The Organized Mind

Book Review

Daniel Levitin’s “The Organized Mind” is a brain scientist’s look at organization, balancing philosophical arguments with suggestions for concrete improvement you can implement. It’s drove the creation of more individual notes in my “Notes” database than any other book.

Book cover

Book Summary below.

Part 1

How the Brain Organizes

The brain stores things associatively. Everything that has any similarities to everything else is tied to all those things by their similarities. You can jump quickly down a list of other objects with the any given property in common. “Firetruck” - red things. Vehicles. Safety equipment. Other public services. Phone services. Technology. Mathematics. Teachers. (and so on).

The processing speed of the mind has been estimated at 120 bits/second. A similar estimate is that you need about 60 bits/second to understand someone who’s talking to you. This means you can’t “half-listen” to two people at once, nor could you listen to one person and try to do any other truly mentally taxing task.

Information Overload & The Attentional Filter

Socrates, Seneca, and many more famous thinkers thought the proliferation of books was a bad thing. Too much information! Imagine how they’d feel today.

The attentional filter is an automatic process executed by your brain. It is constantly seeking what’s most important in your environment, with a bias for noticing things that change or things that you’ve deemed important. Automatically your brain operates in a bottom-up mode. The attentional filter doesn’t let anything get to your conscious mind unless it deems it necessary. Top-down processing occurs when you consciously queue up your brain to look for certain cues (e.g. you queue up red and white stripes when looking for Waldo);

Highly successful people have a staff of individuals who are extensions of their brains. This allows them to be 100% focused on the task at hand all the time.

This is a good example of the attentional filter at work.


Categorization is an incredibly useful and important thing that we do all the time.

Categorization & Language

The Lexical Hypothesis postulates that categorical distinctions that are important to a culture are made apparent in their language. Family information allows you to know who you can and cannot marry. As such, all cultures have robust terms describing familial relationships.

A broad study of many language and proto-languages shows consistent patterns for which order certain concepts were given words. For example, languages usually have a word for “animals” and “Non-animals”. They may divide that “non-animals” into subcategories like “tree-like things and grass-like things”. Another example given was color. Typically the words for colors develop in the order: light & dark, then red, then yellow or green)

Some Mental Shortcuts in the Physical World

Affordances” - features of a tool tell you how to operate it. They are a shortcut to prevent you from having to think. You can open a door without thinking about it by looking at the jamb. Pretty quickly you can do this unconsciously. You can create and utilize your own affordances to organize the world are you.

Satisficing” - settling for “good enough” for the unimportant things and not wasting time looking for “perfect”. Chipotle is never going to be the best meal you ever had… but it also is a very known quantity. It’s rarely disappointing. Sometimes you just need “good enough”. Don’t spend a loooong time looking for shampoos. Get the one you normally get. It’s fine. Satisficing is finding an easy, good enough solution for things that don’t affect us much. It’s a good thing.

The Four Part “Human Attentional System”

The Default Network

Your brain slips into the default mode when you’re bored or day dreaming. It skips from thing to thing via relations you’ve formed in your head. In doing so it makes those connections stronger. This is called “the default network” and it a relatively new discovery. It is not centralized to any spot in the brain. It’s a circuit.

The Default Network also has to do with you considering yourself and your social relationships, strangely.

The Central Executive Mode

Opposed to the Default mode is the Central Executive mode. It is the mode of focus. It is what keeps you on a task for hours. It’s what you’re consciously aware of.

The Attentional Filter

Introduced above. For a book about organization, this one jumps around a lot. This mode basically lets you drive without having to think about it, but still notice when a potentially dangerous situation is approaching.

The Attentional Switch

The attentional switch dictates what you’re consciously aware of. It also uses energy every time it fires. The costs of multitasking are addressed later on.

Memory is Mutable

Memories of special events stick out mostly because they aren’t competing against any (or many) other memories. Memories of routines become genericized.

