by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (ISBN 0143122231) According to John Tierney and Roy Baumeister’s Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, further research in cognitive psychology has suggested that the Zeigarnik effect exists not just until you actually finish a task but also until you make concrete plans related to the task.

… turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.

According to Willpower, one research study asked students to think about an important exam. Half of the students were asked to put in writing specific plans of what/where/when they would study. Later, all students were asked to do a word association test. The group of students that did not write any study plans produced more word associations related to studying because studying was still on their mind; the group who did write down their study plans did not exhibit a comparable bias during the word association test.

Emptying Your Mind of Nagging Tasks to Get Things Done

The Zeigarnik Effect is the central theorem in David Allen’s legendary “Getting Things Done” method for task-management works.

Allen reasons that the dominant cause of everyday anxiety is that you are never truly sure of all the ‘things’ you’re supposed to do. You know you’ve got things to take care of and haven’t. Therefore, your mind keeps incoherently revisiting all that’s important but not yet completed. These “open loops” occupy much of your cognitive effort and debilitate your attention, causing anxiety, sapping your energy, and draining your willpower.

The primary benefit of using Allen’s Getting Things Done system is to reduce anxiety by emptying your mind of nagging tasks, filing away (or writing down) everything that must be done, placing them into a processing system, and scheduling chunks of time to single-mindedly do important things.

Human Mind Hates Unfinished Tasks

'Getting Things Done' by David Allen (ISBN 0670899240) According to the Zeigarnik Effect, unresolved and interrupted tasks thieve the attention of your brain until you have a clear—if subconscious—proposal of what you’re going to deal with them.

Just the simple act of capturing a task that reaches your head can achieve that sense of completion. Even if you haven’t completed the task, you’ll know that you’ve accomplished what could be done up to the moment.

Here’s three clever ways to use the Zeigarnik Effect to your advantage:

  • Use the Two-minute ‘Do-It-Now’ Rule. See my previous article on this task management discipline—in a nutshell: act immediately upon a contemplated task if it can be completed in less than two minutes. Don’t add it to your to-do list.
  • Make a Concrete Plan. Whenever you have a task in mind, stop doing whatever you’re doing, take a blank sheet of paper, and invest one minute to plan and record how you intend to tackle the task. If you intend to write an essay, write an outline; if it’s a report, start the list of contents.
  • Use To-Do Lists Judiciously. Establish and peruse a trusted system to capture your projects and tasks, and the commitments you have to yourself and others. According to David Allen’s Getting Things Done, your human brain is an ineffective and unreliable repository of all the things you try to cram into it. All this “stuff” collectively clutters your headspace. Getting all your stuff out of your head and into a trusted system can bring about a profound sense of relief.

Six Powerful Reasons to Eat Slowly and Mindfully

Six Powerful Reasons to Eat Slowly and Mindfully

Mindfulness is paying attention to whatever is happening in the present moment, with an attitude of forthcoming curiosity and open-minded acceptance. This enhanced awareness not only facilitates insight, but also reveals reality with a heightened sense of clarity.

Mindful eating is one of the oldest practices in mindfulness. Here are a handful of the most important benefits of mindful eating:

  1. You’ll Eat Less. For many people, eating fast entails eating more. Eating slower increases fullness and reduces caloric intake. Additionally, the more you slow down, the fewer calories you’ll consume. Here’s why: it takes twenty minutes for satiety signs to get from your stomach to your brain. Therefore, when you eat slower, you will have consumed less by the time your brain receives your stomach’s internal cues for fullness. At that time, your brain instinctively directs you to discontinue eating.
  2. You’ll Snack Less and Avoid Bingeing Later. Even if you eat slower, you’ll be just as fulfilled with less food as you would with more food. When you feel fulfilled, you are less likely to compensate for eating less by snacking later or eating more at the next meal.
  3. You’ll Enjoy More. When you eat slower and pay close attention, your senses get more time to expand your consciousness of the flavor, aroma, and texture of food. This consecutively offers more overall satisfaction thereby letting you end eating sooner.
  4. Mindfulness Helps You Savor Food and Eat Guilt FreeYou Can Still Enjoy Those Guilty Pleasure Foods. Even when you’re consuming tempting snacks, high-calorie foods, and sugary desserts, eating slower will help de-condition the notion that certain foods are good and certain other foods are bad for you. Overall, if you can stick to a healthy diet, consuming less-healthy foods in moderation is neither good nor bad. When you indulge your food cravings mindfully and savor every bite of pleasure out of them, you can dispose of any remorse about engaging in your guilty pleasures. In any case, what’s the point of eating an enchanting macaron if you’re going to inhale it mindlessly while rushing from one thing to the next? As I’ve written previously, one secret of dieting success is to not deprive yourself of your guilty pleasures. Cut back, do not cut out.
  5. You’ll Digest Better. When you eat slower, you’ll chew your food better. This brings about better digestion. Digestion actually starts in the mouth, so chewing slowly helps break your food down into simpler nutrients that can be used by the cells. Research has shown that the longer you take to chew specific foods (almonds for example,) the more you intensify the bioavailability of certain nutrients so your body absorbs more of them.
  6. You’ll Feel Better. Food can influence your mood. When you spend twenty minutes eating slowly and mindfully—and enjoying a meal—you’ll feel better and perform better.

