The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload
Daniel Levitin

Ended: Sept. 23, 2014

It’s as though our brains are configured to make a certain number of decisions per day and once we reach that limit, we can’t make any more, regardless of how important they are. One of the most useful findings in recent neuroscience could be summed up as: The decision-making network in our brain doesn’t prioritize.
This is why key hooks work. Keeping track of things that you frequently lose, such as car keys, glasses, and even wallets involves creating affordances that reduce the burden on your conscious brain. In this age of information overload, it’s important that we gain control of that environment, and leverage our knowledge of how the brain operates. The organized mind creates affordances and categories that allow for low-effort navigation through the world of car keys, cell phones, and hundreds of daily details, and it also will help us make our way through the twenty-first-century world of ideas.
Women’s cortisol levels (the stress hormone) spike when confronted with such clutter (men’s, not so much). Elevated cortisol levels can lead to chronic cognitive impairment, fatigue, and suppression of the body’s immune system.
The task of organizational systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort. The
One of the big rules in not losing things is the rule of the designated place.
A tray or shelf that is designated for a smartphone encourages you to put your phone there and not somewhere else. The same is true for other electronic objects and the daily mail. Sharper Image, Brookstone, SkyMall, and the Container Store have made a business model out of this neurological reality, featuring products spanning an amazing range of styles and price points (plastic, leather, or sterling silver) that function as affordances for keeping your wayward objects in their respective homes. Cognitive psychology theory says spend as much as you can on these: It’s very difficult to leave your mail scattered about when you’ve spent a lot of money for a special tray to keep it in.
If you hear on the weather report in the evening that it’s supposed to rain tomorrow, he said, put an umbrella near the front door so you won’t forget to take it. If you have letters to mail, put them near your car keys or house keys so that when you leave the house, they’re right there. The principle underlying all these is off-loading the information from your brain and into the environment; use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done. Jeffrey Kimball, formerly a vice president of Miramax and now an award-winning independent filmmaker, says, “If I know I might forget something when I leave the house, I put it in or next to my shoes by the front door. I also use the ‘four’ system—every time I leave the house I check that I have four things: keys, wallet, phone, and glasses.”
It might seem like cluttering rather than organizing, but buying duplicates of things that you use frequently and in different locations helps to prevent you from losing them. Perhaps you use your reading glasses in the bedroom, the home office, and the kitchen. Three pairs solves the problem if you can create a designated place for them, a special spot in each room, and always leave them there. Because the reading glasses are no longer moving from room to room, your place memory will help you recall within each room where they are. Some people buy an extra set for the glove compartment of the car to read maps, and put another pair in their purse or jacket to have when they’re at a restaurant and need to read the menu. Of course prescription reading glasses can be expensive, and three pairs all the more so. Alternatively, a tether for the reading glasses, a neck cord, keeps them with you all the time. (Contrary to the frequently observed correlation, there is no scientific evidence that these little spectacle lanyards make your hair go gray or create an affinity for cardigans.) The neurological principle remains. Be sure that when you untether them, they go back to their one spot; the system collapses if you have several spots.
key to creating useful categories in our homes is to limit the number of types of things they contain to one or at most four types of things (respecting the capacity limitations of working memory). This is usually easy to do. If you’ve got a kitchen drawer that contains cocktail napkins, shish kebab skewers, matches, candles, and coasters, you can conceptualize it as “things for a party.” Conceptualizing it that way ties together all these disparate objects at a higher level. And then, if someone gives you special soaps that you want to put out only when you entertain, you know what drawer to keep them in.
A germane finding in cognitive psychology for gaining that control is to make visible the things you need regularly, and hide things that you don’t. This principle was originally formulated for the design of objects like television remote controls. Set aside your irritation with the number of buttons that remain on those gadgets for a moment—it is clear that you don’t want the button that changes the color balances to be right next to the button that changes channels, where you might press it by mistake. In the best designs, the seldom-used setup controls are hidden behind a flip panel, or at least out of the way of the buttons you use daily.
Suppose you have limited closet space for your clothes, and some articles of clothing you wear only rarely (tuxedos, evening gowns, ski clothes). Move them to a spare closet so they’re not using up prime real estate and so you can organize your daily clothes more efficiently. The same applies in the kitchen. Rather than putting all your baking supplies in one drawer, it makes organizational sense to put your Christmas cookie cutters in a special drawer devoted to Christmas-y things so you reduce clutter in your daily baking drawer—something you use only two weeks out of the year shouldn’t be in your way fifty weeks out of the year. Keep stamps, envelopes, and stationery together in the same desk drawer because you use them together.
In a well-organized system, there is a balance between category size and category specificity. In other words, if you have only a handful of nails, it would be silly to devote an entire drawer just to them. It’s more efficient and practical, then, to combine items into conceptual categories such as “home repair items.” When the number of nails you have reaches critical mass, however, so that you’re spending too much time every Sunday trying to find the precise nail you want, it makes sense to sort them by size into little bins the way they do at the hardware store. Time is an important consideration, too: Do you expect to be using these things more or less in the next few years?
Organization Rule 1: A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item.
Organization Rule 2: If there is an existing standard, use it.
Organization Rule 3: Don’t keep what you can’t use.
The neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks goes one further: 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. Short of owning two or three separate computers, technology now allows for portable pocket drives that hold your entire hard disk—you can plug in a “leisure” pocket drive, a “work” pocket drive, or a “personal finance” pocket drive. Or instead, different user modes on some computers change the pattern of the desktop, the files on it, and the overall appearance to facilitate making these kinds of place-based, hippocampus-driven distinctions.
Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To
Just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognitive performance. Glenn Wilson of Gresham College, London, calls it infomania. His research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an e-mail is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. And although people claim many benefits to marijuana, including enhanced creativity and reduced pain and stress, it is well documented that its chief ingredient, cannabinol, activates dedicated cannabinol receptors in the brain and interferes profoundly with memory and with our ability to concentrate on several things at once. 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. If students study and watch TV at the same time, for example, the information from their schoolwork goes into the striatum, a region specialized for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Without the distraction of TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organized and categorized in a variety of ways, making it easier to retrieve it. MIT’s Earl Miller adds, “People can’t do [multitasking] very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves.” And it turns out the brain is very good at this deluding business.
