a blog written by Brandon Mowat

Organizing my Mind...

Wed Jan 01 2020

skip to tldr

but I REALLY recommend you at least read my section on multi-tasking.

One of the main reasons I built this blog was because I felt overwhelmed and scatterbrained. I found myself defaulting to scrolling through Instagram, procrastinating, and not giving the people I love the attention that they deserve. The work I was producing felt sub-par and I knew that I was capable of more — I needed to re-learn how to focus.

Some first steps that I took was to get on a more regular sleep schedule and actively spend less time on my phone. These were things that were intuitive but I still felt like I was missing the guidance of an expert on the topic. Then on a Sunday afternoon in November, while browsing the non-fiction section of a book store with a few friends, the cover of The Organized Mind jumped out at me.

I’ve since finished the book and have found it incredibly helpful in both my personal and professional life. Throughout my reading, I took notes on things that felt particularly applicable to my situation. I’d like to share some of my learnings and maybe help you be able to “think straight” when so many people and things are calling for our attention.

Some Background Knowledge

Daniel Levitin references 2 modes of thinking throughout the book: Central Executive Mode and Daydreaming Mode. The central exectutive can be thought of as the CEO of your brain, actively engaging in the task at hand and thinking critically. We think linearly in this mode and, as long as we can stay focused, we may eve be able to enter a state of Flow (more on that later). If you’re familiar with the brain, you already know that this mode is driven by the Prefrontal Cortex. For more abstract thinking, we engage our brains daydreaming mode. Daydreaming is what many of the greatest minds find their most brilliant ideas; it’s where we find ourselves making connections between ideas that seem unrelated because we allow our mind to wander in ways we can’t when we’re focused on collecting information and thinking critically.

Neither one of these modes is better than the other, but it’s important that we understand their significance. We can use them as tools by creating environments or making time for willing ourselves into thinking critically or allowing ourselves to daydream.

So many things to do, such little time.

Each and every day, there are an overwhelming number of things that we need to remember to do; locking the door, feeding our pet, picking up a gift for a friends upcoming birthday, ensuring work meetings are effective and that you’re not wasting everyones time, “I could go on forever baby”. And that’s just you! Imagine all of the things that someone like Sheryl Sandberg or Bill Gates have to remember to do. How do they stay on task and get to where they need to be when normal people, like you and I, forget about commitments we made a week ago and lose valuable belongings on a semi-regular basis?

Organizing one’s own responsibilities and priorities can feel like a full-time job; and for some it is. Highly Successful Persons (as Daniel Levitin likes to call them) typically have executive assistants to handle these day-to-day organizational tasks. This is how they’re able to give the person, or people, that they’re engaged with at any given moment, their full and undivided attention — all while being able to get deep work done, creative endeavours, and make it to their next meeting on time. However, it’s not just scheduling that needs to be done. These assistants may also act as a filter for inbound communication as well, allowing for only the most important and immediate things to attract their attention.

The list of organizational optimizations that could be made for you could be endless… But the vast majority of us do not have the luxury of having full-time help. How can we do it all on our own? Could we somehow externalize these responsibilities so that we don’t have to constantly remember? Unsurprisingly, the easy answer is yes!

Allowing for Deep Focus

The way to get to deep focus is to minimize the amount of things you need to remember or do at any particular time; this requires organizing both your time and environment. Accomplishing both of these things will help you in entering deep focus by being free to engage your prefrontal cortex (Central Executive) and entering daydreaming mode without distraction. One of the greatest adversaries of an organized mind is the Rehearsal Loop.

Before pen and paper there was no way to externalize an idea or thought, our brains developed in such a way that it would remind itself of something it didn’t want to forget because creating a permamnt memory for it would be a waste of resources; we call this the Rehearsal Loop. Our brains have to pick and choose what things are committed to memory — this is reserved mostly for emotionally connected events, as well as knowledge acquired while focused intently on a task followed by engaging our daydreaming mode (this takes time). Being caught inside this loop uses precious resources that would be better applied to focusing on a paper you’re writing or on a friend that’s offering you their time. Externalizing our memory to the physical or digital world breaks us out of the loop and allows us to get back to what’s important. This can be as simple as carrying a notebook around and jotting down these small things that pop into your head that may or may not need action, or even adding an event to your calendar (digital or analog). Let me provide an example:

Suppose you remember that your friend Lake’s birthday is coming up — instead of saying to yourself “I’ll remember that”, you should immediately put it in your calendar. That way you will be reminded that it is their birthday on the day of or will see it coming up as it approaches and you no longer are tasked to rememeber, you’re free to go about your life knowing that the details exist where you need them when you need them.

Following this example, suppose that between externalizing this memory and the day of their birthday, they mention something that brings up the idea to get them something specific as a gift on their birthday. Since you’re a person with an organized mind you know exactly what to do; you open up the externalized memory (i.e. calendar event, note) and add the relevant information. If you’re as organized as an executive assistant to the CEO of a fortune 500 company, maybe you even create another calendar event, 1 week from the birthday event, to gather the gift.

Externalizing your memory allows you to “remember” things that you would otherwise forget and allow you to focus on the things that are most immediate and highest priority, regardless of whether it’s work or friends.

Time is a precious resource. It’s finite and cannot be created (some may argue that diet and exercise can prolong you life, but maybe that’s an essay for another blog post) so it must be used effectively and organized well. As explored in the previous section, we can organize our time better by being vigilent about scheduling events and reminders for ourselves. Organizing your time isn’t just about scheduling errands or meetings; it’s about scheduling personal time, time for deep work without distraction, time for catching up on email, and time for daydreaming.

