The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin

Organizing your life will enable you to reach your full potential.

To be successful you need an organized mind.  I came to this realization after reading The Organized Mind, which was given to me as a gift from my cousin.

Growing up I had a disdain for planning.  I used to think that planning took away from the spontaneity and wonder of life.  I was WRONG. I now realize that those who plan allow for spontaneity to enter their lives because they’ve cleared their mind of all the ideas constantly swimming in their head by extracting them by writing it down.

I’ve now put planning on the forefront of all my endeavors and you should too.  You need to accept that your plans will change and they should be looked at as living documents full of hypotheses that you constantly test and course correct.

What’s the big idea?

When we’re born we didn’t come with an owner’s manual.  This book acts like our brain’s owner’s manual highlighting how it works and how we can utilize its strengths and understand its weaknesses.

Good time management should mean organizing our time in a way that maximizes brain efficiency.

Our brain didn’t evolve to cope with the information age.  Your attention is a limited capacity resource, which means you have a finite amount of stimuli you can attend to at once, and the more often you switch the less efficient your brain becomes.

That’s why multitasking is horrible for you.

If you pride yourself on your ability to multitask just know that you could be much more effective if you start blocking off longer amounts of time for completing a single task.

What does making hard decisions and looking at your texts, Facebook, and email have in common?  They all deplete the same amount of resources in your brain. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between the activities, it’s simply utilizing energy to process.  On top of that, switching to check a text or email stimulates the pleasure sensors in your brain. Who would have thought constantly checking texts was an addictive behavior akin to doing drugs?

The other main point is that sleep is probably the most important activity we can do, even more than eating right or working out.  All three are important, but sleep takes the cake.

Sleep is critical for obtaining your peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function and mood regulation.  Even a mild reduction in a set sleep routine can have detrimental effects on your cognitive performance for many days afterwards.

So pride yourself for getting more sleep rather than functioning on little sleep.  The “I’ll sleep when I’m dead mentality” needs to die itself.

How does the author know?

Daniel J. Levitin is a professor of Psychology and Music at McGill University.  He’s written many books on how the brain functions with music. What really stood out about this book was the thousand pages of notes and references at the end.

It is heavily researched and really crams a lifetime of work into 528 pages.

Why should you care?

Our brains guide how we go through this journey we call life.  Would you rather know how it works and how it can improve your life, or would you rather leave it a mystery and just let things take care of themselves?

I recommend adopting an internal locus of control so that you own how your brain works by setting up your life to maximize it’s efficiency.  For example, if you know that based on scientific experiments, multi-tasking makes your more fatigued, are you willing to look at how you can reduce that activity in your daily life?  I’d say it’s a worthwhile task that might just make you less stressed and more productive.

What should you do?

This book packs so much knowledge that it’ll be hard for me to go deep on all topics, however for those who aren’t interested in reading the whole book, I recommend reading my raw notes, which covers most of the key concepts in the book.

If you’re not interested in my long raw notes, here are my cliff notes:

Own your health.  Your brain’s effectiveness is directly related to how much you sleep, what you eat, and how much activity you do on a daily basis.

Disrupted sleep even two or three days after an experience can disrupt your memory of it months or years later.  Memories aren’t written in your brain that night, it’s written over many nights.

How to sleep:

    • Go to bed at the same time every night.
    • Wake up at the same time every morning.
    • Set an alarm clock if necessary.
    • If you stay up late one night, still get up at the same time the next morning — in the short run, the consistency of your cycle is more important than the amount of sleep.
    • Sleep in a cool, dark room.  Cover your windows if necessary to keep out the light.
  • Naps:
    • No longer than about forty minutes, as too much is counter productive.
    • 5-10 minute naps are optimal for most people.

Organize your living situation by putting systems in place to reduce the amount of thinking for common actions.  For example: put your keys, wallet, and phone in the same place so when you need them in a crunch you don’t waste energy thinking of where you left them.

Organize your relationships because positive relationships have been shown to make you happier and healthier.

A large part of organizing our social world successfully, like anything else, is identifying what we want from it.

A lot of people forget to take a step back and ask tough questions such as, are these the people I want to be hanging out with?  You might grow in different directions than your friends, make sure you take some time to see if the relationship is still mutually beneficial.

The most important trait for getting along with others is agreeableness.  In the scientific literature, to be agreeable is to be cooperative, friendly, considerate, and helpful.

Organize your workspace, computer, and email.  I’m not going to lie, I need to be more diligent in my organization of these aspects.  My computer still has documents all over the desktop and I’m notorious for creating folders labeled REVIEW-with a date where I just throw everything so I have a “clean” desktop.  If you don’t have to constantly search for things, that simply translates into more brain energy and opportunity for use on important items.

STOP MULTITASKING!  Adopt a Deep Work mentality where you schedule non-distraction chunks of time, say 2-3 hours, where you do nothing but work on what needs to get done.  Limit checking your email to 2-3 times per day.

