These are my notes summarising Daniel Levitin’s amazing book “The Organised Mind”. Read more about and buy this book at the author’s website.

C1 Too much information, too many decisions

  • We are confronted with dozens of unimportant or insignificant decisions every day.
  • We use a strategy called satisificing to deal with these: choose a good enough option rather than the best
  • Lack of productivity and loss of enthusiasm can result from decision overload
  • Human brain cannot instinctively prioritise decisions. Too many trivial decisions cause neural fatigue and leave no energy for important decisions.
  • Information taken in increased by factor of 5 in just 25 years
  • Keeping media and files organised is overwhelming
  • Every social media status update competes with more important things for brain resources
  • Attention is the most essential mental resource for any organism
  • Our attentional filter protects us from the trivial (e.g. why you don’t remember much of the scenery after driving)
  • Successful people narrow their attentional filter. They have their daily distractions handled for them to allow them to devote themselves to the moment.
  • The 2 most important parts of the attentional filter:
    • change (e.g. road feels funny when driving or someone sounds different when you speak to them)
    • importance (e.g. someone says your name and ‘fire’)
  • We experience much of the world on autopilot thanks to our AF
  • Attention is a limited capacity resource: there are limits to the number of things we can do at once
  • Losing our car keys can be caused by overloaded attentional systems; we cannot keep track of everything
  • Switching our attention comes with a high cost
  • Why is this a problem now? We’re:
    • doing more work than ever before
    • dealing with more changes in information technology than previous generations did
    • getting more information shot at us
  • We categorise our world to help us deal with all of this
  • Successful people repeatedly do active sorting (or triage). i.e. sorting the things you need to deal with right now from those that you don’t
  • We must shift the burden of organising from our brains to the external world

C2 How attention and memory work

  • Letting your mind wander allows connections to occur between disparate ideas and thoughts. This is non-linear thinking and helps creativity.
  • Envisioning, projecting oneself into a situation, autobiographical memories also involve this daydreaming state
  • This is your brain’s resting state mode
  • Contrast to state when you’re focused on a task (like writing these book notes). This state - the central executive - is the other dominant mode of attention.
  • These 2 states form a kind of yin-yang. One can’t function when the other is active.
  • Attention has a cost. Your brain has 4 circuits:
    • attentional filter
    • mind wandering mode
    • central executive
    • the switch between 2 states above
  • Different networks in your brain can hold different thoughts and agendas (e.g. one wants to avoid hunger, the other wants to stick to a diet)
  • Parts of the brain can go to sleep for a few moments without you realising it. This is partly explains why we lose stuff.
  • Systems like key hooks and inboxes allow us to externalise the effort for the CE to remember where things are
  • The brain encodes everything we experience but it is poor at filing. Everything is thrown in together. You can find obvious things, like the death of a relative but it’s difficult to find exactly what you want.
  • Remembering something is a process of bringing those neurons that were involved int the original experience back on-line
  • If we could get the same neurons to fire in the same way, the memory would be realistic and vivid
  • Memory is fiction, it may present back to us as fact but it’s easily distorted. Memory is not just replaying, it’s re-writing.
  • Memory retrieval can be altered by the environment or suggestion from others. We don’t always know that our memories are incorrect.
  • Events that are out of the ordinary tend to be remembered better because there is nothing competing with them when you try to recall them
  • Your memory merges similar events (this is more efficient) because it’s how we learn
  • Memory retrieval requires the brain to sift through many instances of the event to pick out the one we want. If too similar, we get many or all of them as a generic mixture without us realising. This is why it’s difficult to find misplaced keys: we’ve set them down in so many different places that all these memories run together.
  • Memory is also tied to emotion. If something made us frightened, elated, sad or angry, we are more likely to remember it. The brain tags these experiences.

