Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Organized Mind

The Organized Mind

The Organized Mind

Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload Daniel J. Levitin


Everybody I know wants to live in an organized way. Everyone understands that being organized about one’s affairs reduces stress and creates more time for all the things we really want to do. Self-help books about simplifying and improving life through better organization are abundant and I could have read any one of them, but this is the one that I latched onto after seeing an interview with the author and being impressed by his thoughtful and helpful demeanor.

Daniel J. Levitin is a US academic, a psychologist and administrator who splits his working and living between Montreal and the San Francisco Bay area. Although the Organized Mind has an academic tone and is well-documented, it is easy to read, with diagrams, charts, stories and examples that help in moving the reader along. In addition to the body of the book, there is a very interesting Appendix in which he teaches us to build a fourfold table in order to easily calculate Bayesian probabilities, useful for making decisions about important events in our lives (e.g. decisions about medical choices). The Notes section, where all the references are gathered, is like a mini-book of its own, full of extra information and explanations.

Levitin explains that we all have so much information coming at us on a daily, if not hourly basis, that our brains become overloaded, making it difficult to focus, to remember, to sort out what and what is not important and to cope with all the complexity of our lives. He offers many helpful suggestions for coping:  e.g. by setting up systems, making use of systems already in existence, interpreting conversations, measuring importance, and externalizing information.

Most of us already use some of these coping tactics. We may already file receipts and medical information, for example, we may already understand the numbering system of US highways (this is explained in Chapter 9) and we probably always arrive at the grocery store with a list in hand, whether on paper or on a device.  What Levitin does is to stress the importance of these organizational techniques. One of the ways in which they are important really spoke to me. Our children are observers of our lives and behaviour and we have a responsibility to them to provide not only a good example, but to teach them to organize their lives, starting early in life, so that they will be able to cope in their school years and beyond, with the overload of information that we are all being dealt.

In the chapter on What to Teach Children: The Future of the Organized Mind, Levitin discusses Internet sources, both their benefits and their pitfalls, including Wikipedia, in a way that would be easy to share with kids. He tackles the pervasive problem of procrastination and shines a light on the importance of encouraging critical thinking processes from an early age. He gives examples of creative "guess-timating" with the use of knowledge about orders of magnitude that were very enlightening to me. He stresses the importance of nurturing the ability to think sideways. 

The chapter about making life/death decisions, an introduction to probabilities, was also interesting, though I’m not sure most of us would be able to remain that cool, calm and rational in the face of such an occurrence.

How to be organized in the business world would, I’m sure, be interesting and perhaps useful for some. I 'd like to know whether a person in information technology, for example, would take away any useful information or whether it would be just the opposite, that he/she would be able to expand upon such information or maybe even dismiss it entirely. I don’t have the background necessary to make that analysis. 

The Organized Mind stands out for me as a book that most people will find both interesting and useful. Parents of young kids in particular should have a look at it.