Lastly, Levitin’s section on how to make medical decisions is worth reading from the book.  He breaks down how to understand probabilities since humans are pretty poor at it.

Doctors generate better knowledge of efficacy than of risk, and this skews decision-making.

Read more on how to use fourfold tables and understanding Bayes’ rule:

Bayesian updating—finding statistics that are relevant to your particular circumstance and using them.  You improve your estimates of the probability by constraining the problem to a set of people who more closely resemble you along pertinent dimensions.

  • Ie. “What’s the probably I have a stroke?”  BAD. “What’s the probability a person 28, eats healthy, doesn’t smoke, to have a stroke?” Better

Nuggets to chew on:

  • Having a best friend during adolescence is an important part of becoming a well-adjusted adult.
  • Educational attainment and employment tend to predict marital longevity.
  • People lie for fear of reprisal when we’ve done something we shouldn’t.  Human nature to lie to avoid punishment.
  • Social rejection causes activation in the same part of the brain as physical pain does.
  • We typically trust “experts” more than we trust ourselves.  Reason why we stick to a trainer’s exercise program and not our own.
  • What distinguishes expert from novices is that they know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

Raw notes:

  • Memory is fallible not because of storage limitations, but by retrieval limitations.
  • It’s not just that we remember things wrongly, but we don’t even know we’re remembering them wrongly, doggedly insisting that the inaccuracies are in fact true.
  • Human brain: richness and associative access.  Richness is the theory that most things we’ve thought or experienced are still somewhere in the brain.  Associative access is that there are a number of ways for us to retrieve thoughts.
  • Evolution doesn’t design things and it doesn’t build systems — it settles on systems that, historically, conveyed a survival benefit.
  • We are better able to follow instructions and plans the more thoroughly we understand them.
  • Satisficing is to do what’s good enough.
  • For high-priority endeavors, the old-fashioned pursuit of excellence remains the right strategy.  The rest can be satisficing.
  • The decision-making network in our brain doesn’t prioritize.
  • Under most circumstances, you will not be able to understand three people talking at the same time.
  • Two of the most crucial principles use by the brain’s attentional filter are CHANGE and IMPORTANCE.
  • Due to the attentional filter, we end up experiences a great deal of the world on autopilot.
  • A critical point that bears repeating is that attention is a limited capacity resource—there are definite limits to the number of things we can attend to at once.
  • We don’t know what we’re missing because our brain can completely ignore things that are not its priority at the moment.  This is called inattentional blindness.
  • Attentional switching comes at a high cost.
  • Multitasking is the enemy of the focused attentional system.
  • Attention is a limited capacity resource.
  • Attention is created by networks of neurons in the prefrontal cortex that are sensitive only to dopamine.
    • Vigilance system is when something grabs your attention based on survival, automatic.
    • Deliberate filtering is when you will yourself to focus on a task, like finding Waldo.
  • Emerging evidence suggests that embracing new ideas and learning is helping us live longer and can stave off Alzheimer’s disease.
  • We tend to be more biased to believe first-person stories and vivid accounts of a single experience rather than data that says otherwise.  We should learn to avoid this.
  • The “lexical hypothesis” assumes that the most important things humans need to talk about eventually become encoded in language.
  • No other species makes this self-conscious distinction among past, present, and future.  No other species lives with regret over past events, or makes deliberate plans for future ones.
  • Basic pursuit of cognitive science: to understand how information is organized.
  • Humans share because knowledge is useful to us.
  • Those who are interested in acquiring knowledge—whose brains enjoy learning new things—would have been at an advantage for survival, and so this love of learning would eventually become encoded in their genes through natural selection.
  • Human brains have a strong cognitive propensity toward order.
  • Our hunger for knowledge can be a the roots of our failings or our successes.  It can distract us or it can keep us engaged in a lifelong quest for deep learning and understanding.
  • Highly Successful People (HSP) engage every day in active sorting.  Simply means, you separate those things you need to deal with right now from those you don’t.
  • If we can remove some or all of the process from our brains and put it out into the physical world, we are less likely to make mistakes.
  • A Gibsonian affordance describes an object whose design features tell you something about how to use it.
  • Daydreaming and mind-wandering, we now know, are the natural state of the brain.
    • This distinctive and special brain state allows for more fluid and nonlinear modes of thinking.
  • Stay-on-task mode is the other dominant mode of attention, and it is responsible for so many high-level things we do that researchers have named it “The central executive.”
  • The mind-wandering mode works in opposition to the central executive mode: When one is activated, the other one is deactivated; if we’re in one mode, we’re not in the other.  The job of the central executive network is to prevent you from being distracted when you’re engaged in a task, limiting what will enter your consciousness so that you can focus on what you’re doing uninterrupted.  Whichever mode you’re in, your attentional filter is almost always operating, quietly out of the way in your subconscious.
  • When the activation of a neural network is sufficiently high, relative to other neural activity that’s going on, it breaks into our attentional process, that is, it becomes captured by our conscious mind, our central executive, and we become aware of it.
  • We can generally attend to a maximum of four or five things at one time.
