Optimizing An Organized Mind

How can one maximize mental performance? The Organized Mind- Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin is a book that works towards an answer to this question. The book’s ideas on offloading things to external systems and organizational techniques are very similar to David Allen’s , Getting Things Done . However, The Organized Mind, provides much more historical and scientific background an context. Further, An Organized Mind avoids being overly prescriptive, and instead gives the reader ideas on how to best optimize for their own situation.

Some of my highlights on the key themes of the book:

Getting the mind into the right mode

One useful framework that the books develops is hte idea of the mind as functioning in different modes. An important component of high performance is the ability to use the right mode at the right time.

There are four components in the human attention system: the mind-wandering mode, the central executive mode, the attention filter, and the attention switch, which directs neural and metabolic resources among the mind-wandering, stay-on-task, or vigilance modes.

Remember that the mind-wandering mode and the central executive work in opposition and are mutually exclusive states; they’re like the little devil and angel standing on opposite shoulders, each trying to tempt you. While you’re working on one project, the mind-wandering devil starts thinking of all the other things going on in your life and tries to distract you. Such is the power of this task-negative network that those thoughts will churn around in your brain until you deal with them somehow. Writing them down gets them out of your head, clearing your brain of the clutter that is interfering with being able to focus on what you want to focus on. As Allen notes, “Your mind will remind you of all kinds of things when you can do.

The task-negative or mind-wandering mode is responsible for generating much useful information, but so much of it comes at the wrong time.

Creativity involves the skillful integration of this time-stopping daydreaming mode and the time-monitoring central executive mode.

Insights into how human memory works

The book delineates the nuances of human memory by comparing it to systems in the physical world.

Being able to access any memory regardless of where it is stored is what computer scientists call random access. DVDs and hard drives work this way; videotapes do not. You can jump to any spot in a movie on a DVD or hard drive by “pointing” at it. But to get to a particular point in a videotape, you need to go through every previous point first (sequential access). Our ability to randomly access our memory from multiple cues is especially powerful. Computer scientists call it relational memory. You may have heard of relational databases— that’s effectively what human memory is.

Having relational memory means that if I want to get you to think of a fire truck, I can induce the memory in many different ways. I might make the sound of a siren, or give you a verbal description (“ a large red truck with ladders on the side that typically responds to a certain kind of emergency”).

This feature can lead to either valuable insights or being overwhelmed, depending on how it is controlled:

If you are trying to retrieve a particular memory, the flood of activations can cause competition among different nodes, leaving you with a traffic jam of neural nodes trying to get through to consciousness, and you end up with nothing.

Categorization is key to mental functioning.

This ability to recognize diversity and organize it into categories is a biological reality that is absolutely essential to the organized human mind.”

Shift burdens to external systems

You might say categorizing and externalizing our memory enables us to balance the yin of our wandering thoughts with the yang of our focused execution.

Write things down to avoid getting caught in an unnecessary “rehearsal loop. “

Make a big list of everything on you mind, notice you feel better.

When we have something on our minds that is important– especially a To Do item, we’re afraid we’ll forget it, so our brain rehearses it, tossing it around and around in circles in something that cognitive psychologists actually refer to as a rehearsal loop, a network of brain regions that ties together the frontal cortex just behind your eyeballs and the hippocampus in the center of your brain. This rehearsal loop evolved in a world that had no pens and paper, no smartphones or other physical extensions of the human brain; it was all we had for tens of thousands of years and during that time, it became quite effective at remembering things. The problem is that it works too well, keeping items in rehearsal until we attend to them. Writing them down gives both implicit and explicit permission to the rehearsal loop to let them go, to relax its neural circuits so that we can focus on something else.

If you want to look at this from a Zen point of view the Masters would say that constant nagging in your mind of undonne things pulls you out of the present– tehers you to a mindset of the future and enjoying whats now.

Developing an organizational system

The book describes a notecard system, but makes it clear that people need to find a system that works for them. There is no one size fits all solution.

The index card system is merely one of what must be an infinite number of brain extension devices, and it isn’t for everyone. Paul Simon carries a notebook with him everywhere to jot down lines or phrases that he might use later in a song, and John R. Pierce, the inventor of satellite communication, carried around a lab book that he used as a journal for everything he had to do as well as for research ideas and names of people he met. A number of innovators carried pocket notebooks to record observations, reminders, and all manner of what-not; the list includes George S. Patton (for exploring ideas on leadership and war strategy, as well as to record daily affirmations), Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and George Lucas. These are serial forms of information storage, not random access; everything in them is chronological. It involves a lot of thumbing through pages, but it suits their owners.

Not finding something thrusts the mind into a fog of confusion, a toxic vigilance mode that is neither focused nor relaxed. The more carefully constructed your categories, the more organized is your environment and, in turn, your mind.


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