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Friday, 30 January 2015

12 insights + a bit more detail - from an @RSAEvents "thinking straight in the age of information #overload" lunchtime talk @theRSAorg by @danlevitin

Yesterday I listened live to this lunchtime lecture. Thanks to the rsa for the event.  (at the foot of this post are links to other posts from rsa and similar lectures/posts/reports)

The lecture (he also did one at LSE - the blog post is here) was - I think  - prompted by his latest book

  • The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload - Buy now
    Daniel J. Levitin (Viking, 2015)

What follows is a summary based on tweets by others on the lunchtime event and my own notes.  But 1st if you want 12 insights from the lecture ...

1) Multi-tasking is a myth - you're just quickly switching between tasks - use uni-tasking to get more done more creatively

2) To be more creative & effective- every 2 hours allow 10-15 minutes to daydream - its restorative and helps us make connections between things we didn't see as connected - a bit like a neural reset button

3) Sage on the stage passive learning doesn't stick - solo study then together in class applying ideas in novel situations does

4) Sometime categorising thinks into a "junk draw" is more cognitively economic

5) Improvisation is often actually bits worked out beforehand - and then used in an improvised way

6) Decision making burns glucose - so make important decisions early in the day (& eat breakfast?!)

7) We often procrastinate because to make the decision is unpleasant or we don't know where to start - so just get it over with early in the day

8) Novel/new information is addictive - it triggers dopamine - learn to self blinker to focus & prioritise rather than just constantly standing directly in the information flow

9) Don't waste more time on a decision than its worth

10) To make better decisions ask good questions that move your knowledge forward

11) Brainstorming is rarely effective if you want to get creative solutions - instead ask individuals to go away and daydream ideas, test them, and then come back to the group to share them

12) To maintain concentration once/twice a day write down everything in your head


Why did he write the book?

  1. .'s inspiration for the book was a desire to make the most of his time as both a scientist & artist.

So he reviewed as many of the books on this subject as he could (from this review he thinks few are based on any scientific evidence)

Finding little science in the books he turned to the 4000 or so scientific papers on the subjects of memory, attention, productiveness.  

Plus he looked at what people actually do - artists, CEOs, the successful, politicians (often Executive Assistants were an informative source of great ideas)

An age of information overload

  1. "We take in 5x more information on a daily basis today than in 1986"- Daniel levitin

In 2011, we took in five times as much information every day as we did in 1986 – the equivalent of 175 newspapers. During our leisure time every day, each of us processes 34 gigabytes, or 100,000 words—and that’s not even counting our work.

Back in the 1980's there were typically 9000 items in store - now there are some 40,000. Yet on average we only look at some 150 each trip.  The cognitive cost of ignoring the 36850 is significant.

At work many of us are thinking of things we need to do outside work, outside work we are thinking about work.  In neither place are we wholly there as we busily multi-tasking

The myth of multi- tasking

We think we are being efficient when multi-tasking, but ...

  1. multitasking doesn't really exist brains just rapidly shift from 1 thing to another & results in ineffectiveness

  1. "Multi-tasking doesn't work" - says Daniel Levitin, as I type on Twitter

People who uni-task - who focus on one thing - often feel as though they have achieved less than if they had multi-tasked.  Yet studies find that by any objective measure uni-taskers both get more done than multi-taskers AND are more creative in their work.

the creative mode for the brain

  1. I can't imagine Picasso would paint for a minute then go check his email. That isn't how creativity works -

  1. a 15 min daydreaming breaks or naps every 2 hours has been shown to boost IQ by 10% & make people more effective

Daydreaming or mind-wandering, we now know, is a natural state of the brain. Its restorative and helps us make connections between things we didn't see as connected.  Its a bit like a neural reset button

3 Rs of mind wandering: reset, replenish, restore. just 15 mins

Insights from the Q&A

Multi-tasking & gender

  1. Women better at task switching than men - based on evolution

e.g. probably had to be better due to evolutionary child care role.  So women will make better air traffic controllers, journalists, simultaneous translators


the sage on the stage model of passive teaching doesn't work. Students remember 20% of their courses 1 year on

because the knowledge is acquired passively.  So ...