Then there are the metabolic costs of switching itself that I wrote about earlier. Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. This leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance. Among other things, repeated task switching leads to anxiety, which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, which in turn can lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviors. By contrast, staying on task is…
To make matters worse, lots of multitasking requires decision-making: Do I answer this text message or ignore it? How do I respond to this? How do I file this e-mail? Do I continue what I’m working on now or take a break? It turns out that decision-making is also very hard on your neural resources and that little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones. One of the first things we lose is impulse control. This rapidly spirals into a depleted state in which, after making lots of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly…
Each time we dispatch with an e-mail in one way or another, we feel a sense of accomplishment, and our brain gets a dollop of reward hormones telling us we accomplished something. Each time we check a Twitter feed or Facebook update, we encounter something novel and feel more connected socially (in a kind of weird impersonal cyber way) and get another dollop of reward hormones. But remember, it is the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of the brain driving the limbic system that induces this feeling of pleasure, not the planning, scheduling, higher-level thought centers in the prefrontal cortex. Make no mistake: E-mail, Facebook, and Twitter checking constitute a neural addiction.
For decades, efficient workers would shut their doors and turn off their phones for “productivity hours,” a time when they could focus without being disturbed. Turning off our e-mail follows in that tradition and it does soothe the brain, both neurochemically and neuroelectrically. If the type of work you do really and truly doesn’t allow for this, you can set up e-mail filters in most e-mail programs and phones, designating certain people whose mail you want to get through to you right away, while other mail just accumulates in your inbox until you have time to deal with it. And for people who really can’t be away from e-mail, another effective trick is to set up a special, private e-mail account and give that address only to those few people who need to be able to reach you right away, and check your other accounts only at designated times.
What if you can’t do that for the objects you’ll need? Put them in individual ziplock bags along with a piece of notepaper stating what object they’re for and keep all these bags in a shoe box labeled THINGS I WILL NEED.
He recommends Harbor Freight Tools and similar merchants as a cost-effective way to buy and organize tools. Harbor Freight Tools, a mail order company with a network of walk-in stores throughout the United States, specializes in hard-to-find tools, telescoping mirrors and parts grabbers, EZ outs (a tool for removing stuck bolts), as well as hand tools, power tools, workbenches, and heavy tools, such as engine lifters and auto ramps (to drive your car up onto while you change the oil). Many tools come in cases that facilitate keeping them organized. One set of products that vastly simplifies and reorganizes the life of an active home-repair person are “storehouses.” For example, Harbor Freight sells a nut-and-bolt storehouse that contains a few of virtually every size of nut and bolt that you would ever use; screw and nail storehouses are also available, as well as a “washer storehouse” that contains 141 pieces for $4.99. The 1001 Piece Nut and Bolt Storehouse including all the pieces plus a plastic storage chest (and preprinted drawer labels!) cost $19.95 as of this writing.
Linda, the executive assistant introduced in the last chapter, suggests one practical solution for staying in touch with a vast array of friends and social contacts—use a tickler. A tickler is a reminder, something that tickles your memory. It works best as a note in your paper or electronic calendar. You set a frequency—say every two months—that you want to check in with friends. When the reminder goes off, if you haven’t been in touch with them since the last time, you send them a note, text, phone call, or Facebook post just to check in. After a few of these, you’ll find you settle into a rhythm and begin to look forward to staying in touch this way; they may even start to call you reciprocally.
The part of external memory that includes other people is technically known as transactive memory, and includes the knowledge of who in your social network possesses the knowledge you seek—knowing, for example, that if you lost Jeffrey’s cell phone number, you can get it from his wife, Pam, or children, Ryder and Aaron. Or that if you can’t remember when Canadian Thanksgiving will be this year (and you’re not near the Internet), you can ask your Canadian friend Lenny.
And although many of us think we prefer being alone, we don’t always know what we want. In one experiment, commuters were asked about their ideal commute: Would they prefer to talk to the person next to them or sit quietly by themselves? Overwhelmingly, people said they’d rather sit by themselves—the thought of having to make conversation with their seatmate was abhorrent (I admit I would have said the same thing). Commuters were then assigned either to sit alone and “enjoy their solitude” or to talk to the person sitting next to them. Those who talked to their seatmate reported having a significantly more pleasant commute. And the findings weren’t due to differences in personality—the results held up whether the individuals were outgoing or shy, open or reserved. In the early days of our species, group membership was essential for protection
loyalty. Beyond companionship, couples seek intimacy, which can be defined as allowing another person to share and have access to our private behaviors, personal thoughts, joys, hurts, and fears of being hurt. Intimacy also includes creating shared meaning—those inside jokes, that sideways glance that only your sweetie understands—a kind of telepathy. It includes the freedom to be who we are in a relationship (without the need to project a false sense of ourselves) and to allow the other person to do the same. Intimacy allows us to talk openly about things that are important to us, and to take a clear stand on emotionally charged issues without fear of being ridiculed or rejected. All this describes a distinctly Western view—other cultures don’t view intimacy as a necessity or even define it in the same way.
Our increased desire for our partners to do all these things is rooted in a biological need to connect deeply with at least one other person. When it is missing, making such a connection becomes a high priority. When that need is fulfilled by a satisfying intimate relationship, the benefits are both psychological and physiological. People in a relationship experience better health, recover from illnesses more quickly, and live longer. Indeed, the presence of a satisfying intimate relationship is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and emotional well-being that has ever been measured. How do we enter into and maintain intimate relationships? One important factor is the way that personality traits are organized.
Of the thousands of ways that human beings differ from one another, perhaps 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—attributes that are more or less stable across the lifetime, and show up early in childhood. Agreeable people are able to control undesirable emotions such as anger and frustration. This control happens in the frontal lobes, which govern impulse control and help us to regulate negative emotions, the same region that governs our executive attention mode. When the frontal lobes are damaged—from injury, stroke, Alzheimer’s, or a tumor, for example—agreeableness is often among the first things to go, along with impulse control and emotional stability. Some of this emotional regulation can be learned—children who receive positive reinforcement for impulse control and anger management become agreeable adults. As you might imagine, being an agreeable person is a tremendous advantage for maintaining positive social relationships.