Cultivate a healthy relationship with food

Mindfulness Helps You Savor Food and Eat Guilt Free

Dedicating time to eat slowly, mindfully, and intentionally—and enjoying the pleasure of food—can make an enormous difference in your diet and health, especially when the rhythm of life is becoming ever faster. Here’s how to introduce mindfulness to your mealtimes:

  • Set aside time to eat. Establish a calm eating environment.
  • Don’t multitask, watch TV, talk on the telephone, or check Facebook and Twitter. Refocus on your food after a distraction or an interruption.
  • Make a conscious effort to take small bites, chew slowly, and pay attention to flavors and textures. If necessary, set a minimum number of chews for every bite.
  • Finish chewing and swallowing each bite before you put more food on your fork.
  • Take sips of water or your favorite beverage after every few bites.

Idea for Impact: Cultivate a healthy relationship with food. Practice mindful eating. Develop awareness, curiosity, and a bit of tenderness about your relationship with food.

Doing Is Everything

Many people know what they should do: lose weight, start exercising, stop smoking, get serious about managing careers, find a romantic partner, start saving money, and so on. Yet they can’t seem to make themselves do.

Doing is everything / Knowing is nothing

You know what to do, but you don’t do it!

It is told that long ago in China, a reclusive monk climbed up a tree in a forest. He settled comfortably and sat there in deep meditation, undisturbed by the outside world.

That became his everyday routine.

People from hamlets in the vicinity adopted him. They approached him with offerings and discussed their affairs. And he imparted his wisdom.

His fame soon spread everywhere. Visitors from far-flung towns trekked to the forest for his counsel.

Folks started calling him Birdsnest for the reason that he perched high up his tree.

On one occasion, the local king learned of Birdsnest and set forth to see him. After an arduous journey, the king located Birdsnest’s tree.

The king hollered at the monk trying to seek his attention. “O wise one, I have an important question to ask of you.”

The king waited for Birdsnest. No response came.

The king tried repeatedly to evoke Birdsnest, but didn’t succeed.

The king grew impatient waiting for Birdsnest.

Eventually, the king became irritated and shouted out, “I can wait no longer! Here is my question. Say, what is it that all the wise ones taught? What is at the heart of all the teachings of the great masters? What is the most profound thing the Buddha ever said?”

The king lingered around Birdsnest’s tree for a long time.

Finally, Birdsnest summoned the king. Holding a meditative poise, Birdsnest declared, “At all times, do good things. Don’t do bad things. This is all the Buddha said. This is what the wise men instructed.”

The king became infuriated.

Birdsnest continued to meditate with a gentle half smile behind his eyes. He was obviously toning down the power of the Buddha’s wisdoms.

The king screamed, “I can’t believe this impertinence! Is that all you’ve got for me? Do good things and don’t do bad things. I knew that when I was three years old, you blithering fool!”

The afternoon sun filtered in through the trees as Birdsnest looked down from his perch. His compassion and matter-of-factness radiated out from your heart. He sympathetically acknowledged, “Indeed, the three-year-old knows it. Yet the eighty year-old finds it very difficult to do!”

The Knowledge-Action Gap

'The Now Habit' by Neil Fiore (ISBN 1585425524) One of the most insidious obstacles to your success in life is the chasm between knowing and doing—between thinking about something and acting on it, between ideating and implementing.

Your ideas may be impressively simple, but accomplishing them with discipline and steadiness can be very, very difficult indeed. This is the knowing-doing gap.

Ruminate about what stops you from accomplishing the things you need to do, want to do, and know how to do, but can’t get to do. Usually, your alleged obstacles—your boss, parents, spouse, children, colleagues, situations—are but excuses. When you sincerely unearth the reasons for your putting things off, you’ll realize that, by and large, it’s you who are sabotaging yourself.

Yes, occasionally, you may face a few genuine external obstacles. Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of things, you usually have the power to overcome them or work around them.

Transform your thoughts into action

Procrastination is a Breakdown of Self-Discipline

As I have stated in my previous articles, procrastination is weakness of will. Chronic procrastination is a recurrent breakdown of self-discipline.

The overpowering emotion associated with chronic procrastination is guilt. These feelings of guilt are not just specific to the task you’re dodging, even though, at the time of procrastination, your mind may be full of qualms and repentance under the direct influence of your putting off the dreadful task. More accurately, the guilt you feel about your chronic procrastination is the outcome of not living up to your full potential and not authentically engaging in the many possibilities life presents you.

