Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

The Organized Mind

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, a book by Daniel Levitin, explores “how humans have coped with information and organization from the beginning of civilization. … It’s also the story of how the most successful members of society—from successful artists, athletes, and warriors, to business executives and highly credentialed professionals—have learned to maximize their creativity, and efficiency, by organizing their lives so that they spend less time on the mundane, and more time on the inspiring, comforting, and rewarding things in life.”


Memory is fallible. More than just remembering things wrongly, “we don’t even know we’re remembering them wrongly.”

The first humans who figured out how to write things down around 5,000 years ago were in essence trying to increase the capacity of their hippocampus, part of the brain’s memory system. They effectively extended the natural limits of human memory by preserving some of their memories on clay tablets and cave walls, and later, papyrus and parchment. Later, we developed other mechanisms —such as calendars, filing cabinets, computers, and smartphones— to help us organize and store the information we’ve written down. When our computer or smartphone starts to run slowly, we might buy a larger memory card. That memory is both a metaphor and a physical reality. We are off-loading a great deal of the processing that our neurons would normally do to an external device that then becomes an extension of our own brains, a neural enhancer.

These external memory mechanisms are generally of two types, either following the brain’s own organizational system or reinventing it, sometimes overcoming its limitations. Knowing which is which can enhance the way we use these systems, and so improve our ability to cope with information overload.

And once memory became external (written down and stored) our attention systems “were freed up to focus on something else.”

But we need a place (and a system) to organize all of this information.

The indexing problem is that there are several possibilities about where you store this report, based on your needs: It could be stored with other writings about plants, or with writings about family history, or with writings about cooking, or with writings about how to poison an enemy.

This brings us to two aspects of the human brain that are not given their due: richness and associative access.

Richness refers to the theory that a large number of the things you’ve ever thought or experienced are still in there, somewhere. Associative access means that your thoughts can be accessed in a number of different ways by semantic or perceptual associations— memories can be triggered by related words , by category names, by a smell, an old song or photograph, or even seemingly random neural firings that bring them up to consciousness.

Being able to access any memory regardless of where it is stored is what computer scientists call random access. DVDs and hard drives work this way; videotapes do not. You can jump to any spot in a movie on a DVD or hard drive by “pointing” at it. But to get to a particular point in a videotape, you need to go through every previous point first (sequential access). Our ability to randomly access our memory from multiple cues is especially powerful. Computer scientists call it relational memory. You may have heard of relational databases— that’s effectively what human memory is.


Having relational memory means that if I want to get you to think of a fire truck, I can induce the memory in many different ways. I might make the sound of a siren, or give you a verbal description (“ a large red truck with ladders on the side that typically responds to a certain kind of emergency”).

We categorize objects in a seemingly infinite number of ways. Each of those ways “has its own route to the neural node that represents fire truck in your brain.” Take a look at one way we can think of a firetruck.


Thinking about one memory or association activates more. This can be both a strength and a weakness.

If you are trying to retrieve a particular memory, the flood of activations can cause competition among different nodes, leaving you with a traffic jam of neural nodes trying to get through to consciousness, and you end up with nothing.

Organizing our Lives

The ancients Greeks came up with memory palaces and the method of loci to improve memory. The Egyptians became experts at externalizing information, inventing perhaps the biggest pre-google repository of knowledge, the library.

We don’t know why these simultaneous explosions of intellectual activity occurred when they did (perhaps daily human experience had hit a certain level of complexity). But the human need to organize our lives, our environment, even our thoughts, remains strong. This need isn’t simply learned, it is a biological imperative— animals organize their environments instinctively.

But the odd thing about the mind is that it doesn’t, on its own, organize things the way you might want it to. It’s largely an unconscious process.

