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.

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.

Fight Clutter and Simplify Life

Fight Clutter and Simplify Life

Classic Clutter-Busting Strategies

This ‘Unclutterer’ blog article lists essential strategies to get and stay organized. Below is an abridgment; see full article here.

  1. A place for everything, and everything in its place. If an object doesn’t have an official home, then it will always be out of place. Once you’re finished using an object, immediately put it back in its place.
  2. Establish routines. Set up a regular schedule for tasks that have to be completed daily and weekly: laundry, cleaning, cooking, organizing, filing, home and auto maintenance, etc. The more methodical you are, the simpler it is to maintain your home and office.
  3. If you don’t use it, need it, love it, or feel inspired by it, get rid of it. Just because you might have space to store something, doesn’t mean you have to keep it. Your home and office should be filled with useful and inspiring things, not objects that cause you stress and anger. Plus, the less you own, the less you have to worry about, clean, organize, finance, and maintain.

Call for Action

One of the primary drivers of the feeling of not being on “top of things” is disorder and clutter. Given our busy lives, we tend to let things get out of hand. This can frequently lead to a chronic preoccupation over the lack of orderliness in our lives.

Set aside some time, perhaps just 30 minutes, and

  • Eliminate. Toss out things you have not used in the last two years. If you are not using something on a regular basis, you probably do not need it. Consider donating to charity or let somebody else have things you do not need.
  • Organize. After eliminating unneeded and unwanted things, store articles close to where you use them. Consider investing in filing cabinets, cupboards or storage boxes.
  • Simplify. One of the biggest hindrances to “getting things done” is complexity and redundancy. In today’s consumer driven societies, we tend to buy things we don’t need or, worse, things we already have and cannot remember. Use common sense to prioritize what you will own and what you will do and fight complexity.

Control your ‘stuff’—do not let them control you.