Daniel Levitin's The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload is a comprehensive look at the evolution of information, the neurobiology behind how we think, and how we can become better organized in a world of distractions. I reached out to Levitin to learn more about his background and some key points to the book.
Read on for an interview with Daniel Levitin.
Chris Schluep: Tell us a little about your background.
Daniel Levitan: I dropped out of college as a math major and became an entrepreneur. I started working for a small record company, 415 Records. It was a full time job, but as a start-up, we didn’t have much money — we poured it all back into the company. So during those first few years, I also worked as a data analyst at AT&T and Wells Fargo Bank (my math background came in handy). That led to me being hired as the executive assistant to Ed Littlefield, who at the time was on the boards of Wells Fargo, General Electric, Chrysler, and Del Monte Foods. I learned a lot from Ed about business, critical thinking, and organization—a lot that found its way into this book.
We built up 415 records over a period of eight years and sold it to Sony in 1989. I then started my own production and consulting company, and consulted to every major record label and a number of rock bands.
I went back to college at Stanford in my 30s to study neuroscience — I wanted to know more about the science behind how the mind works. I received my PhD in 1996 at the University of Oregon and then completed post-doctoral training at Stanford Medical School and UC Berkeley. I started teaching and running a laboratory at McGill University in 2000. Since 2013, in addition to my work at McGill, I'm the Dean of Arts & Humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI, a new top tier undergraduate program that is part of the Claremont Consortium. This is a very exciting opportunity to put into practice a lot of what neuroscientists have learned about the science of learning.
CS: This is the most complete book about the mind and how to organize it that I’ve ever read. How long have you been working on it?
DL: I've always been fascinated by organizational systems — how record stores arrange their records, how hardware and grocery stores arrange their products, how libraries classify books. So you might say the book has been percolating for many years. The actual writing of the book took four years. Everything I know about the subject is in this book, along with what I've learned along the way about productivity, efficiency, and decision making. Although it may not seem obvious, decision making is related to efficiency: most decision making can be facilitated by more optimally organizing the information at hand.
CS: Why has life become so complex?
DL: The information explosion is part of it. By some estimates, we humans have generated as much information in the past twenty years as in all of human history before them.
Just one hundred years ago, if you got a PhD in biology, for example, you probably knew as much as anyone in the field knew about it — you were a world class expert. Now, you can get a PhD in biology studying the visual system of the squid and still not know everything that is known about that.
Also, we're being asked to do more. Because of the rise of shadow work — part of a shadow economy of labor that isn't reckoned in the GNP — all of us are doing things that used to be done for us by others: we pump our own gas, make our own airline reservations, bag our own groceries. Think about something as simple as trying to get to the right person in customer service or tech support. It used to be that switchboard operators would route us to the person we needed to speak to. Now we have to navigate ever more complex voice menus.The computer age was supposed to bring us more leisure time. Instead, it allowed companies to offload a lot of the work they used to do in the name of customer service onto customers.
CS: What’s the chief difference between Highly Successful People (HSP) and the rest of us?
DL: The ones I've met don't have different brain structures, as far as I can tell — it's not like they have some module the rest of us lack. It's just that they have a little bit more of some qualities all of us already possess: they're a little bit more focused, a little less distractable, a little more driven. But the chief difference is that they've adopted systems to help them be more efficient, and they guard their time jealously — among other things, they don't spend more time on a project or decision than it is worth. (And by worth, I don't just mean financial worth, but the emotional and physical costs of following certain paths.)
Also, they ask the right questions, which is an underappreciated skill. It's what great leaders do. Why? Because not all questions are equally vital. Successful people in any domain are able to identify the questions that can push understanding forward.
CS: How can we be more like HSPs?
DL: We can adopt some of the systems that they've devised. They make lists, prioritize tasks throughout the day, practice "productivity hours" where there are no interruptions from phones or email, and they ask the right questions when confronted with new information. There's a lot about asking the right questions in Chapters 6 and 7.
CS: You decry multitasking. How would you convince the many fans of multitasking that they’re using the wrong approach?