It comes preconfigured, and although it has enormous flexibility, it is built on a system that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to deal with different kinds and different amounts of information than we have today. To be more specific: The brain isn’t organized the way you might set up your home office or bathroom medicine cabinet. You can’t just put things anywhere you want to. The evolved architecture of the brain is haphazard and disjointed, and incorporates multiple systems, each of which has a mind of its own (so to speak). Evolution doesn’t design things and it doesn’t build systems— it settles on systems that, historically, conveyed a survival benefit (and if a better way comes along, it will adopt that). There is no overarching, grand planner engineering the systems so that they work harmoniously together. The brain is more like a big, old house with piecemeal renovations done on every floor, and less like new construction.

Consider this, then, as an analogy: You have an old house and everything is a bit outdated, but you’re satisfied. You add a room air conditioner during one particularly hot summer. A few years later, when you have more money, you decide to add a central air-conditioning system. But you don’t remove that room unit in the bedroom— why would you ? It might come in handy and it’s already there, bolted to the wall. Then a few years later, you have a catastrophic plumbing problem—pipes burst in the walls. The plumbers need to break open the walls and run new pipes, but your central air-conditioning system is now in the way, where some of their pipes would ideally go. So they run the pipes through the attic, the long way around. This works fine until one particularly cold winter when your uninsulated attic causes your pipes to freeze. These pipes wouldn’t have frozen if you had run them through the walls, which you couldn’t do because of the central air-conditioning. If you had planned all this from the start, you would have done things differently, but you didn’t— you added things one thing at a time, as and when you needed them.

Or you can use Sherlock Holmes’ analogy of a memory attic. As Holmes tells Watson, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as your choose.”

Levitin argues that we should learn “how our brain organizes information so that we can use what we have, rather than fight against it.” We do this primarily through the key processes of encoding and retrieval.

(Our brains are) built as a hodgepodge of different systems, each one solving a particular adaptive problem. Occasionally they work together, occasionally they’re in conflict, and occasionally they aren’t even talking to one another. Two of the key ways that we can control and improve the process are to pay special attention to the way we enter information into our memory— encoding—and the way we pull it out— retrieval.

We’re busier than ever. That’s not to say that it’s information overload, as there are arguments to why that doesn’t exist. Our internal to-do list is never satisfied. We’re overwhelmed with things disguised as wisdom or even information and we’re forced to sort through the nonsense. Levitin implies that one consequence to this approach is that we’re losing things. Our keys. Our driver’s licenses. Our iPhone. And it’s not just physical things. “we also forget things we were supposed to remember, important things like the password to our e-mail or a website, the PIN for our cash cards— the cognitive equivalent of losing our keys.”

These are important and hard to replace things.

We don’t tend to have general memory failures; we have specific, temporary memory failures for one or two things. During those frantic few minutes when you’re searching for your lost keys, you (probably) still remember your name and address, where your television set is, and what you had for breakfast —it’s just this one memory that has been aggravatingly lost. There is evidence that some things are typically lost far more often than others: We tend to lose our car keys but not our car, we lose our wallet or cell phone more often than the stapler on our desk or soup spoons in the kitchen, we lose track of coats and sweaters and shoes more often than pants. Understanding how the brain’s attentional and memory systems interact can go a long way toward minimizing memory lapses.

These simple facts about the kinds of things we tend to lose and those that we don’t can tell us a lot about how our brains work, and a lot about why things go wrong.

The way this works is fascinating. Levitin also hits on a topic that has long interested me. “Companies,” he writes, “are like expanded brains, with individual workers functioning something like neurons.”

Companies tend to be collections of individuals united to a common set of goals, with each worker performing a specialized function. Businesses typically do better than individuals at day-to-day tasks because of distributed processing. In a large business, there is a department for paying bills on time (accounts payable), and another for keeping track of keys (physical plant or security). Although the individual workers are fallible, systems and redundancies are usually in place, or should be, to ensure that no one person’s momentary distraction or lack of organization brings everything to a grinding halt. Of course, business organizations are not always prefectly organized, and occasionally, through the same cognitive blocks that cause us to lose our car keys, businesses lose things, too— profits, clients, competitive positions in the marketplace.