Studies have shown a dramatic decline in empathy among college students, who apparently are far less likely to say that it is valuable to put oneself in the place of others or to try and understand their feelings. It is not just because they’re reading less literary fiction, it’s because they’re spending more time alone under the illusion that they’re being social.
We know from behavioral economics—and decisions involving cars, appliances, houses, and yes, even potential mates—that consumers can’t keep track of more than two or three variables of interest when evaluating a large number of alternatives. This is directly related to the capacity limitations of working memory, discussed in Chapter 2. It’s
But it is also human nature to forgive, especially when we’re given an explanation. In one study, people who tried to cut in line were forgiven by others even if their explanation was ridiculous. In a line for a copy machine, “I’m sorry, may I cut in? I need to make copies” was every bit as effective as “I’m sorry, may I cut in? I’m on deadline.”
Our fear of rejection is understandably very strong; in fact, social rejection causes activation in the same part of the brain as physical pain does, and—perhaps surprisingly and accordingly—Tylenol can reduce people’s experience of social pain.
There’s a well-established finding that people who receive social support during illness (simple caring and nurturing) recover more fully and more quickly. This simple social contact when we’re sick also releases oxytocin, in turn helping to improve health outcomes by reducing stress levels and the hormone cortisol, which can cripple the immune system.
A related 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. To wit: There are two species of prairie voles; one is monogamous, the other is not. Inject vasopressin in the philandering voles and they become monogamous; block vasopressin in the monogamous ones and they become as randy as Gene Simmons in a John Holmes movie.
There have been dozens of demonstrations of people making incorrect predictions, overweighting the influence of traits and undervaluing the power of the situation when attempting to explain people’s behavior. This cognitive illusion is so powerful it has a name: the fundamental attribution error. An additional part of the fundamental attribution error is that we fail to appreciate that the roles people are forced to play in certain situations constrain their behavior.
We succumb to the cognitive illusion of the fundamental attribution error regularly. Knowing that it exists can help us to overcome it. Suppose you’re walking down the halls of your office and pass a new coworker, Kevin. You say hello and he doesn’t respond. You could attribute his behavior to a stable personality trait and conclude that he is shy or that he is rude. Or you could attribute his behavior to a situational factor—perhaps he was lost in thought or was late for a meeting or is angry at you. The science doesn’t say that Kevin rarely responds to situational factors, just that observers tend to discount them. Daniel Gilbert has gone on to show that this fundamental attribution error is produced by information overload. Specifically, the more cognitive load one is experiencing, the more likely one is to make errors in judgment about the causes of an individual’s behavior.
Another cognitive illusion that concerns social judgments is that we tend to have a very difficult time ignoring information that has been shown later to be false.
Belief perseverance shows up in everyday life with gossip. Gossip is nothing new of course. It is among the earliest human foibles documented in writing, in the Old Testament and other ancient sources from the dawn of literacy. Humans gossip for many reasons: It can help us feel superior to others when we are otherwise feeling insecure about ourselves. It can help us to forge bonds with others to test their allegiance—if Tiffany is willing to join in the gossip with me against Britney, I can perhaps count on Tiffany as an ally. The problem with gossip is that it can be false. This is especially the case when the gossip is passed through the ears and mouths of several people, each of whom embellishes it. Due to belief perseverance, faulty social information, based on an outright lie or a distortion of the facts, can be very difficult to eradicate. And careers and social relationships can become difficult to repair afterward.
But along with the many other cognitive illusions that lead to faulty social judgments is a phenomenon known as the in-group/out-group bias. We tend—erroneously of course—to think of 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. That is, when asked to judge how disparate are the interests, personalities, and proclivities of the people in our group (the in-group) versus another group (the out-group), we tend to overestimate the similarities of out-group members. So, for example, if Democrats are asked to describe how similar Democrats are to one another, they might say something like “Oh, Democrats come from all walks of life—we’re a very diverse group.” If then asked to describe Republicans, they might say, “Oh, those Republicans—all they care about is lower taxes. They’re all alike.” We also tend to prefer members of our own group. In general, a group will be perceived differently, and more accurately, by its own members than by outsiders.
When we think about organizing our social world, the implication of in-group/out-group bias is clear. We have a stubborn tendency to misjudge outsiders and hence diminish our abilities to forge new, cooperative, and potentially valuable social relations. Racism is a form of negative social judgment that arises from a combination of belief perseverance, out-group bias, categorization error, and faulty inductive reasoning. We hear about a particular undesirable trait or act on the part of an individual, and jump to the false conclusion that this is something completely predictable for someone of that ethnic or national background. The form of the argument is:
The turning point came when Khrushchev broke through all of the bravado and rhetoric and asked Kennedy to consider things from his perspective, to use a little empathy. He implored Kennedy several times to “try to put yourself in our place.” He then pointed out their similarities, that both of them were leaders of their respective countries: “If you are really concerned about the peace and welfare of your people, and this is your responsibility as President, then I, as the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, am concerned for my people. Moreover, the preservation of world peace should be our joint concern, since if, under contemporary conditions, war should break out, it would be a war not only between the reciprocal claims, but a world wide cruel and destructive war.” In effect, Khrushchev pointed to a group in which he and Kennedy were both members—leaders of major world powers. In so doing, he turned Kennedy into an in-group member from an out-group member. This was the turning point in the crisis, opening up the possibility for a compromise solution that resolved the crisis on October 26, 1962.
Why are these interventions so often unsuccessful? Because of in-group and out-group bias, we tend to think that coercion will be more effective with our enemies than with ourselves, and conciliation will be more effective with ourselves than our enemies. Former secretary of state George Shultz, reflecting on forty years of United States foreign policy from 1970 to the present, said, “When I think about all the money we spent on bombs and munitions, and our failures in Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places around the world . . . Instead of advancing our agenda using force, we should have instead built schools and hospitals in these countries, improving the lives of their children. By now, those children would have grown into positions of influence, and they would be grateful to us instead of hating us.”
Because the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop in humans until after age twenty, impulse control isn’t fully developed in adolescents (as many parents of teenagers have observed). It’s also why children and adolescents are not especially good at planning or delaying gratification.
