The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload
By Daniel J. Levitin
Dutton, 2014

I re-read this book in 2022; see my updated notes.

If you’re like me (and many other people), you have at least one “junk” drawer in your home. You know what I mean: a place where you store assorted batteries, screws, cables, pens (functional and otherwise), and so on — usually somewhere out of sight.

Far from something to be embarrassed by, junk drawers represent an innate human skill. They’re the result of how we make sense of the world: by categorizing things, establishing distinctions between them. The lightbulbs over here, cleaning products over there, office supplies in that other place. And the rest? The stuff that doesn’t fit neatly into a category? The junk drawer.

The fact junk drawers are common doesn’t result from them being the best way to organize stuff. If you’ve ever been at a loss trying to find something in your home, only to find it later among the many knick-knacks stuffed out of sight, you’ve experienced this firsthand.

The Organized Mind is a deep — yet accessible — dive into the neuroscience of how we make sense of the world. It explains how we (our bodies, including the all-important nervous system) establish distinctions between things (and people) so we can remember where they are, what they are, how to best interact with them, etc.

While the science behind all of this is fascinating, the book doesn’t stop at science. The author makes the subject practical by translating scientific insights into actionable heuristics. For example, he offers three organization rules to help you minimize the junk drawer problem:

  • Organization rule 1: A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item.

  • Organization rule 2: If there is an existing standard, use it.

  • Organization rule 3: Don’t keep what you can’t use.

Some of this may seem obvious, but it’s good to understand the reasons why it works. For people like myself, who categorize things for a living, it’s especially useful to grok our nervous systems’ organizational abilities at a low level.

That said, the book covers a lot of ground. So much so, that in parts I found it difficult to follow how specific subjects connected to the greater whole. Ironically, I found The Organized Mind to be something of an intellectual junk drawer. That said, junk drawers are not without their uses — and pleasures.

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