In today’s world it’s hard to keep up. We have pin numbers, phone numbers, email addresses, multiple to-do lists, small physical objects to keep track of, kids to pick up, books to read, videos to watch, nearly infinite websites to browse, and so on. Most of us, however, are still largely using the systems to organize and maintain this knowledge that were put into place in a less informatic time.

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload shows us how to organize our time better, “not just so we can be more efficient but so we can find more time for fun, for play, for meaningful relationships, and for creativity.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Your Ego and the Cosmic Perspective

All you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.”

In this short video, theoretical physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson puts our ego into the perspective of the enormous universe.

There’s something about the cosmic perspective, which for some people is enlightening and for other people it’s terrifying. For those who are terrified by it, they’re here on earth and they have a certain self-identity, and then they learn that earth is tiny and we’re in this void of interplanetary space and then there’s a star that we call the Sun and that’s kind of average and there’s a hundred billion other stars in a galaxy. And our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of 50 or 100 billion other galaxies in the universe. And with every step, every window that modern astrophysics has opened to our mind, the person who wants to feel like they’re the center of everything ends up shrinking. And for some people they might even find it depressing, I assert that if you were depressed after learning and being exposed to the perspective, you started your day with an unjustifiably large ego. You thought more highly of yourself than in fact the circumstances deserved.

So here’s what you do: You say, “I have no ego at all.” Let’s start that way. “I have no ego, no cause to puff myself up.” Now let’s learn about the cosmic perspective. Yeah, we’re on a planet that’s orbiting a star, and a star is an energy source and it’s giving us energy, and we’re feeling this energy, and life is enabled by this energy in this star. And by the way, there’s a hundred billion other stars that have other planets. There might be other life out there, could be like us. It’s probably not like us, but whatever it is, it’d be fascinating to find out who it is. Can we talk to them? Can we not? Are they more advanced? Are they less advanced? By the way, the atoms of our body are traceable to what stars do.

And all you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.

So those who see the cosmic perspective as a depressing outlook, they really need to reassess how they think about the world. Because when I look up in the universe, I know I’m small, but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe and the universe is connected to me.

Still curious? Tyson is full of wisdom. Check out: Why persuading with facts is not enough; Why words, names, and labels matter; and his list of books that every single intelligent person on the planet should read. And if that’s not enough, check out his fascinating book: Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.

(↬ SwissMiss)

The Common Pattern To Procrastination


​​“Think of all the years passed by in which you said to yourself “I’ll do it tomorrow,” and how the gods have again and again granted you periods of grace of which you have not availed yourself. It is time to realize that you are a member of the Universe, that you are born of Nature itself, and to know that a limit has been set to your time.”Marcus Aurelius

If you procrastinate, you’re in good company. Most of us, and I’m talking like 95% of people here, are in the same boat. “To stop procrastinating” is one of the top goals of many people I run into.

In his book, The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, Piers Steel says “Procrastination is pervasive. Almost as common as gravity and with an equal downward pull, it is with us from the overfull kitchen garbage can in the morning to the nearly empty tube of toothpaste at night.”

Steel perfectly describes the pattern common to all procrastination:

At the start of a big project, time is abundant. You wallow in its elastic embrace. You make a few passes at getting down to it, but nothing makes you feel wholeheartedly engaged. If the job can be forgotten, you’ll forget it. Then the day arrives when you really intend to get down to work; but suddenly it’s just something you don’t feel like doing. You can’t get traction. Every time you try to wrap your mind around it, something distracts you, defeating your attempts at progress. So you forward your task to a date with more hours, only to find that every tomorrow seems to have the same twenty-four. At the end of each of these days, you face the disquieting mystery of where it went. This goes on for a while.


Eventually, time’s limited nature reveals itself. Hours, once tossed carelessly away, become increasingly limited and precious. That very pressure makes it hard to get started. You want to get going on the big project but instead you take on peripheral chores. You clean your office or clean up your e-mail; you exercise; you shop and cook. Part of you knows this isn’t what you should be doing, and so you say to yourself, “I am doing this; at least I am preparing by doing something.” Eventually, it is too late in the day to really get started, so you may as well go to bed. And the cycle of avoidance starts again with the dawn.