At one time or another, you’ve probably thought that if only you could sleep less, you’d get so much more done. Or that you could just borrow time by sleeping one hour less tonight and one hour more tomorrow night. As enticing as these seem, they’re not borne out by research. Sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation. Even a mild sleep reduction or a departure from a set sleep routine (for example, going to bed late one night, sleeping in the next morning) can produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterward. When professional basketball players got ten hours of sleep a night, their performance improved dramatically: Free-throw and three-point shooting each improved by 9%.
Most of us follow a sleep-waking pattern of sleeping for 6–8 hours followed by staying awake for approximately 16–18. This is a relatively recent invention. For most of human history, our ancestors engaged in two rounds of sleep, called segmented sleep or bimodal sleep, in addition to an afternoon nap. The first round of sleep would occur for four or five hours after dinner, followed by an awake period of one or more hours in the middle of the night, followed by a second period of four or five hours of sleep. That middle-of-the-night waking might have evolved to help ward off nocturnal predators. Bimodal sleep appears to be a biological norm that was subverted by the invention of artificial light, and there is scientific evidence that the bimodal sleep-plus-nap regime is healthier and promotes greater life satisfaction, efficiency, and performance. To many of us raised with the 6–8 hour, no-nap sleep ideal, this sounds like a bunch of hippie-dippy, flaky foolishness at the fringe of quackery. But it was discovered (or rediscovered, you might say) by Thomas Wehr, a respected scientist at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health. In a landmark study, he enlisted research participants to live for a month in a room that was dark for fourteen hours a day, mimicking conditions before the invention of the lightbulb. Left to their own devices, they ended up sleeping eight hours a night but in two separate blocks. They tended to fall asleep one or two hours after the room went dark, slept for about four hours, stayed awake for an hour or two, and then slept for another four hours.
In addition to loss of life, there is the economic impact. Sleep deprivation is estimated to cost U.S. businesses more than $150 billion a year in absences, accidents, and lost productivity—for comparison, that’s roughly the same as the annual revenue of Apple Corporation. If sleep-related economic losses were a business, it would be the sixth-largest business in the country. It’s also associated with increased risk for heart disease, obesity, stroke, and cancer. Too much sleep is also detrimental, but perhaps the most important factor in achieving peak alertness is consistency, so that the body’s circadian rhythms can lock into a consistent cycle. Going to bed just one hour late one night, or sleeping in for an hour or two just one morning, can affect your productivity, immune function, and mood significantly for several days after the irregularity.
Here are some guidelines for a good night’s 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 your fixed 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. What about those delicious afternoon stretches on the couch? There’s a reason they feel so good: They’re an important part of resetting worn-out neural circuits. People differ widely in their ability to take naps and in whether they find naps helpful. For those who do, they can play a large role in creativity, memory, and efficiency. Naps longer than about forty minutes can be counterproductive, though, causing sleep inertia. For many people, five or ten minutes is enough.
But you can’t take naps just any old time—not all naps are created equal. Those little micronaps you take in between hitting the snooze button on your morning alarm? Those are counterproductive, giving you abnormal sleep that fails to settle into a normal brain wave pattern. Napping too close to bedtime can make it difficult or impossible to fall asleep at night.
Even five- or ten-minute “power naps” yield significant cognitive enhancement, improvement in memory, and increased productivity. And the more intellectual the work, the greater the payoff. Naps also allow for the recalibration of our emotional equilibrium—after being exposed to angry and frightening stimuli, a nap can turn around negative emotions and increase happiness. How does a nap do all that? By activating the limbic system, the brain’s emotional center, and reducing levels of monoamines, naturally occurring neurotransmitters that are used in pill form to treat depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Napping has also been shown to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, and heart attacks. A number of companies now encourage their employees to take short naps—fifteen minutes is the corporate norm—and many companies have dedicated nap rooms with cots.
It’s been only in the past 150 years that we’ve been able to jump across time zones, and we haven’t evolved a way to adapt yet. Eastward travel is more difficult than westward because our body clock prefers a twenty-five-hour day. Therefore, we can more easily stay awake an extra hour than fall asleep an hour early. Westward travel finds us having to delay our bedtime, which is not so difficult to do. Eastward travel finds us arriving in a city where it’s bedtime and we’re not yet tired. Traveling east is difficult even for people who do it all the time. One study of nineteen Major League Baseball teams found a significant effect: Teams that had just traveled eastward gave up more than one run on average in every game. Olympians have shown significant deficits after traveling across time zones in either direction, including reductions in muscle strength and coordination.
Some research suggests that taking melatonin, 3–5 milligrams, two to three hours before bedtime can be effective, but this is controversial, for other studies have found no benefit. No studies have examined the long-term effects of melatonin, and young people and pregnant women have been advised to avoid it entirely. Although it is sometimes marketed as a sleep aid, melatonin will not help you sleep if you have insomnia because, by bedtime, your body has already produced as much melatonin as it can use.
being outside in natural settings—parks, forests, the beach, the mountains, and the desert—replenishes self-regulatory mechanisms in the brain, and accordingly, living or spending time in nature, as opposed to urban environments, has been shown to reduce the tendency to procrastinate.
second, that our self-worth is dependent on our success. He goes further, to build an equation that quantifies the likelihood that we’ll procrastinate. If our self-confidence and the value of completing the task are both high, we’re less likely to procrastinate. These two factors become the denominator of the procrastination equation. (They’re in the denominator because they have an inverse relationship with procrastination—when they go up, procrastination goes down, and vice versa.) They are pitted against two other factors: how soon in time the reward will come, and how distractible we are. (Distractibility is seen as a combination of our need for immediate gratification, our level of impulsivity, and our ability to exercise self-control.) If the length of time it will take to complete the task is high, or our distractibility is high, this leads to an increase in procrastination.
