The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin talks about the mind and the brain, its myriad processes, and systems related to the organization of ideas, thoughts, and decision making. Most importantly, it shows us strategies that will help us organize the vast influx of information we get every day, enhancing our productivity in daily life.

The mind tends to get overworked with the amount of information it has to process every day. When it’s overworked, it becomes difficult to cope with the decisions we have to make. This results in bad decisions, stress, and even breakdowns. There are, thankfully, a few strategies that one can apply in life to ensure that the mind functions smoothly.

1. The Attentional System Is Limited

The attentional system takes care of all incoming information. It determines the way this information is handled and processed. The attentional system can be regarded as a pillar of the brain that has evolved to function in one particular manner – that is to focus on one piece of information at a time. Due to the amount of information the brain takes in every day, the attentional system is under constant stress. 

The brain also prioritizes its focus on change rather than on what is constant, especially information that could be associated with danger. For example, while driving on a smooth road, the brain will pay attention to a big pothole or a bumpy patch. This is because the change in the smoothness of the road triggers the brain to be more careful.

The brain can only focus on a limited number of stimuli at a time. And your brain focusses on what is most important.

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

2. Constant Decision Making Tires The Brain

In today’s world, we are constantly getting bombarded with pieces of information. Out of these, the attentional system sorts out the most important information. This puts the brain under immense stress, especially when the brain has evolved to pay attention to one thing at a time. 

Consider an example where a person is thinking about spending a day off from work versus finishing a presentation. At the same time, there is an exciting program on TV. Simultaneously, the thought of hiring a new maid comes to mind, which reminds the person of the pending house chores. At this point, the person’s brain is trying to focus on what is important. With so many things to think of every day, the stress on the brain increases, and the person is more likely to make incorrect decisions.

It is therefore essential for us to focus on what is most important, rather than thinking of all the decisions at the same time. One should reduce the amount of time spent on making decisions and find ways to simplify the process.

3. The Trick to Organization

We all have faced a situation where we simply cannot remember where we kept the keys last time. Why does the brain fail us at these times?

The answer lies in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is responsible for remembering location. However, its workings are limited to remembering the location of things that have a fixed location. That is why we know for sure where the toothpaste is or where we keep milk. However, we tend to forget the location of things like keys or our mobile phones that do not have a designated place and roam around with us. 

The solution here is to strictly adhere to keeping things in designated places, like keeping keys only on the key holder near the door.

4. The Power of To-do Lists

Let’s say you sit down to do your personal accounts. Then you start thinking about buying something on eBay, and then your mind wanders to the new coffee table you saw at the home store. This mind-wandering can be traced back to the attentional system. The influx of information overwhelms it and we lose focus.

 There are three easy solutions to effective organization – 

  • To-do lists – To-do lists are effective in helping the brain focus. They help us keep track of all the important things outside of our heads.
  • The two-minute rule – It becomes practically impossible to write down every thought and everything we want to do. The two-minute rule helps in prioritizing tasks. If it takes more than two minutes to finish a task then it makes sense to write it down. Otherwise, do it right away!
  • Categorizing – Putting things and tasks in organized categories such as ‘work’, ‘personal’, ‘kids’, etc. helps the brain remember better.

To-do lists and categorizing are efficient ways to organize the information received by the brain. However, it is impossible to categorize all information we receive. Even categorizing the information in to-do lists at times can be tough. Therefore, creating a ‘miscellaneous’ category helps in saving random ideas and thoughts that do not fit anywhere. 

The idea of a miscellaneous junk drawer for random items stems from the brain’s need to simplify information and be able to focus on the most important information, even if it belongs to a miscellaneous category. A junk drawer helps in weeding out unnecessary items that one can eventually discard.

Organization methods such as categorizing and to-do lists help in reducing the pressure on the brain and saves mental energy.

5. Take Time to Rest and Refuel

It is important to remember that the brain needs time to rest, refuel, and repair. This happens when we sleep. However, the interesting thing is that even during sleep, the brain does not rest. It uses this break from incoming information to sort the information received through the day. Memories, ideas, problems, etc are processed, stored, and integrated into the existing knowledge. That is why often taking a break increases our productivity.

The need for refueling can be proven by the fact that most fresh ideas, solutions to problems, etc. come to us after a good night’s sleep. Moreover, many organizations today are focusing on upping employee productivity by incorporating ‘rest time’ and recreational spaces for employees at the office. Research shows that you’re actually twice as likely to solve a problem after you’ve slept on it.

Key take-aways

The brain is constantly working due to the barrage of information it receives. It is therefore most important for us today to ensure that our minds are fit and taken care of. Using these strategies for mind organization will help reduce the load on the brain. In this book, the author Daniel Levitin explains how to take back control of your life, by sharing examples and research from healthcare to online dating to raising kids, showing that the secret to success is always organization. 

The author relies on many psychological studies to support his conclusions. My biggest learnings from the book were how tasks need a beginning and an end, figuring out why I can’t follow the systems I create, what really happens with multitasking, and some great insights into procrastination and strategies to overcome. Overall, it was a fascinating book and I would recommend this book without hesitation.