“The Organized Mind”: Daniel Levitin Tells You How to Get One

While our brains evolved to take on the daunting challenges of life in the Stone Age, they now have many redundant, maladaptive, and not quite finished features that clash with the huge demands placed on our attention by the modern world. Publishers Weekly, about The Organized Mind

For once and for all here’s one thing we should get into our disorganized minds: the notion of multitasking is a myth. So states, in so many words, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

What we think of as multitasking, Levitin says, is actually better viewed as “sequential tasking.” As Michael Andor Brodeur, Boston Globe, explains on his behalf, “you’re less doing a hundred things at once than breaking your cognitive potential into a hundred pieces, and wasting valuable oxygenated glucose in the process.”

Another point made by the author of The Organized Mind is that at any given time we have the capacity to be either focused or daydreaming—just one of these. “This two-part attentional system is one of the crowning achievements of the human brain…”

Yet, interestingly, it’s probably not the focused part that first absorbed this scientific fact but that other part, the mind-wandering one.

This brain state, marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable. You might be going for a walk or grocery shopping or doing something that doesn’t require sustained attention and suddenly — boom — the answer to a problem that had been vexing you suddenly appears. This is the mind-wandering mode, making connections among things that we didn’t previously see as connected.

What other interesting things does Levitin say in his new book? Take a real vacation. Not the kind where you go somewhere and continue to plug into all sorts of info sources at all hours of the day. The unplugging kind.

Why is this necessary? In a nutshell, “…The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited,” he wrote recently in The New York Times. We need to regularly “hit the reset button” in our brains. Not just on vacations, actually, but continuously. Take regular mental staycations, in other words.

Lucy Feldman, Wall Street Journal, breaks down Levitin’s advice into a handy list of 10 items:

1. Take breaks. 15 minutes every hour or so!

2. Set up different computer monitors for different activities. (Something about making effective use of spatial memory.)

3. Embrace a (modified) paper to-do list. A key part of this is that “(y)our eyes have to pass ones in the beginning to get to the ones in the middle,” says Levitin.

4. File correspondence in multiple ways. “If your inbox sometimes feels like the Times Square of the Internet, it can help to file each thread of correspondence in more than one category,” Feldman reports.

5. Purge, when needed. An example from Feldman: “Some people declare ’email bankruptcy,’ delete everything and write to all their contacts asking to please try again if whatever they sent is still important.”

6. Designate time for short tasks and longer projects. Feldman: “Some tasks take weeks, and some only a few minutes, and you shouldn’t switch back and forth between them all day long.”

7. Don’t spend more time on a decision than it’s worth. (I couldn’t decide whether to quote someone or explain this one further or what—and then decided on neither. It didn’t take long.)

8. Sleep, and nap on the job. Levitin: “If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, the events of the day are not properly encoded in memory.”

9. Don’t over-organize. Feldman quotes Levitin: “The obvious rule of efficiency is you don’t want to spend more time organizing than it’s worth. If you’re finding things quickly enough as it is, then don’t go to all the trouble.”

10. Leave work at work. Simply put, work is for work; leisure time is for leisure.

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