At this point, in an attempt to quash our growing anxiety, we often seek diversion. Hello email or our new found love of cricket, a sport we had never thought to watch before but now find utterly fascinating. We go on facebook, reddit, twitter and the like which offers us a rush of dopamine. They provide small quick and continuous rewards, unlike the task at hand, which is a one time future reward.

Soon these temptations have seduced you. The task still waggles itself in the periphery of your vision, but you don’t want to look it in the eye—it will have you if you look—so you burrow deeper into your distractions. … Pleasure turns to powerlessness as you become unable to extract yourself.

Yet the deadline approaches and our diversions need to increase in intensity to match our growing anxiety. Avoidance kicks in, we don’t even want to open emails from people or with subjects that remind us of the dreaded task. Eventually something clicks, perhaps our desire to prevent pain kicks in and we start working.

Some inner mind has quietly boiled the task down to its essence, as there are no more moments to spare. You wade into the work, making ruthless decisions and astonishing progress. In place of that menacing cloudiness, a glittering clarity comes over you. There is purity to your work, fueled by the real urgency of now or never.

This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy.
For some of us this initial rush is enough to power us through. For others, it is only the sprinter failing to pace himself at the start of a marathon. In the face of depleting energy and interest we turn to caffeine, sugar, and all nighters. Time runs out and we deliver what we have content that, while it was not our best work, at least we got it done.

The relief at getting a job done doesn’t always make up for doing a sloppy job. Even if you managed to perform brilliantly, the achievement is tainted with a whiff of what might have been. And this kind of procrastination has likely cast a cloud on an evening out, a party, or a vacation, which you couldn’t fully enjoy because half of your mind was elsewhere, obsessing about what you were avoiding.

Yet this is an excuse. Something that lets us out of committing ourselves. We convince ourselves that we could have done a better job if we hadn’t left it to the last minute…but maybe we couldn’t have. This way we never fail.

We tell ourselves that we will never never again be in this situation, that the cost of procrastinating is too high, that …

The trouble with such resolutions is that procrastination is a habit that tends to endure. Instead of dealing with our delays, we excuse ourselves from them— self-deception and procrastination often go hand-in-hand. Exploiting the thin line between couldn’t and wouldn’t, we exaggerate the difficulties we faced and come up with justifications: a bad chest cold, an allergic reaction that caused sleepiness, a friend’s crisis that demanded our attention. Or we deflect responsibility entirely by saying, “Gee whiz, who knew?” If you couldn’t have anticipated the situation, then you can’t be blamed.

We tend to explain procrastination as perfectionism. “That we delay because we are perfectionists, anxious about living up to sky-high standards.” But it doesn’t pan out.

Based on tens of thousands of participants— it’s actually the best-researched topic in the entire procrastination field—perfectionism produces a negligible amount of procrastination.

Piers offers a simple explanation for why we believe this theory despite the evidence. “Perfectionists who procrastinate are more likely to seek help from therapists.”

“You value rewards that can be realized quickly far more highly than rewards that require you to wait; simply, you are impulsive.”

As for combatting procrastination. That’s pretty simple. “Proper planning,” he argues, echoing the likes of Peter Bregman and Tim Ferriss, “allows you to transform distant deadlines into daily ones, letting your impulsiveness work for instead of against you.”

Still curious? The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done goes on to explore the science of procrastination.

Hyperbolic Discounting and The Science of Procrastination

Temporal Discounting

A great short video on the science of procrastination and the role of hyperbolic discounting.

Basically, when we procrastinate, we often choose things like video games, facebook, twitter, and even email. These options are very attractive because they provide small quick dopamine rewards, unlike what we’re avoiding, which is likely a one time future reward.

Human motivation is highly influenced by how imminent the reward is perceived to be — meaning, the further away the reward is, the more you discount its value. This is often referred to as Present bias, or Hyperbolic discounting.