  • There are four components in the human attentional system: the mind-wandering mode, the central executive mode, the attentional filter, and the attentional switch, which directs neural and metabolic resources among the mind-wandering, stay-on-task, or vigilance modes.
  • Memory is fiction.  It may present itself to us as fact, but it is highly susceptible to distortion.  Memory is not just replaying, but a rewriting.
  • The two most important rules are that the best-remembered experiences are distinctive/unique or have a strong emotional component.
  • Words can affect the recollection of memories.
  • Primacy effect of memory: we tend to remember best the first entry on a list.
  • Recency effect: We tend to remember the most recent items we encountered on a list, but not as well as the first item.
  • Spreading activation: when associational networks activate other memories.  ie. what things are red? Firetruck.
  • We modify our memories all the time like editing a Word file.
  • Our brain organizes similar memories into categorical bundles.
    • First category is based on gross or fine appearance.  ie. put all pencils in the same bin. Fine appearance might be to separate hard and soft lead, grey from color, etc.
    • Second category is functional equivalence.  ie. using a crayon instead of a pencil when you want to write something.  Not as great, but functionally the same.
    • Third category is particular situations.  ie. grabbing your personal belongings when your house is burning down.  Alone they are random items, but together they are your most prized possessions.
  • Neurons are living ells, and they can connect to one another in trillions of different ways.  These connections don’t just lead to learning, these connections are learning.
  • David Allen, “Your mind will remind you of all kinds of things when you can do nothing about them, and merely thinking about your concerns does not at all equate to making any progress on them.”
  • We should off-load as much information to the external world as possible.
  • 2-minute rule: if you can attend to it in less than two minutes, do it now.  A good way to do these small tasks is to set aside a block of time each day, say 30-min and handle them in one go.
  • If a task can be done by someone else, delegate it.
  • Use a notecard system by writing everything that needs to get done on a separate note card.  Get it out of your head and on paper, then organize and complete. Once complete, throw the card away.
  • Pirsig recognized that some of the best ideas you’ll have will come to you when you’re doing something completely unrelated.
  • Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky said that the problem with making decisions is that we are often making them under conditions of uncertainty.
    • Break up tasks and ask what you need to make a decision. ie. more information
  • Categorizing and externalizing our memory enables us to balance the yin of our wandering thoughts with the yang of our focused execution.
  • Clutter can spike cortisol levels (more so for women), leading to chronic cognitive impairment, fatigue, and suppression of the body’s immune system.
  • One of the big rules in not losing things it the rule of the designated place.  Keep certain items in the same place always. ie. keys.
  • Use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.  ie. put shoes next to front door, or keys and wallet next to door so you don’t forget them on your way out.
    • In organizing your living space, the goals are to off-load some of the memory functions from your brain and into the environment; to keep your environment visually organized, so as not to distract you when you’re trying to relax, work, or find things; and to create designated places for things so they can be easily located.
  • Organizational Rules:
    • 1: A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item.
    • 2: If there is an existing standard, use it.
    • 3: Don’t keep what you can’t use.
  • Our brains weren’t designed for our phones.  It wasn’t designed to have so much information in one place.
  • Neurologist and writer, Oliver Sacks: If you’re working on two completely separate projects, dedicate one desk or table or section of the house for each.  Just stepping into a different space hits the reset button on your brain and allows for more productive and creative thinking.
  • Convert all paper documents to PDF and sort on your computer to find later.
  • Filing system: group in 5-25 items.  Have categories such as Finances, Home Stuff, Personal, Medical, Miscellaneous (junk drawer).
  • Multi-tasking: a powerful and diabolical illusion.  Just switching from one task to another really fast.  You’re doing both tasks poorly compared to doing them one at a time.
  • Every time we switch tasks, each thing tweaks the novelty-seeking, reward-seeing centers of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (lots of pleasure), all to the detriment of our staying on task.  It’s the ultimate empty-calories brain candy.
  • Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot smoking.
  • Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist at Stanford, found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain.
  • Switching tasks uses up brain power.
    • Little decisions take up the same energy as big decisions.
  • Make no mistake: email, Facebook, twitter checking constitute a neural addiction.
  • The secret is to put systems in place to trick ourselves — to trick our brains—into staying on task when we need them to.  ie. set aside certain times during the day to check email (2-3x per day).
    • Email bankruptcy: archive everything then send out a mass email saying that if it’s important resend it.
  • Kahneman recommends taking a proactive approach to prevent losing things: Think of the ways you could lose things and try to set up blocks to prevent them.  Then, set up fail-safe, which include things like:
    • Hiding a spare house key in the garden
    • spare car key in the house
    • phone can take a picture of all the cards and IDs in your wallet front and back in case you lose it.
    • USB key will all medical records.
    • Traveling: one form of ID and some cash and credit card separate from wallet.
