The Organized Mind Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

Self Help: The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin

The Organized Mind Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload
The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin

Every week I try a different self – help guide’s life advice. This week I’m reading Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. In the first installment I reviewed Marie Kondo’s The Life – Changing Magic of Tidying. Last week I tackled Paul Arden’s It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be.

At the start of this post I’ve got to issue a disclaimer – it’s not that I’ve received this book gratis from the publisher (btw – just how do you get those free books to review?) or that I know the author or anything like that: it’s that I am by profession a Science teacher. This is a book, notionally at least, about neuroscience and so I must confess that I have a natural inclination to favour this book over the other two books that I’ve read so far: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying and It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be

Some of you have noted a faintly derisive tone in the last two reviews and it’s true, my Self – Help Binge is slightly tongue in cheek, but it started with the most serious of intentions and I have genuinely attempted to live by the teachings of Marie Kondo and Paul Arden (at least during the week in which I read their books). Marie Kondo’s writing was annoying but the effect on the tidiness of our home was dramatic. Conversely, Paul Arden had me talking like one of those daily inspiration Twitter accounts and turned me into a really quite annoying person. Daniel Levitin’s Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload seems at first glance to have more potential: Levitin attempts to bring his learning to bear on the problem of our fantastically complicated everyday lives. I feel I certainly fit the bill as someone who leads an overly complex life: I am a teacher, often working upwards of 60 hours in a week, I am father to two small children who attend a plethora of clubs and activities, my wife works full time and I edit themagichappinessof.com which takes up all my spare time; so I have plenty of everyday commitments to juggle.

Levitin identifies attention as the most precious of the brain’s resources. Knowing where best to put your attention is a skill harnessed by a group of people the author assigns the tag HSPs: Highly Successful Persons. These people are CEOs, business leaders, social media tycoons, musicians, presidents and prime ministers. In short, they have a lot on their plate. Levitin argues that the HSPs are where they are because they leverage their considerable mental faculties in the right areas rather than wasting their attention on posting cat photos to Twitter or clicking on pop – ups promising ’15 quick tips to boost your productivity’. The phrase ‘paying – attention’ is one that we give little thought to but the author demonstrates how it has a basis in the way the brain is wired up.

Switching attention between several tasks actually incurs a neural ‘cost’ and the more times we switch between activities the more of a cost we incur. This leads to us becoming tired and tiredness affects our ability to make judgments. I was happy to learn that multi – tasking, something my wife claims to be expert at, is nothing of the sort. During writing this article I have checked Twitter 15 times so far (no one has mentioned me in a tweet, liked or re-tweeted anything of mine in that time scale), checked Facebook 22 times (no new notifications), checked my blog stats three or four times, checked Tumblr and my Google+ account a similar amount of times. All for no yield. This isn’t multi – tasking. This is just switching my attention from Twitter to Facebook to my blog to Google+ and round and round again. ‘Attention is a limited capacity resource’ says Levitin, ‘there are definite limits to the number of things we can attend to at once.’ He gives the example of driving along a street looking for a turning whilst listening to the radio or trying to hold a conversation. Most of us recognise that we tend to turn the radio down or pause the conversation whilst we scan for the correct street to turn down.

It is the same with all those social media accounts: if you are trying to write a book review then write a book review. Turn off Twitter, mute the updates alert on your phone, close the Facebook tab and focus your attention on the book review. All sounds eminently sensible and dare I say it, common sense, so far. The problem is, we are distractable beings. Indeed, we evolved 200, 000 years ago in an environment where things were fairly static. If something changed in your environment then it was a novelty and novelty meant potential danger. The human brain has evolved to attend to novelty. When your phone pings to tell you that you have a new Twitter notification your brain switches it’s focus to that. It takes willpower to ignore the update and focus on what you’re supposed to be doing. But this willpower incurs a cost. Levitin quotes a study by Glenn Wilson of Gresham College, London who found that having knowledge of an unread email in your inbox whilst you are trying to concentrate on a task can reduce you effective IQ by 10 points. That’s just knowing that the email is there, whether you intend to do anything about it or not.