Alan Watts: Why Modern Civilization is a Vicious Circle

Alan Watts The Wisdom of Insecurity

“When we compare human with animal desire,” writes philosopher Alan Watts in The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, “we find many extraordinary differences.” Watts offers an interesting perspective on an age-old argument — that our society has its priorities messed up, that we need to live in the moment.

The animal tends to eat with its stomach, and the man with his brain. When the animal’s stomach is full, he stops eating, but the man is never sure when to stop. When he has eaten as much as his belly can take, he still feels empty, he still feels an urge for further gratification. This is largely due to anxiety, to the knowledge that a constant supply of food is uncertain. Therefore eat as much as you can while you can. It is due, also, to the knowledge that, in an insecure world pleasure is uncertain. Therefore the immediate pleasure of eating must be exploited to the full, even though it does violence to the digestion.

Human desire tends to be insatiable. We are so anxious for pleasure that we can never get enough of it. We stimulate our sense organs until they become insensitive, so that if pleasure is to continue they must have stronger and stronger stimulants. In self-defence the body gets ill from the strain, but the body wants to go on and on. The brain is in pursuit of happiness, and because the brain is much more concerned about the future than the present it conceives happiness as the guarantee of an indefinitely long future of pleasures. Yet the brain also knows that it does not have an indefinitely long future, so that, to be happy, it must try to crowd all of the pleasures of paradise and eternity into the span of a few years.

This is why modern civilization is in almost every respect a vicious circle.

The root of this frustration is that we live for the future. Yet the future is never, as we move forward it becomes the present.

To pursue (the future) is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

Thus the “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse-providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions.

Watts argues that one of the ills of modern society is that we believe sleep to be a waste of time, that life is short. Interestingly, we’d rather watch TV and chase our fantasies than rest.

Animals spend much of their time dozing and idling pleasantly, but, because life is short, human beings must cram into the years the highest possible amount of consciousness, alertness, and chronic insomnia so as to be sure not to miss the last fragment of startling pleasure.

Our quest for never-ending stimulation comes with a high cost. We become “incapable of real pleasure, insensitive to the most acute and subtle joys of life.” The more common the pleasure the less it interests us. We’d rather watch TV.

Watts tears into our wants and makes us question our desires.

Generally speaking, the civilized man does not know what he wants. He works for success, fame, a happy marriage, fun, to help other people, or to become a “real person.” But these are not real wants because they are not actual things. They are the by-products, the flavours and atmospheres of real things-shadows which have no existence apart from some substance. Money is the perfect symbol of all such desires, being a mere symbol of real wealth, and to make it one’s goal is the most blatant example of confusing measurements with reality.

Based on this we cannot, says Watts, call ourselves materialistic. We are in love with not things, but “measures, not solids but surfaces.”

The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety is one of those books that makes you question not only yourself but the fabric of civilization.

Two Forms of Human Motivation: Gain And Prevent Pain

Prevent Pain Task Examples

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain

Popular psychology leads us to believe that we can unpack motivation in two broad categories: to gain something or to prevent the loss of something. Each time we do something, from washing the dishes to spending money, it is for one of those reasons.

Steve McClatchy argues in his fascinating book Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress, and Lead by Example that this applies to business as well.

Ask yourself: Is the purpose of your weekly meeting to identify new target clients or figure out how to improve the process of taking new orders? Or do you use it to go over meeting protocols and talk about employee lateness or inventory status? Is it a Gain meeting that will move your business forward, or is it a Prevent Pain meeting that will simply keep you from falling behind?

These two factors push us to make decisions. While sometimes they act together there is always one in the lead role.

“Tasks that you are driven toward by Gain produce more significant positive results in your life and your business than tasks that you are driven toward by Prevent Pain.”

When we are doing something to gain, we are focusing on something we want – we are not worried about losing something. We are trying to make things better. On the other hand, when you do something to prevent pain, you’re doing something you have to do, like laundry. This is unfulfilling. We do it because we want clean clothes not because we intrinsically enjoy it.