Finally, some individuals suffer from a chronic inability to finish projects they’ve started. This is not procrastination, because they don’t put off starting projects; rather, they put off ending them. This can arise because the individual doesn’t possess the skills necessary to properly complete the job with acceptable quality—many a home hobbyist or weekend carpenter can testify to this. It can also arise from an insidious perfectionism in which the individual has a deep, almost obsessive belief that their work products are never good enough (a kind of failure in satisficing). Graduate students tend to suffer from this kind of perfectionism, no doubt because they are comparing themselves with their advisors, and comparing their thesis drafts with their advisors’ finished work. It is an unfair comparison of course. Their advisors have had more experience, and the advisor’s setbacks, rejected manuscripts, and rough drafts are hidden from the graduate student’s view —all the graduate student ever sees is the finished product and the gap between it and her own work. This is a classic example of the power of the situation being underappreciated in favor of an attribution about stable traits, and it shows up as well in the workplace. The supervisor’s role virtually guarantees that she will appear smarter and more competent than the supervisee. The supervisor can choose to show the worker her own work when it is finished and polished. The worker has no opportunity for such self-serving displays and is often required to show work at draft and interim stages, effectively guaranteeing that the worker’s product won’t measure up, thus leaving many underlings with the feeling they aren’t good enough. But these situational constraints are not as predictive of ability as students and other supervisees make them out to be. Understanding this cognitive illusion can encourage individuals to be less self-critical and, hopefully, to emancipate themselves from the stranglehold of perfectionism.
Also important is to disconnect one’s sense of self-worth from the outcome of a task. Self-confidence entails accepting that you might fail early on and that it’s OK, it’s all part of the process. The writer and polymath George Plimpton noted that successful people have paradoxically had many more failures than people whom most of us would consider to be, well, failures. If this sounds like double-talk or mumbo jumbo, the resolution of the paradox is that successful people (or people who eventually become successful) deal with failures and setbacks very differently from everyone else. The unsuccessful person interprets the failure or setback as a career breaker and concludes, “I’m no good at this.” The successful person sees each setback as an opportunity to gain whatever additional knowledge is necessary to accomplish her goals. The internal dialogue of a successful (or eventually successful) person is more along the lines of “I thought I knew everything I needed to know to achieve my goals, but this has taught me that I don’t. Once I learn this, I can get back on track.” The kinds of people who become successful typically know that they can expect a rocky road ahead and it doesn’t dissuade them when those bumps knock them off kilter—it’s all part of the process. As Piers Steel would say, they don’t subscribe to the faulty belief that life should be easy.
Self-confidence appears to have a genetic basis, and is a trait that is relatively stable across the life span, although like any trait, different situations can trigger different responses in the individual, and environmental factors can either build up or chip away at it. One effective strategy is acting as if. In other words, even those who lack an inner sense of self-confidence can act as if they are self-confident by not giving up, working hard at tasks that seem difficult, and trying to reverse temporary setbacks. This can form a positive feedback loop wherein the additional effort actually results in success and helps to gradually build up the person’s sense of agency and competence.
If you’re engaged in any kind of creative pursuit, one of the goals in organizing your time is probably to maximize your creativity. We’ve all had the experience of getting wonderfully, blissfully lost in an activity, losing all track of time, of ourselves, our problems. We forget to eat, forget that there is a world of cell phones, deadlines, and other obligations. Abraham Maslow called these peak experiences in the 1950s, and more recently the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced MEE-high, CHEECH-sent-mee-high) has famously called this the flow state. It feels like a completely different state of being, a state of heightened awareness coupled with feelings of well-being and contentment. It’s a neurochemically and neuroanatomically distinct state as well. Across individuals, flow states appear to activate the same regions of the brain, including the left prefrontal cortex (specifically, areas 44, 45, and 47) and the basal ganglia. During flow, two key regions of the brain deactivate: the portion of the prefrontal cortex responsible for self-criticism, and the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. This is why creative artists often report feeling fearless and as though they are taking creative risks they hadn’t taken before—it’s because the two parts of their brain that would otherwise prevent them from doing so have significantly reduced activity.
all have brain programs like these. But trying to think about what you’re doing can quickly interfere, ending the automaticity and high performance level you’ve enjoyed. The easiest way to get someone to fall off a bicycle is to ask him to concentrate on how he’s staying up, or to describe what he’s doing. The great tennis player John McEnroe used this to his advantage on the courts. When an opponent was performing especially well, for example by using a particularly good backhand, McEnroe would compliment him on it. McEnroe knew this would cause the opponent to think about his backhand, and this thinking disrupted the automatic application of it.
There’s an old saying that if you really need to get something done, give it to a busy person. It sounds paradoxical, but busy people tend to have systems for getting things done efficiently, and the purpose of this section is to uncover what those systems are. Even inveterate procrastinators benefit from having more to do—they’ll dive into a task that is more appealing than the one they’re trying to avoid, and make great progress on a large number of projects. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing. Robert Benchley, the Vanity Fair and New Yorker writer, wrote that he managed to build a bookshelf and pore through a pile of scientific articles when an article was
A large part of efficient time management revolves around avoiding distractions. An ironic aspect of life is how easily we can be harmed by the things we desire. Fish are seduced by a fisherman’s lure, a mouse by cheese. But at least these objects of desire look like sustenance. This is seldom the case for us. The temptations that can disrupt our lives are often pure indulgences. None of us needs to gamble, or drink alcohol, read e-mail, or compulsively check social networking feeds to survive. Realizing when a diversion has gotten out of control is one of the great challenges
Anything that tempts us to break the extended concentration required to perform well on challenging tasks is a potential barrier to success. The change and novelty centers in your brain also feed you chemical rewards when you complete tasks, no matter how trivial. The social networking addiction loop, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, e-mail, texting, or whatever new thing will be adopted in the coming years, sends chemicals through the brain’s pleasure center that are genuinely, physiologically addicting. The greatest life satisfaction comes from completing projects that required sustained focus and energy. It seems unlikely that anyone will look back at their…
To successfully ignore distractions, we have to trick ourselves, or create systems that will encourage us to stick with the work at hand. The two kinds of distractions we need to deal with are external—those caused by things in the world that beckon us—and…
For external distractions, the strategies already mentioned apply. Set aside a particular time of day to work, with the phone turned off and your e-mail and browser shut down. Set aside a particular place to work that allows you to focus. Make it a policy to not respond to missives that come in during your productivity time. Adopt the mental set that this thing you’re doing now is the most important thing you could be doing. Remember the story of presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in Chapter 1—his aides managed time and space for him. They evaluated, in real time, whether the greatest value would be gained by continuing to talk to the person in front of him or someone else who was waiting, whether he should be here or there. This allowed Carter to let go of his time-bound cares completely, to live in the moment and attend one hundred percent to the person in front of him. Similarly, executive assistants often schedule the time of their bosses so that the boss knows that whatever is in front of her is the most important thing she could be doing right now. She doesn’t need to worry about projects or tasks that are going unattended, because the…
To combat internal distractions, the most effective thing you can do is the mind-clearing exercise I wrote about in Chapter 3. Difficult tasks benefit from a sustained period of concentration of fifty minutes or more, due to the amount of time it takes your brain to settle into and maintain a focused state. The best time-management technique is to ensure you have captured every single thing that has your attention, or should have your attention, by writing it down. The goal is to get projects and situations off your mind but not to lose any potentially useful ideas—externalizing your frontal lobes…
“A colleague once complained ‘you made a decision without having all the facts!’ Well, getting all the facts would take me an hour and the amount of income at stake means that this decision is only worth ten minutes of my time.”
