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Subtitled, Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, this book deals with topics that are both “hot” these days and also part of the fabric of our everyday lives and of business: brain functionality, time management, social media, organization, and decision-making, to name a few. In fact, there is so much to this book that I decided to focus this summary on only four of its nine chapters (chapters 1, 2, 3, and 5).

It was around 5,000 years ago that one of the biggest advancements occurred for humans: the invention of written language. And once memories and having to remember everything could be externalized with the written word, the human brain and attention system were freed up to focus on other things. The human need to organize our lives, our environment, even our thoughts, remains strong…however, doing so, especially in this age of information overload, has become increasingly complex and difficult.

Chapter 1: Too Much Information, Too Many Decisions (the inside history of cognitive overload)

The past generation has seen an explosion of choices facing consumers. For example, in 1976, the average supermarket stocked 9,000 unique products; by 2014, that number had ballooned to 40,000. This information explosion is taxing for all of us, and neuroscientists have discovered that unproductivity and loss of drive can results from decision overload – the neural fatigue that results from making so many trivial decisions in daily life (which soap to buy, which show to watch, which social media post to click on, which socks to wear). People have trouble separating the trivial from the important and, since it has been found that the decision-making network in our brain doesn’t prioritize, making so many small decisions actually saps the energy needed for making the important ones. Essentially, all of this information processing makes our brains tired.

We operate so much on auto-pilot and since attention is a limited-capacity resource, one opportunity to help with information overload is to narrow what is called our attentional filter. Millions of neurons are constantly monitoring the environment to select the most important things for us to pay attention to and focus on. Our brains have evolved to hide from us those things that we are not paying attention to, resulting in a cognitive blind spot where we don’t even know what we’re missing. Two of the most crucial principles used by this attentional filter to help us identify what to pay attention to are change and importance.

So many things are competing for our attention, but our brains have evolved to focus on one thing at a time. Therefore, multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system (and it has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol). Since paying attention to one thing means that we don’t pay attention to something else, once on a task, our brains function best if we stick to that task.

The author explains multitasking this way: “So we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler. We’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another. Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us less efficient.”

Chapter 2: The First Things to Get Straight (how attention and memory work)

When we pay attention to one thing, it’s either a conscious decision or because our attentional filter pushed it to the forefront. But when we pay attention to one thing, we are necessarily taking attention away from something else. That’s why multitasking is problematic.

Patrick Jane, author of The Mentalist, described memory as “unreliable because the untrained brain has a crappy filing system. It takes everything that happens to you and throws it all willy-nilly into a big dark closet.” But the act of remembering is a process of bringing back on line those neurons that were involved in the original experience. So, if those neurons were originally organized haphazardly, it’s no wonder that our memory is so highly susceptible to distortion.

However, the author writes that perhaps the biggest problem with human memory is that we don’t always know when we’re recalling things inaccurately. But that the best-remembered experiences are distinctive/unique or have a strong emotional component. That events that are out of the ordinary tend to be remembered better, as do those connected with experiences that made us frightened, elated, sad or angry – four of the primary human emotions.

Chapter 3: Organizing Our Homes (where things can start to get better)

Some statistics: Many households have thousands of visible objects. Many families amass more objects that their houses can hold. Three out of four Americans report that their garages are too full to put a car into them. The number of possessions the average person has is far greater than we had for most of our evolutionary history. And all this stuff, and the clutter that often goes with it, can be very stress-inducing.

A common result is that we often lose or misplace things, so we need a way (a system) to help us stay organized. One method is the rule of the designated place; which states that we should keep as many things in the same place, all the time, as much as possible (think key hook by the back door or a tray in the bedroom for your smartphone). Not having to spend time looking for things lowers frustration (which can drain our energy) and increases our productivity.

Beyond practical steps, such as this, the author suggests following these three general rules of organization:

Organization Rule 1: A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item. Mislabeling leads to confusion and causes you to lose your grip on “a place for everything and everything in its place.”

Organization Rule 2: If there is an existing standard, use it. Being consistent with an existing system that works lessens the chance of having to work with different, opposing systems.

Organization Rule 3: Don’t keep what you can’t use. If you don’t need it or it is broken or unfixable, get rid of it.

Chapter 5: Organizing Our Time (what is the mystery?)

Here are some highlights regarding the following topics covered in this chapter:

  • Time: Good time management should mean organizing our time in a way that maximizes brain efficiency. A large part of efficient time management revolves around avoiding distractions. Time management requires structuring your future with reminders.
  • Multitasking: It takes more energy to shift your attention from task to task; and it takes less energy to focus. Multitasking, but definition, disrupts the kind of sustained thought usually necessary for problem solving and creativity. The brain’s arousal system has a novelty bias (its attention can be hijacked easily by something new) but the very brain region we rely on for staying on task is easily distracted by shiny new objects. It takes intentional effort to stay focused and maintain your attention to, and concentration on, a single task.
  • Goals: Reaching our goals efficiently requires the ability to selectively focus on those features of a task that are most relevant to its completion, while successfully ignoring other features or stimuli in the environment that are competing for attention. It could be said that what distinguishes experts from novices is that they know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
  • Sleep: Sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation. There is an enormous amount of cognitive processing that occurs while we’re asleep. Sleep plays a vital role in the formation and protection of memories. Many different kinds of learning have been shown to be improved after a night’s sleep, e.g., a night of sleep more than doubles the likelihood that you’ll solve a problem requiring insight.
  • Procrastination: All procrastination can be seen as a failure of self-regulation, planning, impulse control, or a combination of all three. By definition, it involves delaying an activity, task or decision that would help us to reach our goals. Humans have a low tolerance for frustration. Moment by moment, when choosing what tasks to undertake or activities to pursue, we tend to choose not the most rewarding action but the easiest. This means that unpleasant or difficult (but important) things get put off. One practice is to do the most unpleasant task (“eat the frog”) first thing in the morning, because willpower depletes as the day moves on.


The Organized Mind – Contents

Part One

  1. Too Much Information, Too Many Decisions (the inside history of cognitive overload)
  2. The First Things to Get Straight (how attention and memory work)

Part Two

  1. Organizing Our Homes (where things can start to get better)
  2. Organizing Our Social World (how humans connect now)
  3. Organizing Our Time (what is the mystery?)
  4. Organizing Information for the Hardest Decisions (when life is on the line)
  5. Organizing the Business World (how we create value)

Part Three

  1. What to Teach Our Children (the future of the organized mind)
  2. Everything Else (the power of the junk drawer)