“The Organized Mind” by Daniel Levitin: Part One

This book helped me understand some of the finer points of being an “executive.” The ways we can externalize our memories and techniques to be in the moment at all times by organizing your time, thoughts, and anything else that clutters our mind but has its own proper place.

  1. 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.
  2. Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing resources in your brain with other important things in your life.
  3. The promise of a computerized society, we were told, was that it would relegate to machines all of the repetitive drudgery of work, allowing us humans to pursue loftier purposes and to have more leisure time. It didn’t work out this way. Instead of more time, most of us have less.
  4. But we are social creatures. We are easily swayed by first-person stories and vivid accounts of a single experience. Although this is statistically wrong and we should learn to overcome the bias, most of us don’t.
  5. Our hunger for knowledge can be at the roots of our failings or our successes. It can distract us or it can keep us engaged in a life long quest for deep learning and understanding. Some learning enhances our lives, some is irrelevant, and simply distracts us.
  6. The most fundamental principle of the organized mind, the one most critical to keeping us from forgetting or losing things, is to shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world. If we can remove some or all of the process from our brains and put it into the physical world, we are less likely to make mistakes.
  7. Memory is fiction. It may present itself to us as fact, but it is highly susceptible to distortion. Memory is not just a replaying, but a rewriting.
  8. It makes sense for us to remember unique or distinctive events because they represent a potential change in the world around us or a change in our understanding of it—we need to register these in order to maximize our chances for success in a changing environment.
  9. Cognitive economy dictates that we categorize things in such a way as not to be overwhelmed by details that, for most purposes, don’t matter. Obviously, there are certain things on which you want detailed information right now, but you ever want all the details all the time.
  10. Writing things down conserves the mental energy expended in worrying that you might forget something and in trying not to forget it.
  11. Four actionable categories for a To-Do List:
    1. Do it.
    2. Delegate it.
    3. Defer it.
    4. Drop it.
  12. If you can attend to one of the things on your list in less than two minutes, do it now.
  13. Some of the best ideas you’ll have will come to you when you’re doing something completely unrelated. You don’t have time to figure out how to use the idea because you’re busy with something else, and taking time to contemplate all the ramifications and angles takes you out of the task you’re working on.
  14. As humble and low-tech as it may seem, the 3×5 card system is powerful. That is because it builds on the neuroscience of attention, memory, and categorization. The task-negative or mind-wandering mode is responsible for generating much useful information, but so much of it comes at the wrong time. We externalize our memory by putting that information on index cards.
  15. Some foods that we consider haute cuisine today, such as lobster, were so plentiful in the 1800s that they were fed to prisoners and orphans, ground into fertilizer; servants requested written assurance that they would not be fed lobster more than twice a week.
  16. One solution is to put systems in place at home that will tame the mess—an infrastructure for keeping track of things, sorting them, placing them in locations they will be found and not lost. The task of organizational systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.
  17. A germane finding in cognitive psychology for gaining that control is to make visible the things you need regularly, and hide the things you don’t.
  18. Organization Rule 3: Don’t keep what you can’t use.
  19. When people think they’re multi-tasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so. Repeated task switching leads to anxiety, which raises levels of stress hormone cortisol in the brain, which in turn can lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviors.
  20. All this activity gives us a sense that we’re getting things done—and in some cases we are. But we are sacrificing efficiency and deep concentration when we interrupt our priority activities with email.
  21. Texting has become the primary mode of communication. It offers privacy that you don’t get with phone calls.
  22. But texting sports most of the problems of email and then some. Because it is limited in characters, it discourages thoughtful discussion or any level of detail. And the addictive problems are compounded by texting’s hyper-immediacy. Emails take some time to work their way through the internet, and they require the step of you explicitly opening them. Text messages appear magically on the screen of your phone and demand immediate attention from you. Add to that the social expectation that an unanswered text feels insulting to the sender, and you’ve got a recipe for addiction: You receive a text, and that activates your novelty centers. You respond and feel rewarded for having completed a task.
  23. Collaborative Filtering: This is a technique by which correlations or co-occurrences of behaviors are tracked and then used to make recommendations.
  24. Our trouble is not the overall absence of smartness but the intractable power of pure stupidity.
  25. The more cognitive load one is experiencing, the more likely one is to make errors in judgment about the causes of an individual’s behavior.
  26. In cases of in-group/out-group bias, each group thinks of the other as homogenous and monolithic, and each group views itself as variegated and complex.
  27. Most of the prefrontal cortex’s connections to other brain regions are not excitatory; they’re the opposite: inhibitory.
  28. If you have something big you want to get done, break it up into chunks—meaningful, implementable, doable chunks. It makes time management much easier.
  29. Sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation. Even a mild sleep reduction or departure from a set sleep routine, can produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterwards.
  30. Sleepiness was responsible for 250,000 traffic accidents in 2009, and is one of the leading causes of friendly fire. Sleep deprivation was ruled to be a contributing factor in some of the most well known global disasters.
  31. The benefits of napping are well established. Even five or ten-minute “power naps” yield significant cognitive enhancement, improvement in memory, and increased productivity.
  32. During flow, two key regions of the brain deactivate: the portion of the prefrontal cortex responsible for self-criticism, and the amygdala, the brain’s fear center.
  33. During the flow state, attention is focused on a limited perceptual field, and that field receives your full concentration and complete investment. Action and awareness merge. You cease thinking about yourself as separate from the activity or the world, and you don’t think of your actions and your perceptions as being distinct—what you think becomes what you do.
  34. In any sufficiently large organization, with an effective management system in place, there is going to be a pyramid shape with decision makers at every level. The only time I am brought in is when the only solutions have a downside, like someone losing their job, or the company losing large sums of money. And usually the decision is already famed for me as two negatives.
  35. When you hear hoof beats think horses, not zebras. In other words, don’t ignore the base rate of what is most likely, given the symptoms. Cognitive psychology experiments have amply demonstrated that we typically ignore base rates in making judgments and decisions. Instead, we favor information we think is diagnostic.
  36. People are given a choice along with the opinion of an expert stop using the parts of the brain that control independent decision-making and hand over their decision to the expert.

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload


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