'When Things Fall Apart' by Pema Chodron (ISBN 1611803438) It takes courage to face your anxieties, to forge ahead despite your feelings, and to act. Self-improvement begins with self-reflection. And self-reflection derives from self-compassion. The renowned Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön wrote about self-compassion in her wonderfully reassuring classic When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”

Don’t hunt for motivation. As I’ve asserted in previous articles, motivation is glorified as a personal trait. While it is beneficial to be motivated, folks who actually manage to get things done are those who find a way to work at whatever they are interested in even when they do not really feel like doing it.

Idea for Impact: Make 2017 the Year of Getting Things Done

Transform your thoughts into action.

Put your ideas into practice.

Don’t let excuses, apologies, indolence, or a lack of motivation get in the way.

Knowing is nothing.

Doing is everything.

How to Boost Your Willpower / Book Summary of “Willpower” by Baumeister & Tierney

'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength' by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (ISBN 0143122231) In previous articles, I have discussed a key differentiating trait I’ve observed in successful people: they get things done not by pursuing motivation but through discipline, self-control, determination, and willpower. They actively seek a way to work at whatever must be done even when they do not really feel like doing it.

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011,) New York Times science writer John Tierney and Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister discuss the virtues of self-control, and the concepts of ego depletion and decision fatigue. This informative tome is grounded in thirty years of academic research into willfulness and self-discipline.

Willpower starts with the assertion that intelligence and willpower are your two best predictors of achieving success in life. You may not be able to meaningfully increase your intelligence, but you can surely enhance your capacity for self-control. Parenthetically, when people were inquired about their failings in life, a lack of self-control was consistently at the top of the list.

The book’s central theorem is the much-debated “strength model of self-control.” This “muscle metaphor” states that willpower is like a muscle that tires out—or runs out of energy—as you use it, but can be fortified through practice.

How to Boost Your Willpower

Here are some prominent insights and tips from Willpower:

  • You have a limited amount of willpower, which, in the short term, depletes as you use it and must be replenished. Each instance of applying willpower (e.g. repressing your thoughts and actions, working intensely, stressing at work, making decisions, and dealing with difficult people) drains the same psychological reservoir of self-control. Expending willpower in one sphere of life leaves you less able to exercise self-control in another.
  • Just as muscles can get overworked and become tired and feeble until they can recuperate, the exercise of self-control causes fatigue.
  • Willpower is fuelled by blood glucose. Therefore, acts of self-control drain the glucose. When glucose is low, self-control failures are more likely. Restoring glucose to a sufficient level usually improves self-control. Willpower can be restored by boosting blood sugar. Foods like white bread, potatoes, white rice, and sugared snacks cause boom-and-bust cycles of willpower since these foods are quickly converted into glucose. Vegetables, nuts, raw fruits, and cheese are converted more slowly, and therefore provide ‘fuel’ more progressively.
  • Being in a tidy room seems to increase self-control and being in a messy room seems to curb self-control.
  • Your daily supply of willpower is limited. If you exhaust most of your willpower during the day at work, you will have less self-control, tolerance, and imperturbability when you come home to family. Many marriages go bad when stress at work is at its worst: people use up all their willpower on the job; their home lives suffer because they gave much to their work.
  • When your willpower is low, you’ll find it more arduous to make tougher decisions. Moreover, during decision-making, you’ll be more reluctant to eliminate some of the options you could choose from.
  • In the long term, practicing willpower strengthens it, just as a muscle develops stamina and power when consistently exercised. Even small, inconsequential acts of self-control—avoiding slouching, for example—can strengthen your capacity for self-discipline in the long term.
  • Ego Depletion and Decision Fatigue When you resist one temptation but cannot resist another, your egos have been fatigued by the exercise of willpower. Conversely, you can resist temptations across the board when your ego has been strengthened by exercise.
  • Stress instigates many negative emotions because stress depletes willpower, which consequently diminishes your ability to control and overcome those negative emotions.
  • The best use of willpower is in setting priorities and getting things done. Given you have a limited amount of willpower on a given day, you’re best served by budgeting your willpower and spending it where and when you need it the most.
  • Clear, attainable goals combined with rewards strengthen willpower. Monitoring goals and committing yourself publicly to your goals can help you counteract weakness of will.
  • Live as much of your life as possible on an autopilot. Eliminate distractions, temptations, and unnecessary choices. Simplify. Develop routines and cultivate habits that you can eventually do robotically.
  • Organize your life to decrease the need for willpower. Conserve willpower for demanding circumstances.

Recommendation: Read Willpower. This New York Times best seller is filled with guidance about how best to deploy willpower to overcome temptation and how to build up your willpower ‘strength’ with small—but regular and methodical—exercises. Even if somewhat academic for a self-help book, this worthwhile volume is filled with resourceful research, practical advice, and enthralling stories of people who’ve achieved personal transformation owing to the strength of their will.