Two new books, The Organized Mind by psychologist Daniel Levitin, and Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, talk about the importance of learning how to intelligently offload memory and tasks onto your physical environment. This is something that we often do without much thought— anyone who’s written a note to themselves, or leaves a bag near the front door so they’ll remember to take it to work the next day, has done this— and indeed I talk about it a little bit in The Distraction Addiction. But they both make the case that this is a skill worth paying more attention to, and worth cultivating more consciously.
As Oliver Burkeman explains in a recent review, Levitin argues that lots of "information overload" problems are really problems of information management and attention management; and that seen this way, the solution
says Levitin, is to “shift the burden of organising from our brains to the external world”. Presidents and celebrities employ people to “narrow the attentional filter”, making sure they only see the stuff they need to see. But if you can’t afford an entourage, use the physical environment instead. Levitin’s specific tips might not blow your mind. One is to leave items you need to take to work on the doormat, so you’ll see them on leaving; another is to keep stacks of index cards for stray ideas and to-dos, then designate a time to gather and process them…. These aren’t revolutionary. Yet it’s intriguing to think of them not as one-off fixes for absent-mindedness but part of a comprehensive plan to structure how information flows through your life.
Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head (an excerpt is here) explains how this isn’t just something that “knowledge workers” (gag) do: it’s something that good bartenders, cooks, and other people who have to juggle lots of tasks learn to do.
A bartender gets an order from a waitress: a vodka and soda, a glass of house red, a martini up, and a mojito. What does he do? He lays out the four different kinds of glass that the drinks require in a row, so he doesn’t have to remember them. If another order comes in while he is working on the first, he lays out more glasses. In this way, the sequence of orders, as well as the content of each order, is represented in a spatial arrangement that is visible at a glance. It is in the world, rather than in his head.
Consider a short-order cook on the breakfast shift. As he finishes his coffee, the first order of the morning comes in: a sausage, onion, and mushroom omelet with wheat toast. The cook lays out the already chopped sausage next to the pan, the onions next to the sausage, then the bread, and finally the mushrooms, farthest from the pan. He now has the ingredients in a spatial order that corresponds to the temporal order in which he will require them: once it gets hot, the sausage will provide the grease in which the onions will cook, and the onions take longer to fry than the mushrooms do. He places the bread between the onions and the mushrooms as a reminder to himself to start toasting the bread at such a time that the toast will be ready just as he is sliding the omelet out of the pan.
Crawford mentions the work of David Kirsh, particularly his essay “The Intelligent Use of Space,” and Andy Clark’s work on embodied cognition (which I’ve written about at length). I’m not at all surprised that he talks about these different crafts and jobs: anyone who’s a philosophy Ph.D. who makes a living as a motorcycle repairman will have a respect for varied types of work. Crawford’s last book, Shop Class as Soul Craft, upended our casual assumption that any kind of work that involves “content” is complicated, highly-skilled, and elite, while anything that involves mere stuff or machines or service is essentially for dullards.