  1. Students at Levitin's uni do solo study then meet to discuss applying ideas in novel situations

with such an approach they "retain for life" the knowledge because they are actively involved

Lessons from studies on how the brain works

We are natural organisers of things into categories - and sometime when its not worth the thinking time to categorise ..

  1. We all have a junk drawer in our kitchen where we put misc stuff

the junk draw is cognitively economic


is often actually bits of what we have worked out beforehand - and then used in an improvised way

Decision Making

  1. We use up as much energy making trivial decisions as when making more important ones.

Decision making burns glucose - so on what time of the day to make decisions (assuming you have breakfast?) ...

  1. .'s advice on decision-making: prioritise & make your important decisions earlier in the day when at your peak.


We often procrastinate because to make the decision is unpleasant or we don't know where to start.

So one piece of advice if you want to find solutions to problems is ....

  1. Procrastination - solve problems by day dreaming, sleeping, walking in nature,

another is to just get the decision over with by making it early in the day

Addictiveness of information

  1. Is info addictive? Yes. We've evolved novelty detectors. Novelty triggers dopamine. We are bombarded by new info constantly.

Lessons form interviews with the Joint Chiefs

1) don't waste more time on a decision than its worth

  1. How to make better decisions? "Ask a good question that moves the situation forward" As a coach I totally agree!

Restructuring how we work

Open floor plans are often good for the quick flow of ideas

  1. we have to learn to self blinker to focus & prioritise rather than just constantly stand in the information flow

Brainstorming isn't 

  1. unconstrained brainstorming rarely effective, individuals coming up with ideas & then sharing them is

Maintaining concentration

  1. Once/twice a day write down everything in your head - you'll immediately be more effective

or try turning off email for an hour


These techniques can work well for those who can do them 

  • Mindfulness/meditation is just as restorative as 'mind-wandering mode' & naps according to .

  • other posts on RSA, TED, other lectures, conferences, others blog posts

    thinking straight in the age of information overload - by @danlevitin - this post
    how to become a soulful organisation - by @fred_laloux - from January 2015

    thoughts & headlines from conference on social media and images - from November 2014
    Data Protection & Privacy - 8 issues from an International Conference - from October 2014
    escape your social horizon limit & understand more - from August 2014
    OECD - challenges for the next 50 years - in an OECD report - from July 2014
    Want to help somebody - shut up and listen - by ermesto sirolli - from June 2014
    social media & death - 10 things you may not have thought about - #DORS conference - from April 2014
    persuasion and power in the modern world and the rise of soft power - UK House of Lords - from March 2014
    UK Government Policy Blunders & their common causes - by Anthony King & Ivor Crewe - from September 2013
    the development of the U2 spyplane - from August 2013
    Guide to Comments (esp. #YouTube) for creators - by @vihartvihart - from July 2013
    considering culture and business process improvement - from May 2013
    ideas for your organisation from the 2013 99U conference - from May 2013
    ideas that may help you attract older volunteers - from May 2013
    physical factors which help people get better quicker - from April 2013
    a new approach to school and education - by Geetha Narayanan - from March 2013
    principles for software to encourage participation - by Gerhard Fischer - from March 2013
    guiding principles on designing construction kits - by Mitchel Resnick & Brian Silverman - from March 2013
    how to identify the #culture of an organisation - from February 2013
    signs of overparenting - from February 2013
    making ideas happen - from January 2013

    how to spot a liar - by pamela myer - from July 2012

    the related world of cyber crime, warfare and industrial espionage - by @mishaglenny - from September 2011

    ambiguity, irreverence, commentary & judgement - by lauren zalaznick - from September 2011
    measuring happiness - from May 2011

    1 comment:

    1. A great summary - I will link to your post when I release my reflections - just having 15 minutes nap first ! ;-)