The Organized Mind

The Organized Mind, written by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, dives into the functional limitations of the brain, and how the present day information overload makes us less productive.

It then expands on some fundamental (non-radical) ideas about how to organize our environment and working style to get the best out of our mind.

Who should read this book

The book is a deep dive into the functionalities of memory, attention and the mind.

It is not recommended for those looking for quick productivity hacks, but rather those who wish to take a deeper look at why our mind works the way it does.

It requires a fair bit of regular focus to get the most out of this book.

The central idea

Decision overload is the new norm - we have way too many choices than the neanderthal man, but our brain still can focus on only few of them at one time.

Thus, in order to reduce this imbalance, we must ensure that we keep our external physical environment as unifocus as possible, so that it percolates to our brain as well.

The key ideas

Environments changed. Our brains barely did

We have infinitely more choices, decisions, complexities we need to decide on than our ancestors did.

Then, it was ‘find something to eat’. Now, it’s 20 different kinds of celery we can choose from, 20 different outlets we can choose from.

Our brains have not kept up pace with this change in environment, and thus, they struggle to cope with this decision overload.

One easy way is to avoid making decisions that don’t contribute any major value for example planning the clothes you’d wear to work beforehand.

Multitasking = Multi-failing

We can never multitask, we’re just switching between tasks fast.

And while that gives us an illusion of productivity, we do less than expected, because there’s a cognitive load associated with switching and it takes quite a few minutes for the brain to get to the same level of focus on a new task that it had in the old one.

The medicals of multitasking

Research has shown that multitasking increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol.

It gives an adrenaline rush when switching tasks - which feels exciting, but can cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.

It also creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop where we get a dopamine hit each time we switch tasks, which makes us enjoy it, and encourages us to switch more and more.

The question of work hours

Working longer hours has a counterintuitive effect on productivity. Firms that allow employees flexible working hours have been proven to show better output.

A sixty-hour work week, although 50% longer than a forty-hour work week, reduces productivity by 25%. It takes 2 hours of overtime to accomplish one hour of work!

A ten minute mid-day nap is equivalent to an extra 90 minutes of extra sleep at night, since it recharges the brain

Organizing the environment

Organizing our work and personal environment, sorting it and maintaining predefined locations greatly relieves the brain’s, specifically, the hippocampu’s functions.

Thus, if you keep specific things in specific places, such as pencils in a pencil drawer, utensils organized by utility, it greatly reduces the brain’s need to decide each time where it needs to look for a specific tool, greatly reducing decision overload

Organizing your mind

The most fundamental principle of the organized mind is to shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world.

The brain can store information but isn’t good at retrieving it.

And it takes energy to both store, and retrieve the info. Why let the brain do it, when someone/something like an app can do that for you?

Just ensure that your brain has bandwidth to do what it does best which is thinking of new ideas, solving problems. Finally, spend only the time on each decision as much as it’s worth.

Actionables

  1. Keep your workspace and home organized.
  2. Put your thoughts and plans on paper to let the brain focus on just the thinking.
  3. For each decision/task assign one of the following action items - do it, drop it, delegate it or defer it

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