DL: As a neuroscientist, I know that we humans are very good at self-delusion. It's always helpful when there are studies that can help separate our intuitions from reality. And the reality is, based on dozens of carefully conducted experiments, we don't actually do several things at once. Instead, we shuffle rapidly among them, one after the other.
Multi-tasking is not always problematic, and sometimes it's necessary. But if you have a serious task to do, you have to hunker down and do it and not a dozen other things.
Part of the illusion is tied into how the brain's reward system works. Everytime we accomplish some task, no matter how small, and every time we learn some new piece of information such as from a social networking newsfeed, our brain doles out a little hit of dopamine, the feel-good chemical. Doing all these little tasks in rapid succession make us feel good. But it's short lived, like a sugar high. And in fact, sugar is part of the story. The brain needs glucose to function — that's the fuel that keeps brain cells firing. Every decision, every small task, every new piece of information, burns precious glucose. After a couple of hours of multi-tasking we feel tired and depleted because we've literally depleted the store of energy in our brains. And we have far less to show for that two hours than we would if we had been uni-tasking.
CS: Procrastination: does everyone do it, and how can we avoid this habit?
DL: Procrastination is a very human tendency. I think we all proscrastinate to some extent. The trick is not to prcorastinate the important tihngs like your annual physical or a diabetes test. But if it's time to replace the furnace filters in your house, and you procrastinate for a week or two, that's really not a big deal.
There are lots of tricks for avoiding procrastination. Perhaps the best is to arrange the external environment so that temptations reduced. I wrote a lot of this book in public and university libraries and I mindfully did not sign into their wireless system. Having the internet unavailable is a great boon to work. Now of course we need the internet for research and for information. In my case, I simply made a list of things I needed to look up on the internet and looked them up later.
Another trick is to carefully prioritize your To Do list, and identify when your most productive time is. My most productive time used to be after dinner, and I'd stay up until 2 or 3 working intently. For the last ten years it's shifted to early mornings and I get up at 5:30 and go right to my desk and write. The trick is then this: Whatever is most important, make sure that you carefully carve out time to do it during your most productive hours and don't let anything else interfere with those sacred hours.
One thing that we all do is that we imagine what will be the perfect environment or set of circumstances that will allow our creativity to flow and our productive selves to emerge unbridled. Of course this is true to an extent. If you're a painter, you need paint and brushes. If you're a scientist, you need a laboratory. But you can't you let your search for the perfect environment prevent you from actually getting started. You'd be surprised what people get done in less than ideal environments. Just look at the cave paintings of Alta Mira or the great art that came out of concentration camps in World War II. Or of course Tolstoy writing his novels after a grueling day as an office clerk.
My favorite story about this is John Fogerty. He wrote all these great songs about nature — Up Around The Bend, Green River, Born on the Bayou — and he wrote them all from a one bedroom apartment in El Cerrito and Oakland. His imagination was his environment, not the urban landscape.
Another related idea is what my friend Jake Eberts (producer of Gandhi, Dancing With Wolves, and Driving Miss Daisy) used to call "eating the frog": find the most unpleasant task you have to do and do it first thing in the morning. If you hate exercise, do it first when your gumption is highest and you can get it over with.
CS: Talk about a little about the importance of day dreaming.
DL: Daydreaming is when our thoughts meander from one to another. It tends not to be linear, and it allows us to forge new connections between concepts and ideas that we didn't know were connected. It turns out that daydreaming is the default state of the human brain, and the time when we are apt to be most creative. We've all experienced this. There's a problem we can't solve, we keep coming at it from different angles and finally give up. Then, suddenly, while we're doing something else — usually something relaxing and daydreamy — the solution comes to us. And it's usually a solution that we wouldn't have seen before, one that required connecting things that weren't otherwise connected. That's the daydreaming mode, what neuroscientists call the default mode or the task negative mode of attention (because you're not actively engaged in a task). The first part of The Organized Mind is devoted to sharing what we now know about the brain's attentional system and memory — why we remember some things and not others — and how all of us can use that information to improve our daily lives.