The Organized Mind Summary and Review

by Daniel Levitin

Has The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

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.

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.

In this summary of The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin, you’ll also learn:

  • how the brain of a taxi driver looks different to your brain;
  • how to be more effective by working less; and
  • why Google confronts potential employees with an unsolvable question.

The Organized Mind Key Idea #1: The brain can only focus on a limited number of stimuli at a time.

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.

The Organized Mind Key Idea #2: Because we’re surrounded by more and more information, we’re forced to make more and more decisions.

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?

As we learned in the previous book summary, our brain instinctively concentrates on the information that is most important for us.

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.

Let’s say you’re thinking about hiring someone to clean your home instead of doing it yourself. Just ask yourself: Would you be willing to pay $50 for two extra hours of free time? If the answer is yes, then go for it without deliberating any further!

Now that we’ve learned how to streamline our decision making, the following book summarys will consider how to organize more aspects of our lives in the most effective way.

The Organized Mind Key Idea #3: Find a designated place for every single object.

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.

The Organized Mind Key Idea #4: Give your brain a break – move your organizational processes outside your head.

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.

For example, you might be on the bus and suddenly remember that you still have to buy a birthday present for your aunt. Don’t stress, just write it down and you’ll no longer have the burden of trying to remember it all day!

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.

The Organized Mind Key Idea #5: Junk drawers for miscellaneous items are incredibly effective – use them every day.

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.

You could even use one of these junk drawers at work. A miscellaneous folder, perhaps, containing documents that don’t fit into other folders but are also too important to dispose of. However, junk drawers will only be effective if we perform a little bit of maintenance from time to time.

The first way to do this is to keep checking their content regularly. This stops us losing track of what’s in there, which would reduce its organizational advantage. Some items can be eliminated from a junk drawer – if you’re sorting through objects that you haven’t yet felt the need to use, it’s unlikely that you’ll need them in the future. These can be thrown out.

You may also find that items in junk drawers can be moved to other places for more specific types of objects later. For example, perhaps you’ve recently developed an interest in scrapbooking. If you go through your junk drawer, you’ll almost certainly discover objects that could find a new home in the scrapbooking drawer – that extra pair of scissors, maybe, or the double-sided sticky tape.

The Organized Mind Key Idea #6: Set aside time to refuel so you can increase your productivity later.

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.

The Organized Mind Key Idea #7: It’s important to think about the worst-case scenario so you’re always prepared.

Imagine this: you’re on vacation and have just found out that the airline has lost your luggage.

How would you react? Of course it’s good to be optimistic – perhaps they’ll find your bag! But it’s better still to be prepared. Good thing you brought that extra toothbrush!

Each time you plan something, you should consider all the things that could go wrong and think of a solution to them before they occur. Planning for failure in this way needn’t be difficult – it’s as straightforward as placing an extra key under the flowerpot by your front door.

A plan B is especially important in business situations. It’s true that sometimes things just happen. You forget an important appointment, or you lose the contact details of someone you need to speak to.

But, if you plan your time ahead, these mistakes will be less likely. With the assistance of an electronic calendar, either on your phone, computer, or both, you can ensure you’ll never forget about meetings again.

A plan B at work can also include keeping an extra shirt in your office, in case you accidentally spill your coffee before an important appointment with your boss!

It’s also important that we don’t rely on technology alone to prevent us from slipping up. Phones, computers and other technical devices aren’t perfect and at some point will let us down without warning. This is why you should also prepare non-technical solutions as a backup.

This is something that your taxi driver does. They always keep a plastic credit card press in their car in case their electronic credit card machines doesn’t work. This way, they can ensure they don’t lose any fares due to technical failure.

The Organized Mind Key Idea #8: We can’t know the answer to every question, but we can know where and how to find it!

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.

For example, in Google’s own job interviews, potential candidates are confronted with a question that has no correct answer. Here’s one for you to try on for size: “How much does the Empire State Building weigh?” Google was interested in whether the candidate could use their logical skills to work through a problem on their own, for example, by calculating the approximate size and weight of the concrete used for the building.

The Organized Mind Key Idea #9: Get to grips with probabilities and gain a vital skill for assessing information.

Imagine you’re at a university where ten percent of students are engineers. Look, here comes a student wearing a pocket protector: a plastic sheath for holding pens in your shirt pocket. Now, what would you say is the probability that this is an engineering student?

The fact that a pocket protector is a standard accessory for the stereotypical nerdy student might cause many of you to think he very likely studies engineering. But remember the ten percent ratio. If 90 percent of students aren’t engineers, it’s far more likely that our pocket-protector friend doesn’t study engineering.

Our initial misconception reflects the way in which a person or situation that seems a perfect example of something can cause us to ignore the base rate. A base rate is the probability of an event occurring without taking other factors into account.

Along with base rates, we must also keep in mind that our perception of probability is often relative to the situation we are currently in – our starting point.

Imagine that you’re very sick. Your doctor offers you a treatment that will increase the likelihood of your recovery by ten percent. If the treatment increases your likelihood of recovery from zero to ten percent, you’ll go from certain death to a ten percent chance of living. And, if it increases from 90 percent to 100 percent, your recovery is guaranteed. In both cases, you’ll likely opt for the treatment.

But what if it increases from 20 percent to 30 percent? Then, you might hesitate and inquire about the side effects and cost of the treatment before agreeing to it.

From a statistical perspective, this is bizarre since in all of these cases, the increase of ten percent is the same. The scenarios just feel different because of their varying starting points.

Though our brains often have difficulty dealing with probabilities, by remembering the mathematics behind them, we can make our choices with a greater and more objective understanding of their implications.

In Review: The Organized Mind Book Summary

The key message in this book:

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.

Actionable advice:

Increase productivity by increasing your sleeping hours, not your working hours.

Studies have demonstrated the way in which sleep improves your brain’s ability to solve complex problems. The expression “sleep on it” has real biological significance, and an awareness of this will allow us to be more effective at work. So next time you’ve got a large task, don’t sacrifice your sleep to work on it – you’ll be much more effective when you allow your brain to refuel and continue work in the morning.

Suggested further reading: How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren

Since How to Read a Book was first published in 1940, the blank sheet of paper that faces you when you start an essay or report has been replaced by the book summarying cursor in a blank Word document. No matter: this classic bestseller, revised in 1972, is still a great guide to tackling a long reading list, extracting all the relevant information and organizing your own conclusions. Be the boss of books with this effective approach to reading and understanding texts of all kinds.