The Freelance Creative

The Organized Mind: Daniel J. Levitin Talks Thinking Straight

Daniel J. Levitin’s new book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, provides a blueprint for juggling multiple activities without feeling consistently distracted and overwhelmed.

Levitin, a wearer of many hats, could never be accused of being singularly focused. He’s a musician, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, and an an award-winning author. At Changing Hands bookstore in Phoenix, Ariz., we spoke with him about how to avoid checking email all day, writing for The New York Times, daydreaming, and the little-known concept of “satisficing.”

In your book, you discussed the negative effects of constantly checking email over and over again and how even simply knowing you have unchecked emails can be incredibly distracting. If you’re a freelancer on assignment and things are constantly changing, how do you avoid checking your email every five minutes?

Here’s the problem. In the old days, 20 years ago, when you got communication from somebody, it was either by phone or paper mail. The great thing about paper mail was that you could tell by looking at it—not in every case, but in many cases—what it was. Bills had a different look than personal letters, which tended to have different kinds of envelopes and they’d be hand addressed, and that had a different look than junk mail. And the mail only came once a day.

Now, the mail comes continuously. That constant ping doesn’t differentiate whether it’s spam or your romantic partner or your boss or a video of a cat playing the piano or an invitation from a Nigerian prince to inherit 10 million dollars. It becomes a distraction.

There are a couple of jobs, like a journalist or a social media publicist, where you really have to have email on all the time. What I’d recommend then is that you set up a system of different email addresses. If you’re going to be buying stuff online, or communicating with anybody else about personal or social matters that are separate from your work, that should go to one email account. And then if you’re chasing leads for a story or you’ve got three or four people in your life who you want to be able to reach you right away, set up a separate email account and only give your email to those people. Then you turn off the big email account that’s getting all that other stuff, and only check it three or four times a day.

You also discussed something that’s relevant to freelancers and creativesthe importance of daydreaming. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

I think what happens in this overcaffeinated age where there’s so much happening is that we feel like we can’t even stop for a minute or two because it’s all we can do to keep up. “If I stop work for five minutes, I’m not going to be able to get as much done” is the way we think, but it’s an illusion.

The fact is that if you take time out from your work just to ponder and to daydream, at the end of the day—according to studies, to research—you’ll get more done and the quality of your work will be better.

When faced with a big deadline for a project, many freelancers drop everything to solely work on that one thing, but you explained this was a bad idea. That seems really counterintuitive.

It depends on the project and the deadline. If you’re in Liberia and helping treat people with Ebola, or if there’s an earthquake and you’re part of the relief effort, then that’s different.

But a lot of us who have desk jobs and a lot of students—think back to your student days—if you have a big paper that’s due right away, you’d let everything else go to hell to work on that term paper, and in the meanwhile, things would pile up that would stress you out and make it more difficult to handle later. Dirty laundry, not eating right, not exercising. It ends up being counterproductive because in the end there’s only a certain number of hours you can efficiently work in a week.

There are a couple of studies I review in the book that show the effects of overtime. After 40 hours a week, though, there are differences depending on the profession and the person and the overtime. But for every hour you put in after 40 hours, you only get 30 minutes of work actually done.

You mentioned a new word to me in the booksatisficing. As a freelancer putting all of your work into your articles, how do you know if a pitch is the one you need to spend three hours researching, or if it’s one that you can just satisfice?

[Editor’s note: According to, satisficing means: “Examining alternatives until a practical (most obvious, attainable, and reasonable) solution with adequate level of acceptability is found, and stopping the search there instead of looking for the best-possible (optimum) solution.”]

I don’t satisfice with my work. Never. In fact, for my New York Times piece, the op-ed that just came out, I had to give them three pitches and I worked for days on one-paragraph descriptions going in three different directions. Then they came back and asked me to elaborate on all three, which took several more days. Then they chose one and I worked on that. And then there were a good 10 or 12 iterations once the editors got involved.

But at the pitch level, I guess it depends. I think if I was at the beginning of my career and I was juggling a lot of balls, I may not have the time for that. But I’m at a point where I feel like I’d like to have control over everything that comes out with my name on it, and I want to be sure that it’s the best I can do given the constraints of time and given the formidable constrains of my own intellect and the constraints of my own ability.

So I’ll satisfice in terms of finding a dry cleaner or grocery store to shop at, but never in my work. I made the point in the book that you don’t want [American director and producer] Ken Burns to be satisficing with his films and you hope that Pablo Picasso wasn’t satisficing with his paintings. Not that I’m comparing myself to them—that’s not my intention.

You mentioned in your book that you recall factual information more if you’re working in the same areatest takers had better recall if they took a test in the area where they had studied. Do you have different parts of your house or office for different projects?

I do. I’ve got a music room where I play and write music, and I’ve got a chair where I read novels, and it’s separate from where I do my scientific work.

But you have just one writing area?

What I want to have based on advice my friend [neurologist and writer] Oliver Sacks gave—and I don’t have it yet—is I want to have a separate computer and a separate desk for paying bills and that kind of stuff that’s not the same computer I use to write. I just haven’t had time to set up, but it’s in my future.

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