Book Review: The Organized Mind

The Organized Mind, by Daniel J. Levitin, is a mixed bag. Some chapters are packed with interesting information, while others are much less compelling. However, I learned enough from this book that I’m definitely glad I read it. The following are some of the key ideas, organized by the book’s chapters.

The first things to get straight

Levitin begins by describing some basics about how the brain works, with a fascinating explanation of why memory is so fallible. There’s also a nice explanation of how our brains handle categorization. Both of these brain traits affect the recommendations he provides later on for getting organized.

Organizing our homes

One principle that Levitin emphasizes again and again is “offloading the information from your brain and into the environment” so you “use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.” Everyone who has ever done something like leaving the library book that needs to be returned next to the car keys has made use of this principle.

One interesting example that Levitin provides is: “If you’re afraid you’ll forget to buy milk on the way home, put an empty milk carton on the seat next to you in the car or in the backpack you carry to work on the subway (a note would do, of course, but the carton is more unusual and so more apt to grab your attention).”

Levitin also emphasizes the importance of putting things away in their designated places, because there’s a special part of our brain dedicated to remembering the spatial location of things. However, the brain is only good at remembering stationary things, not things that move around — so if you put your car keys in a different place every time, your brain is less likely to help you out when you go to find them.

Categorization is also emphasized in the text; since our brains are good at creating categories, using categories well gives us an easy tool for getting organized. Levitin discusses the need to balance category size and category specificity; for example, someone with just a few tools will categorize them very differently than someone with many more. Levitin is also a big fan of the junk drawer for things that simply don’t fit in any category.

Good labels matter, too. As Levitin writes, “A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item. … With mislabeled drawers, you don’t know which ones you can trust and which ones you can’t.”

Levitin also notes that creativity and organization are not antithetical — rather, they go hand in hand. He provides examples from musicians Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, Michael Jackson, and John Lennon to drive home this point.

Organizing our time

You’ve certainly heard this before, but Levitin emphasizes it repeatedly: Brains are not designed for multitasking. “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” The continual shifting “causes the brain to burn through fuel” and depletes the brain of nutrients. There’s also a study that shows that learning new information while multitasking “causes the information to go to the wrong part of the brain.”

Levitin writes that it’s very tempting to continually check email, because handling email appeals to the novelty-seeking portion of the brain, and each response triggers a “shot of dopamine” that makes us want to do more of the same. But we’ll be more productive if we check email a few times a day, rather than every five minutes.

Levitin also provides considerable information on the importance of getting sufficient sleep. You’ve probably heard that before — but if you ignored the advice, this book might convince you that it really does matter.

Organizing the business world

Levitin provides tips to remember when filing: “File things, either electronic or physical, in a way that will allow you to quickly retrieve them. Ask yourself, ‘Where will I look for this when I need it?’ or ‘How can I tag or label this item so that I’ll be able to find it?'”

There’s also some good advice about scheduling meetings. Rather than scheduling meetings back-to-back, give yourself 10 minutes after each meeting to make sure you’ve captured all relevant information. It also helps to have 10 minutes free before any meeting. “Because attention switching is metabolically costly, it’s good neural hygiene for your brain to give it time to switch into the mindset of your next meeting gradually and in a relaxed way.”

Organizing information for the hardest decisions

Anyone dealing with making a major medical decision will find a lot of useful information here about understanding the probabilities associated with each choice, and balancing risk and reward.

2 Comments for “Book Review: The Organized Mind”

  1. Profile photo of

    posted by TC on

    Life is so much simpler!!! Less is BETTER!

  2. posted by Christine Wahl on

    I don’t buy organizing books anymore because they are all pretty much the same. I just read organizing sites now and glean from the sites what will work for me. I pretty much like the flylady system and use most of her theories. However, I have basically picked and chose what I want from other sites too. I have a few favorites.

    I have never been diagnosed with ADD but, pretty much think I have it. I also know I am addicted to my computer.

    One of the best things I have ever done is get the Planner Pad. I have used the Daytimer system in the past and electronic. The problem with electronic is that it is just as fast to write in a book if not faster than on your phone. Plus, I can see in advance my schedules when the years are laid out in front of me. So, it works wonders.

    Good article. I have learned from so many sources that right brain and left brain people are different. Disorganization is something that you have to learn to live with and control. The habits of 15 minutes a day to declutter and 27 fling boogies work. At least that is all that works for me because I have the attention span of a gnat.

    I work for none of the above but like all for what I get out of them.

    If you want to see the difference the Planner Pad offers as far as organizers, your best bet is to Google or go to youtube. There are some good presentations out there. They really need to redo their web site. It is hard to navigate.

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