A lot of Levitin’s advice might seem common sense: write everything down that you need to remember, turn off your phone whilst you’re trying to concentrate on a task, stop posting cat photos, organize your contacts, answer emails during a defined period of time each day, get enough sleep. It’s all stuff that you’ve heard elsewhere on productivity blogs or in lifestyle supplements. Where Levitin’s book sets itself apart is in showing the reader how all of this is routed in sound neuroscience.

It’s not easy to adopt new routines though. I’ve tried one strategy from the book which is something that I remember reading about as a teenager in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. ‘Zen and…’  is a strange book and when I read it as a youngster I completely missed it’s function as a self – help book and read it mainly as a novel of ideas.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Prisig

The protagonist uses the idea of writing down his to – do list on a series of index cards. This is something that appealed to me. Each item on your to – do list is written on a separate card and then these cards are shuffled so that the item that is uppermost on your list of priorities sits on top. Once I have completed that task I rip the card up and throw it away. This is much more rewarding than crossing it off an enormous long to – do list. The reward element of completing a task should not be neglected. In a recent review of So you’ve been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson I discussed how social media is designed to hijack our attention systems by offering us a neurological reward – a quick release of dopamine, the hormone associated with our brain’s pleasure pathways – every time we complete a task.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed Jon Ronson

Gaining an extra follower on Twitter or a share on Facebook, responding to a tweet or answering a query in an email counts as completing a task and so generates that little kick of dopamine that keeps you going back for more.

Now these ‘tasks’ are not really tasks of any significance at all. I might spend 15 minutes checking my emails, then 5 minutes going through my Twitter notifications and a further 5 minutes checking my Facebook notifications and responding to inbox messages. None of these little ‘tasks’ is really achieving anything significant but they all bring with them the feeling that I’m being busy. My brain is certainly busy switching from one thing to another constantly and I’m generating the little addictive reward of a kick of dopamine every time I complete a task but I’m not really achieving anything. And whilst doing all this insignificant ‘work’ I am neglecting significant things that need attending to like setting up a new savings account or securing some dental insurance at a reasonable price.

The index cards method of sorting my priorities worked out fine for me for the first two days. I assiduously wrote down every new thing that I needed to attend to and indexed it in my to – do pile. I sorted the pile at regular intervals and when the pile seemed to be getting too thick I whittled it down by actually doing some of the things in the pile. Great. Except keeping on top of the pile required self – control and motivation.

When the colourful index cards were fresh out of the packet they were a novelty and I attended to using them as one attends to a new pet. When I’d lived with the method for a couple of days I started forgetting to write out new cards when a task popped up or skipping it altogether, telling myself that it was too much hassle to fish the cards out and fill one out. Then I started to forget to check them altogether. I could remember what was written on the uppermost card but not the ones underneath.

I think the message from this book is that some of us are more organised than others but the key is that none of us evolved to be this way. Our brains are set up to handle  a much  less complicated world with less information to process and far fewer social contacts to keep track of. Feeling like we’re not on top of our everyday existence causes anxiety and can be stressful. We can teach ourselves to become organised though, but it takes training and practice, like mastering anything else. Oranisation is about embedding good habits into your day to day routine. The trick is to be consistent. Adopt a strategy and stick with it until it becomes a habit.

Next week I will post a review of my self – help progress so far; what’s worked, what’s gone wrong and what I’ve learnt so far. That will give me a bit of time to read the next book on my list which is Thrive by Arriana Huffington and was suggested by Its – Jme whose awesome blog you should check out.

If you’ve read any of the three books I’ve discussed so far I’d love to hear your thoughts and if you’d like to suggest a self – help title for me to try out then please comment below, tweet to @TmhoLudek or email themagichappinessof@gmail.com.

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It's not how good you are, it's how good you want to be. By Paul Arden

One book to change your life? Could it be this one? The Magic Happiness of… thinks it could.

Every week I try a different self – help guide’s life advice. Last week I reviewed Marie Kondo’s The Life – Changing Magic of Tidying. This week I tackle Paul Arden’s It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be.

Sandwiched somewhere between a career’s advice lecture and an evangelical call to self – improvement for anyone with a creative bent, this little book is small enough to fit in the pocket and short enough to read in a matter of minutes. That’s not to say the ideas in it aren’t profound though.

Arden’s little book was a sensation when it was first published in 2003 and has entered the hearts and minds of many an ambitious, bright young thing since. Arden’s prose is direct and bossy, but his message is never less than engaging and thought provoking.