Memory is fiction. It may present itself to use as fact, but it’s highly susceptible to distortion. Memory is not just a re-playing, but a re-writing. - Daniel Levitin

Memory retrieval causes memory distortion. It’s like a file you open on edit mode, and your current situation while you’re remembering start to slip into the memory.


Categories are a cognitive shortcut. We categorize by appearance, functional equivalence, or some particular categories are conceptually-bound to situations, e.g. “stuff I would take out of the house if it were on fire”. Categories can have any level of granularity. They can have hard or fuzzy boundaries. If they have fuzzy boundaries, there exists prototypes that fit most-fully into any given category.

How about this - there is a very fuzzy category we call “Game”. The concept of “game” as a category is an exceptional prototype for “fuzzy categories”.

Categories map to brain tissues. Brain damage has literally caused people to forget what “fruits” are, while retaining the access to “vegetables”.

Index Card-ification

The author talks about an simple organizational system in which you keep a stack of index cards on which you can write down tasks, thoughts, ideas, and whatever else. They function as an inbox. Also they only hold one small chunk of info. They have no order. This is VERY Zettelkasten-like. You can clear your inbox regularly. Sort ideas and tasks and thoughts that go together by physically rearranging the cards. This technique was apparently used by the guy who wrote “Zen Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. I read that book. Do not recommend.

Externalizing thoughts and placing them into categories is a way to extend your brain. It allows you to balance the Yin of the Central Executive with the Yang of the Default Mode.

Part 2

The Hippocampus is responsible for place memory. It was that brain structure in the London Taxi Drivers that were found to be larger-than-average. Place memory is great for stationary things. It’s not good at keeping track of things that move. Your toothbrush has a spot where it goes. Reading glasses do not. Hence we lose reading glasses, not toothbrushes.

Organizing Our Homes

Create a spot for things. Put things in their spot. It’s honestly that easy.

Even the things that wouldn’t necessarily have a great “spot” without the effort. Go through the effort. That is where you put your keys (e.g.) when you’re not using them. Same goes for anything else, like power cables. Make your spots neat or cool, or just downright expensive. That will encourage you to use them.

When possible, buy duplicates of things you utilize in multiple rooms. Then keep the copy in a designated location within each room.

Historically it’s believed that the average working memory has been thought to hold ~5 to 9 things. More recent studies point to a number like 4.

Offload the task of remembering something to the environment. To not forget things, put them near the door. Or pre-load your bag. These are examples of “affordances“.

Organizational Tips

  1. Mislabeled is Worse than Unlabeled
  2. If There’s an Existing Standard, Use It
  3. Don’t Keep What You Won’t Use, or Doesn’t Work & Can’t/Won’t be Fixed

Organizing Our Digital Homes

As much as possible, separate out the devices you use and the areas you use them in into different areas or modes according to their purpose & use. When writing, use a particular device. If that’s not possible, use a particular desk. If that’s not possible, attempt to create a visual workspace within the device dedicated to writing.

Don’t spend more time filing and classifying than you’ll spend on searching for things.

Multitasking Sucks

When you think you’re multitasking, you’re just switching from one task to another very rapidly. When we are multitasking we think we’re doing a lot. We aren’t.

Multitasking while learning causes information we bring in to be misplaced and wrongfully associated. Multitasking causes you to make more little decisions, more frequently. This leads to quicker decision fatigue. This causes you to more quickly succumb to impulse control.


Easy communication has lead to lower-quality communication. Hand-written snail mail was very deliberate. Each letter was much more important and more well-thought-out than email. Easy communication leads to frivolous communication.

Organizing our Social World

Good examples: Crowdsourcing. Amber alerts. The DARPA Red Balloon project. Wikipedia.

Some folks keep vast databases of the people they know and have met. Some folks utilize a “tickler” system to remind them to reach out and keep up ties with those folks they may not otherwise contact as often as they’d like.


Implicatures are when you say something soft that implies the meaning of something less direct. Example: “Want to go to the movies later?” → “I have to study tonight”, it is more socially acceptable than simply saying “no”, but has the same effect. Why this is in a book about organization, I’m not sure. Or why I continue to think this book is just about organization, I’m not sure?

