Daniel Levitin on How to Conquer Information Overload

Feb 9, 2015
9 Min Read

Too much information has overloaded our brains, leading us to become more forgetful and indecisive. But an expert says there are ways to think clearly and make better decisions – and never again forget where we put our wallet.

Every day millions of us search for our car keys, our smartphones and our sunglasses. We can’t remember passwords for our online banking account and lose critical emails or other bits of data important for our work.

While dealing with such stress and frustration, we’re being constantly bombarded with information from thousands of different sources. For example, in 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986, or the equivalent of 175 newspapers. Is it any wonder that we become paralyzed by the sheer volume of incoming data, causing us to have more and more brain blips?

Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, psychologist and author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload,” says that while we’re all faced with “an unprecedented amount of information to remember,” most of us are still trying to “keep track of things using the systems that were put in place in a pre-computerized era.”

For example, one of the problems is that the computer has evolved into “that big disorganized drawer everyone has in their kitchen.”

“We have files we don’t know about, others that appeared mysteriously by accident when we read an email, and multiple versions of the same document,” making it difficult to determine what is the most recent, he explains.

But he says that he’s found examples of how high achievers manage to keep things running smoothly without getting bogged down by information overload. Their systems make a “profound difference” and enable them to have time for fun and relaxation, he says.

Here are some ways Levitin – using scientific research – says that we can become better at being more focused, productive and less stressed.

  1. Just say “no.” Become your own enforcer of no email or Internet for certain periods so you can sustain your concentration. Don’t check your email every time something arrives in your in-box, but instead check your email only during certain periods. Prioritize your critical tasks for the day and then stick to the plan, learning to ignore that nagging voice that’s trying to get you to do something else (like checking out funny goat videos on YouTube.)
  2. Reach for the reset. When the brain goes into “brain wandering mode,” it is serving as a neural reset button that gives you a refreshed perspective. A 15-minute nap can provide such a reset, as can reading, walking outside, looking at art or meditating.
  3. Do an information dump. If it’s supposed to snow tomorrow while you’re at work, forget reminding yourself to bring your snow boots. Just get the boots and set them by the door. That way, he explains, the environment is going to remind you about taking the boots instead of forcing your brain to keep track of it and clutter your thoughts. If you find ways to rid your brain of so much responsibility, you can better focus your attention on what is in front of you.
  4. Buy some index cards. Putting a to-do list on a computer or smartphone may not be the best method for focusing on priorities. The problem is that you have to scroll through the whole list every time you consult it. But with index cards, you prioritize your tasks with the most important on top. (It’s a technique used by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg).
  5. Control incoming messages. In a method used by executive assistants at the White House, correspondence is sometimes put into more than one category. Reports or letters might be filed by committees and by projects, and is marked as it comes in with appropriate tags. If you have a phone conversation that you need to remember, jot down your notes and send it to yourself in an email that you can then file accordingly. You can also set up different email accounts – one for personal and one for business. That allows you to turn off your personal account when working on business and limit distractions.
  6. Purge once a year. You may procrastinate about making a decision on whether to throw something away, and before you know it your email is overflowing with thousands of emails awaiting a decision or stacks of paper teetering on your desk like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. “It’s important to go through piles on a regular basis to whittle them down, trim them, or re-sort them – not everything in them remains relevant forever,” he says.
  7. Take 10. Psychiatrists work in 50-minute sessions, allowing them to jot down their notes before the next patient. So instead of scheduling back-to-back meetings, give yourself 10 minutes to write down your thoughts, what happened and what needs to be done. It’s also a good idea to give yourself 10 minutes before a meeting to review what needs to happen. “It’s good neural hygiene for your brain to give it time to switch into the mind-set of your next meeting gradually and in a relaxed way before the meeting starts,” he explains.  At the same time, if you get interrupted while working on a project, make notes so that when you return you’ll be able to resume the work more quickly.
  8. Scrutinize your junk drawer. “Our junk drawers provide a perfect metaphor for how we live our lives,” he says. Old shopping lists, broken dog collars and five screwdrivers of the same size don’t make a lot of sense, and that’s why we all need to take time to check out the “junk drawers” in our offices and computers. Is the item serving you? Does it clutter up your thinking so that you’re not open to new ideas? Is the purpose clear?

“Getting organized,” Levitan says, “can bring us to the next level in our lives.”

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