The Strategist

How to organize your thoughts in the information overdose era

08/16/2019 - 11:04

Our brains find unique approaches to organizing information. However, the “information overdose” era can be quite difficult to handle. What can we do to cope with the excess information?


Categorization will help shift part of the work from the brain to the external environment. Imagine a box where we store everything that is needed for, say, baking. We don’t have to remember where the rolling pin, cookie knives and other rather heterogeneous objects are: just remember that all this relates to baking, and that we have already put all the items from this category in the third drawer, under the coffee machine.

If we are planning two birthday parties, in the office and at home, categories like “my colleagues” and “friends” in your email or contacts app will help you quickly decide who to invite to.

Calendars, smartphones, address books - all this, in fact, external add-ons to the brain. They store a ton of information that now does not need to be kept in mind. In the old days, such external additions to the brain were books: they stored the knowledge accumulated over centuries, which could be accessed if necessary. In general, they play the same role these days.

Cards for ideas

Imagine that you always have recording cards of about 7 × 12 cm in size. As soon as an idea arises for one of your projects, you write it down immediately. If you need to remember to do something, fix it on a separate card. If you suddenly remember that you have to call someone or buy something, you can mark this too. You figured out how to help your sister deal with family problems? Just write this down, too.

Writing down important thoughts and plans releases mental energy, which is otherwise expended on worries that we will forget something important. At the biological level, this is explained by the fact that we begin to rush between states of thoughtfulness and vigorous activity, and, as a rule, the first wins in this battle.

Sometimes it even seems that the brain has its own mind. Zen masters would say: when annoying thoughts about the importance of not forgetting are constantly spinning in your head, they distract from the present and pull you somewhere into the future, that is, you lose the opportunity to completely immerse yourself in the current moment and enjoy it.

Many of us during working hours endlessly think about what needs to be done at home, and at home we think about work. Eventually, it turns out that we are never completely present in this exact moment.

In order for the system of 7 × 12 cards to really be reliable and work with maximum efficiency, it is important to write down each new thought on a separate sheet: it is easier to find the right thoughts and throw out the irrelevant ones. Using separate card, you can work with them without any connection with the rest; pull out necessary ones from the pack without moving others or combine cards with similar ideas.

When information is divided into small fragments that can be read, thought over, and grouped in any order, it acquires much more value than when it was recorded in its entirety. Cards allow you to free your head and practically stop thinking about in what order to fix ideas; nothing is lost and not forgotten at the same time.

Based on “The Organized Mind. Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload” by Daniel J. Levitin

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