  • Remembering routine activities: Try to reclaim that sense of newness in everything we do.
  • Focus entirely in the moment with routine things.
  • “Nothing is foolproof because fools are ingenious.”
  • Humans differ from one another along thousands of dimensions, including variously defined levels of stress ands security, but one thing most of us have in common is a drive toward order in our immediate environment.
  • Reach out to James L. Adams, creativity consultant and retired mech eng from Stanford.
  • Cleaning is therapeutic and allows us to enter mind-wandering mode to make new mental connections.
  • Harmonize your organizational style and systems with your personality.
  • Human social relations are based on habits of reciprocity, altruism, commerce, physical attraction, and procreation.
  • Set up a friend “tickler”, way to remember to ping friends and catch up.  i.e. weekly, monthly, yearly
  • Transitive memory: knowledge of knowing where to get knowledge you seek in your friend group.  ie. knowing you can get Jeff’s number from his friend Sarah.
  • A large part of organizing our social world successfully, like anything else, is identifying what we want from it.
  • Relationships = being healthier and happier.
  • The most important trait for getting along with others is agreeableness.  In the scientific literature, to be agreeable is to be cooperative, friendly, considerate, and helpful.
  • Having a best friend during adolescence is an important part of becoming a well-adjusted adult.
  • Educational attainment and employment tend to predict marital longevity.
  • People lie for fear of reprisal when we’ve done something we shouldn’t.  Human nature to lie to avoid punishment.
  • In one study, people who tried to cut in line were forgiven by others even if their explanation was ridiculous.
  • Nicholas Epley, author of Mindwise, “If being transparent strengthens the social ties that make life worth living, and enables others to forgive our shortcomings, why not do it more often?”
  • Philosopher Paul Grice, indirect speech acts don’t say what we actually want, but they imply it, are called implicatures. ie. “gosh it’s warm in here.” to get your cubicle mate to open the window, vs asking directly.
  • Social rejection causes activation in the same part of the brain as physical pain does.  ME: forget drinking when going up to girls, take a Tylenol, which can reduce people’s experience of social pain (but don’t take pills if you don’t have to).
  • Review four Gricean mechanisms for cooperative speech:
    • Quantity: Make your contribution to the conversation as informative as required.  Don’t contribute more than necessary.
    • Quality.  Do not say what you believe is false.  Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
    • Manner. Avoid obscurity of expression (don’t sue words that your intended hearer doesn’t know).  Avoid ambiguity. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity). Be orderly.
    • Relation.  Make your contribution relevant.
  • Oxytocin hormone thought to keep couples together because it’s released after orgasm, which might keep people bonded to want to raise kids.
  • Autistic people have lower levels of Oxytocin and can be a reason they don’t bond as well with people.  When given oxytocin they tend to be more social.
  • There’s a well-established finding that people who receive social support during illness (simple caring and nurturing) recover more fully and more quickly.
  • Chemical in the brain, a protein called arginine vasopressin, has also been found to regulate affiliation, sociability, and courtship.  If you think your social behaviors are largely under your conscious control, you’re underestimating the role of neurochemicals in shaping your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
  • Recreational drugs like cannabis and LSD have been found to promote feelings of connection between people who take those drugs and others, and in many cases, a feeling of being more connected to the world-as-a-whole.
  • Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, “invisibility” problem – the inner thoughts of others are invisible to us.  Reason why we feel like our experiences are more diverse than others, because we only see a snippet of their lives.
  • Misinterpreting motivations of others leads to misunderstandings, suspicion, and interpersonal conflict, and in the worst case, war.
  • Dispositional explanations embrace the idea that all of us have certain traits (dispositions) that are more or less stable across our lifetimes.  ie. extroverts, introverts, agreeable, disagreeable.
  • Situational explanations, acknowledge that momentary circumstances sometimes contribute to our responses and can override any innate predispositions.
  • Fundamental Attribution Error (revisit): situations people are in dictate more how they act then their personal traits.
    • Dozens of demonstrators of people making incorrect predictions, overweighting the influence of traits and undervaluing the power of a situation when attempting to explain people’s behavior.
    • We fail to appreciate the the roles people are forced to play in certain situations constrain their behavior.
    • FAE is produced by information overload.  Specifically, the more cognitive load one is experiencing, the more likely one is to make errors in judgement about the causes of an individual’s behavior.
  • Cognitive illusion: example of Questioner looking smarter to participants because the situation allowed him to (he was in a role that allowed him to look more knowledgeable).
  • Outcome-Bias-based inference.  i.e. Jon passed a test that George failed, people will think Jon is smarter than George, but what if Jon had an easier class?
    • In an era of information overload, sometimes outcome-based biases save time, but we need to be aware of them because sometimes they make us wrong.
  • Dozens of experiments have shown that the original knowledge—now known to be false—exerts a lingering influence on your judgements; it’s impossible to hit the reset button.
    • ie. Mary says to Jill that Chipotle has rats in their kitchens.  Mary comes back the next day and meant to say McDonalds has rats.  Jill still will tend to have a slight negative outlook about Chipotle even though she shouldn’t anymore.
