A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Getting Organized | WBEZ
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Note to Self

A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Getting Organized

If you had to guess, how many facts have you taken in today? How many factoids, dates, times, sale alerts, tweet-sized factoids, and other factual-or-at-least-pretending-to-be-factual pieces of information have passed across your screen? At this rate, how many more do you expect to take in by midnight? 

Let us present you with one more: According to Dr. Daniel Levitin, author of "The Organized Mind," your brain can only fully absorb four. Four.

"[More] will compete for neural resources with what you're really doing at the moment, what's in front of you. Your brain will be narrating... all of this undone stuff," Levitin says on this week's show.

We’ll be hearing more from him later this month when we dig very, very deep into the phenomenon of “information overload” – and to get there, we need your help. Click here to take our quick survey on what information overload looks like for you. Your responses will help us build a project that actually matters to you.

In the meantime, you can hear Dr. Levitin's explanation of where our neurological limits lie, either in the player above or on iTunesStitcherTuneInI Heart Radio, and anywhere else using our RSS feed.

He also gave us some tips on setting limits. Here's a cheat sheet (in numerical order as he suggests!):

1. Write down everything you need to do. Everything! Then make sure you prioritize what really needs to be first. Basically: brain dump with bullet points, then go through and number in order of importance.

"You look at your list of things to do and there's one that you've put there on top, you sit down to do that, and you really become immersed in it. Instead of wondering, like so many of us do, 'Is there something else I should be doing? Is this really the thing I should be doing? Let me check my email, maybe there's something more important...'"

2. Find a way of making all your digital stuff look different. You could create different email accounts for different parts of your life, or amp up your Gmail to do some real filtering for you.

"During the day when information comes in you're not quite sure how important it is, or how important it's going to be. [If] you have no system for it, you can't attach it to anything on your priorities list. And so you put it in your brain and you kind of toss it and turn it around, and because it doesn't attach to anything, it takes up neuro-resources."

3. If paring down isn't an option, communicate.  Need to keep up with everything at your demanding job? Then your challenge is one of communication: explain to those around you what's on your plate in terms of priorities – i.e., "yes, I will read that, but after I put the finishing touches on this. It's due at 3 p.m. See my list of priorities I wrote out right here? I can make changes if need be, but..." 

Levitin says these are conversations best handled in person.

4. Don’t beat yourself up about it. When you start to feel overwhelmed, that is the exact moment when you need to make your list of prioriites.

"Cortisol is released whenever we're trying to do more than we can handle. Its part of the fight or flight response, which made a whole lot of sense in hunter-gatherer times but now it's just toxic, it makes your stomach ache, it shuts down your immune system, you're more likely to get sick when you're stressed. All because of cortisol."

Stay tuned for more from Dr. Levitin, and don't forget to take our survey here!

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