Write Stuff Down, Avoid Multitasking, Use Patterns: 10 Ways To Get Your Brain Organized

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Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin argues our brains aren't capable of processing everything in the age of information overload. (Ryan Ritchie/Flickr)
Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin argues our brains aren't capable of processing everything in the age of information overload. (Ryan Ritchie/Flickr)

Do you often find yourself losing your keys, missing doctor's appointments, forgetting passwords to your favorite websites?

For many, the answer is "yes." But, if our brains were capable of developing all this stuff, should we also be capable of keeping track of it?

According to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, not necessarily. Because our brains, which evolved tens of thousands of years ago, are still just programmed to hunt, gather, raise children and do little else.

So now, in the age of smart phones, Wikipedia, grocery stores and deadlines, it makes sense that we're struggling to keep our heads above the overwhelmingly informative water.

In Levitin's new book, "The Organized Mind," he fuses self-help and neuroscience to help readers manage the many floating, disorganized elements of their brains.

Daniel Levitin will be speaking about "The Organized Mind" at Brookline Booksmith Thursday at 7 p.m.


Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University. He's also dean of the College of the Arts and Humanities at the Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California. His new book is "The Organized Mind." He's also author of the New York Times best selling books, "The World in Six Songs" and "This is Your Brain on Music." He tweets at @danlevitin.

10 Ways To Get Your Brain Organized

1. Write stuff down:
Daniel Levitin: "The number of things that you can keep track of at once is limited to about four. So, what experts recommend and what the neuroscience says, very strongly, is that if you can get stuff out of your brain and out there into the world — something called externalizing your memory — it frees up your brain to be uncluttered and to think about the things your really want to think about. Not those nagging voices, like, 'Did I remember to turn off the pilot light when I left the house? And, 'Oh, I have to remember to make that call that I said I was going to do.' And, 'I have to remember to buy milk on the way home." You get all that stuff out of your brain and then you can concentrate on work and leisure activities more fully."

2. Avoid multitasking:
"What it turns out is that we think we're multitasking, but we're not. The brain is sequential tasking, we flit from one thought to the next very, very rapidly, giving us the illusion that what we're doing is doing all these things at once. But I'm here to tell you, as a neuroscientist, just because we think we're doing something doesn't mean we are. Our brains are very, very good at self-delusion...What happens is, it releases the stress hormone, cortisol, in the brain which leads to foggy thinking, so you're not even able to judge well whether you're working well or not. It's sort of like the way drinking can cloud your perception of whether you're a good driver or not."

3. Use patterns to remember passwords:
"[Passwords are] arbitrary strings of digits and letters with special characters — our brain isn't configured for that kind of stuff — for things that seem arbitrary or for things that lack patterns. But it's very good at perceiving patterns. So, part of the idea of exploiting what we know about neuroscience is to use patterns wherever you can. A password tip — think of a phrase that you'll always remember, like, 'My favorite station is WBUR.' And then take the first letters of each word, MFSIWBUR, that becomes your password...Nobody's going to crack it because it seems like random letters. And then, if you want to be extra secure, add on little things to it. So, if it's your password for Filene's, you add a letter F at the end. If it's your password for your Visa card you add a V at the end."

4. Try to be more conscientious:
"This comes from personality and individual differences psychology. Of the thousands of ways that humans differ from one another, turns out there's this one cluster of traits called conscientiousness that predict a whole host of positive life outcomes, such as longevity over our health, life predicts that you won't end up in prison. And conscientiousness includes things like doing what you say you'll do, being dependable, being organized."

5. Dedicate certain spots to certain objects:
"What a lot of people say is that they lose their car keys, house keys, they lose their reading glasses or their passport...We have exquisite place memory in a beautiful structure in the brain called the hippocampus. We share this with all mammals. It's the part of the brain that tells a squirrel where it buried its nuts. So, we can exploit this. The problem is, if you put your keys down just anywhere in your apartment or your home, they can be just anywhere and your brain can't keep track of it...So the trick is, you put a little hook by the front door, you have a decorative ball on a console table. That becomes the designated spot for your keys or your reading glasses and because you always put them there they're always where you expect to find them."

6. Don't spend more time on a decision than it's worth:
"You've got something in your hand and there's probably a perfect place for it in your home and you could spend a long time thinking about the perfect cubby hole or closet or drawer, but what you're saying is, 'I'm going to put it here in the family bookshelf because it's not worth investing anymore time in and all these things that are linked together by some common thread all go there and everybody knows that they're there.'"

7. Take breaks at work:
"Many of us feel as though we are overloaded and overwhelmed by all the things that are happening and we can't stop work for even five minutes or we'll fall behind...The idea that if we don't take breaks, we're being more productive. And the neuroscience literature is very clear on this. There's a mode of our brain that is responsible for most of our creativity. It's called the default mode network, or the daydreaming mode. And it's the part of your brain that effectively hits the reset button in your brain when you've gotten overstressed or you've run into a brick wall in your work. So, one of the biggest things we can do in the workplace is to give ourselves an opportunity to enter that daydreaming mode every couple of hours or so. You do that by reading literature, by listening to music, looking out the window. The best thing is to take a walk in nature. According to many studies, people who take regular breaks and even naps — 10 or 15 minute naps — have been more productive at the end of the day and more creative in their work, more than making up for the amount of time they take off."

8. Use a calendar:
"Calendaring is a great organizational tip and it's consistent with the idea of externalizing your memory. And some people really use their calendars very effectively. Suppose you are just leaving the doctor and the doctor says, 'I want to see you again in six months. Before you come in, I want you to do this blood work and you have to do it 15 days before you see me.' So you put all that in your calendar right at that moment. The doctors appointment, the 15 days out so you remember to get to the lab. Maybe make yourself a note for later this afternoon to call the lab so you have an appointment. You put all that in the calendar."

9. But not too many calendars:
"I'm reminded of the saying that was attributed to Confucius: "A man with one watch always knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure." So, I think there exists now technologies where the same calendar on your phone can appear on your laptop and your tablet and your computer. It can't populate the paper calendar in your kitchen, but you can synchronize all these calendars so that any entry in one shows up on the other and maybe make it an exercise for yourself or the kids to, every day, check the computer calendar and fill in the calendar on the kitchen wall."

10. Help your kids organize their minds:
"We're at a time in history where the primary mission of teachers and parents has to shift from trying to teach just a whole bunch of information and facts to...teach them to discern valid from invalid information. Facts from pseudo-facts. Recognize that there are hierarchies of sources of information...Suppose that you go to look up on the web information about a drug. What every 8-year-old should be taught is to ask the question, 'Whose website did I land on? And what bias or self-interest might they have in the way they report the information? Is it the drug company that manufactures the drug? Maybe it's a competing company?'"


The New York Times: Hit The Reset Button In Your Brain

  • "Beware the false break. Make sure you have a real one. The summer vacation is more than a quaint tradition. Along with family time, mealtime and weekends, it is an important way that we can make the most of our beautiful brains."

The Wall Street Journal: Ten Tips On Organizing Your Mind, From Dr. Daniel Levitin

  • "What do air traffic controllers and simultaneous translators for the United Nations have in common? Their jobs are so stressful, they’re mandated to operate on “duty cycles” of time on and time off."

This article was originally published on August 28, 2014.

This segment aired on August 28, 2014.


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