    • Lawyers plant seeds into jurors like this all the time.
  • Self-persuasion: People invest a significant amount of cognitive effort generating a belief that is consistent with the physiological state they are experiencing.
    • Hard to get people to change even with new evidence.
  • In-group/out-group bias: we tend—erroneously of course— to think people who are members of our group, whatever that group may be, as individuals, while we think of members of out-groups as a less well differentiated collective.
    • We tend to overestimate the similarities of out-group members.
    • ie. all Republicans are the same and you generalize them more than if someone asked you about the similarities of Democrats.
    • ie. JFK cuban missile crisis was averted when Khrushchev told him to put himself in his shoes.  Make him part of the ingroup to preserve peace and save the world. *Try to turn your opposition into the in-group by finding a common purpose.
  • Social interactions are complex and a number of experiments have demonstrated that we tend either to act in our own self-interest or just plain don’t want to get involved.
    • ie. getting involved in protecting a person who’s getting in a fight.  Will I get hurt?
  • One measure of success of a society is how engaged its citizens are in contributing to the common good.
  • Good time management should mean organizing our time in a way that maximizes brain efficiency.
  • The brain “only takes the world little bits and chunks at a time” says MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller.
  • Multitasking is bad for innovation says Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at UC Irvine.  You need more time to go deep on a project.
  • If you have something big you want to get done, break it up into chunks — meaningful, implementable, doable chunks.  It makes time management much easier; you only need to manage time to get a single chunk done. And there’s a neurochemical satisfaction at the completion of each stage.
  • We work, we inspect the work, we make adjustments, we push forward.
  • Planning and doing require separate parts of the brain.
  • We typically trust “experts” more than we trust ourselves.  Reason why we stick to a trainer’s exercise program and not our own.
    • What distinguishes expert from novices is that they know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
  • Well-Established principle of cognitive psychology called levels of processing: Items that are processed at a deeper level, with more active involvement by us, tend to become more strongly encoded in memory.
    • Reason why passive learning in textbooks and lectures is not nearly as effective than learning and figuring out things yourself.
    • Peer instructions is being introduced in classrooms with great success.
    • Disrupted sleep even two or three days after an experience can disrupt your memory of it months or years later.  Memories aren’t written in your brain that night, it’s written over many nights.
    • Three distinct kinds of information processing during sleep:
      • Unitization: combining of discrete elements or chunks of an experience into a unified concept.
      • Assimilation: brain integrates new information into existing network structure of other things you already knew.
      • Abstraction: hidden rules are discovered and then entered into memory.
  • We tend to remember best those things we care about the most.
  • Sleep is necessary for cellular housekeeping.
  • Sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation.
    • Even mild sleep reduction or a departure from a set sleep routine can produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterwards.
  • Bimodal sleep appears to be a biological norm that was subverted by the invention of artificial light.
    • Scientific evidence that bimodal sleep-plus-nap regime is healthier and promotes greater life satisfaction, efficiency, and performance.
  • How to sleep:
    • Go to bed at the same time every night.
    • Wake up at the same time every morning.
    • Set an alarm clock if necessary.
    • If you have to stay up late one night, still get up at the same time the next morning—in the short run, the consistency of your cycle is more important than the amount of sleep.
    • Sleep in a cool, dark room. Cover your windows if necessary to keep out light.
  • Naps:
    • No longer than about forty minutes.  Too much is counter productive.
    • 5-10 minutes is enough for most people.
  • Our body clock prefers a 25 hour day.
    • Easier to stay awake an extra hour than fall asleep an hour earlier.
  • Procrastination: adopt a DO IT NOW policy.  Also called, eat that frog: doing the hardest thing first thing in the morning to get it out of the way.
  • The tendency to procrastinate has been found to be correlated with certain traits, lifestyles, and other factors.
    • Spending time in nature reduces procrastination.
  • Can you delay gratification?  If you’re working on something with a long time horizon, do hobbies that give instant satisfaction like gardening, where you can remove weeds and feel like you accomplished something.
  • Humans have a low tolerance for frustration.
    • Moment by moment, when choosing what tasks to undertake or actives to pursue, we tend to choose not the most rewarding action but the easiest.  This means that unpleasant or difficult things get put off.
  • Ego-Protective maneuver: we procrastinate because that allows us to delay putting our reputations on the line until later.
  • Procrastination = (time to complete task x distractibility x delay) / (self-confidence x task value)
  • Power of the situation. ie. grad advisor can reject or mark up drafts of your work, so inherently you think they are smart because of their role.
    • Don’t be so hard on yourself.  Be less-critical.
  • Failure is part of the process of life.
  • Fake it till you make it.
  • During flow state, two key regions of the brand deactivate: the portion of the prefrontal cortex responsible for self-criticism, and the amygdala, the brain’s fear center.
    • Action and awareness merge.
    • What you think becomes what you do.
      • ME: I think therefore I do.
    • Practice and expertise are prerequisites for flow.
  • The brain is a giant change detector.
