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

base_ed95e7d524Modern technologies constantly attack our brains, pouring on them unprecedented amounts of information. Someone believes that multitasking is possible, but many scientists believe that this mode of communication with the outside world does not do us a favor. The question is, how to protect ourselves from its side effects and not to be turned into an information ascetic.

Neuroscientist, musician and writer Daniel Levitin of McGill University recently presented his new book «The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload» at a lecture at the University of Cambridge. He explains why multitasking adversely affects our productivity and how to fight it. base_8736e118fd

We do live in an era when the world was overloaded with information. According to Google, humanity gave birth to about 300 exabytes of information (it is 300 with 18 zeros). Only 4 years ago, the number of existing information was estimated at 30 exabytes. It turns out that over the past few years we have produced more information than in the entire history of mankind. Every day we have to process 5 times more data than 25-30 years ago. It would be like to read from title to title 175 newspapers a day! I want to say that information overload is a reality. This is a discrepancy between the information produced and our ability to process it.

Besides the fact that we are trying to cope with exabytes of information in the network, we are overloaded with new daily tasks. If 30 years ago traveling was organized by travel agencies, products in the store were given by sellers, and typists helped business people to organize correspondance, now we have to do everything ourrselves. Many professions simply disappeared. We book tickets and hotels orselves checking in for a flight. Moreover, utility bills aren’t sent by post anymore – we have to print them from special recources! For example, in Canada, they just stopped sending bills. That is, we have to do the work of ten men and still trying to keep up with our own life: taking care of children, parents, chat with friends, find time for work, hobbies and favorite TV shows. In total we spend about 5 hours a week on tasks that were previously performed for us by other people.
It seems to us that we are doing several things at once, but in fact it is a very big mistake. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the leading experts in the field of attention, argues that our brain is not designed for multitasking. When people think they’re occupied in several things at the same time, they are really just very quickly switch from one task to another. And each time, it takes some resources.
Shifting attention from one task to another, the brain burns glucose, which also is needed to save the concentration. Due to the constant switching fuel is consumed quickly, and we feel tired after a few minutes, because we literally exhausted the resources of nutrients for the brain. This threatens the quality of both mental and physical work.


“I do not want to decide anything” – a serious signal from the brain

Multitasking requires to continually make decisions. Reply to a message now or later? How to answer it? How and where to save this message? Continue to work or take a break? All these minor decisions require the same amount of energy as important and significant ones. We spend a lot of effort into small solutions, but there is a risk that we will not be able to make the right choice when it is necessary. We seem to understand what is important for us and what is not, but in the brain these are the same processes. The decision what color of pan to choose, and the decision to enter into a contract with a particular company take the same resources.
Of course, no matter how we try to avoid performing multiple tasks at the same time, we can’t avoid it completey. Nevertheless, there are effective ways to restore order in our own mind, to become more productive and to get more joy of life.


Divide the work into cycles

What have in common air traffic controllers and interpreters? These jobs are very stressful because they require constant attention and switching between tasks. That is why they work in “cycles” and often make short breaks. At work, we are increasingly bombarded with letters, orders, calls. Try to do 15-minute breaks every hour or two. You can have a walk, get some fresh air. Then come back and you will be able to work faster and more efficiently. Studies show that over-working reduces the efficiency of work: a work requiring 20 minutes, takes tired employees an hour.


Change the mode of concentration

Breaks are closely related to the two modes of attention, in which the brain can work. The first one is a mode of concentration, the so-called central-executive mode, the second is mind-wandering mode. The last one is activated when we read literature, admire art, walk or day dream. 15 minutes in this mode allow you to “reset” the brain and feel fresh and rested. Thoughts at this time are simply incoherent and arise in the head, you do not control them. We must force ourselves to periodically shift to “wandering”, to disconnect from the Internet and e-mail.

Make important decisions in the morning

There was an experiment: people were invited to participate in a laboratory survey. But first they were bombarded with questions: what color of pen do you want? Black or blue? How to place a sheet of paper? Vertically or horizontally? Do you want coffee? Two or three spoonfuls of sugar? With or without milk? And then they were given a questionnaire with really important philosophical problems. Most people could no longer cope with it, they needed a break. They felt tired after the preceding series of small decisions. The conclusion from this experiment: important decisions are to be taken early in the morning.


Create “extenders” of the brain

“Extenders” of the brain – that is everything that carries information from our head in the real world: calendars, notepads, to-do lists, a box for keys. For example, if you listen to the weather forecast and the announcer says that it will rain tomorrow, instead of trying to remember to take an umbrella, put it directly at the front door. Now the environment reminds you of the umbrella. The bottom line is that all these pieces of information are fighting for space and resources in our head, knocking your thoughts. As a result, you increasingly difficult to pay attention to what you’re doing at the moment.


Live the moment

I think it is wrong to physically be in one place, and mentally to be in the other. But this often happens. Being at work, we think that we still need to walk the dog, take the child out of the garden and call aunt. And being at home we remember all  undone  work affairs. I don’t encourage everyone to become a robot, but I think this is important – to be able to perform their tasks at work and have more time to rest, adventures, communication, art. Otherwise you get less enjoyment of life.


Don’t go too far

The important thing in the pursuit of efficiency is not to spend too much time on the ordering of our lives. If you think that you quickly deal with everything, you should not waste time.