One of life’s great pleasures is to crack open a book by a well-known author, and find it not only meets, but surpasses one’s expectations. So is the case with Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.
This book takes a fascinating look at how the brain works, and how in this age of infomania we can use external methods to put ourselves in the here and now of doing what we need to be doing. This is why electronic calendars and to-do lists can work so well; why successful people like Paul Simon write down their pertinent or extraneous thoughts, and why the author, like George Lucas, jots his on index cards.
It’s not that they (or you or I) can’t process bunches of information, or park those thoughts or to-do lists in our heads; it’s that the brain doesn’t immediately classify information according to importance. As Professor Levitin explains: “Our brains do have the ability to process the information we take in, but at a cost: We have trouble separating the trivial from the important, and all this information processing makes us tired. Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you have had an argument with.”
Philippe Starck, the French design guru, has his own external system for separating the trivial from the important. As his work entails extensive travelling, his eleven residences throughout the world are set up with the same beds, sheets, books, and clothes. Similarly, when Sting is on the road, his staff constructs the same kind of temporary off-stage room so that he can concentrate on songwriting. In other words, both men value a process that let’s their minds stay focused on what matters.
Unlike Starck and Sting, you and I (probably) don’t have a team of staff who magically remove trivialities and distractions. Indeed, one of the biggest issues we face nowadays is the sheer number of tasks that computerization has placed on us. In the twentieth century, other people/companies made our travel arrangements, bagged our groceries, pumped our gas, and paid our bills. Those services have largely disappeared/are disappearing. Furthermore, computerization (and the advent of “smartphones” – if you can call them that – have combined with the phenomenon described above to make our lives far busier and full of far more stimuli.
So we multi-task. Or at least we think we’re multi-tasking – but actually, we’re encouraging the brain to behave more like “a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another” worried the plates we’re ignoring will come crashing down any minute. We think we’re getting a lot done, but ironically, this frantic brain switching takes a hefty toll. Among other things, it causes mental fog or scrambled thinking; it burns the glucose that we need to stay on task; it causes new information to go to the wrong part of the brain; it causes cognitive losses greater than the effects of smoking marijuana. Wow.
The book does offer organizing solutions, but perhaps the strongest argument for reading it is the assumption throughout its 396 pages of text and 83 endnote pages, that the reader is thoughtful and smart, and fore-armed with what’s going on in the brain, can develop their own ways of simplifying their lives, whether through pen and paper, index cards, electronic calendars with tickler reminders, or the five-minute rule.
The Five-Minute Rule:
Before starting your project or day’s work, look at your to-do list. If you can get something done in five minutes, do it. And if you have a little more time, let’s say twenty minutes, you can knock that list into a manageable size. Now your brain can focus on work!
So, if you’re curious about how the mind takes in, organizes, and retains information, and also interested in following the author’s external organization, or in developing your own patterns to make life easier, you’ll find The Organized Mind a great read.
* Infomania: a term Psychology Professor Glenn Wilson, of London’s Gresham College, uses to describe information bombardment.