The Organized Mind Summary (Daniel J. Levitin)

Information storage isn’t the problem, but rather it’s the organisation and retrieval of that information.

Previously we just had the physical world to contend with.

Adding the digital Candyland to the mix, we’re easily overwhelmed, our most important goals derailed.

While the human brain is more than capable, avoiding distraction is essential.


  • Streamline and limit the information we consume
  • Create systems for information handling
  • Adapt our personal environments for improved information management

Use ‘organisation principles’ to shift the responsibility from an overloaded brain to the external world.

According to Levitin:

“The task of organizational systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.”

The information deluge

We’re exposed to an incredible amount of audio-visual data daily. The average person watches 5 hours of TV a day!

That’s numerous streams of input, not all of it created equal.

This poses two problems.

  • Humans are designed to focus on a singular task. Multi-tasking is a myth, evidenced by the fact that we can’t even understand two people conversing simultaneously.
  • We must make numerous decisions about where to focus our attention, which is cognitively draining. Each new social media update depletes our resources.

“When people think they’re multitasking, 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.”


  • Not all inputs are created equal. Edit them to be effective and store only useful information. Discard the rest.
  • Develop a personally effective organisation system, whether paper-based or digital. The information has to be easily-retrievable. Misplaced information is worse than forgotten information.
  • Organise every life bucket to focus on the essentials and reduce psychological strain.

Attentional States

To understand how best to organise our lives, we must first understand the organisational make-up of our minds.

There are four modes of attention:

  • Daydreaming – this is when we’re imagining future scenarios and our likely responses. Research shows that this is our default state when we’re not engaged in a task.
  • Stay-on-task – when we’re occupied by high-level cognitive work like writing or solving a maths problem. We’re in this mode whenever we’re awake and not daydreaming.
  • Attentional filter – there’s too much information in our environment to process so the brain cuts the irrelevant fluff to allow us to focus on essentials. It makes two exceptions – when something in your immediate environment changes [which could signal danger], and when something of personal importance is noticed [like someone calling your name]
  • Attentional switch – when something in your environment changes, you make the split-second decision to focus on the new piece of information. Good example: I was just in the zone writing this article when someone spoke to me, and I made the decision to switch attention from writing to listening.

The memory fallibility

In short, science shows that we don’t remember information as well as we imagine.

Not knowing whether we’re recalling things accurately is a problem in creating an accurate mental map.

We just need to analyse our daily behaviours to see this truth. Rather than trying to remember phone numbers, we put them in the phone book. Rather than remembering meetings, we have a calendar.

This is the basis of The Organized Mind summary. Externalising our memory is the basis of becoming more efficient and effective.

Detach your mind from your body

High performers have external systems to improve their attention and memory.

This helps relieve any cognitive overload, allowing them to focus fully on their most important tasks.

In practice, our minds constantly scan the environment seeking unfinished tasks.

We’ve all experienced those constant mental reminders of an important to-do intruding on our present work.

These are both draining and distracting, consuming vital energy.

The solution?

Document every intruding thought. As long as it’s written down, we’ll achieve psychological relief, allowing us to re-focus on our current task.

One method could use a 3 by 5 notecard system, separated into various life categories:

  • Daily to-do’s
  • Weekly to-do’s
  • Work projects
  • Social
  • etc.

This frees your central executive to return to work knowing each task can be accessed when needed.

The email trap

Email is where most of us get lost in the abyss, wasting precious hours in busywork that could be spent on our goals.

We’ve essentially engineered the perfect distraction system, which we religiously check multiple times a day, squandering valuable attentional resources in task switching.

Instead, it’s far more efficient to only check email at designated times in the calendar.

Organising things

It’s important to categorise our environment to help our brains compute the physical world more effectively.

This allows us to use the environment as a memory jogger.

One example used is placing an empty carton of milk next to you in the car to remember to buy milk, which is often more effective than written reminder.

Other tips:

  • Put things away in designated places to improve physical and mental categorisation
  • Create contingency plans such as hiding a spare house key in the garden, eliminating specific (separate) storage for cash and credit cards

The social sphere

As our network grows [especially with the social media phenomenon], it’s important to categorise and store effectively for later retrieval.

Successful people will often have files containing:

  • How they first met someone
  • Topics of discussion
  • Interests/hobbies

This information will often be supplemented with tags to organise specific people into specific categories for quick, easy recall:

  • Work contacts
  • Sport contacts
  • Family contacts


This is where we all need to improve, I’m sure.

Firstly, spend time on decision according to their worth.

Choose to:

  • Drop
  • Do
  • Delegate
  • Defer

And if you can complete a task within two minutes, just clear the decks and do it, rather than have it play on your mind.

High performers devote themselves to long periods of focussed work. How?

By organising their days in advance.

  • Calendar focus blocks of at least one hour to dedicate to your most important tasks
  • Spend 5-10 minutes before the block writing down everything on your mind to achieve the psychological space needed for focused attention
  • Schedule breaks – even ultra workers need a break. When you feel the itch of distraction, this might be a reminder to unplug from the task and recharge. For better results, organise this downtime in advance.


Sleep, although often neglected in our fast-paced society, is vital for high performance.

When rested we exhibit improved clarity to focus on our goals.


Because the brain is busy processing information during sleep:

Unitization – combining chunks of knowledge, which may be learnt separately, into a bigger picture. For example, a guitar riff might be incorporated into the overall song.
Assimilation – the brain takes new concepts and integrates them with pre-existing knowledge. Much like a Tetris, it experiments for the best fit.
Abstraction – underlying connections between different pieces of information are uncovered and inserted into our memory. This is why we can wake with a solution to a tricky problem.

The Organized Mind summary

  • Have a place for everything and keep everything in its place
  • Externalise as much information as you can to reduce cognitive load
  • Organisation breeds spiritual composure and practices like mindfulness allow you to direct attention effectively
  • This liberates more mental energy to focus on your priorities

Note: If you want to learn more about this topic, perhaps check out Tiago Forte’s Second Brain method.

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