Context switching, as many do between meetings throughout their days, is an expensive process for the brain to engage in and we can easily forget things when we’re always bouncing from one to the next. What many organized and efficient people do is book 50 minute hour meetings. This way, you have 10 minutes to allow your brain to process what has just happened, form connections, and then prepare for the next one.

Organizing your environment is also key to entering a state of deep focus. We can apply the concept of Gibsonian Affordances to relieve us of the burden of having to remember where things are and to help us from forgetting where our belongings are. An example of an affordance in the home is a keyhook or bowl near your front door. However, one of the rules of Gibsonain Affordances is that you never deviate from it. If you stray from the rule, then the affordance no longer works — you’ll end up in a case where you go to the place where “you always put them” and they’re not there. Organizing your environment doesn’t just apply to your home though, it applies to work as well.

Work is arguably the place you’re supposed to be the most productive, but so called “productivity” tools like Slack or your smart phone can lead to a place of little to no deep focus work. You’re constantly being bombarded with notifications that all seem important when in reality very few actually require your immediate attention. Being constantly connected is pulling us away from doing our best work. Without the aid of an exective assistant, we need to create communication filters for ourselves. Book a quiet room just for yourself and limit the notifications on Slack as well as turning off your phone. When entered into deep focus it can be easy to be pulled out — you want to minimize the possibility of being taken out of this state where you’re the most productive.

Making time for daydreaming is equally as important as making time for deep focus work. As you think critically and analytically throughout the day, and ingest new information, taking time to allow your brain to wander and make new connections that are more abstract in nature is key. Daydreaming is our brain’s default mode and is diturbed quite easily so getting some quiet time for this works as well. This should be in a place where you’re very comfortable; either at home, your favourite coffee shop (as long as it’s not too loud), or a comfortable and quiet room at work. Again, please minimize notifications. What I usually do is mute my phone, and bring in only a notebook, pen, and maybe a book with me.

The truth about Multi-tasking

Multi-tasking isn’t real. Do I need to elaborate more? Fine. I will, but only because I need people to stop saying “I’m good at multi-tasking”.

Our brains don’t do things in parallel. They’ve developed throughout human history to be efficient at staying on one task, using less energy than what we do when we “multi-task”. Daniel Levitin mentions Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and an expert on divided attention, throughout the book but there’s a quote from Miller that stands out more than anything else. He says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multi-tasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” Instead of people being able to magically manage multiple things at once in a seemingly superhuman fashion, they’re actually scrambling to keep their boat from sinking due to multiple leaks.

The reason that we’re so susceptible to the allure of multi-tasking is the novelty of new information and tasks. We get a nice strong hit of dopamine when we encounter something new and shiny. The worst part is that the region of the brain (the prefrontal cortex), that we rely on to stay on task and for deep focus, is the same one that is easily distracted by the shiny objects. Each time we whip out our phone, scroll through Instagram, send a message, then read through the 29 different channels that have had activity in the last 12 minutes, we’ve ended up ingesting a ton of new information and our brians feel a sense of accomplishment. Then BAM!, we get hit with a rush of dopamine then the cycle continues.

So what do we do? There are 2 options in my opinion: The first option is what efficient workers have been doing for decades, and that’s setting aside productivity hours. That’s time where you cut out the outside distractions entirely and create an environment in which you have no other distractions. This means removing your smartwatch, throwing away your phone, and blocking Facebook, Twitter, Reddit ect., from the network, even turning off Slack and email. The second option is the more realistic one. You do the inverse and set aside time throughout the day where you’re allowed to answer email, browse Twitter (work related things obviously), and read through Slack conversations and channels. Checking Slack or email every 5 minutes totals to over 200 times throughout the day, so checking it a handful of times will leave you with much more time for deep focus.

These types of distractions and personal focus ailments don’t just interfere with our work but our interpersonal relationships as well. How many times have you been with a friend and they’re on and off their phone throughout your conversations, resulting in a person who physically present, but not emotionally present or engaged? I’m sure it happens far more than you’d like. If you’re not this person then you have fantastic friends and (I’m not sorry for this:) you might be that person. They (the distracted person) may believe they’re able to do both at once, but as we’ve just learned — this isn’t the case whatsoever. So what can they do? If you’ve read everything up until this point then I think you know exactly how they can be better; get rid of the distraction and resist the urge to re-enter the cheap dopamine feedback loop. If you’ve ever talked to someone who is the complete opposite of the phone-junkie, you know how drasticly different these interactions can feel.

Talking to someone who doesn’t fall for the nasty tricks of their smartphone can be the most incredible interactions. Likely, this person is looking at your mouth while you’re speaking and at your eyes when they’re speaking to you. You feel valued and heard, which is in stark contrast to the phone-junkie. I know this may seem hyperbolic but I know when I’m talking to this person when I feel like I’m the only other person that matters to them at that moment. They’re not worried about what other strangers are doing or even what their other closest friends may be doing at that particular moment; the only thing that matters is the person before them — and that’s you. The people you’re surrounded by at any given moment are giving you their full attention and so you should to them. I think we should all work toward prioritizing deep focus with our friends and family over the cheap dopamine rush of social media.

Moving forward.

I truly hope that you take something away from this article, whether you work towards a more organized life and/or deeper focus. If this is something that interests you, I recommend that you buy and read Daniel Levitin’s: The Organized Mind — I’ve only just grazed what is a treasure of knowledge. If nothing else, just create a place for your keys and wallet so that you don’t lose them.

If you have any feedback about the blog post, please feel free to tweet at me or email me. I’d like to get better at this.

Thanks for reading!

tldr; get on a sleep schedule, put things in your calendar as soon as you learn about them, have a place for your things, multitasking is a myth.


Written by Brandon Mowat who lives and works at Ada in Toronto -- building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter