Organizing Our Homes

Organizing Our Homes is the title of a chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind. His subtitle for this chapter is “Where Things Can Start to Get Better”.   I am probably more in need of the information in this chapter than any of the healthymemory blog’s readers. But my problem is primarily motivational in that although I know the systems for effective organization, but I don’t implement them. Unfortunately, Levitin does not provide any motivational advice. Perhaps one day some disaster will occur that will provide me the motivation for implementing these practices.. One practice I do strictly follow is to keep my most important items in the same place. Individual items might be in separate places, but each important item is always kept in the same place. When I travel or move to a new place, one of my first actions is to decide where these important items go. If I want to be sure to remember to take my umbrella on a given day, I place it in a conspicuous place on my way out. However, even this precautionary measure has sometimes failed.

Levitin uses the four system for remembering important items. Every time he leaves the house he checks that he has four things: keys, wallet, phone, and glasses. The number four is significant as we are constrained by the number of items we can hold in our working or short term memories. George Miller’s original number was 7 plus or minus 2. However, that number has shrunk over the years, and is currently down to four. If he needs to remember something else before leaving the house, say to remember to buy mild on the way home, he will either place an empty mild carton on the seat beside him in his car, or he’ll place the carton in his backpack. Of course a note will be do, but some reminder is needed so the note will not be forgotten.

The problem of misplacing items and being unable to find them is ubiquitous. Levitin writes about Magnus Carlsen the number one rated chess in the world when he was 23. He can keep ten games going on at once in memory without looking at the board, but he says, “I forget all kinds of other stuff. I regularly lose my credit cards, my mobile phones,keys, and so on. Actually all of these memory failures are the result of failing to attend where the object is being placed. Moreover, enough attention needs to be devoted to the object so that the location of the object will later be remembered.

Levitin also discusses the concept of affordances. The term is used in the sense that the environment affords you to do something. One of the best examples of affordances are the plates or handles that are placed on doors. The plate affords the pushing of the door. The handle affords the pulling of the door. Unfortunately, these affordances are frequently misplaced. For example, you try to push a door that has a handle on it and it does not move. Once I was following a lady out of the building. She tried to push a handle and then apologizes for being stupid when it did not move. I explained to her that she was not the stupid. Instead it was the architect of the building or the installer of the door who was stupid. The renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner elaborated on these affordances. If you have letters to mail put them near your car keys or house keys so that when you leave the house their affordance reminds you to take them. The goal is to off-load the information from your brain into the environment by using the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done. So the idea is to use the environent as a type of transactive memory.

To people who argue that they are not detailed-oriented, that they are a creative person or some such. Levitin provides some good examples from Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, John Lennon. Michael Jackson even had a person on his staff titled the chief archivist. Organization was essential to these creative people.

Levitin provides these three general rules of organization..

      1. A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item.

      2. If there is an existing standard, use it.

      3. Don’t keep what you can’t use.

Personally I have much difficulty with this third rule.

Levitin devotes a section to the digital home where he recommends organizing by devices, where special devices perform special tasks. He has another section on the storage of information in different types of media and the advantages and disadvantages of each. He notes, rather discouragingly, that digital files are rarely readable for more than ten years. He notes that within the spreadsheet Excel you can link any entry in a cell to a document on the computer. So financial documents for a given year could be in a PDF file linked to a cell in a spreadsheet.

Above all, do not multi-task while you are organizing. He notes that just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognition. Glenn Wilson of Gresham College in London calls it infomania He has done research that demonstrated that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an e-mail is sitting unread in the inbox can reduce the effective by 10 points. He has also shown that cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot smoking.

A neuroscientist at Stanford, Russ Poldrack, found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. The information goes into the striatum, a region specialized for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Absent the distraction of TV the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organized and categorized in a number of ways so that it is easier to retrieve.

Moreover, there are metabolic costs to switching attention. Shifting the brain from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel needed to stay on task. The rapid, continual shifting when we multitask causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain compromisisng both cognitive and physical performance. In addition, repeated task switching leads to anxiety , which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain which in turn can lead to aggressive and compulsive behavior. In contrast, staing on task is controlled by the anterior cingulate and the striatum ,and once we engage the central executive mode, staying in that state uses less energy than multitasking and actually reduces the brain’s need for glucose. .

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