Use Your Head

Neuroscientific lessons for navigating a world of distractions

Joni Mitchell is a famously creative person. But she is also meticulously organized: her house is filled with “custom-designed, special-purpose drawers,” each of which is devoted to a particular type of object—one for Scotch tape, a different one for masking tape, one for string, another for light bulbs. “I don’t want to waste energy looking for things,” she notes. She wants her mind clear for creating. Other ferociously productive musicians have similarly methodical households and workplaces. Stephen Stills’s home studio has oodles of little drawers (guitar picks, plugs, guitar jacks), and Michael Jackson was so categorical that one of his personal staff was a “chief archivist.”

For Daniel Levitin, these Herculean efforts are not incidental to the artist’s creativity. They are central to it: organization is the catalytic force that releases their creativity. That is because our human minds are generally quite terrible at managing the informational cascade and fiddly tasks of everyday life. As we have moved into an age of digital and physical abundance, those tasks have metastasized: people juggle email and messages and status updates all day long, ponder 40,000 items in the average supermarket, and arrive home to houses so overloaded with dross that they cannot fit a car in their garage. Being a bit obsessive compulsive is the only way to carve out space for your mind to actually do work—which is the argument of Levitin’s latest book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

Levitin is a storied neuroscientist at McGill University, most famous for his pioneering investigations of how music affects the brain. (He is also a former record producer, which helps explain why he is so knowledgeable about Joni Mitchell’s kitchen techniques.) So in The Organized Mind, he takes a neuroscientific approach—suggesting that the only way you will ever manage the chaos of your to-do list is “to learn how our brain organizes information so that we can use what we have, rather than fight against it.” The Organized Mind is a self-help book that begins at the level of the neuron, analyzing our brains’ strengths and weaknesses.

One big weakness? Our memory. Humans remember things in a strange, partial, half-glimpsed fashion. We might be fantastic at recalling seemingly trivial details of an embarrassing conversation we had three years ago (because negative information prints itself so well on us) but terrible at remembering the contents of last week’s staff meeting (because we have so many meetings, and they blur together). And being “smart” in one field—having an exhaustive, razor-sharp memory for the details of your area of expertise—does not mean you are any better at recalling the detritus of everyday life. The chess master Magnus Carlsen can play ten games of chess simultaneously, effortlessly holding the positions in his head, an Olympic feat of memory; but he routinely forgets where he put his mobile phone and keys. Our minds are superb at finding patterns and knowledge, but they are not designed to deal with shifting, niggly details, like the location of your wallet.

The solution is to externalize that piece of thinking: to find a place you put your wallet every time you go home or arrive at work. You are able to stop thinking about where to put or find your wallet because the physical place never changes. This is in one sense head-slappingly obvious—it is a staple piece of advice from self-help magazines. But it is also, Levitin argues, neurologically profound, because it is a fractal technique, one that applies at the micro and macro level. The way to organize your life is to take the thinking that humans are uniquely terrible at, and externalize it: to “use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.”

This is, as he notes, our oldest cognitive trick. The invention of writing allowed us to crystallize far more knowledge outside our heads than we could ever hold inside. The invention of secretaries and executive assistants allowed CEOs to focus on the here-and-now, without having to spend mental cycles worrying about which meeting comes next.

Our computer world offers some powerful ways to externalize mental tasks, in part because computers are capable of doing things we cannot, and vice versa. Setting up alerts in your calendar allows you to be reminded of your schedule by a sleepless, remorseless machine—very useful for our flighty brains, which are prone to all manner of time distortions. Meanwhile, Craig Kallman, CEO of Atlantic Records, has a contact database with 14,000 people in it, ranging from Aretha Franklin to Bruno Mars and Missy Elliott, each one tagged with the last time and place he saw the person, and who else they know. This means that when he needs to find someone and is spacing out on their name—a common problem of our fragile memories—he can utilize a strength of our memories, which is that they are associative. We cannot remember the name of that producer in Seattle, but we remember that we had lunch with her last January in Santa Monica, or that she is friends with an old college roommate. Plug those associative details into the database and the machine helps connect the dots.

Levitin argues that, while some modern technologies are useful, much of our modern digital landscape is pretty treacherous for keeping an organized mind. A world filled with playful, always-on social media distractions is, he notes, ruinous to our concentration. When our mobile phones are beeping alerts at us—hey, someone said something about you on Facebook! Better go check!—we start multi-tasking and, frankly, our brains are not designed for this. We can barely multi-task talking to two people at once, he points out. (“The processing capacity of the conscious mind has been estimated at 120 bits per second,” and conversation with one person uses up about 60 of those bits. Add another person and you are topped out.) Worse, constantly jumping from app to app creates “decision overload.” The act of shifting from one task to another requires effort—and that effort can quickly grind us down. Even if you are not actively checking your alerts, merely knowing of their awaiting presence out there in the ether nags at you. “[The] awareness of an unread e-mail sitting in your inbox can effectively reduce your IQ by 10 points,” Levitin notes.

A key part of a modern organized mind, therefore, is developing a Jedi-like resistance to the casino allures of social media. He suggests checking your email infrequently, instead of all day long, to limit its purchase on your time. Or, again, create a physical environment that separates work from one’s roiling social milieu: if you can afford it, buy a separate tablet or laptop on which to do social media—so that you keep it entirely off your work machine.

Organizing your environment is not easy, Levitin admits. It involves a huge amount of “busywork.” Kallman’s database of 14,000 people may be enormously powerful—but he has to type in a little note about someone every time he meets them. But the benefits of scaffolding your mind with external supports is that you also clear it. You create space for daydreaming—the moments when your mind enters its “default mode,” when truly brilliant, creative associations can flow like a river, unblocked by the demands of everyday life. These are the moments when you are “relaxing in your easy chair with a single malt Scotch, and your mind wanders fluidly from topic to topic. It’s not just that you can’t hold on to any one thought from the rolling stream, it’s that no single thought is demanding a response.”

