Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin

Modern life presents us with too much stuff and too much information to deal with. In The Organized Mind, psychologist Daniel J. Levitin explains how we can work with our mind, instead of against it, to handle information and make better decisions.

Attention is the critical resources for taking in information, making good decisions, and forming memories. The difficulty is that we only have so much attention to go around. Our attentional systems work to make us unconsciously ignore many of the signals that come our way; we would be overwhelmed if they did not. Our built in systems pay attention to change or to things that seem important. Our natural state is to have a wandering mind, broadly attentive to the environment, screening out the stable and safe, occasionally zooming in on something novel or critical.

We can also use the executive functions of our mind to focus attention where we want it. This can consume a lot of energy, but we can do it very effectively, sometimes focusing to the point where we lose track over everything else.

Both forms of attention have their strengths and limitations. In addition, it is costly to our attention bank to switch between modes or to switch focus from one subject to another. The load of information that we have to deal with can exhaust our attentional system, leading to inattention, poor memory, and bad decisions.

Levitin offers solutions to alleviate these problems and work with the strengths of our brains. The primary suggestion is to offload as much information as possible to the environment. The less we have to remember, and the fewer minor decisions we have to make, the better off we’ll be. Highly successful people use systems of habits, calendars, filing, labels, and standards to minimize the amount of information they have to carry in their memories. It is often not so important to know something as it is to be able to find it when you need it.

A related concept is to use categories and chunk up information. Our minds do this naturally. For instance, we typically don’t remember a telephone number as seven digits, but as two chunks of digits. We can apply a chunking strategy by breaking large jobs into doable tasks, or be grouping related tasks together. We can create scenes or stories in our mind (we do it anyway) to connect a string of events. Sleep seems to be important our natural chunking process, consolidating memories, connecting new information to old, and formulating new concepts.

Levitin presents many tools to organize information and things to make it easier on our brains. In my opinion, one of the most helpful tools is the fourfold table. This is a simple method to organize statistical information and assess the probabilities of certain outcomes. We have horrible intuition for understanding probabilities and assessing risks. Even people trained in statistics typically get probabilities wrong when they guess. The fourfold table, which Levitin describes in some detail with examples, allows one to break down the numbers and evaluate the most relevant probabilities.

The Organized Mind is not a how-to manual, though it has many strategies for organizing based on how the brain works. Levitin discusses the structure and function of parts of the brain, but is not excessively technical. A reader could skim these sections without too much loss. A reader could also focus on a particular aspect of organizing (business, time, and even social life) based on the way the book is organized, though the first few chapters have a lot of information that is background for the other sections.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload. New York: Dutton, 2014.