Categories

  • Categorising is an activity of cognitive economy; looking at a beach, we don’t see each individual grain of sand, we see the collective.
  • Cognitive economy:
    • prevents us from being flooded with all possible terms for an object e.g. noise from around the corner is a car, as opposed to a specific make/model. This is basic-level categorisation. Babies and children learn this first.
    • dictates that we categorise things in a way to prevent being overwhelmed by details that probably don’t matter
  • We can switch between high and level categorisation
  • Categorisation allows us to quickly identify identical objects even when presented differently
  • Adaptive behaviour depends on cognitive economy
  • Good categorisation is instinctive
  • Categories are formed either on:
    • gross or fine appearance (gross: all pencils, fine: soft lead pencils vs hard lead)
    • functional equivalence (when objects look different, e.g. crayon instead of pencil)
    • situation specific (‘things to remove from house during fire’)
  • These 3 approaches determine how we organise our homes and work spaces
  • Functional categories can have fuzzy and hard boundaries
  • Information and decision overload means we need systems that reside out of our head to help us
  • Mind wandering vs central executive work in opposition. When latter is active, the former can starts thinking of other stuff you have to do. Write them down to get them out of your head.
  • Take 2 minutes to decide what you have to do to make a decision

C3 Organising our homes

  • Organising our stuff is a modern problem (the number of possessions an individual has is greater than most of evolutionary history (x 1000))
  • Too much stuff = stress.
  • 1 solution is to put system in place that tames the mess
  • We already have a loosely defined system (e.g. toothbrushes rarely go missing because they stay in the bathroom but hairbrushes often lost because they get moved about and we forget where they were)
  • Place memory:
    • evolved over 100’s of 1000’s years to keep track of things that didn’t move (e.g. trees, wells, mountains). It is accurate for stationary things important to our survival.
    • not great at keeping track of things that move location
  • The rule of the designated place ensures that you put things back after using them (e.g. keys on hook)
  • Use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done and to create a home for objects
  • Central executive has a limit thought to be between 5-9 items but realistically it’s 4
  • Create useful categories: limit the number of types of things they contain to between 1-4 things
  • 3 general rules of organisation:
    1. a mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabelled item
      • if you allow this then you lose grip on a place for everything and everything in its place
    2. if there is an existing standard, use it
    3. don’t keep what you can’t or don’t use

Digital home

  • Instead of using work computer to watch videos/listen to music, use another device (e.g. iPad)
  • Use virtual desktops and desktop patterns when doing work vs home
  • Multitasking instead of sustained, focused effort provides empty rewards
  • Mobile phones now imply that people should be able to reach you when convenient for them rather than for you
  • Just having the opportunity to multitask hits cognitive performance
  • Trying to lean whilst multitasking causes information to go to wrong parts of the brain
  • Compare letter writing to email:
    • no effort required to send email therefore everyone does it
    • mail used to arrive once per day now it arrives in real time
    • types of letter were significant (tax rebate, letter from loved one) but now email used for everything
  • Email:
    • allows people to ask for stuff they wouldn’t do in person
    • less popular amongst young people, text or IM taking hold
  • Sending email, checking twitter etc. provides a dopamine hit. But, this is the dumb, novelty-seeking part of the brain driving the limbic system, not the planning, scheduling, hiker-level though centres in the prefrontal cortex.
  • Email, social media, Reddit etc. constitute a neural addiction
  • Trick your brain into staying on task:
    • set aside time to respond to email
    • turn off phone during focus time
  • Use a password manager

C4 organising our social world

  • In 1200, you might have 4-5 siblings and 4-5 who died young. You might know 100 people.
  • In 1850, average family group dropped from 20 to 10 people
  • In 1960, average was 5
  • Today, 50% of Americans live alone
  • Human social relations are based on reciprocity, altruism, commerce, physical attract and procreation
  • Social closeness includes unpleasant byproducts such as rivalry, jealousy, suspicion, hurt feelings, competition
  • A rancher may not see anyone for a week whereas a greeter at a shop may make eye contact with over 1500 people in a day
  • The people we see constitute much of our social world and we divvy them up into categories (e.g. family, friends, co-workers, service providers, professional advisers) and further sub-divided (e.g. co-workers you will go for a beer with).
  • Context is key: co-workers you enjoy having a beer with you aren’t necessarily the people you are happy to meet on a beach or invite for dinner
  • Setup reminders to call or text friends every 1-2 months, after a few of these you will start to look forward and they might call you out of reciprocity
  • Couples use transactive memory (external memory that includes other people) to pass responsibilities to the other person. e.g. 1 person might be responsible for dealing with bills whilst the other deals with immediate childcare needs.
  • When 1 person dies, this can lead to the other not knowing what to do about large parts of their life
  • Having a social network fulfils a deep biological need: there is comfort in belonging
  • Beyond companionship, couples seek intimacy. Allows you to share private behaviours, personal thoughts, joys, hurts. Also includes shared meaning (e.g. inside jokes) and freedom to be who we want to be.
  • People in relationships tend to be healthier and live longer