solvable,” President Obama observed. “Otherwise, someone else
About decision-making, he says, “In any sufficiently large organization, with an effective management system in place, there is going to be a pyramid shape with decision makers at every level. The only time I am brought in is when the only known solutions have a downside, like someone losing their job, or the company losing large sums of money. And usually the decision is already framed for me as two negatives. I’m the one who has to choose which of those two negatives we can live with.”
This error in reasoning is so pervasive that it has a name—the representativeness heuristic. It 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.
antibiotics work against enough common diseases to warrant them. In the example of blurritis that I began with, 201 people will test positive for a disease that only 1 person has. In many actual health-care scenarios, all 201 people will be given medication. This illustrates another important concept in medical practice: the number needed to treat. This is the number of people who have to take a treatment, such as a medication or surgery, before one person can be cured. A number needed to treat of 201 is not unusual in medicine today. There are some routinely performed surgeries where the number needed to treat is 48, and for some drugs, the number can exceed 300.
treatments, you may find that your doctor is ill-equipped to walk through the statistics. Doctors are clearly essential in diagnosing an illness, in laying out the different treatment options, treating the patient, and following up to make sure the treatment is effective. Nevertheless, as one MD put it, “Doctors generate better knowledge of efficacy than of risk, and this skews decision-making.” Moreover, research studies focus on whether or not an intervention provides a cure, and the issue of side effects is less interesting to those who have designed the studies. Doctors educate themselves about the success of procedures but not so much the drawbacks—this is left to you to do, another form of shadow work.
have. Alternative medicine is simply medicine for which there is no evidence of effectiveness. Once a treatment has been scientifically shown to be effective, it is no longer called alternative—it is simply called medicine. Before a treatment becomes part of conventional medicine, it undergoes a series of rigorous, controlled experiments to obtain evidence that it is both safe and effective. To be considered alternative medicine, nothing of the kind is required. If someone holds a belief that a particular intervention works, it becomes “alternative.” Informed consent means that we should be given information about a treatment’s efficacy and any potential hazards, and this is what is missing from alternative medicine.
To be fair, saying that there is no evidence does not mean that the treatment is ineffective; it simply means its effectiveness has not yet been demonstrated—we are agnostic. But the very name “alternative medicine” is misleading. It is alternative but it is not medicine (which begs the question What is it an alternative to?).
Denominator neglect shows up in very odd ways. In one study, people were told that a disease kills 1,286 people out of every 10,000. They judged this as more dangerous than did people who were told of a disease that kills 24.14% of the population. Note that 1,286/10,000 is just under 13%. So, in reality, it’s only about half as dangerous. But in the first case, we focus on the numerator, the 1,286 individuals who will be stricken with the disease. We may try to picture that many people in hospital beds. In the second case, we hear 24.14% and the brain tends to treat it as an abstract statistic with no human beings attached.
The vividness with which we can recall catastrophes, coupled with denominator neglect, can lead to truly terrible decisions. In the two months following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, so many people in the United States were afraid to fly that they took to their cars for trips they otherwise would have taken by plane. There were no more airplane crashes in October or November, but 2,170 more people died in automobile crashes during that period than usually do. These people focused on the numerator (four horrible airplane crashes, 246 people aboard them) but not the denominator (ten million safe commercial flights per year in the United States). As one researcher put it, “Terrorists can strike twice—first, by directly killing people, and second, through dangerous behaviors induced by fear in people’s minds.”
When we’re sick or injured, our life seems to become controlled by experts, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can take charge of our own diseases, learn as much as we can about them and seek advice from more than one doctor. Doctors are people, too, of course, and they come with many different personalities, styles, and strengths. It’s worth finding one whose style matches your own, who understands your needs and can help you meet them. Your relationship with a doctor shouldn’t be one of parent and child, but one of partners who can work together in the business of achieving a common goal.
Companies can be thought of as transactive memory systems. Part of the art of fitting into a company as a new employee, indeed part of becoming an effective employee (especially in upper management), is learning who holds what knowledge. If you want the 2014 sales figures for the southeastern region, you call Rachel, but she has the figures only for framistans; if you want to include your company’s business in selling gronespiels, you need to call Scotty; if you want to know if United Frabezoids ever got paid, you call Robin in accounts payable. The company as a whole is a large repository of information, with individual humans effectively playing the role of neural networks running specialized programs. No one person has all the knowledge, and indeed, no one person in a large company even knows whom to ask for every bit of knowledge it takes to keep the company running.