  • The greatest life satisfaction comes from completing projects that require sustained focus and energy.
  • To successfully ignore distractions, we have to trick ourselves, or create systems that will encourage us to stick with the work at hand.
  • Great productivity and increased quality result if the person doing the work and the person scheduling or supervising the work are not the same person.
  • Experts recommend getting up from your work and walking around every 90 minutes.
  • Walk or get exercise every day if possible.  Walking for 40 minutes 3 times a week has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus in adults 55-80.
  • Five minute rule: if you can get something done in 5 minutes, do it now.
  • Calculate what your time is worth per hour.
    • Do not spend more time on a decision than it’s worth.
  • Set up automatic bill pay and overdraft protections to reduce unnecessary worries.
  • Experiments suggest that the formula for calculating subjective time is a power function, and the equation states that the passing of a year should seem twice as long for a ten-year-old than for a forty-year-old.
  • After 30, our reaction time, cognitive processing speed, and metabolic rate slow down.  The actual speed of our neural transmission slows. This leaves the feeling that the world is racing by, relative to our slowed-down thought process.
  • Young people with terminal diseases tend to view the world like old people.
  • Cognitive scientists have suggested that we tend to learn more from negative information than from positive—one obvious case is that positive information often simply confirms what we already know, whereas negative information reveals to us areas of ignorance.
    • The drive for negative information in youth parallels the thirst for knowledge that wanes as we age.
  • People who are more cognitively active in their lives have less amyloid int eerie brains, suggesting that mental activity protects against Alzheimer’s.
    • Focus on a lifetime pattern of learning and exercising the brain.
    • What you do in your 40-50s dictates your brain later.
    • Retain lots of social interactions as you age.
  • Purpose of art: to hit the reset button of our brains. To stop time and contemplate and reimagine our relationship with the world.
  • Major achievements in science and art over the last several thousand years required inductions, rather than deduction—required extrapolating from the known to the unknown, and, to a large extent, blindly guessing what should come next and being right some of the time.
  • CEOs tend to decide on two options that both are downsides and are hard to pick by employees below them.
  • We’re not just ill-equipped to calculate probability, we are not trained to evaluate them rationally.
  • Don’t trust your gut when there’s data.  Your gut didn’t evolve for that purpose.
  • Busy people make lots of high-stakes decisions and tend to divide their decision-making into categories:
    • 1) Decisions you can make right now because the answer is obvious.
    • 2) Decisions you can delegate to someone else who has more time or expertise than you do.
    • 3) Decisions for which you have all the relevant information but for which you need some time to process or digest that information.  This is frequently what judges do in difficult cases. It’s not that they don’t have the information—it’s that they want to mull over the various angels and consider the larger picture.  It’s good to attach a deadline to these.
    • 4) Decisions for which you need more information.  At this point, either you instruct a helper to obtain that information or you make a note to yourself that you need to obtain it.  It’s good to attach a deadline in either case, even if it’s an arbitrary one, so that you can cross this off your list.
  • You need to understand probabilities before you can make medical decisions.
  • Calculable means you can assign precise values in a formula and generate and answer.
  • Countable means we can determine the probabilities empirically by performing an experiment or conducting a survey and counting the results.
  • Law of Large Numbers: Observed probabilities tend to get closer and closer to theoretical ones when you have larger and larger samples.
  • Probability is NOT precise when based on subjectivity, even though people use the same word for it.
  • Experiments have amply demonstrated that we typically ignore base rates in making judgements and decisions.
  • Representativeness Heuristic: means that people or situations that appear to be representative of one thing effectively overpower the brain’s ability to reason, and cause us to ignore the statistical or base rate information.
  • Organizing our decisions requires that we combine the base rate information with other relevant diagnostic information.  BAYES RULE.
  • Master the fourfold table. pg. 233
  • Doctors generate better knowledge of efficacy than of risk, and this skews decision-making.
  • Expert syndrome: people given a choice along with the opinion of an expert stop using the parts of the brain that control independent decision-making and hand over their decision to the expert.
  • Don’t bother treating prostate cancer.
  • Strictly rational decision-making dictates that we pay attention to the expected value of each decision.
  • Bayesian updating—finding statistics that are relevant to your particular circumstance and using them.  You improve your estimates of the probability by constraining the problem to a set of people who more closely resemble you along pertinent dimensions.
    • Ie. “What’s the probably I have a stroke?”  BAD. “What’s the probability a person 28, eats healthy, doesn’t smoke, to have a stroke?” Better
  • Once a treatment has been scientifically shown to be effective, it’s no longer called alternative—it’s simply called medicine.
  • Denominator neglect: our brains focus on the bad event but forget about all the other times nothing bad happened. ie. car accident, but not thinking about the millions who drive each day.
    • Denominator neglect leads to a tendency to catastrophize.
    • “Terrorists can strike twice—first, by directly killing people, and second, through dangerous behaviors induced by fear in people’s minds.”