‘So how good do you want to be?’ he asks at the outset.

So how good do you want to be asks Paul Arden
So how good do you want to be?

Well, I don’t know, you think. Probably quite good. Fairly soon though you get the sense that this isn’t good enough for Paul Arden. ‘You can achieve the unachievable.’ he exhorts. By the third page in I’m feeling ecstatic.

Many of the messages are counter – intuitive: ‘It’s right to be wrong,’ ‘fail, fail again, fail better,’why do we strive for excellence when mediocrity is required?’ And Arden’s wisdom is delivered with such clear – eyed certainty that you get caught up in it. The layout of every page is delicious, the bold titles and large text allied with clean, monochrome images mean that it’s easy on the eye. You wouldn’t expect anything less from a former  Executive Creative Director at Saatchi and Saatchi though would you?

So I’ve been trying to apply the book’s message of ambition, self promotion and positive thinking to my life. I’ve been relentlessly chipper at work. Emma, my colleague, took me aside to ask me if everything was alright. ‘You keep talking to everyone like you’re reading from a leadership manual,’ she said worriedly. ‘Have you been getting enough sleep?’ ‘Without a goal it’s difficult to score,’ I replied, assertively.

I’ve designed myself some business cards. I’m a teacher so they say ‘Headteacher’ on them.

Design your own business card says Paul Arden. Impress people with a completely made up job title.
Get your own business cards. With a made up job title on them.

I handed them out in the staff room at work which went down well. People asked me if I’d gone mad and the real Headteacher said he wants a meeting with me. ‘Getting fired can be a positive career move,’ Arden assures me on page 70. Which is comforting to know.

It’s not How Good you Are…’ is not really a self – help book. You will find it in Waterstone’s in the grey area to the right of the self-help section headed ‘smart thinking’. I’m not sure how much of this book is smart thinking and how much has little thinking behind it. If you suspend your judgement then it’s freshness and energy is infectious.

And then sometimes you come across a picture of some pigeons on a plinth and you are a little baffled.

‘Don’t be afraid of silly ideas.’ (Page 58)

Next week I’m trying Daniel Levitin’s The Organised Mind. If you have read any of the books I’ve discussed on my blog or would like to suggest a favourite self – help book for me to try out then please comment, tweet @TmhoLudek, check out my Facebook or email themagichappinessof@gmail.com.

Look forward to hearing from you all.

 

 

 

Review: Marie and Me, The KonMari method

Every week I try a different self – help guide’s life advice. Here’s how I got on with Marie Kondo.

Here’s the thing with me and Marie: at first everything was great between us. There was the initial excitement of a new relationship, the butterflies in the stomach every time I opened ‘The Life – Changing Magic of Tidying,’ counting down the seconds until I could get home from work to be with her. Then there was the physical stuff: tearing our clothes off the shelves, arranging our cups in the cup drawer, folding our socks – all the usual ‘new relationship stuff’. After that though, things fizzled out a bit between us.

Don’t get me wrong, Marie’s a great girl. She’s upbeat (relentlessly), she’s organised (goes with the territory really), I mean – she’d never forget to remind you it was your mum’s birthday. And she’s got a great sense of humour too, I think. When she’s in the mood she can say some pretty funny things, possibly unintentionally, but nevertheless – she’s entertaining company. And she smiles – a lot.

But that’s kind of the thing really. You could never take Marie down the pub to meet your mates. You’d always be a bit concerned she might say something odd. Robbo’s pulled a muscle playing footie for instance. Marie’s advice is along the lines of: ‘a firm but gentle massage by human hands does more to loosen knotted muscles that being pummelled by a massage machine.’

Fair play you think. Nothing too controversial in that. ‘The energy that flows from the person’s hands into our skin seems to heal both body and soul,’ she continues. She’s had a fair bit to drink  by this point: ‘The same is true for our clothes.’

Sorry? What was that Marie? ‘When we take our clothes in our hands and fold them neatly, we are, I believe, transmitting energy…’ and on she goes.

And then there’s the jealously to deal with. My wife Annie was well and truly sick of Marie by the end of the week. ‘Marie says this, Marie says that… why don’t you just go and bloody well live with bloody Marie bloody Kondo? I mean, where have all my hair grips gone?’

