The way our brain manages information often seems mysterious. Daniel Levitin lifts the veil and reveals the systems that are at work every time we drive a car, learn something new, or try to remember where we put something from his book, “The Oeganized Mind”.
With a greater understanding of these processes, you’ll be better equipped to take charge in organizing your life. You’ll also discover how to apply simple techniques, learn the best way to remain productive at work and even how to cope with situations that are out of your control.
Have you ever told yourself that you’d like to “get organized?” It’s an easy promise to make, but difficult to put into action. So where can you get started? Well, before we even approach this challenge, we must first understand in greater detail the way our mind works, more specifically, our attentional system. This is the way our brain handles and categorizes information. The times we live in pose a great challenge to this system, because our brains aren’t equipped to cope with the flood of new facts and sights that we face everyday. Instead, brains work best when concentrating on one thing at a time.
This was vital for our ancestors, who hunted successfully by staying highly focused. Their thoughts would only be disrupted by important events, such as an approaching predator.
Nowadays, we’re constantly attempting to do many things at once. Driving a car, listening to the radio, thinking about an upcoming business meeting – it’s not unusual that all these things happen simultaneously. This is something that our brain has not evolved to do successfully, which means that multitasking comes at a price.
When we switch our attention between different activities, our brain is unable to function effectively. This in turn causes us to make thoughtless mistakes, or forget and misplace things. In order to better understand our attentional system, we also need to consider how our brain decides how to divide its attention. It’s all to do with the brain’s remarkable ability to detect changes.
Our brains are more likely to pay attention to changes than constants. For example, imagine you’re driving your car. You suddenly notice that the road feels bumpy. Prior to this, you didn’t even consider how even the street was, simply because this was not useful information.
But that realization could be vital, because it alerts you to a treacherous change in surface or a problem with your car. Changing circumstances can pose a threat to our survival.
Decisions are part of everyday life: Should we opt for the cheaper internet plan, or pay more and get unlimited data? Should we respond to this email now, or read these texts first? We confront decisions like these nearly every minute. But how can our brain cope with this non-stop flow of decisions when it originally evolved to process one idea at a time?
It’s simple: we can manage the flood of information by focusing our attention. But how, exactly?
Here’s an example: imagine you’re on a busy street, desperately looking for your lost dog. You automatically fade out all unnecessary details like the people, cars and buses, and only focus on things that are the same size and color as your dog. So unless there are a lot of other things on this street that are about knee-height, fluffy and brown, your brain immediately makes it easier to find your beloved pet.
This automatic process of honing our focus down to what’s necessary should also be reflected in our decision making. In other words, you shouldn’t spend too much time on less important everyday choices. Instead, find shortcuts and ways to simplify your decision making.
For example, one type of decision we often need to make is about purchasing products or services that can make our lives easier. A good way to analyze these decisions is by thinking about the monetary value of our own time, because it allows us to compare it to the benefit the product promises.
When was the last time you lost your keys, phone or glasses? It seems ridiculous that the objects we need with us all the time are also the ones that seem to go wandering most often. The reason is straightforward: we lose these objects because we carry them around with us. Objects that we only use in one place, like our toothbrush, seldom get lost at all.
There is, in fact, a special part of our brain dedicated specifically to remembering the location of things. It’s called the hippocampus, and it was crucial for our ancestors who needed to know where a watering hole was, or the areas where predators might pounce.
In order to learn more about our hippocampi, researchers studied the brains of London taxi drivers, as they are required to commit the city’s street plan to memory. The tests revealed that the hippocampi of the drivers were larger than hippocampi in other people of similar education and age. These larger hippocampi were attributed to the need to recall many locations in detail.
However, the hippocampus can only provide us with information about objects whose location doesn’t change. This isn’t a problem for a taxi driver trying to remember how to get to a particular building, but is a constant problem for us when we try to remember where our frustratingly mobile keys are.
To ensure that you don’t always have to seek out these essential items, simply find a designated place for them. A special bowl next to the door for your keys always does the trick!