Indirectness

  • Large part of human interaction requires us to subdue our innate primate hostilities
  • We do this via non-confrontational speech or indirect speech.
    • e.g. 2 people sitting in the office, 1 is hot. “Open the window” one says to the other. This is direct and will make the other feel uncomfortable. Instead, they might say “it’s warm in here no?” to invite the other into a discussion that, hopefully, results in them doing something about the heat.
    • indirect speech is an act of play, an invitation to cooperate in a game of verbal hide and seek
  • Ordinary, cooperative speech is conducted according to 4 rules (Gricean):
    • quantity - make your contribution as informative as required but not over informative
    • quality - don’t say falsehoods, don’t say that for which you lack evidence
    • manner - avoid obscurity of expression and ambiguity. Be brief and orderly.
    • relation - make your contribution relevant

At the edge of our social world

  • We struggle to disregard information that we have shown to be false (e.g. jury told to ignore a lawyer’s inadmissible statement)
  • Gossip helps us feel superior when we are feeling insecure and helps forge bonds between others. Harmful due to belief perseverance.
  • In-group/out-of-group bias is a cognitive illusion. We tend to think of people in ‘our’ group as individuals whereas members of the out-of-group we deem as a collective. When asked to judge how disparate our interests, personalities etc. against the out of group, we overestimate the similarities of out-group members.
  • Partitioning people into mutually exclusive categories activates the perception that we are better then them even when there is no rational basis for it
  • Implication is clear: we misjudge outsiders and therefore diminish our ability to create new, cooperative and potential valuable social relations

Escaping our social world

  • Living in cities is fundamentally an act of cooperation
  • Social interaction is complex. We will often act out of our self-interest (e.g. avoid helping those in need). We have a desire to fit in.
  • We look for cues in others about what is acceptable in a given situation. Seeing someone being mugged, we look around and see dozens of others not helping. We think that ‘maybe, this isn’t as it seems, I shouldn’t get involved’.
  • This tendency to not get involved is driven by 3 principles:
    • desire to conform to behaviour of others (in hope that we will gain acceptance in our social group)
    • social comparison (we examine our behaviour in terms of others)
    • diffusion of responsibility (based on feelings of equity). “Why should I stick my neck out if other people aren’t?”
  • We are not just a social species, but a selfish one too
  • Difference between our selfish and altruistic responses can be seen as a categorisation error. When we refuse to help, we are casting the victim as being in the out-group and we, the onlookers, are the in-group. When we help, opposite is true.
  • We are increasingly interconnected with others. Our happiness is increasingly interdependent. Try to be agreeable. We are all in this together.

