The Organized Mind

Wednesday, July 31, 2019
Nick Williams
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The times they are a changin’

It seems like each generation is labeled as a group of lazy slackers by the generation preceding them. The reality is that in our digitized society we are absolutely doing more work, and balancing more responsibilities, than ever before. Sometimes, it feels like the information age is drowning us, or at least trying to. 

Neuroscientist and New York Times bestselling author Daniel J. Levitin is the writer of the landmark book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, as well as The World in Six Songs and This Is Your Brain On Music (which examines the evolutionary advantages of melody and composition, based on scientific research on music at McGill University). He also writes for the Wall Street Journal sometimes.

Dr. Levitin has made a career of exploring our brain’s relationship with organization. He maps out impressively wide ranging strategies to help us prosper without being overwhelmed by life's chaos, thus allowing us to regain a sense of agency.

Levitin has more insights than you can shake a stick at. His prose is wide ranging and thoughtful, with a whole lot of interesting stories, theories, and case studies spliced together. He shows how the brain works, latest brain science stuff all included, yet also masters the art of balancing the anecdotal with haughty scientific evidence.


Weaving it all together, he makes a compelling case: we need to stop being so hard on our poor brains.

Booking planes and trips, organizing and printing photos, shopping, paying for bills—these are all services that have been performed in the past and we continue to do now. The difference is, in the past, people assisted us in these services.

The onset of apps Uber-izing our service experience means we have more control, which is great, but that means we also have more responsibility. 

A wise man once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Sure, being able to book our flight check-in from home is not the coolest superpower, but it’s still more than we used to be charged with.

Not only do we need to manage and control all of these services, but we also need to make sure we keep adapting our skill sets and knowledge bases to stay relevant in a self-serve world that is rapidly changing. Hey world, slow down!

On a micro-level, just making sure you have the most recent versions of your millions of different apps and software is taxing enough.  

But then what happens when you spend months, or years, learning all of the ins and outs of a particular email client, only to realize that it has since been replaced by something else with a totally different learning curve? “Sorry, Granny—I’m glad you finally learned how to poke someone on Facebook, but I hope you don’t mind adding me to Snapchat and figuring out how to use it because I don’t use Facebook anymore.”

Our brain wants to absorb everything, so it tries its best to do so. But then it has all of this disparate, messy information, and it doesn’t know what the heck to do with it all, and that pisses our brain off.

So we get anxious, confused, overwhelmed, and end up discarding a big portion of that new information, some of which could have been super important.

The weird thing is that our brain actually seems to enjoy being inundated by new sensations and information.

We love taking in all of the sights and sounds and reading new blogs and listening to interesting new podcasts. Our brains are pretty greedy, actually. It’s like a teenage kid at Thanksgiving dinner going back for their third overflowing plate of turkey, mashed p’tates and stuffing—yeah, all that stuff is delicious and it makes you feel good to eat it, but in 35 minutes you’re going to be passed down face first in the middle of the living room floor whining that your tummy hurts while the family dog is licking your face.

We aren’t going to stop our brain from obsessively trying to accumulate information. The only thing we can do is figure out ways to sort through it all, to prioritize and explore the stuff that’s really important to us, and to discard the rest.

I can’t get no….“satisficiaction”

No, the above title is NOT a typo. In the text, Dan Levitin uses the term, “satisficing,” which is essentially a synonym for “meh...it’s good enough,” or, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  

Levitin identifies the mentality of satisficing as fundamentally important for a productive life.

Why? Because it means that we don’t waste unnecessary mental resources on tasks that don’t need it.  

Satisficing plays into what Levitin calls a cognitive economy, which is something that we need to embrace—it means that we categorize things in a way that makes sense relative to the importance of the item.  

Levitin writes about sand, for instance: When you look at a beach, you’re probably thinking about sand, but you’re not necessarily thinking about 10,000,000,000 individual grains of sand. You know that there is a difference between the two, but your mind probably lumps them all together.  

That’s because, for all intents and purposes, unless you’re some kind of sand fanatic who just LOVES sand (if you love sand so much, why don’t you marry it?), it’s probably not very important to consider each individual grain.

It's like how when we're organizing our homes, we often end up throwing a bunch of stuff in a junk drawer. It's erroneous to what we need in our life to function on a daily basis. In the same vein, the organized mind is smart; important stuff is acknowledged, and the information processing filters out the rest. 

The problem is that we live in a perfectionist society—a society that actually rewards being able to identify every individual piece of sand. And when we can’t, we become anxious and stressed out. Our brain gets all jumbled, mixed up, and all of a sudden trying to remember where you left your pen is just as important as getting that weird mole on your butt checked out.

The more our brain gets jumbled, so does our judgement of priorities.

According to Levitin, our brain does make all sorts of organizational assumptions to make mental processing easier—but, and, let’s be totally honest here, sometimes our brains royally suck at distinguishing between things that are actually really important and things that aren’t. That’s because, as Levitin states,

“The decision-making part of our brain doesn’t prioritize.”

That’s why we need to use external organizational systems to help us. We need to offload some of the work from our brain and let the tools at our disposal help us!

The recycle bin is there for a reason

One of the main systems that Levitin talks about in terms of organization is the idea of “active sorting.” It’s a pretty simple concept, but one that will help our brains assign realistic values of importance to the different items on our to-do lists.