Oh sure though – credit where credit’s due. If Marie’s taught me one thing I’ll take away from this it’s that focusing on what you want to keep and the joy that those items bring you is more important than the tidiness aspect of it all. Just don’t let the lads here me saying that.

With less stuff to sift through I spend less time worrying about what to wear, which shoes go with which shirt, whether the lime green cords really go with anything. I’ve kept a few shirts and jeans that just go with each other and to hell with it.

We ‘Kondoed’ the kitchen and the bedrooms and the house feels fresher. We threw away enough paper work to build and igloo out of and about a dumper truck full of crappy plastic toys. That bit felt liberating. Now that we’re liberated and the house is very spartan it could, ironically, pass for the interior of an East Berlin condominium circa 1978. It feels a bit cold without all our old stuff.

On the plus side. Now that we’ve got nothing left we’ll need to go shopping. Just for some essentials. And I love a good shopping spree.

Next week my self – help binge continues with Paul Arden’s ‘It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be.’

The Magic Happiness of Marie Kondo…

Thanks to everyone for their suggestions on their favourite self – help books. I’ve got a list of 8 titles to get me started. With some degree of inevitability (see my previous posts) by far the largest number of votes was for me to try out Marie Kondo’s ‘KonMari method’.

life changing magic of tidying up

I bought Kondo’s ‘The Life – Changing Magic of Tidying Up’ from Amazon this morning so it should arrive tomorrow (Friday 29th January) and we’ll be ready to go.

In anticipation of its’ arrival here are 6 of the best KonMari quotes that I could find (in the 30min time limit I’ve given myself to blog this):

  1. ‘Do you like talking to furniture? Do you believe shirts have souls? Are you insane? This might be the book for you.’ George Cotronis quoted from http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3263855.George_Cotronis’
  2. Kondo thinks you should treat your socks like tiny people, and that when they’re in your sock drawer, they’re “essentially on holiday”.’ Oliver Burkeman quoted from http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/dec/05/change-your-life-strange-decluttering-advice
  3. May cause death

also from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/17/spark-joy-japanese-art-tidying-marie-kondo-digested-read

4.“This book is a cult. A totally reasonable, scary cult that works, doesn’t kill people (a bonus), but does drastically change your life. In this case — for the better.” — Buzzfeed

5. “It seems mundane but I’ve Kondo’d some deodorant that I didn’t like the smell of.” quoted from http://nymag.com/thecut/2015/02/marie-kondo-room-purge.html#

6. “When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t.” Marie Kondo quoted in http://www.wsj.com/articles/marie-kondo-and-the-tidying-up-trend-1424970535

If you’ve Kondo’d your home (or indeed some deodorant) or if you’ve read the book leave me a comment or tweet me @TmhoLudek.

The magic happiness of a self – help binge?

A quick internet search for the term self – help reveals it to be the worlds biggest selling genre. The most commonly quoted figure of the industry’s worth is $11bn, most of it spent in the US admittedly, but the UK is catching up.

Shelf Help packshot shelfAs with most things I am a little behind the curve on this one. I have never read a self – help book or considered myself to be in the target audience for a self – help book. Recently though a new branch of the genre is making waves in the market: the so called ‘intellectually credible’ self – help book. The publishers Penguin assure me that it is OK now, if not even cool, to own books with titles like ‘The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves’ . Well why wouldn’t it be you may ask? And I suppose you’re right.

Through their imprint Vintage, Penguin are promoting a series of 10 books they say have the ‘power to make life brighter’.

In response to the latest crisis in my life I decided to make a positive change to the way I live and have drafted a list of 6 things that I want to change before the end of the Year:

  1. To be happy(er)
  2. To not be nearly bankrupt
  3. To not feel disorganised
  4. To have more time with my kids
  5. To have time to be creative
  6. To feel physically healthy

With 2016 set to be dominated again by the publication of a slew of self – help titles from some of the biggest hitters in the field I began to wonder whether self – help could lead me to a happier, more sustainable and ultimately more rewarding lifestyle.

In this series of blog posts I’m asking have we become a nation of self – help bingers? What are the best self – help titles out there? And what are the worst? Have you got a favourite example that you think I should try?  Throughout the year I intend to read as many titles as I can get through and to post the results here for you all to read about.

Comment below or tweet me @TmhoLudek to leave suggestions.