  • Groopman and Hartzband describe four types of patients: minimalists, maximalists, naturalists, and technologists.
  • For most of us non rational human decision-makers, losses loom larger than gains.  In other words, the pain of losing $100 is greater than the pleasure of winning $100.
  • Amos Tversky taught that risk aversion is driven by regret, a powerful psychological force.
  • Medical decisions:
    • Follow the numbers.
    • Find a doctor who knows statistics.
    • Talk to a math friend to get the real picture.
  • Pareto optimum: in a complex system when no component can be made better without making another component worse.
  • Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, one of the greatest advances in work productivity was the division of labor.
  • Emotions are a factor in decision making.
  • Decision-making is often very rapid, outside our conscious control, and involves heuristics and cognitive impulses that have evolved to serve us in a wide range of situations.  The rationality we think we bring to decision-making is partly illusory.
  • High paid individuals need to conserve their time for important decisions.  Subordinates are in a better position to make most decisions because they have more facts directly available to them.
    • CEO’s job is to find the deep truth underlying the proposed decision, then let the subordinate make the decision once your high level viewpoint is laid out for them to see it another way.
  • Humans are social creatures, and most of us unconsciously modify our behavior to minimize conflict with those around us.
  • Doing the right thing when no one is looking is the mark of personal integrity, but many people find it very difficult to do.
    • Part of this comes from a sense of equity and fairness that has been wired into our brains from evolution. ie. if you see someone leave dog poo on the ground and not pick it up, you are more likely to do the same.
  • Monkey’s were willing to forgo a reward entirely (a tempting piece of food) simply because they felt the organization of the reward structure was unfair.
    • If the experimenter gave a larger reward to one monkey than other for the same task, the monkey with the smaller reward would suddenly stop performing the task and sulk.
  • Leaders tend to be adaptable and responsive, high in empathy, and able to see problems from all sides.  Requires social intelligence and flexible, deep analytic intelligence.
  • Effective leaders can quickly understand opposing views, how people came to hold them, how to resolve conflicts in ways that are perceived to be mutually satisfying and beneficial.  Leaders are often adept at bringing people together—suppliers, potential adversaries, competitors, characters in a story—who appear to have conflicting goals. A great business leader uses her empathy to allow people or organizations to save face in negations so that each side in a completed negotiation can feel they got what they wanted (and a gifted negotiator can make each side feel they got a little bit more than the other party).
  • Gardner’s model.  Many great leaders are also great storytellers.
  • US Army Mission Command manual, 5 principles of leadership:
    • Build cohesive teams through mutual trust.
    • Create shared understanding.
    • Provide a clear and concise set of expectations and goals.
    • Allow workers at all levels to exercise disciplined initiative.
    • Accept prudent risk.
  • Creating shared understanding from top down in companies: corporate vision, goals, and the purpose and significance of any specific initiatives or projects that must be undertaken by employees.
  • Disciplined initiative is defined as taking action in the absence of specific instruction when existing instructions no longer fit the situation, or unforeseen opportunities arise.  ie. Managers allowing subordinates to make judgement calls/decisions without approval.
  • Prudent risk is the deliberate exposure to a negative outcome when the employee judges that the potential outcome is worth the cost.
    • “There are no technical alternatives to personal responsibility and cooperation in the workplace.  What’s needed are more people who will stick their necks out.”
  • Employee productivity is directly related to job satisfaction.
    • Job satisfaction comes from a combination of factors: under some kind of constraints and are allowed to exercise individual creativity within those constraints.
  • People with an internal locus of control believe that they are responsible for (or at least can influence) their own fates and life outcomes.
    • Locus of control turns out to be a significant moderating variable in a trifecta of life expectancy, life satisfaction, and work productivity.
  • Employees who have an external locus of control believe their own actions will not lead to the attainment of rewards or the avoidance of punishment, and therefore, they don’t respond to rewards and punishments the way others do.  Higher managers tend to have high internal locus of control.
    • Internals tend to be higher achievers, and externals tend to experience more stress and are prone to depression.
    • If a job requires adaptability and complex learning, independence and initiative, or high motivation, internals would be expected to perform better.  When the job requires compliance and strict adherence to protocols, the external would perform better.
    • The combination of high autonomy and an internal locus of control is associated with the highest levels of productivity.
    • Internals typically ‘make things happen’, combined with the opportunity to do so (through high autonomy) delivers results.
      • Related to autonomy is the fact that most workers are motivated by intrinsic rewards.
  • Being one’s own boss requires a lot of discipline, but those who can manage it, greater productivity appears to be the reward.
    • With great discipline comes great reward.
  • Mark Cuban: meeting are usually a waste of time.  Exceptions: negotiating a deal or soliciting advice from a large number of people.  But even then, meeting should be short, drawn up with a strict agenda, and given a time limit.
  • Help protect against Alzheimer’s: do 5, 1-hour uni-tasking training sessions to increase the brain’s daydreaming network and increase connectivity.