Steve Wynn’s management philosophy endorses the same idea: Like most managers, I’m at the top of a large pyramidal structure, and the people who are below me make most of the decisions. And most of the time, the decisions that they make are of the “A or B” type: Should we do A or should we do B? And for most of those, the decision is obvious—one outcome is clearly better than the other. In a few cases, the people below me have to think hard about which one to do, and this can be challenging. They might have to consult with someone else, look deeper into the problem, get more information. Once in a while a decision comes along where both outcomes look bad. They have a choice between A and B and neither one is going to be good, and they can’t figure out which one to choose. That’s when they end up on my calendar. So when I look at my calendar, if the Director of Food Services is on there, I know it’s something bad. Either he’s going to quit, or he’s got to make a decision between two very bad outcomes. My job when that happens is not to make the decision for them as you might think. By definition, the people who are coming to me are the real experts on the problem. They know lots more about it, and they are closer to it. All I can do is try to get them to look at the problem in a different light. To use an aviation metaphor, I try to get them to see things from 5,000 feet up. I tell them to back up and find out one truth that they know is indisputable. However many steps they might have to back up, I talk it over with them until they find the deep truth underlying all of it. The truth might be something like “the most important thing at our hotel is the guest experience,” or “no matter what, we cannot serve food that is not 100% fresh.” Once they identify that core truth, we creep forward slowly through the problem and often a solution will emerge. But I don’t make the decision for them. They’re the ones who have to bring the decision to the people under them, and they’re the ones who have to live with it, so they need to come to the decision themselves and be comfortable with it.
is just as important to recognize the value of making difficult decisions when necessary. As former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg notes: A leader is someone willing to make decisions. Politicians can get elected if voters think they will do things, even if they don’t support all those things. W [President George W. Bush] was elected not because everyone agreed with him but because they knew he was sincere and would do what he thought needed to be done.
Some employees are more productive than others. While some of this variation is attributable to differences in personality, work ethic, and other individual differences (which have a genetic and neurocognitive basis), the nature of the job itself can play a significant role. There are things that managers can do to improve productivity, based on recent findings in neuroscience and social psychology. Some of these are obvious and well known, such as setting clear goals and providing high-quality, immediate feedback. Expectations need to be reasonable or employees feel overwhelmed, and if they fall behind, they feel they can never catch up. Employee productivity is directly related to job satisfaction, and job satisfaction in turn is related to whether employees experience that they are doing a good job in terms of both quality and quantity of output.
If we can predict some (but not all) aspects of how a job will go, we find it rewarding. If we can predict all aspects of the job, down to the tiniest minutiae, it tends to be boring because there is nothing new and no opportunity to apply the discretion and judgment that management consultants and the U.S. Army have justly identified as components to finding one’s work meaningful and satisfying. If some but not too many aspects of the job are surprising in interesting ways, this can lead to a sense of discovery and self-growth.
Finding the right balance to keep Area 47 happy is tricky, but the most job satisfaction comes from a combination of these two: We function best when we are under some constraints and are allowed to exercise individual creativity within those constraints. In
But there is a critical point about differences between individuals that exerts arguably more influence on worker productivity than any other. The factor is locus of control, a fancy name for how people view their autonomy and agency in the world. People with an internal locus of control believe that they are responsible for (or at least can influence) their own fates and life outcomes. They may or may not feel they are leaders, but they feel that they are essentially in charge of their lives. Those with an external locus of control see themselves as relatively powerless pawns in some game played by others; they believe that other people, environmental forces, the weather, malevolent gods, the alignment of celestial bodies—basically any and all external events—exert the most influence on their lives. (This latter view is artistically conveyed in existential novels by Kafka and Camus, not to mention Greek and Roman mythology.) Of course these are just extremes, and most people fall somewhere along a continuum between them. But locus of control turns out to be a significant moderating variable in a trifecta of life expectancy, life satisfaction, and work productivity. This is what the modern U.S. Army has done in allowing subordinates to use their own initiative: They’ve shifted a great deal of the locus of control in situations to the people actually doing the work.
Individuals with an internal locus of control will attribute success to their own efforts (“I tried really hard”) and likewise with failure (“I didn’t try hard enough”). Individuals with an external locus of control will praise or blame the external world (“It was pure luck” or “The competition was rigged”). In school settings, students with a high internal locus of control believe that hard work and focus will result in positive outcomes, and indeed, as a group they perform better academically. Locus of control also affects purchasing decisions. For example, women who believe they can control their weight respond most favorably to slender advertising models, and women who believe they can’t respond better to larger-size models.
Internals tend to be higher achievers, and externals tend to experience more stress and are prone to depression. Internals, as you might expect, exert greater effort to influence their environment (because, unlike externals, they believe their efforts will amount to something). Internals tend to learn better, seek new information more actively, and use that information more effectively, and they are better at problem solving. Such findings may lead managers to think they should screen for and hire only people with an internal locus of control, but it depends on the particular job. Internals tend to exhibit less conformity than externals, and less attitude change after being exposed to a persuasive message. Because internals are more likely to initiate changes in their environment, they can be more troublesome to supervise. Moreover, they’re sensitive to reinforcement, so if effort in a particular job doesn’t lead to rewards, they may lose motivation more than an external, who has no expectation that his or her effort really matters anyway.
Related to autonomy is the fact that most workers are motivated by intrinsic rewards, not paychecks. Managers tend to think they are uniquely motivated by intrinsic matters such as pride, self-respect, and doing something worthwhile, believing that their employees don’t care about much other than getting paid. But this is not borne out by the research. By attributing shallow motives to employees, bosses overlook the actual depth of their minds and then fail to offer their workers those things that truly motivate them. Take
appears to be the reward. Other factors contribute to productivity, such as being an early riser: Studies have shown that early birds tend to be happier, more conscientious and productive, than night owls. Sticking to a schedule helps, as does making time for exercise. Mark Cuban, the owner of Landmark Theatres and the Dallas Mavericks, echoes what many CEOs and their employees say about meetings: They’re usually a waste of time. An exception is if you’re negotiating a deal or soliciting advice from a large number of people. But even then, meetings should be short, drawn up with a strict agenda, and given a time limit. Warren Buffett’s datebook is nearly completely empty and has been for twenty-five years—he rarely schedules anything of any kind, finding that an open schedule is a key to his productivity.
The companies that are winning the productivity battle are those that allow their employees productivity hours, naps, a chance for exercise, and a calm, tranquil, orderly environment in which to do their work. If you’re in a stressful environment where you’re asked to produce and produce, you’re unlikely to have any deep insights. There’s a reason Google puts Ping-Pong tables in their headquarters. Safeway, a $4 billion grocery chain in the United States and Canada, has doubled sales in the last fifteen years under the leadership of Steven Burd, who, among other things, encouraged employees to exercise at work, through salary incentives, and installed a full gym at corporate headquarters. Studies have found that productivity goes up when the number of hours per week of work goes down, strongly suggesting that adequate leisure and refueling time pays off for employers and for workers. Overwork—and its companion, sleep deprivation—have been shown to lead to mistakes and errors that take longer to fix than the overtime hours worked. A sixty-hour work week, although 50% longer than a forty-hour work week, reduces productivity by 25%, so it takes two hours of overtime to accomplish one hour of work. A ten-minute nap can be equivalent to an extra hour and a half of sleep at night. And vacations? 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%.