Chunking Time

We group moments into events. Those events are chunked such that they can be remembered. The prefrontal cortex performs this automatically.

Levels of Processing

Items that are processed with more active involvement are more deeply encoded in the brain. We remember better and learn more when we process. This gets into the concept of “Desirable Difficulty”.


Memories that are more accessible are more easily retrieved via any natural query in which they could be useful. This type of accessibility is what comes from well encoded memory. Memory encoding occurs while your asleep.

New information and concepts appear to be continually processed while we sleep.

Utilization, assimilation, and abstraction occurs while you’re asleep.

Adequate and CONSISTENT sleep are one of the most important things we can do. Bimodal sleep was probably the pattern we had throughout history. Irregularities can cause trouble with memory, impulse control, mood regulation, and performance.

Portions of the brain literally fall asleep without us being aware of it. That whole “10% of your brain” thing is a myth, but you also aren’t using 100% of your brain all the time.

Guidelines for Good Sleep

  • Go to bed at the same time every night
  • Wake up at the same time every morning
  • If you have to stay up late one night, don’t sleep in to make up for it
  • Sleep in a cool, dark room
  • Naps should be shorter than 40 minutes
    • Naps recalibrate emotional baselines
    • Naps are incredible


This book talks a lot about Flow. It brings up Task batching & doing “Mind Wipe” from the Getting Things Done methodology. I am not going to cover these here. They will show up in other articles.

Calculate the value of your time

Know how much money you’d be willing to lose to gain an hour if time. Literally ask yourself “how much would I pay someone to wait in a line for me” (or any other similar question). Use that dollar figure to decide if You should take on a task or pay someone for it.


We are bad at working with probabilities, as a species. If you read that a drug makes you 50% less likely to have a brain Aneurysm, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s worth whatever costs and side effects It has. Brain aneurysms are already incredibly rare. It’s true that you’re 10x as likely to win the lottery if you buy ten tickets, but more practically speaking all you’ve done is waste 10x as much money.

Independent samples vs dependent samples. Don’t mix the two up. Drawing a card and replacing it means that the next card you’re likely to draw has the same 1/52 chance of being the exact card it was before. Don’t succumb to gambler’s fallacy. Of course, also recognize the fact that drawing a card WITHOUT replacing it does have cumulative effects. If you’ve drawn 48 non-Aces, you have a 100% chance of drawing an ace on your next pull.

Base Rates

The standard rate at which an event occurs should be not be disregarded given other circumstantial evidence. We tend to throw out the base rate when given other information. This is the “‘Betty is an accountant and a feminist‘ seems more likely than the simpler statement ‘Betty is an account’“ concept from the book “Thinking Fast and Slow”.

If you think you might have a disease that has a 0.005% prevalence in the population. You test for it and test positive. The tests are 95% chance accurate. You’re still MUCH MORE LIKELY to NOT have the disease than to have it when considering both rates.

Expected Values

Multiply the likelihood of an event occurring by the result if, in fact, the event occurs. You can pay a $10 parking fee, or park illegally on the street and pay a $100 fine if you’re caught. However, the chances of you being caught are ~1 in 12. Overall, if you were to do this exercise many times - you’re likely to spend less money by taking the 1/12th chance of spending $100, over the 100% chance of spending $10. 1/12 * 100 = $8.33 expected value.

Medical Choices & Probabilities

When you look at your medical choices, consider base rates, consider side-effects, consider expected values. Physicians don’t necessarily have the same interests as you. Example: Prostate cancer - you’re more likely to die with it, than die of it. Removing the Prostate is a serious surgery that will rob you of time now (getting the procedure & recovering) and the quality of life you’ll give up (due to side effects). In short, roll the dice, 12 means you die sooner, but 2 through 11 mean you’re not hassled with any of these things.

