The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin (New York: Dutton, 2014. 512 pp)

Daniel J. Levitin earned a B.A. in Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Science from Stanford University and his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Oregon. He is the James McGill Professor of Psychology, Behavioral Neuroscience, and Music at McGill University, and Dean of Arts and Humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI.

Codes and Keys

Have you forgotten your keys? Do you remember where you put them last? Chances are, you probably misplaced them, carelessly setting them in the wrong spot at the other end of the house. The usual spot for your keys, in actuality, represents an external memory bank for your brain. You don’t have to keep a constant tab on your key’s location because they have a defined spot, your brain can move on to more important things. But when those keys aren’t where they’re supposed to be, uh-oh!

Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind outlines the state of neuroscience and cognitive psychology in order to provide tangible recommendations about how we all might function better.

The struggle to remain organized moves far beyond losing your keys. It seems like we move at 100 mph throughout the day. Your job requires you to juggle multiple projects, while you must remember the daycare schedule, Thursday’s dinner party, your anniversary in a few weeks, and the inspiration for a new song you want to write on your guitar. How can anyone find balance in this maelstrom? How can anyone do it all?

Luckily, Levitin offers some tenets for a better, more productive you.

Out of Mind, Into Sight

For starters, it’s important to recognize the losing-your-keys issue is one of keeping straight your environment. Levitin writes:

“The most fundamental principle of the organized mind, the one most critical to keeping us from forgetting or losing things, is to shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world. If we can take some or all of the process out of our brains and put it into the physical world, we are less likely to make mistakes” (35).

Organizing in your external world means keeping the keys on a key loop next to the door. It means having consistent places for all of your things in your home. At work, it means organizing your files not too specifically or not too generally. It means associating certain projects with specific areas of the office. Work on one project at your desk but another in the conference room. This gives your brain an environmental cue about what you are doing and how to best achieve the task.

It could also mean—if you can afford it—separating computers to a work and home computer. These prompts tell your brain what to do and how to think.

Unlock Innovation

One more principle to consider: creativity. The expectations at work often center on efficiency and productive. How much can you do and how quickly can you do it? Privileging these aspects come with a cost to the average employee. Multitasking becomes key. Sticking on task and not letting your mind wander is paramount. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, some bosses provide no guidance, throwing employees into the deep end and expecting choate results.

But creativity dies in these environments. Multitasking emerges from myth. In reality, our brains have to switch from one topic to the next at high speed, often taxing our faculties with poor performance as a result.

Likewise, much creativity comes from “daydreaming” mode. Doesn’t it always seem like the best idea or the key to cracking the complicated puzzle rises to the surface at the strangest times? Perhaps it’s during your morning jog. Maybe it’s in the shower.

If you want creativity in the workforce, it’s probably a good idea to let people do a little daydreaming.

But there are limits and that’s why it isn’t wise to throw an employee in the deep end. Levitin notes,

“We function best when we are under some constraints and are allowed to exercise individual creativity within those constraints. In fact, this is posited to be the driving force in many forms of creativity, including literary and musical. Musicians work under the very tight constrains of a tonal systems—Western music uses only twelve different notes—and yet within that system, there is great flexibility” (289).

We all crave a certain amount of structure. In essence, our innate desire to be the little kid playing out in the backyard has never left us. We want to play with whatever toy and imagine whatever fantastical scenario. But we only feel safe doing so provided a fence keeps us secure from what’s outside. In music, this premise means a scale of notes. In the office, it could be a company ethos, a manager that gives some guidelines, or a mentor who knows the ropes. Be creative, but find your perimeter fencing and stay within bounds.

Land the Plane

Stylistically, The Organized Mind flows well in the first half but Levitin struggles to land the plane. The principles he brings up have wide application and he writes about complex scientific principles with useful and easy-to-understand prose. But the backend of the book gets messy and Levitin jumps around without much connection.

And yet The Organized Mind is recommended. Especially for those in business!

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

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