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

Some neuroscientists believe that nearly every conscious experience is stored somewhere in your brain. Sometimes the information that comes out is incomplete, distorted, or misleading. Successful artists, athletes, business executives have learned how to maximize their creativity by organizing their lives so that they spend less time on mundane, and more time on the inspiring, comforting, and rewarding things in life. A mathematical model can be constructed to organize human differences into five categories:

  • extroversion
  • agreeableness
  • neuroticism
  • openness to new experience
  • conscientiousness

Of these five, the consciousness trait of being organized is most highly associate with conscientiousness. Conscientiousness comprises industriousness, self-control, stick-to-itivness, and a desire for order. This is the best predictor of many important human outcomes, including mortality, longevity, educational attainment, and a host of criteria related to career success. Conscientiousness is associated with better recovery outcomes following surgery and transplants.

You can also check doctor Jordan Peterson's lecture on Conscientiousness here.Every status update your read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain.Use the environment itself to remind you what needs to be done.For example, suppose you do your personal accounting in Excel and you've scanned all of your receipts and invoices to PDF files. Within Excel,  you can link any entry in a cell to a document on your computer. Looking for a warranty and receipt on your Orvis fishing tackle jacket? Search Excel for Orvis and click the cell.When people think they are multi-tasking, they are actually switching from one task to another very rapidly.In a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, the knowledge of an e-mail is sitting unread in your inbox can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. The activity of organizing or reorganizing allows our brains to explore new connections among the things that clutter our living spaces, while simultaneously allowing the mind-wandering mode to re-contextualize and re-categorize those objects' relationship to another and our relationship to them.

Here are some short and sweet guidelines:

  • 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 cycles is more important than the amount of sleep.
  • Sleep in cool, dark room.
  • Cover your windows if necessary to keep out the light.

Planning for failure is a necessary way of thinking in the age of information overload. For over a decade, when Google conducted job interviews, they'd ask their applicants questions that have no answers.

Google wants to hire employees who can answer questions that haven't been answered before - that requires a certain kind of mind prone to methodical thinking. Most jobs require some degree of creativity and flexible thinking. As an admissions test for flight school for commercial airline pilots, the name-as-many-uses test was used because pilots need to be able to react quickly in an emergency, to be able to think of alternative approaches when systems fail. How would you put out a fire in the cabin if the fire extinguisher doesn't work? How do you control the elevators if the hydraulic system fails? Exercising this part of your brain involves harnessing the power of free association - the brain's daydreaming mode - in the service of problem-solving, and you want pilots who can do this in a pitch. Imagine now that search engines have not just a few days' or weeks' worth of your searches, but twenty years of searches. Your search results have been iteratively refined to become ever more personal. There are 3 ways we can learn information - we can absorb it implicitly, we can be told it explicitly, or we can discover it ourselves. 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. The history of science and culture is filled with stories of how many of the greatest scientific and artistic discoveries occurred while the creator was not thinking about what he was working on.

The twenty-first century's information problem is one of selection. The processing capacity of the conscious mind has been estimated at 120 bits per second. This means you can barely understand two people talking to you at the same time. Ignoring and deciding comes with a cost. Neuroscientists have discovered that unproductivity and loss of drive can result from decision overload. 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. Your brain has a daily processing limit - why waste it on cat photos?