The Organized Mind
This morning, when I woke up, I had decisions to make: sleep a few more minutes, check my email and text messages while still in bed or get up to get a quicker jump on the day. Once out of bed, I had a choice of at least 5 different types of toothpaste to use, 10 different face creams and a myriad of other personal care products. Next, I walked into my closet to choose between a ridiculous # of outfits. In the kitchen, I could have my first beverage be one of at least 12 different teas OR I could have Teecino, coffee or broth. Choosing something to eat was no different and I’m sure your morning contained similar decisions if you examined what’s in your house. This is just your house!
Today, we are confronted with an unprecedented amount of decisions to be made because of an unprecedented amount of information to process.
Information scientists have quantified all this: in 2011, we took in 5 times as much info/day as Americans did in 1986…that’s the equivalent of 175 newspapers! Just during our leisure time, we process 100,000 words every day! The world’s TV stations produce 85,000 hours of original programing and You Tube uploads 6,000 hours of video every hour! Just trying to keep our personal media and electronic files organized can be overwhelming…I’m still carrying around an external hard drive with the contents of the computer I had 2 years ago. We each have the equivalent of over ½ a million books stored on just our computer…that’s not counting our cell phones, iPods and even the magnetic stripes on our credit cards.
We actually have the brain capacity to store this information…some neuroscientists suggest we have infinite capacity for storage…it’s processing and retrieving it that comes at a cost. We have difficulty separating the trivial from the important and all of the processing makes us tired…literally! Neurons involved in processing and retrieving are living cells with a metabolism and they need oxygen and glucose to survive. When they have to work hard, shifting from one decision to the next, we experience fatigue. Every status update on FB, every text you send or receive competes for resources in your brain with more important things like business decisions, where you left your keys or how to make up with a loved one.
It’s estimated that we can process 120 bits of information/second…meaning we can “consciously” process it. Listening to me speak right now is causing you to process 60 bits per second…unless you’re tuning me out…so you can imagine what happens when 2 or more people start speaking at you at a time!
If you think about it, it seems odd that such an advanced species as humans has such a limited attention span. Our brains evolved to help us deal with the hunter-gatherer phase of existence. Our attentional filter (millions of neurons continually scanning the environment to select the most important thing to focus on) allowed us to not get distracted by things that weren’t important. For instance, while hunting, man would only be distracted by something that might threaten survival. We are programmed to recognize change in our environment, like an approaching predator.
We can think of all the information fired at us daily as a predator, or a change pulling our attention away from what our primary task should be in the moment.
For this reason, many of us have become what we like to call “multi-taskers”. In truth, our brain isn’t capable of multi-tasking…we are merely sequential-taskers and each time we jump from one task to the next, it comes at a cost both in energy available for brain functioning but also in effectiveness. According to Levitin and his colleagues, Cognitive losses from multi-tasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot smoking.
So why do some people seem to do better than others at managing information overload and appear to be more successfully navigating the waters of this age?
In his book, Dr. Levitin, outlines several simple strategies for every area of our life.
First, he stresses the importance of “off-loading” information, thus freeing up the brain to work on more important tasks. He calls this “externalizing or enhancing” memory.
Some tactics of externalizing memory are using “to-do” lists or brain-dumps. Many people use their smart devices or computers for this practice but because we use these for so many things: watching cat videos, sending emails, listening to music, the brain can be confused. Also, our hippocampus, the place in the brain involved in memory, remembers “where things are physically” and doesn’t recognize where you are storing things on your computer as a physical object in physical space.
Having a specific note book or even using 3×5 index cards (one card per idea) has proven to be an effective (while seeming so primitive) way for many successful business people to “off load” things that can’t be attended to now, need to be remembered but in the off loading, stop the brain from continually circling back. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook talks about this in her book “Lean In” and remarks that she often feels like she is carrying around a stone tablet and chisel at a high tech company like Facebook. (I’ve been mocked, myself, for always carrying my day timer)
Second, to avoid multi-tasking, Dr. Levitin suggests setting specific times for answering emails and checking social media, instead of doing so all day. Many of us are really confused by the notion of multitasking; in fact it’s listed as a desired trait on many job applications. Many of us think we are good at it and we are deluded. It’s really an issue of dopamine addiction and I am obviously addicted. It was fascinating to read that every time I get or answer and email, FB message or text, I get a little shot of dopamine, a pleasure hormone. Our ancestors needed this to make sure they stayed active and got things done but for us, it is completely distracting to get these little “instant rewards” for small, unimportant tasks, rather than focusing on bigger tasks that will ultimately result in bigger wins. The cost is depleting nutrients in our brain needed for important tasks and decisions, increasing the production of cortisol, a stress hormone, increasing adrenaline, which can cause brain fog, and creating the dopamine-addiction feedback loop.
Levitin also suggests exercising our brains by performing smaller tasks before taking on bigger ones and when you ARE taking on bigger jobs, break them into 50-minute increments and take frequent breaks…walking outside, stretching or daydreaming.
Third, he recommends limiting choices. Do you really need to read one more article on 57 features of a trip you’re considering? He says that there are only 3-4 factors that are important to us in almost every decision we are faced with.
Lastly, Levitin stresses the importance of enough quality sleep. Apparently, our brains assimilate the memories of the day during sleep and even continue to work on problems that we have been actively working on during the day.
My husband has been looking at getting a new car for a few months, and I really haven’t taken any interest until he scheduled a day that we went out and test drove cars and then spent time putting together the design and payment plan we would like for the car. That night, I had a vivid dream about what color of exterior and interior I wanted and we ordered the car the next day.
Many bigger companies like Microsoft and Safeway now have “nap rooms” so that employees can get de-stressed and refreshed and are seeing it pay off in productivity. Most sleep studies show that we perform best with 8-10 hours of sleep per night and a short nap in the afternoon. Levitin goes into great detail on this topic: when, during sleep, certain memories are better-stored, etc.…fascinating stuff.
Barring a nuclear explosion or zombie-creating virus, I can’t imagine that we will ever move toward “less information” hence, understanding how our brain works and adopting strategies like the ones laid out in “The Organized Mind” can only help us survive information overload and flourish.
AND I’d like to close with a quote by one of my favorite authors:
“There are many things of which a wise man might wish to be ignorant”
Ralph Waldo Emerson