Preventing pain tasks never go away. There is always something to do that doesn’t advance our life forward but only maintains where we are. While we cross these things off a list, they come back tomorrow and the next day. The more our days are filled with this checkboxing the more we feel run down. And if we don’t do it, someone will bring it to our attention — even if that someone is ourselves. McClatchy argues that these preventing pain tasks are “have to” tasks.

[L]et’s say someone is waiting for you to complete a task. If you don’t do it, the person waiting will eventually catch you at the elevator, call you on the phone, send you an e-mail, stop you in the hall, send a reminder in the mail, or come knocking on your door and say, “Hey, did you ever get a chance to…?” Whether it’s a manager, colleague, client, family member, neighbor, roommate, bill collector, or someone else, that person will want to know if you did what you were supposed to do. That is the nature of a “have to,” or Prevent Pain, task. The pain that you should have prevented will visit you eventually if you don’t complete it.

One of the best ways to distinguish under which category something falls is to ask yourself if you have to do it.

“There is no “have to” with a Gain task, because there are no consequences if you choose not to pursue Gain in your life.”

Paradoxically, the very things we don’t have to do are the very things that lead to positive results in life.

If you continue to do solely what is necessary to survive every day, all you will accomplish is preventing pain from coming your way. To move your life or your business forward from where it is today and to see an improvement, you must do something extraordinary— something that you didn’t have to do at all. You must pursue Gain.

There are three attributes to a gain task:
1. A gain task is never urgent;
2. You don’t have to complete a gain; and
3. You can’t delegate it to anyone else.

Burnout, McClatchy writes, is caused “when people feel that they have been working too hard for too long and have nothing to show for it.” That is, they are doing too much preventing pain and not enough gain.

Not understanding how this moves us to be out of balance, companies often resort to perks to promote efficiency. Rarely, however, is this new time used towards Gain-oriented tasks. Instead, we often find ourselves with more time to prevent pain.

Although many companies do their best by offering perks such as a flexible work schedule, child care, or financial services, these things can only help you manage life more efficiently. They can’t give your life direction, momentum, or balance.

The very efficiency of these perks only adds to the office culture, which has “become a race to complete our to-do list and meet expectations.” McClatchy argues that what’s lost in all of this is balance.

The idea of work-life balance is inherently combative. It suggests a discord between two vital parts of life: work being what we have to do, and life being what we want to do . It suggests that these are two opposing forces between which we must constantly make choices— and that when we choose to give time or thought to one, the other loses. This constant battle between work and personal pursuits puts one in a perpetual state of conflict; furthermore, it suggests that personal and professional goals are out of alignment or mutually exclusive and that achieving both is therefore unattainable.

The Japanese word for death by overwork is karoshi.

In response to the balance crisis McClatchy proposes gain.

Goals are the ticket out of any sense of depression. They improve and offset the losses or decay in our lives so we don’t end up in a rut. They alleviate that feeling that you have worked hard and accomplished nothing. When you are working toward Gain, you end the day feeling like you have made progress and are moving forward. And the momentum you’ve created makes you feel balanced and energized— like today is better than yesterday, like you are better than you were yesterday. It gives hope for the future. It lets us sleep at night knowing that because we are working hard, things are getting better all the time. That sounds like balance. That sounds like satisfaction and happiness to me.

“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.” — Fred Rogers

Modern prioritizing models fall into the urgency trap.

… [T]he letters A, B, and C have traditionally represented the urgency or the deadline that a task has. A task that’s due immediately or today is assigned an A. Tasks that are due soon get a B, and a C is due next week or maybe next month, something you eventually have to complete. So really, all you need to do to turn a C into an A using this approach is to procrastinate long enough. Don’t do it now; just wait.


This method of prioritizing makes a task’s life cycle look something like this:

That’s due in a month? Oh, that is so a C. I’ve got 30 days. I won’t forget; it’s important, but I have a whole month, so I’m not looking at that now …

That’s due next week, isn’t it? Okay, let’s make that a B. I’ll put that on my radar screen. I can’t let that fall through the cracks; it’s coming up next week. That’s huge. Okay, that’s a B, but I have other things, I have As to work on today, so that will have to wait …

That’s due today ?! What happened? Okay, that is my biggest A today! I need to drop everything else to get it done— this is a four-alarm fire! I need to finish this right now!

