Personal Effectiveness and Responsibility
Is De-Cluttering the Key to Greater Creativity?
In the last 10 years, Neuro-science has had a lot to tell us about the process of how we think. And although we are gaining new insights every day, there are some clear implications for how we can better organize our lives, both personally and professionally. At the core of these new revelations is the knowledge that to perform at its best, our brain needs us to simplify and organize our external world or to de-clutter our lives as much as possible. If we do this well, we will reap many benefits, the greatest of which is the capacity to be much freer to be more creative. In this brief article we’ll look at why this is the case.
Most neuro-scientists now commonly suggest that most of our physical brain (and especially the old reptilian and mammalian parts of it) are ill-equipped to deal with all the modern day challenges presented to it. Our brain was fundamentally designed to keep up in a world of 10,000 years ago or more when we had very few relationships over a lifetime and our main life and work challenges were finding shelter and food and not getting killed by predators – big challenges to be sure, but few enough in number for the brain to easily cope and develop strategies that could work. But as neuro-scientist and author, Daniel Levitin, says in his book “The Organized mind”, today’s individual is now faced with a massive amount of information which leads to thousands of decisions which have to be made every day (even if it is to ignore it). Many of these may be both quick to make and comparatively trivial but our brains quickly become overwhelmed and our capacity to prioritize can suffer dramatically.
This huge growth in the information that we are now expected to absorb every day has actually been measured. Levitin’s says that with the advent of PC’s, smart phones and tablets in particular, adults today are consuming 5 times more in terms of data than they were only 25 years ago. Access to data is therefore better than ever but, in simple terms, our brains do not have the capacity to process it, making us not only more fatigued but prone to make many more mistakes or poor decisions. This can be called “a human bandwidth restriction” or the real limitation of the amount of information we can pay attention to (at least on average). For most of us this is 120 bits per second, which is the equivalent to two people talking to us at the same time. As we know, when this happens, it is difficult to concentrate and pay attention properly and nigh impossible when a third person joins in. Our only way of dealing with this “noise” is to try to “filter out” what we can (which explains why many of us can drive long distances and frequently not remember the journey when we get to our destination). However, we may now be doing this when it’s inappropriate to do so. Put a different way, today’s individual is so bombarded by information that he or she filters out most of it, important or not, because it’s almost impossible to determine which it of these it is. As a result, a person can appear to be inattentive or distracted and unlikely to be able to make any kind of reasonable decision (just ask any parent trying to talk with teenage children when they have smart phones close by).
So what can we do in the context of this data-rich world with so much information (growing day by day) at our fingertips? In answer to this Levitin suggests that we have a choice and it’s to follow human best-practice as much as we can. In this case, the people who seem to pay the most attention and are not distracted as much are those who tend to do most of the following:
- Ask others to filter information for him/her. This is having a person who deletes unimportant email, screens calls, make appointments and even pay bills. This may not seem to be available to most people except managers with assistants, secretaries and other support staff but actually these services are available quite cost effectively online these days.
- Concentrate fully on the task in front of him/her at any one time and avoid so-called multi-tasking. Levitin suggests that multitasking is a myth as it is really only fast switching between tasks and actually often leads to two or more tasks being done more slowly or less well than if they had been done sequentially.
- Listen carefully to people one-on-one as much as possible, making relaxed but full eye contact and not letting his/her mind “wander off the track” into either the past or the future. This is a laser like focus on what others are saying so as to really understand and build the relationship.
- Meditate frequently. This may not mean lying down with eyes closed necessarily but is a regular usually daily deep thought period in which the mind can relax and lets its deeper planning functions operate to help to process what has been taken in (wittingly and unwittingly).
- De-clutter his/her surroundings as much as possible. This last step is perhaps by far the most important as a way of creating the room to concentrate or pay attention. In this case, de-cluttering means being organized, as much as we can in our external world, so that our internal thought processes are not engaged in constant worry.
At home this de-cluttering may be as simple as a hook for our car keys, reading glasses in every room in which we use them, TV remotes in a single box, tools properly organized on a rack and even a specific miscellaneous drawer for items that we use infrequently. At work, this may be a proper filing system in a drawer or on a shelf, folders set up intelligently on our computer, a tidy desk with the minimal amount of paper on it and even well-organized smart phone set up with few apps and mainly ones that aid productivity and do not add to the clutter.
None of these simple de-cluttering steps are new or surprising but many people dismiss them as unimportant or passé, or insignificant as a way of being more organized. In today’s world however, these kind of simple de-cluttering steps become even more critical. Just by organizing our external world in ways like this, we give ourselves extra bandwidth to pay attention to what really matters and give our old brains the chance to cope, at least for more of the time and in so doing give ourselves the freedom to be more creative.