November 30, 2014
The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin
Published in August of 2014.
Daniel J. Levitin seems like an amazing guy. He is a psychology professor at McGill and an ex record executive who worked with The Grateful Dead and Stevie Wonder. He has a PhD and has performed live with David Byrne. I want to hang out with Daniel.
Levitin writes about the central problem of knowledge work - too much information. We are all overloaded and overrun by data. Levitin observes that that challenges of information overload go beyond filtering, sifting, and meaning making. Dealing with information saps energy. All those e-mails that we skim and delete, all those Tweets that we click past, and all those blog posts that we scan, all this information that we manage will inevitably burn through our attentional capacity. Levitin believes that we need active strategies to deal with information abundance. We need to develop habits around offloading our thoughts and to-do lists to external sources, as letting ideas and tasks remain in our minds will displace precious thinking energy. Levitin recommends carrying index cards to write down (to externalize) notes and tasks. I recommend Evernote. They accomplish the same goal.
The best part of The Organized Mind was Levitin’s description of how highly successful people manage attention and tasks. He notes that the busiest and most in-demand people have the ability to be in the moment. That if you meet with an ultra productive person that they will convey the feeling that they have all the time in the world for you. That their attention is totally focused on the interaction and the people in front of them. The reason that highly successful people can be so focused is that they often have people around them to keep them on track. They have assistants who can worry about the logistics of work and life, the oil changes and the time of the next appointment. Levitin observes that the world of professional work has changed so that we are all now logistical generalists. Tasks that were once done by specialists, from arranging travel to dealing with correspondence and messages, are now done by all of us. This operational work takes energy and it takes focus, all of which can detract from clear thinking and strategic planning. I don’t have an assistant, but after reading The Organized Mind I am going to try to at least act like a one who does. My goal is to be totally in the moment whenever I’m having a conversation or an exchange, and to try to quit worry about where I should be or what else I should be doing.
My frustration with The Organized Mind is that Levitin is too ambitious. My guess is that Dr. Levitin didn’t have time to make The Organized Mind shorter. That is too bad, as there is so much that is so good in this book. It is almost like Levitin wanted to write 2 books, but in the end decided to smoosh everything together into one. The first book, the one that I would want to read, is all about the neuroscience of information overload and the sociology of our new patterns of work. The second book is a practical handbook for efficient operations, a hands-on step-by-step guide for achieving maximum productivity. In trying to do both books in one Levitin never quite gets the tone or pacing right. The book is overlong where it should be concise. But don’t let this concern inhibit you from investing some time with The Organized Mind. For many, Levitin’s insistence of making the science of attention a practical as well as academic field will be just what is desired.
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