These findings suggest that consumers will have finite limits for how much information they can absorb and process within a given period of time. Let’s call it the load effect. In fact, this has been shown empirically—consumers make poorer choices with more information. This mechanism is similar to the load effect we saw in Chapter 4 that leads to incorrect social judgments. A separate study examined the effects of additional information on the decision to purchase a home. It found the maximum number of parameters that can be processed is around ten. The interesting thing is that the parameters can be either attributes of choice or alternatives. In other words, if you are trying to decide between two houses, you don’t want to be keeping track of more than ten pieces of information about them combined. Or, if you can trim your list to two pieces of information you’re interested in—perhaps square footage and quality of the school district—you can compare ten houses. In the home-buying studies, consumers were given up to twenty-five attributes to keep track of on up to twenty-five different homes. Their decision-making ability began to suffer when either parameter was greater than ten. Above ten, however, it didn’t matter if there were fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five parameters—once the consumer hits information overload, still more information doesn’t significantly affect the already saturated system. This limit of ten is the maximum. The optimal number is closer to five and is consistent with processing limits of the brain’s central executive. This may remind you of the problem with online dating sites mentioned in Chapter 4—that more information is not always better and, in that context, has been found to lead to poorer selectivity and poorer choices as online daters become overwhelmed by irrelevant information and suffer both cognitive overload and decision fatigue.
Kolmogorov complexity theory encapsulates it this way: Something is random when you cannot explain how to derive a sequence using any fewer than the number of elements in the sequence itself. This definition of complexity meshes with our everyday, lay use of the term. We say that a car is more complex than a bicycle, and surely it takes a far larger set of instructions to build a car than a bicycle.
Why do psychiatrists work a fifty-minute hour? They use that extra ten minutes to write down what happened. Rather than scheduling meetings back-to-back, experts advise giving yourself ten minutes to write down what happened, to make notes about what needs to be done, and other comments that will orient you to this project when you next start to work on it. And to give yourself ten minutes before a meeting to review what is going to happen there. Because attention switching is metabolically costly, it’s good neural hygiene for your brain to give it time to switch into the mind-set of your next meeting gradually and in a relaxed way before the meeting starts. When interrupted during a project, experts recommend making notes about where you left off so you can get back into the project more quickly later.
My former professor Lee Ross of Stanford University conducted a study that revealed an interesting fact about such politically and ideologically based biases in news reporting, dubbed the hostile media effect. Ross and his colleagues, Mark Lepper and Robert Vallone, found that partisans on any side of an issue tend to find reporting to be biased in favor of their opponents. In their experiment, they showed a series of news reports about the 1982 Beirut massacre to Stanford students who had pre-identified themselves as either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. The pro-Israeli students complained that the reporting was strongly biased toward the Palestinian point of view. They said that the news reports held Israel to stricter standards than other countries, and that the reporters were clearly biased against Israel. Finally, the students counted only a few pro-Israeli references in the reports, but many anti-Israeli references. The pro-Palestinian students, on the other hand, reported exactly the opposite bias from watching the same news reports—they judged the reports to be strongly biased toward Israel, and counted far fewer pro-Palestinian references and far more anti-Palestinian references. They, too, felt that the reporters were biased, but against the Palestinians, not the Israelis. Both groups were worried that the reports were so biased that previously neutral viewers would turn against their side after viewing them. In fact, a neutral group of students watching the same clips held opinions that fell between the opinions of the partisan students, testifying to the neutrality of the clips.
striking parallel distinction was found in a study of children’s television shows. Angeline Lillard and Jennifer Peterson of the University of Virginia had four-year-olds watch just nine minutes of SpongeBob SquarePants cartoons, a fast-paced television program, versus watching the slower-paced public television cartoon Caillou, or drawing pictures on their own for nine minutes. They found that the fast-paced cartoon had an immediate negative impact on children’s executive function, a collection of prefrontal cortical processes including goal-directed behavior, attentional focus, working memory, problem solving, impulse control, self-regulation, and delay of gratification. The researchers point not just to the fast pace itself, but to the “onslaught of fantastical events” which are, by definition, novel and unfamiliar. Encoding such events is likely to be particularly taxing on cognitive resources, and the fast pace of programs like SpongeBob don’t give children the time to assimilate the new information. This can reinforce a cognitive style of not thinking things through or following new ideas to their logical conclusion. As in many
Now there are thousands of opinions, and the correct ones are no more likely to be encountered than the incorrect ones. As the old saying goes, a man with one watch always knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never sure. We are now less sure of what we know and don’t know. More so than at any other time in history, it is crucial that each of us takes responsibility for verifying the information we encounter, testing it and evaluating it. This is the skill we must teach the next generation of citizens of the world, the capability to think clearly, completely, critically, and creatively.
As I’ve emphasized throughout this book, the most fundamental principle of organization, the one that is most critical to keeping us from forgetting or losing things, is this: Shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world. If we can take some or all of the process out of our brains and put it into the physical world, we are less likely to make mistakes. But the organized mind enables you to do much more than merely avoid mistakes. It enables you to do things and go places you might not otherwise imagine. Externalizing information doesn’t always involve writing it down or encoding it in some external medium. Often it has already been done for you. You just have to know how to read the signs.
To remember a new name, you need to allow yourself time for encoding; five seconds or so is usually about right. Rehearse the name silently to yourself over and over. While you’re doing that, look at the person’s face, and concentrate on associating the name to the face. Remember, you’ve (probably) heard the name before, so you’re not having to learn a new name, you just need to associate a familiar name with a new face. If you’re lucky, the person’s face will remind you of someone else you know with that name. If not the whole face, maybe a feature will. Maybe this new Gary you’re meeting has eyes like another friend Gary, or this new Alyssa has the same high cheekbones of your high school friend Alyssa. If you can’t make an associative connection like these, try to superimpose someone you know with that name on the current person’s face, creating a chimera. This will help it become memorable. What if the person says his name