Every possible task, no matter how trivial could become an A in this approach. And when everything can be the top priority, we have trouble distinguishing between what is truly important and what isn’t.

Explaining why “prioritizing in relation to urgency doesn’t work,” McClatchy tells the following story:

Let’s say you have a Monday morning trash pickup in your neighborhood. On Sunday night, when you are very comfortable, relaxing at home with your family, is getting up to take out the trash an A, B, or C? For most people it’s a C. If you forget to do it before you go to bed, then it becomes a B on Monday morning. You still have a few hours before they come! What about when you hear the trash truck coming down the street? It’s A time now, baby! Urgency has forced you to run to the street, yelling after the truck with the trash collectors cheering you on to throw your bag into the back before the truck turns the corner. You made it! Woo-hoo! What an accomplishment. Didn’t it feel great? Congratulations, you have just taken out the trash. And according to that task’s deadline, you have just checked off an A on your list for today. You should feel good all day about that one. However, what did you really accomplish ? Not much; you really only took out the trash. And guess what? The bag inside is already filling up for next week.

“The things that will bring you the greatest results in your life don’t have a deadline.”

Another way to prioritize is to ask what results will this task produce in my life? Flip it around.

A, B, and C should represent the results that a task produces for you personally after you’ve completed it. So an A represents your Gain tasks, the most significant result-producing tasks that you will ever accomplish or experience in your life. They are based on results, not deadlines. When you look back on your life on your 100th birthday, you will remember your A tasks.

Both B and C are “have to,” or Prevent Pain, tasks that someone— or something—will bring to your attention if you don’t do them. Both can have urgency attached to them, but here’s the difference: someone, somewhere is keeping track of if and when you complete a B task. In other words, you not only have to complete a B, but you have to do it well or on time because it is being documented. For example, handing in your monthly report at work is a B; people will notice whether or not you did it on time. … In contrast, no one is keeping track of how well you complete a C task. Anyone who would keep track of how well you take out the trash or check your e-mail has too much time on his hands.

The old maxim that “whatever gets measured, gets done” has been attributed to many different authors and thinkers over the years. It essentially means that if you are in a management position and you want your employees to complete something, then you need to measure it, track it, require that it be done by a certain time, and then record performance surrounding it. In other words, if you communicate standards clearly, then they will be reached. This is true as long as what’s measured makes sense. But another maxim, which has been attributed to Albert Einstein, goes like this: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” This should speak to organizations as they determine what they need to measure and record and as they set metrics accordingly. However, as far as prioritizing is concerned, once the metric has been set, the task becomes a B for everyone who needs to follow it, because it is recorded and it affects performance ratings.

Balanced to do list

Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress, and Lead by Example goes on to break gain into creation versus consumption and offer insights into how we can reshape our decisions around how we manage our time.

Daniel Kahneman Explains The Machinery of Thought

Daniel Kahneman

Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman is the founding father of modern behavioral economics. His work has influenced how we see thinking, decisions, risk, and even happiness.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, his “intellectual memoir,” he shows us in his own words some of his enormous body of work.

Part of that body includes a description of the “machinery of … thought,” which divides the brain into two agents, called System 1 and System 2, which “respectively produce fast and slow thinking.” For our purposes these can also be thought of as intuitive and deliberate thought.

The Two Systems

Psychologists have been intensely interested for several decades in the two modes of thinking evoked by the picture of the angry woman and by the multiplication problem, and have offered many labels for them. I adopt terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, and will refer to two systems in the mind, System 1 and System 2.

  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

If asked to pick which thinker we are, we pick system 2. However, as Kahneman points out:

The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps . I also describe circumstances in which System 2 takes over, overruling the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. You will be invited to think of the two systems as agents with their individual abilities, limitations, and functions.

