Pick up the average book on organization and it'll tell you all about what to do with your unruly sock drawer, chaotic inbox, or consistently underutilized to-do list. Organization, at first blush, is about stuff and tasks--corralling all the many mental and physical objects of our lives into some kind of order.

But maybe organization has a deeper meaning. Rather than continually messing up your workspace and then cleaning it up again, you might be better served by short circuiting the whole process and aiming to understand and correct the underlying problem: your cluttered mind.

The new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Dr. David Levitin aims to show you how. "Neuroscientists have learned a lot about the brain and organization and productivity, but it hasn't trickled down to the average reader," he was quoted as saying in the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy column recently. "My aim was to bring the science to the average person." That includes plenty of tips and tricks for cleaning up your brain, not just your office. The WSJ offers 10--here's a selection:

An Occasional Purge Is OK

If your goal is to keep things tidy and develop an effective system of organization, letting things get out of hand can make you feel guilty. But when emails stack up in your inbox or piles of papers start to take over your desk, Levitin says, beating yourself up isn't the answer, nor is a hugely time-consuming battle to get things back in order. Instead, opt for a good purge. Every once in awhile it's perfectly fine to simply dump all that clutter and start fresh.

"Some people declare 'email bankruptcy,' delete everything, and write to all their contacts asking to please try again if whatever they sent is still important. Dr. Levitin himself doesn't purge in the same way, but he does box up old, related items in his office once a year or so and simply file them away," reports the WSJ.

Keep Long-Term Projects and Quickie Tasks Separate

That weeks-long research project and the quick email to your spouse about picking up some milk demand very different approaches from our brains. Don't confuse yourself--and impose unnecessary switching costs--by trying to intersperse these different types of tasks. "The research says you shouldn't intersperse these little things," Dr. Levitin says. Instead, allocate a block of time to handle all those tiny to-dos, leaving yourself wide-open blocks for the big things.

Don't Obsess Over Organization

Is it good to find a new system that streamlines your email processing or task management? Of course it is! But more organization isn't always better and the search for productivity tricks can actually be a time waster in itself. Make sure that you're not expending unnecessary mental energy and time on more organization than you actually need.

"The obvious rule of efficiency is you don't want to spend more time organizing than it's worth. If you're finding things quickly enough as it is, then don't go to all the trouble," Levitin sensible suggests.

He also endorses several ideas we've covered here on Inc.com previously, including plenty of breaks, separate workspaces for different flavors of tasks, and embracing the workday nap.

Do you struggle to keep your brain uncluttered?

Published on: Sep 2, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.