If you can’t set aside a certain place for an object, then it may also help to purchase duplicates. For example, if you need reading glasses, having a single location for them might prove frustrating as you may need them in different places. Instead, you could purchase a pair for your bedroom for nighttime reading, while another pair remains at work.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by all the different ideas and thoughts floating around inside your head? The best way to ensure you can keep track of them is to organize them outside your head. A time-tested trick to unburden your brain is to write things down. Good old-fashioned flash cards are an easy and effective way to record and organize ideas as soon as you think of them.
On the other hand, if you think of something that you could do right away – such as calling your aunt to say happy birthday – then don’t think twice, do it immediately. Think of it in terms of the two-minute rule: if the task takes longer than two minutes to complete, then write it down. Otherwise, do it straight away.
Another effective approach is to organize your written thoughts into categories. This mirrors the way our brains are constantly categorizing new stimuli and helps simplify our thinking, thus saving time and increasing our attention capacity.
For example, if we see a flying object with feathers, our brain recognizes it as part of the category “bird.” Though this bird might be a hawk or an eagle, it’s easier to place it in this broader category rather than identify it specifically.
The same goes for our flash cards – collect them together and sort them into different groups according to the topics they relate to. These could be categories such as “Personal Life,” “Work” or “Kids.” This way you’ll be able to keep your thoughts and ideas organized and accessible.
We’ve seen how creating categories is a great way to organize our thoughts and our lives. But what should we do with objects and ideas that don’t seem to belong in any pigeonhole? Well, these miscellaneous items can form their own category.
The categorizing tendencies of the brain can be seen in the way that we organize our living spaces. In our homes, there’s usually at least one place where random objects like single light bulbs, paper clips or car-cleaning products go. Why? Because it wouldn’t make sense to have a special drawer for light bulbs if you only had a few – combining them with other spare objects is much more space efficient.
Everyone knows that you tend to be far more productive after a good night’s sleep. And yet, we’re often tempted to skip a few hours of kip in order to work just a little bit more. This, however, is a mistake. Our brain works incredibly hard while we sleep, processing new information from the day and integrating it into our existing knowledge. Memories, problems and ideas often appear in our dreams and we may find ourselves better positioned to solve a problem after “sleeping on it.”
This phenomenon is backed up by studies. Researchers found that students attempting to solve a problem performed better following a night of sleep than they did working on it for the same length of waking time. Ultimately, you’re twice as likely to solve a problem after you’ve slept on it. This shows that sleep is essential, and attempting to work when you’re tired is counterproductive.
Sleep isn’t the only way that we can refuel our minds. Many companies have discovered the benefits of decreasing employee work time and providing facilities and opportunities for rest.
For example, at Microsoft, employees are welcome to use the in-house spa to relax and recharge. This is not only great for employees, but, as studies have shown that productivity increases when working hours drop, the use of downtime in facilities such as these may well be a driving force behind increased productivity.
Accounting firm Ernst & Young has also improved worker performance by allowing additional vacation time. In fact, for every additional ten vacation hours taken by employees, the employees’ performance rating increased by eight percent.
Today, we lead very different lives to our grandparents. One of the greatest changes is the way we can easily access vast amounts of information in no time at all. Googling something takes less than a minute! Nevertheless, there’s one important question we should continually ask ourselves: Is this information reliable?
Many of us have used Wikipedia before. The information it can provide us on a wide range of topics is hugely helpful, but is subject to a major drawback. Anyone is able to edit the information on a Wikipedia page, so we can never immediately be sure whether it is reliable. This means we should take the time to verify the information.
In order to evaluate whether a website is a valuable source or not, we can first investigate whether any reliable websites, such as established news services or government websites link to the website. If so, the site itself is likely to be reliable, and information can also be verified by cross-checking it with the content on several other websites.
However, not every problem can be solved by checking online. In complex dilemmas, particularly in the workplace, you’ll need to think for yourself in order to find solutions. Inventive and innovative thinking is something you just can’t google for! In such cases, the ability to reason, estimate and develop hypothetical assumptions is vital.
We live in an age of information overload. This presents a challenge for our brains, which are wired to manage information by focusing attention on one thing at a time. By learning about the way our brain distinguishes, focuses and categorizes, we can better organize our own lives.
Check out my related post: How can you make yourself more productive?