System One
These vary by individual and are often “innate skills that we share with other animals.”

We are born prepared to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders. Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice. System 1 has learned associations between ideas (the capital of France?); it has also learned skills such as reading and understanding nuances of social situations. Some skills, such as finding strong chess moves, are acquired only by specialized experts. Others are widely shared. Detecting the similarity of a personality sketch to an occupational stereotype requires broad knowledge of the language and the culture, which most of us possess. The knowledge is stored in memory and accessed without intention and without effort.

System Two
This is when we do something that does not come naturally and requires some sort of continuous exertion.

In all these situations you must pay attention, and you will perform less well, or not at all, if you are not ready or if your attention is directed inappropriately.

Paying attention is not really the answer as that is mentally expensive and can make people “effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention.” This is the point of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla. Not only are we blind to what is plainly obvious when someone points it out but we fail to see that we are blind in the first place.

The Division of Labour

Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine— usually.

When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment. System 2 is mobilized when a question arises for which System 1 does not offer an answer, as probably happened to you when you encountered the multiplication problem 17 × 24. You can also feel a surge of conscious attention whenever you are surprised. System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains. In that world, lamps do not jump, cats do not bark, and gorillas do not cross basketball courts. The gorilla experiment demonstrates that some attention is needed for the surprising stimulus to be detected. Surprise then activates and orients your attention: you will stare, and you will search your memory for a story that makes sense of the surprising event. System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring of your own behavior—the control that keeps you polite when you are angry, and alert when you are driving at night. System 2 is mobilized to increased effort when it detects an error about to be made. Remember a time when you almost blurted out an offensive remark and note how hard you worked to restore control. In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.

The division of labor between System 1 and System 2 is highly efficient: it minimizes effort and optimizes performance. The arrangement works well most of the time because System 1 is generally very good at what it does: its models of familiar situations are accurate, its short-term predictions are usually accurate as well, and its initial reactions to challenges are swift and generally appropriate. System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. As we shall see, it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off.


Conflict between an automatic reaction and an intention to control it is common in our lives. We are all familiar with the experience of trying not to stare at the oddly dressed couple at the neighboring table in a restaurant. We also know what it is like to force our attention on a boring book, when we constantly find ourselves returning to the point at which the reading lost its meaning. Where winters are hard, many drivers have memories of their car skidding out of control on the ice and of the struggle to follow well-rehearsed instructions that negate what they would naturally do: “Steer into the skid, and whatever you do, do not touch the brakes!” And every human being has had the experience of not telling someone to go to hell. One of the tasks of System 2 is to overcome the impulses of System 1. In other words, System 2 is in charge of self-control.


The question that is most often asked about cognitive illusions is whether they can be overcome. The message of these examples is not encouraging. Because System 1 operates automatically and cannot be turned off at will, errors of intuitive thought are often difficult to prevent. Biases cannot always be avoided, because System 2 may have no clue to the error. Even when cues to likely errors are available, errors can be prevented only by the enhanced monitoring and effortful activity of System 2. As a way to live your life, however, continuous vigilance is not necessarily good, and it is certainly impractical. Constantly questioning our own thinking would be impossibly tedious, and System 2 is much too slow and inefficient to serve as a substitute for System 1 in making routine decisions. The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.

Still Curious? Thinking, Fast and Slow is a tour-de-force when it comes to thinking.

(image source)

Dan Gilbert: Why do we make decisions our future selves regret?

"Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they're finished."
“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

In the 7-minute TED talk (below), Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert illuminates some recent research on a phenomenon he calls the “end of history illusion,” where we imagine that the person we are today is the person we’ll be until we die. But that’s not the case.

The bottom line is, time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences. It reshapes our values. It alters our personalities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect. Only when we look backwards do we realize how much change happens in a decade. It’s as if, for most of us, the present is a magic time. It’s a watershed on the timeline. It’s the moment at which we finally become ourselves. Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.

Still Curious? He further develops the concept more in his book Stumbling on Happiness.