One of the most useful neurological concepts Levitin explores is the propensity of our brains to think in categories. It is an old, evolutionarily useful way to sort information. Tens of thousands of years ago, we faced a lot of physical dangers, such as invasive or biting insects. So we developed the category of “bugs”—a crude but mostly useful way of roping together creatures that are generally similar. Categorical thinking is supple and powerful. Consider this grouping of things: your wallet, childhood photographs, cash, jewellery and family pet. What do they have in common? They are all things you would want to carry out of the house in a fire. This ability to grasp that thing A belongs with thing B—in a particular situation or context—is a key component of our mental ­organization.

Yet we often do not act on it. One of the reasons we often feel swamped by the detritus of daily life, Levitin argues, is that we fail to respect the power of categories. We create a drawer to store our batteries, but one day, in a rush, toss in the spare keys to our car. They categorically do not belong there, so we forget forever where they are.

Levitin is sufficiently passionate about categories that he gets extraordinarily deep in the weeds, offering long passages of articulated advice, such as this sample passage about organizing your clothes and kitchen:

Suppose you have limited closet space for your clothes, and some articles of clothing you wear only rarely (tuxedos, evening gowns, ski clothes). Move them to a spare closet so they’re not using up prime real estate and so you can organize your daily clothes more efficiently. The same applies in the kitchen. Rather than putting all your baking supplies in one drawer, it makes organizational sense to put your Christmas cookie cutters in a special drawer devoted to Christmas-y things so you reduce clutter in your daily baking drawer—something you use only two weeks out of the year shouldn’t be in your way fifty weeks out of the year. Keep stamps, envelopes, and stationery together in the same desk drawer because you use them together.

These prosaic passages, which come pretty often, make The Organized Mind a book that is, at times, incredibly weird. I say this as a compliment. One minute Levitin is delivering a six-page discourse on Shannonian information theory and Kolmogorov complexity; the next minute he is cautioning you to never put more than 50 pages in a file folder, because otherwise it becomes overstuffed. It is like reading an intro to a neuroscience textbook that has been co-authored by Martha Stewart. Indeed, the explosion of publications devoted to taming your unruly life—ranging from to Real Simple to much of the excellent Oprah magazine—testify precisely to Levitin’s thesis: an organized environment breeds a calmer mind. The appeal of Martha Stewart is not just cultural but neurological.

Levitin’s scope is exhaustive, which can make the book intimidating. Unlike most brisk little self-help books, it is a 500-page doorstopper, and Levitin frequently dives deeply into complex matters. He is a beautifully clear writer when it comes to science: the long section on using statistical analysis to parse medical advice is worth the price of admission on its own. (Among other things, Levitin reports on bone-chilling conversations he has had with surgeons in which they reveal that they have a terrible grasp of stats—and likely operate on many people who may not need it.)

The upshot is you can flip open The Organized Mind to nearly any page and find some fascinating aperçu. We find that a ten-hour night of sleep is so powerful at solidifying our skills and knowledge that basketball players do 9 percent better at free throws the day after. We learn that Warren Buffett does not use a calendar to plan anything, preferring to leave his days open to respond flexibly to whatever emerges. Sometimes it is not clear how precisely the information links to organizing ourselves. We learn that neural traffic can move at over 480 kilometres an hour, that our vision resolves at 40 milliseconds, and there is an extended section on the psychology of “Why People Are Indirect with Us.” It is all extremely fascinating, and evidence of the catholic breadth of Levitin’s knowledge, but not necessarily of any immediate practical use.

Mind you, it is still delightful to know. I am a fan of digressive books. Knowing a lot of weird, loosely-or-seemingly-unconnected knowledge is a lot of fun. It can also be frequently useful: something you assume is trivia one day—intriguing but seemingly pointless—can, years later, trigger a fantastic thought or idea or perception. It is good to have an organized mind, but also one that is open.

Indeed, my only reservation about Levitin’s world view is that he frequently seems to dismiss online social media as nothing more than a sideshow of distracting noise. “The greatest life satisfaction comes from completing projects that required sustained focus and energy,” he writes. “It seems unlikely that anyone will look back at their lives with pride and say with satisfaction that they managed to send an extra thousand text messages or check social network updates a few hundred extra times while they were working.”

It is hard to disagree that accomplishing large, difficult work is profoundly rewarding—to say nothing of crucial for society—and that dithering endlessly on Facebook can be a huge distraction. Yet I have also found, from years of reporting on the use of online tools, that people frequently describe moments of insight, flashes of delight and serendipitous connections that come via this heavily social realm. Many people’s intellectual labour does not resemble the domain of Rodin’s The Thinker, where the central task is to get the rest of the world to go away long enough for them to focus and cogitate. For them, thinking is social—their cognition and work is deeply entwined in contact with other people, online and off. For an artist or an academic like Levitin (or a writer like me), social networking might be mostly a distraction from work. But there are entire fields of human endeavour—sales, hospitality, outreach, management—where social contact is the work. For people in these fields, online interaction can be an enormous boon. It transforms their laptops into something like the coffee-shop culture that shook up 17th-century Europe. Mind you, even for these folks, the problem of distraction does not go away. On the contrary, when your cognitive toil happens socially and online, it can be even harder to strike a balance.

But this is a small quibble. For anyone grappling with a sense of overload, The Organized Mind is a thoughtful and useful book—a glimpse into the life of our modern, pell-mell minds.