C5 organising our time

  • The prefrontal cortex is our central executive. It is responsible for impulse control and ability to delay gratification (compare to animals which lack this ability e.g dangling string in front of cat).
  • Prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until adulthood. This explains why kids and adolescents are not good at planning or delaying gratification.
  • Damage to the PC can cause issues with planning, time coordination and results in a lack of inhibition in behaviour
  • If your inhibitions are reduced, you are impaired from determining future consequences and tend to do things now that you regret later e.g. watch a box set instead of writing, eating biscuits instead of sticking to you diet. This is your PC not doing it’s job.
  • Brain co-ordinates the body’s housekeeping and timekeeping functions via the reptilian brain (which we share with all vertebrates)
  • Cerebral cortex handles higher cognitive functions (e.g. reasoning, music, art, maths, athletic movement, etc.)
  • Brain represents 2% of total body weight but uses 20% energy
  • Brain burns glucose to fuel mental operation
  • Good time management means organising our time in a way that maximises brain efficiency
  • Brain takes the world in via chunks and picks what it thinks is going to be important and needs your attention
  • You need more energy to multitask, less to focus. Therefore, people who organise their time that allows them to focus will get more done and be less tired.
  • Daydreaming takes less energy than multitasking. Natural seesaw between focusing and daydream helps recalibrate/restore the brain. Multi-tasking does not.
  • Brain arousal system has a novelty bias that is more powerful than our deepest survival drives
  • Brain becomes addicted to processing new stimuli to the detriment of focus
  • We should train ourselves to go for the long reward and forgo the short one
  • Multitasking results in information you want to learn being directed to the wrong part of the brain
  • If you have something big you want to complete, break it into meaningful chunks. This makes time management easier: finishing a single chunk provides neurochemical satisfaction.
  • There is a balance between doing and monitoring progress: we work, we inspect, we adjust, we push forward.
  • Planning and doing require separate parts of the brain (boss vs. worker). We need to shift between these roles to get things done. This is costly.
  • If you have chores too do, put similar chores together. Maintain a single attentional set through to completion of a job.
  • Brain uses chunking to render large scale projects doable and makes our lives memorable by segmenting them with well-defined beginnings and endings.
  • Levels of processing: items processed at a deeper level with more active involvement by us tend to become more strongly encoded in memory. Passive learning through textbooks and lectures is not as effective as working it out by yourself.

Sleep time

  • Enormous amount of cognitive processing occurs during sleep; it’s vital in consolidating events from past few days
  • Newly acquired memories are unstable and require neural strengthening to become resistant to inference and become accessible for retrieval (i.e. retrievable via a set of different cues)
  • Sleep helps to preserve memories in their original form and extract features and meaning from our experiences
  • Disrupted sleep 2-3 days after an event can disrupt your memory of it months or years later
  • Three types of processing occur during sleep:
    • unionisation: linking discrete chunks into a unified concept
    • assimilation: integration of new events into things you already know
    • abstraction: hidden rules are discovered and entered into memory
  • REM vs NREM sleep; REM is when brain does deep processing. Most memory consolidation occurs during first 2 hours of slow-wave, NREM sleep and during last 90 mins of REM sleep in the morning. Explains why drink/drugs can lead to memory loss: the crucial 90 mins of sleep is interrupted or never occurs.
  • Sleep also clears neural pathways of potentially toxic waste products that occur during waking thought
  • Naps at the right time help to reset worn out neural circuits but naps after snoozing or too close to bed are counterproductive

Creative time

  • Creativity involves the skilful integration of time-stopping daydreaming and time monitoring central executive
  • Achieving insight follows a pattern:
    1. focus all attention on the aspect of the problem as a preparatory phases (left side of brain)
    2. relax, let go of the problem and let networks in right side take over since they are better connected. The second or so preceding an insight is accompanied by a burst of gamma waves which bind together disparate neural networks i.e. binding thoughts that seem unrelated into a coherent new whole
  • Relaxation is key. Explains why insights occur during a shower.
  • Organise your time in order to maximise creativity. Creativity occurs during the flow state (where we lose track of time and others whilst we focus on a creative activity).
  • During flow, attention is focused on a limited perceptual field. Action and awareness merge. What you think becomes what you do.
  • Flow occurs without your conscious control
  • Creative people arrange their lives to maximise flow. Create an area that is familiar and ‘safe’ to help achieve flow.
  • Anything that tempts us to break the extended concentration required to perm well is a barrier to success (e.g. email, social networks)
  • We must train ourselves to avoid external and internal distractions
    • external: set aside time to do work with phone off and email and browser off. Set aside particular place to work that allows focus.
    • internal: empty your head to avoid reminding yourself of something you haven’t processed yet. Write it down.
  • Take break for a walk every 90 mins
  • Do stuff that takes less than 5 mins now to avoid the cognitive cost of deferring them. Set aside time each day to do these tasks together.
  • Know how much your time is worth. Don’t spend more time on a decision than it’s worth.
  • Organise your time and minds to leave time for creativity

