The organized mind

Organized minds mean organized lives says Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin.

Forget about the idea that you can do multiple things at once. “Multitasking is a myth,” Levitin told CBC radio’s Spark. You can carry five or six things in your head without committing them to memory, but even then you constantly shift attention from one to another without doing justice to any of them.


Instead of pretending that we can multitask, a better strategy is to write down the things that can wait. Yes, write longhand, don’t type them into a digital device.

Our brains are wired for novelty. That was beneficial when there wasn’t much new; when you could grow up in a small clan or village and know everyone. Back then the pleasure of finding something new, such as a grove of undiscovered fruit trees, gave a dopamine hit at the discovery. Like other pleasurable experiences, novelty serves an evolutionary purpose.

However, we are overloaded with novelty in our modern lives. Many people carry cellphones in their hand, not even their pockets or purses, so a second will not pass before the latest email, text message, FaceBook posting, or Tweet. We are hooked on a dopamine loop of novelty-reward, novelty-reward. Too much newness is dysfunctional.

One experiment indicates the degree to which we are hooked to our digital devices, warns Levitin. Subjects were given a choice of being without instant contact with the digital world or taking time to be alone with their thoughts in an empty room for 15 minutes. If they chose instant contact, they were given an electrical shock. Almost one-halve chose a self-administered shock rather than be alone with their thoughts. Now that’s serious addiction.

Daniel Levitin has five tips from his new book The Organized Mind.

Externalize things to be done. If you see that the forecast for tomorrow is for rain, don’t try to remember to take your umbrella. Instead, place the umbrella by the door as a visual reminder. Make sure you leave your keys, glasses, or anything else in a fixed place.

As mentioned above, write things down. For biological reasons, writing longhand requires deeper processing and forms stronger memories.

Prioritize your to-do list. Levitin gives the example of handwritten index cards that can be ordered according to priority. I keeps slips of paper strategically located around the house (where I can find them — see above) and write down the things that I want to remember.

Clear your mind. Take a break every so often from the task at hand for five or ten minutes, not to check for email and other distractions, but to be alone with your thoughts. And write down what’s nagging to be done you so you can put the note in a pile with others and out of your head. Too often, harried people at work are thinking about what needs to be done at home; and at home they think about work. “It’s no way to live,” he says.

Focus your attention on doing what you like and spend your time with the people you love.


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