  • Ernst & Young found that for each additional ten hours of vacation their employees took, their year-end performance ratings from their supervisors improved by 8%.
  • Load effect: suggests that consumers will have a finite limit for how much information they can absorb and process within a given period of time.
    • Empirically shown that consumers make poorer choices with more information.
    • Don’t exceed 10 pieces of information, but more like 5.
  • Duke economist Dan Ariely: consumers make better decisions when they control the type of information they receive.
    • Primarily because they can choose information that is relevant to them or that they are best able to understand.
    • Kahneman and Tversky: people are unable to ignore information that is not relevant to them.
  • Kolmogorov complexity theory: something is random when you cannot explain how to derive a sequence using any fewer than the number of elements in the sequence itself.
  • In general, a business that is highly structured is more resilient under stress.
  • Leave time after meetings to write things down.
  • Attention switching is metabolically costly.  Give your brain time to switch tasks and get in the mindset for the next meeting.
  • Thinking ahead about what could go wrong, looking at the future and foreseeing threats—this is what an organized business mind can do, should do, and must do.
  • Be careful of keeping your data in the cloud.  Keep a copy of your data local.
  • Planning for failure is a necessary way of thinking in the age of information overload.
  • An effective organization is one that takes steps to manage its own future than allowing external forces—human, environmental, or otherwise—to dictate its course.
  • Setting boundary conditions is an essential part of scientific and everyday critical thinking, and is crucial to decision-making.
  • NYT editor Bill Keller — it’s not having the information that’s important, it’s what you do with it.
  • To know something entails two things: for there to be no doubt, and for it to be true.
  • Education and exposure to many different ideas are so important.  In the presence of alternatives of other beliefs, we can make an informed evidence-based choice about what is true.
  • Last two decades of research on the science of learning have shown conclusively that we remember things better, and longer, if we discover them ourselves rather than being told them explicitly.
  • Reading literary fiction, but not pulp fiction or nonfiction, increased the reader’s empathy and emotional understanding of other people.
    • Take-home message is that reading high-quality fiction and literary nonfiction, and perhaps listening to music, looking at art, and watching dance, may lead to two desirable outcomes: increased interpersonal empathy and better executive attentional control.
  • We are at a time in history, it is crucial that each of us takes responsibility for verifying the information we encounter, testing it and evaluating it.  IDEA: NLP for verifying opinion vs fact based articles and listing citations and credibility rating.
  • Skill we must teach: next generation of citizens the capability to think clearly, completely, critically, and creatively.
  • In the pursuit of knowledge, slower can be better.
  • Albert Einstein: “the greatest scientists are artists as well.”
    • “I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge.”
    • “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
  • Art, technology, or science cannot solve problems, the combination of the three is perhaps the most powerful of all.
  • Sometimes, in your mathematics career, you find that your slow progress, and careful accumulation of tools and ideas, has suddenly allowed you to do a bunch of new things you couldn’t possibly do before.  Even though you were learning things that were useless by themselves, when they’ve all become second nature, a whole new world of possibility appears. You have “leveled up,” if you will. Something clicks, but now there are new challenges, and now, things you were barely able to think about before suddenly become critically important.
    • It’s usually obvious when you’re talking to somebody a level above you, because they see lots of things instantly when those things take considerable work for you to figure out.  These are good people to learn from, because they remember what it’s like to struggle in the place where you’re struggling, but the things they do still make sense from your perspective (you just couldn’t do them yourself).
    • Talking to somebody two or more levels above you is a different story.  They barely speaking the same language, and it’s almost impossible to imagine that you could ever know what they know.  You can still learn from them, if you don’t get discouraged, but the things they want to teach you seem really philosophical, and you don’t think they’ll help you—but for some reason, they do.
    • Somebody three levels above is actually speaking a different language.  They probably seem less impressive to you than the person two levels above, because most of what they’re thinking about it is completely invisible to you.  From where you are, it is not possible to imagine what they think about, or why. You might think you can, but this is only because they know how to tell entertaining stories.  Any one of these stories contains enough wisdom to get you halfway to your next level if you put in the time thinking about it.
  • Getting organized can bring us all to the next level in our lives.
  • It’s human condition to fall prey to old habits.  We must consciously look at areas of our lives that need cleaning up, and then methodically and proactively do so.  And then keep doing it.
  • The best way to improve upon the brains that nature gave us is to learn to adjust agreeably to new circumstances.  My own experience is that when I’ve lost something I thought was irreplaceable, it’s usually replaced with something much better.  The key to change is having faith that when we get rid of the old, something or someone even more magnificent will take its place.
  • Much of the advice in this book about staying organized comes down to putting systems in place that will help us catch errors when we make them, or recover from the errors we inevitably all make.