Does This New Book Hold the Secret to Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload?

By Yael Grauer September 11th, 2014

My organizational style as a freelance writer resembles that of an absent-minded professor. I get excited about pivot tables, but I’m constantly misplacing my keys and forgetting why I was about to open the 17th tab in my browser. So I jumped at the chance to check out Daniel J. Levitin’s new bookThe Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

Levitin pores through everything from neuroscience and cognitive psychology to Greek mythology and ancient philosophy as he unravels the mysteries of memory retrieval, giving the reader tips on maintaining focus. You can read my interview with the author here, but after digging through the text, I wanted to provide some takeaways from a reader’s perspective.

With a little help, hopefully we can all remember why we opened the 17th tab.

Stop multitasking

Researchers have found there’s no such thing as multitasking. Instead, people who think they’re multitasking are merely switching from one activity to another and then back again. This type of switching may be fun—it gives us a hit of dopamine and satisfies our prefrontal cortex’s desire for novelty—but it can take a toll on our attention spans. Levitin points out the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than those from smoking marijuana.

According to neuroscientist Russ Poldrack, multitasking can cause information to go to the wrong part of your brain. If you’re studying without distractions, the information goes into the hippocampus, the part of your brain that stores facts and ideas. But if you’re studying with the television on, it goes to your striatum instead. That part of the brain typically stores new skills and procedures. Trying to do research with the TV on will not only be harder and take longer, it could impact your memory recall as well. Multitaskers feel like they’re juggling everything really well even when they’re not.

Levitin says this feeling is a cognitive illusion. In addition to sacrificing efficiency and concentration, multitasking increases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol as well. Luckily, freelancers have more control over their environment than full-time employees do, and we don’t have to answer to bosses imposing rules about responding to emails within a certain timeframe. It’s up to us to set our own rules and work without interruptions.

Differentiate between activities

Researchers have found taking a test in the same room where you studied the material leads to enhanced memory recall. Levitin recommends working in different rooms of your home for different projects. Even just a specific desk or table for one activity can improve your productivity. For those of us who are constantly changing our work location—library, coworking space, home office, coffee shop, bar—creating multiple user profiles on your laptop or using different jump drives for each activity are also options.

If you’ve got cash to burn, a more uncommon suggestion is to buy three different laptops: one for work, one for play, and one for personal business like bills and taxes.


If you’re used to doing quite a bit of research before making any decision, Levitin recommends turning it down a notch when dealing with life’s more insignificant tasks. He uses the term ‘satisficing,’ coined by Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, which means settling for an option that is good enough but not the best. By not obsessing over too many trivial decisions, which can cause neural fatigue, you can focus energy on the more important choices.

Not only will satisficing allow you to focus on high-priority decisions, it can also improve your mood. “Recent research in social psychology has shown that happy people are not people who have more,” Levitin writes. “Rather, they are people who are happy with what they have. Happy people engage in satisficing all of the time, even if they don’t know it.”

Externalize your memory

It seems obvious, but simply writing down important information on a notecard or in a calendar can free up your memory reserves and allow you to focus on the job at hand. Levitin is a huge fan of good old-fashioned 3×5 index cards.

For those of us who are always misplacing things, Levitin recommends choosing specific spots to put items you are prone to losing—a key hook by the door, a special bowl for your cell phone. You’ll no longer have to struggle to remember where you last had them if you’re disciplined about following through.

And another tip for the well-to-do: Owning multiple items, such as three sets of reading glasses, means you won’t need to carry them from room to room.

Take care of yourself

As an admitted workaholic myself, I know it’s easy to shrug off well-meaning advice about balancing work and free time. Being told that it’ll give me a performance boost, though, is far more convincing.

A good night of sleep, Levitin writes, will more than double the likelihood you’ll solve a problem requiring insight. Even short naps can increase our productivity. Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, leads to memory loss.

Levitin points out that time spent in nature replenishes the brain’s self-regulatory mechanisms, which is useful for setting goals. Exercise can extend concentration and help you perform better on tasks.

Also, allowing yourself to daydream replenishes executive attention, responsible for memory, attention, and productivity. Then, you’ll not only remember why you opened that 17th tab, but you’ll be motivated to finish using it before moving on to the 18th.

Image by Marcio Jose Sanchez
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