C6 Organising information for the hardest decisions

  • We are ill-equipped to calculate probabilities on our own esp. regarding negative decisions
  • Part of maintaining an organised mind and life is making the best decisions possible. Bad decisions sap strength energy.
  • Decision making categories, those that you:
    • can make now - solution obvious
    • can delegate - they have more time/expertise
    • must defer so that you can process the information you already have
    • need more information
  • Rest of chapter ignored (long explanation on probabilities and medical decision making)

C7 Organising the business world

  • When all components of a complex system achieve maximum value and when it is impossible to make one component better without making another worse, then the system has reached the Pareto optimum
  • Principle of minimum chain of command states that organisations should choose the fewest number of hierarchical levels as possible
  • In a vertical hierarchy, direction travels down the chain with increasing specificity
  • Important to give lower levels local autonomy
  • Ethical decision making uses different parts of the brain than economic decision making. There is a cognitive cost to switch between the 2 modes. Therefore difficult to weigh up decisions with economic and ethical implications.
  • Leadership can be defined as individuals who significantly affect the thoughts, feeling or behaviours of a significant number of individuals indirectly
  • An effective leader can quickly understand opposite views, how people hold them and how to resolve conflicts. They can bring together people who appear to have conflicting goals
  • A great leader uses their empathy to allow people/orgs to save face. They:
    • build cohesive teams through mutual trust
    • create shared understanding
    • provide a clear and concise set of expectations and goals
    • allow works at all levels to exercise disciplined initiative
    • accept prudent risks
  • Trust is gained/lost through everyday actions, not through occasional gestures
  • We function best when we are under some constraints and are allowed to exercise individual creativity within them
  • Differences between individuals influenced by the locus of control: how people view their autonomy and agency within the world. People with:
    • internal LoC believe they are responsible for/can influence the own fates and life outcomes. Feel in charge of their lives. They attribute success to their own efforts and similarly to failure (“I worked really hard at this” vs. “I didn’t do enough”).
    • external LoC see themselves as relatively powerless pawns in some game played by others. Think that all external events exert more influence on their lives than themselves. Success blamed on external world (‘it was luck’). Gamblers often have external LoC.
  • LoC is a significant moderating variable in life expectancy, life satisfaction and work productivity.
  • Internals tend to be high achievers, external tend to experience more stress and depression
  • Workers who are pro-active, self-motivated and creative will probably find jobs with a lack of autonomy to be frustrating.
  • Managers should provide different motivation styles and give internals jobs with autonomy and externals with more constraints.
  • Workers are motivated by intrinsic rewards, not pay. Managers who don’t realise this will have a disgruntled and unproductive workforce.
  • Greater productivity arises from being your own boss
  • Other factors contributing to productivity:
    • early riser
    • able to stick to a schedule
    • making time for exercise
  • Separate email accounts is advisable. Use a single app to manage them all. Check infrequently.

Multi-tasking

  • Dopamine hit when multitasking causes a cognitive illusion: people think they are great at it
  • Workspaces misguidedly encourage workers to multitask
  • Email, IM and other distractions prevent you from staying on task. The ‘stay on task’ mode gave us maths, pyramids, literature etc. They cannot be made in fragmented, 2 min increments.
  • Multitasking leads to not more work but less, not better but sloppier work
  • Companies that are winning the productivity battle are those that allow workers to focus, nap, exercise, and work in a calm environment
  • Overwork and sleep deprivation leads to errors and mistakes
  • We have finite limits for how much information we can consume: this is the load effect
  • We make poorer choices with more information

  • In setting up a structured system, a successful system is one that requires the minimum amount of searching time and is transparent to others. It can be easily described.