Active sorting literally entails separating certain tasks that need to be accomplished right away from the ones that don’t.

Levitin believes we need to use the concept of satisficing to help us make organizational decisions.

For example, maybe you could spend 6 hours after dinner tonight meticulously scrubbing every inch and corner of your house. You could do all of the stuff that nobody ever thinks of doing—vacuuming under the couch cushions, cleaning under the fridge, scraping all of the burnt crap out of your oven, taking down all of your curtains and washing them, steam-cleaning your carpets.

Or, instead, you can spend 1 hour, prioritize, and just take care of the really important stuff. Both methods will probably make you feel about the same—you’ll get that satisfaction of being in a clean, organized space, except with the latter method, you’ll have saved 3 hours of time which you can then re-assign to another task, or even just spend relaxing.  

On the other hand, as Levitin states, “for your high-priority endeavors, the old-fashioned pursuit of excellence remains the right choice.” You probably don’t want to set the bar TOO low for that Ph.D. thesis you’ve been chipping away at for 12 years. Give it a 110% bud, you’ll be happy you did.

This is where organization of your physical environment can be really helpful. If organizing your physical space is one of the foundational principles of a clear and productive mind, then there is no better place to start than your personal computer and phone.

We need to reclaim power over our computers. After all, humans adopted computers into the canon of the everyday tool because it was meant to make everything easier and more convenient.

Computers help us communicate with our social world, word-process, access and share information, and store all those important files. However, somewhere along the line, computers took on a more disruptive place in our lives.

That is to say, they can at times cease to be tools of convenience and became another distractor. Of course, our phones and computers still have the ability to help us accomplish tasks with more ease, not to mention help us organize and balance our lives—it’s just a matter of using them in the right way.

That means less lying in bed with your phone propped up against a pillow watching Netflix until 4AM on Sunday night and more getting a good night’s sleep and using your device as a planner instead.

These digital spaces have simultaneously become some of our most important zones while, as a result, becoming extremely cluttered by files, applications, pictures, and everything else.

Organizing your desktop, bookmarks, or Chrome tabs can be an excellent start to clearing more space for productivity in the mind.

Your phone—an assistant you can’t fire

Levitin makes an interesting observation—some of the only people that he has interacted with who could be identified as being uncommonly focused and ‘zen-like’ are those wealthy, successful people who can afford to hire assistants to literally manage their time and resources.

On this social bracket, Levitin states:

“Their skills and accomplishments vary, but as a group, one thing is remarkably constant. I’ve repeatedly been struck by how liberating it is for them not to have to worry about whether there is someplace else they need to be, or someone else they need to be talking to. They take their time, make eye contact, relax, and are really there with whomever they’re talking to. They don’t have to worry if there is someone more important they should be talking to at that moment because their staff—their external attentional filters—have already determined to them that this is the best way they should be using their time.”

Since most people can’t afford to pay assistants, we are left with the challenging responsibility of juggling more tasks and information inputs than ever before, while trying to maintain internal harmony and a productive, positive lifestyle. When we look at random content feeds and social media, attentional and memory systems are hijacked.

Even though we don’t have people to organize time and money for us—we DO have access to tools that can accomplish largely the same thing, i.e. a sense of mastery where it comes to time.

By developing our capacities for active sorting, satisficiation, and by using our physical tools in a responsible manner, we can undermine that looming, overwhelming feeling of having a million things to do but not having any time.

That sinking feeling you get when you cycle through everything that needs to be accomplished in the next couple of days might actually correspond to something physical happening in your brain when you multitask; attention and memory takes a lot of mental energy, more than you might think.  

Human brains were not meant to worry about a million different things at once—in fact, human brains were only meant to focus on the really important things—like eating, not getting eaten, and chasing around cavepeople.

Levitin summarizing this succinctly when he states:

“Attention is a limited-capacity resource.”

Maybe someday in the future, once we start getting cybernetic chips implanted into our brains, we will be able to more successfully deal with multitasking, but for the moment—contrary to popular belief—your brain can only devote attention to a limited number of stimuli.

The reason that you can’t properly understand when three people are all talking to you at once is the same reason why those to-do lists can be so daunting.  

Perhaps that much-vaunted, unused section of our brain holds the key to perfect memorization and organization, and certainly, if our brains were a little more powerful, the common mental ailments of our time—anxiety, stress, depression, complacency, stagnancy—would perhaps all become relics of our past.  

There’s a reason why psychologists and self-help writers spend so much time and energy developing systems and tools to help us feel happier and more accomplished—and that’s because, for as long as humans have existed (almost), we have been attempting to find ways to alleviate the burden of mental organization. 

Why do you think humans figured out how to write? Sure, communication was a big reason—but on the other hand, most early historical writing records are lists, records, receipts, and inventories.

Your ancestor chipping the number of salted cod fillets left in their trade company’s grungy old underground cellar isn’t THAT different from the Evernote to-do list, mind map, or Kanban board you update every 5 minutes.

Levitin closes his text with some words to help us feel optimistic about sorting it all out:

“The best way to improve upon the brains that nature gave us is to learn to adjust agreeably to new circumstances. My own experience is that when I’ve lost something I thought was irreplaceable, it’s usually replaced with something much better.”

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