Fourfold Contingency Table

A test to see if two distinct variables are linked.

        |   A   | A NOT |
|   B   |   1   |   2   |
| B NOT |   3   |   4   |

If numbers are highest in...
REGION 1 - A and B are correlated
REGION 2 - A is correlated with the absence of B
REGION 3 - B is correlated with the absence of A
REGION 4 - Absence of A is correlated with absence of B

This is related to the Chi-squared test - although this was not in the book. More info

Homeopathic Medicine

Is dumb. Confirmation bias at best. Actively harmful at worst.

The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’ - Daniel Levitin

Lotus of Control

People tend to have relatively stable Loti or Control. Either you generally believe that you’re in control of your domain and life and what you do has bearing on it (Internal Lotus), or you don’t (External). Grunt workers who need to follow rigid instructions are best to have external loti. Managers and people who don’t have a push-button, receive peanut, job are more likely to have internal Loti.

Organization of Workplaces

Businesses can be flat or deep. There are pros and cons to both. Flat organizations have a lot of duplicated effort and less of a sense of control but are more agile and able to respond. Businesses with a deep hierarchy are more easily controlled but more set in their ways.

Optimum Level of Information

There is an upside-down U curve for how much information You have for a given task, or decision. It does not, however, seem as though people actively seek the correct information. Instead they continually want more.

In a study where a series of students were asked to perform a war games exercise, they were given different amounts of information in a 30 minute period to help them perform their task. Some got only 2 pieces of information. Some received 25+ pieces of information. The optimum level of information for the task at hand was found to be at around 10-12 pieces. That’s when people did the best… but all participants asked for “more info”. Even when more info made their performance worse.

Five is Greater than Ten, is Greater Than More

Ten seems to be about the maximum pieces of information for making a decision. Five is preferable to ten, for most circumstances.

Planning for Failure

As with anything else, In the digital era, If you’re not planning for failure, you’re planning to fail. Hard disk drives fail. All form of remote storage fails. File types become unreadable. Files get corrupted. Houses containing computers and hard drives burn down. Cloud companies go under or stop recognizing your credentials.

Make back ups. Make them in different physical locations. Utilize open-source highly readable file types. Plain text beats Open Document file beats Microsoft Word.

Part 3

The Future of the Organized Mind

Daniel Levitin doesn’t like Wikipedia. Experts are valued as little as actual experts.

Facts and information are so easy to find - the role of teachers as one who “transmit raw information” is almost completely unnecessary. Teachers should teach critical thinking skills. Should teach techniques on how to evaluate the information that’s available should be treated.

The Swindling Stock Trader

This actually happened. A guy sent out 1000 letters to potential investors. In 500 he predicted stock X would go up. In 500 he predicted it would go down. When it went up, he sent letters to the people who received the accurate prediction. Again he picked a stock, and sent half a letter saying it would go up and half another saying it would go down. Then he repeated this process 4 more times. Eventually he wound up with a pool of 30+ people who he’d convinced that he’d “figured out the stock market”, because those 30 people had seen 6 accurate predictions in a row, and knew nothing of the other 970 people who’d received wrong predictions. Always look for alternative explanations for situations.


We learn better and remember longer things we figure out for ourselves than those which we are simply told.

Slow, deliberate storytelling is good for us. It enables us to use the default mode to assimilate information in the story to the rest of our lives. Spongebob is an onslaught of novelty.

What we should teach our kids

Basically, we should teach them how to think about the information they are accessing. What’s reasonable. What’s not.

Daydreaming = Great Thinking

Many creative artists and scientists come after periods of idea drought and boredom. Thinking very hard about a problem is not necessarily (in many times is absolutely not) the best possible way to come up with a solution to a problem, or an interesting idea. Nonlinear, whimsical thinking is a necessary addition to intentional, rational, linear thinking.

The Digital World Disables Serendipity

The author has a nostalgic view of the benefits of physical organization, such as a library. The act of physical browsing enables serendipity.

Finally, The Author Quotes Reddit

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 that 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 levels above you is a different story. They’re 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 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 probably contains enough wisdom to get you halfway to your next level if you put in enough time thinking about it. - man_after_midnight on Reddit