  • We can make our business worlds more orderly by paying attention to information flow and escaping the illusions of multitasking
  • We should plan for failure
  • An effective organisation is one that takes steps to manage its own future rather than allowing external forces to dictate its course

C8, What to teach our children

  • The world has changed for school age children in last 15 years. Information now available at no cost. Searching for information that once took hours now takes seconds.
  • This immediacy has created a new problem that few of us are trained to solve.
  • Our collective mission to help the next generation. Teach them how to:
    • evaluate the hordes of information out there
    • discern what is true and what is not
    • identify biases and half-truths
    • know how to be critical, independent thinkers
  • Most important lesson: the understanding that there are experts in many domains who know more than we do. They should not be trusted blindly, but their knowledge and opinions, if the pass tests of validity and bias, should be held in higher regard than those who don’t have special training.
  • Experts spend much of their time figuring out which source of information are credible and what they know vs. don’t know
  • These skills are perhaps the most important we can teach our children in this new world. We should also teach them to:
    • be conscientious and agreeable
    • be tolerant of others
    • help those less fortunate than others
    • take naps
  • When a child is old enough to understanding organising and sorting, help them enhance their cognitive skills and capacity for learning by teaching them to organise their world. Make it a game to sort and re-sort, by colour, by height, by name.
  • Procrastination is more of a problem in children than adults but they can be taught to avoid it.

Information literacy

  • social media isn’t journalism, it’s information. Journalism is what you do with this information.
  • Two biases can affect articles:
    • bias of writer and editor
    • bias of ourselves
  • Web is unregulated therefore we should check the information: Authenticate, validate, evaluate
  • Correlation is not causation. Latter requires strictly controlled scientific experimentation.
  • Whenever we encounter information in the form of numbers, do a quick mental check to see if they sound plausible.
  • We should teach our children how to think about numbers logically and critically and to enable this sort of querying and verification. Goal being not to say whether number encountered is exactly correct but only to see if it is approximately correct.
  • Quick trick for evaluating numerical information set boundary conditions (i.e. lowest and highest answers could possibly be) and then check whether supplied numbers fall within bounds.

Approximately OK

  • The art of approximating is an important tool for critical thinking
  • These approximate answers can help us make a decision in a fraction of the time
  • Back of the envelope questions such as “deduce the weight of the empire state building” or “how many basketballs fit within a school bus” rely on our ability to fudge and approximate but can allow us to reach an answer within an order of magnitude
  • Another question that forces creative and flexible thinking without relying on quantitive skills is the ‘name as many uses’ test. E.g. how many uses can you come up with for a broomstick, a lemon?
  • This type of thinking is incredibly important in a technology driven world with untold unknowns
  • Important to teach children to become lifelong learners, curious and inquisitive
  • Equally important to instil a sense of play, that thinking isn’t just serious, it can be fun.
  • ‘When you make a mistake say to yourself, how interesting! A mistake is an opportunity to learn.’

Where you get your information

  • Students must take an active role in knowing, identifying, evaluating, organising and using information - it’s not enough to have information, it’s what you do with it.
  • Knowing something entails 2 things:
    • must be no doubt
    • must be true
  • Education and exposure to many different ideas are so important: we can make an informed, evidence-based choice about what is true
  • We should teach to be more understanding or others and of others points of view
  • Try to keep an open mind and see things from another’s perspective

C9, Everything Else

  • Shift the burden of organising from your brains to the external world
  • Externalise information to organise the mind and allow the brain to be more creative
  • There used to be a distinction between what one possessed and what one did not. This line no-longer exists.
  • Digital files that are available and easily accessible means the problem of acquisition becomes irrelevant. Instead, the problem for selection becomes impossible.
  • Opportunities to daydream are more important than ever. Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.
  • We should regularly ask ourselves:
    • do I really need to hold on to this thing or this relationship anymore? Does it fill me with energy and happiness? Does it serve me?
    • Are my communications filled with clutter? Am I direct? Do I ask for what I want and need or do I hope the recipient will figure it out?
    • Must I accumulate several of the same things even though they’re identical? Are my friends, habits and ideas all too similar or am I open new people’s ideas and experiences?
  • Getting organised can help us reach the next level in our lives
  • We are conditioned to fall prey to old habits
  • We must look at the areas of our lives that need cleaning up and then methodically and proactively do so. We need to keep doing it.
  • The best way to improve our is to learn to adjust agreeably to new circumstances
  • The key to change is having faith that when we get rid of the old, something or someone even more magnificent will take its place.