The Most Important Thing to Learn About Your Brain

Here’s the most important thing I ever learned about the way we see the world and process information…. The brain is in charge of two very different goals:

1. Successfully move our bodies around through space and time (accomplish tasks needed for survival)

2. Use as little energy as possible. Even though it accounts for 2% of our weight, the brain uses about 20% of our body’s energy. Unless we’re really motivated—given extra rewards, or come across a mistake we can’t avoid—we conserve energy.

Ergo, the Law of Least Effort

In Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize-winning researcher Daniel Kahneman, here’s a primer: we do the “thinking fast” bit unless we really, really have to.

Thinking Fast = System 1, our automatic, intuitive mind that usually lets us navigate the world easily and successfully; habitual, model-free thinking (actions outcome, regardless of where we are).
Thinking Slow = System 2, our controlled, deliberative, analytical mind; model-based and goal-directed (takes other things into account)

So, to repeat: our brain appears to view controlling itself—or thinking—as a cost: it will only use System 2 to think deeply, learn something new, and update itself when it has to, when there’s real value.

Another function of System 2 (slow) is to monitor System 1 (fast): we’ll learn when we have no choice but to confront a mistake, which means that it does a miraculous job of avoiding situations when it could be at fault. Why? From our brain’s perspective, finding out that we’ve made a mistake is tiring, because it means that we have to adjust the controls, and reconfigure how we make sense of the world.

The idea that thinking itself is a cost leads to the most common cognitive error, the focusing illusion, commonly referred to as WYSIATI: What You See Is All There Is.

We all view the world like a fisheye lens:







This makes sense from a survival standpoint: we have to focus on what’s right around us. From our perspective, we are always at the center of the world. Everything is right in front of us; thinking of anything else takes work.

How to find the right tools to write your book

After I signed papers for my book deal, I started reading everything I could about how authors actually write books. Why? I had never written a nonfiction book, yet I was under contract with a German corporation to write a book.

What do the days of authors look like? Where do they even start? (I have a hunch that writers are especially prone to this “Am I doing it right?” fear because while we might get to see people writing articles in a newsroom, we get to see authors working on a book as frequently as we get to see my brother admitting that he’s wrong: it just doesn’t happen.)

First, I had to do lots and lots of research. But what tools do authors use to organize their research? I wanted to do this impeccably, because I wanted every point I made in my book to be bulletproof, fully backed by great research.

Screenshot of DevonThink. Not pictured: my eyes bleeding after staring at screens for years.

I started using DevonThink because of this post by one of my favorite authors, Steven Johnson. DevonThink is also used by Ph.D. students to organize the research used in their dissertations; the manual is hefty and it involves a lot of tagging, uploading, and folder-creating.

Johnson used it for its AI: for years, he’d read books and religiously copy and paste passages of interest into DevonThink. Then, after opening up one of those passages (shown), he’d click on the nearby “See Also” button. The program would auto-magically summon other passages, making multidisciplinary connections that Johnson is known for.

I spent more hours than I’d care to admit learning how to use DevonThink, inputting passages, and troubleshooting the 3.5 gb database I ended up creating. I developed a routine of reading ebooks, highlighting passages, making notations, and then transferring the notes to DevonThink via Calibre, an open-source ebook management tool.

I bought Scrivener, which everyone seemed to use to write. Plus, the program can help organize research. Like DevonThink, getting the full benefits of its capabilities depends on how much time you spend on the input end of the process, adding metadata, links, notes, bookmarks, and folders to organize the data and PDFs connected to your document.

I bought the premium version of Evernote so that I could read research on my phone. More folders; more tags; much uploading.

Shown: organizing my ideas and making connections between disciplines. I AM OLD SCHOOL.

I started compiling PDFs of research papers on my computer into different folders on my hard drive and color-coding those folders. I used tags. I used so many tags. (I did this in case I didn’t feel like using one of those other expensive programs that still felt unintuitive and cumbersome.)

I spent about four years reading about psychology, compiling research, and fine-tuning the book’s outline before I started seriously working on the draft.

I emailed tons of author-friends, as well as authors I’d interviewed over the years, for advice on all of this. The most common tip I received from friends echoed what ended up being the most useful piece of advice on this list—which was not directly about organizing:

Don’t wait too long to start writing.

I did not want to believe that advice. I wanted the inside scoop of how writers actually write books. Surely, that advice was silly. But there it was again, in an email from someone with a few solid books under his belt:

I strongly recommend that you begin writing much sooner than you might think feasible—certainly before you’ve done all the reporting.

And yet again:

Just start getting words on the page. Believe me, there will never be a time when you say to yourself, “I’ve done all the reporting I need to”; you need to cut the cord and start drafting, or it’ll go on forever. There is literally no downside to starting the drafting process.

I did not want to believe that advice; I wanted the secret. The thing that professionals do. The secret, it turns out, is that there is no secret: the best way to write a book is to just start writing a book. And big projects take a lot of work for everyone.

Writing helps you figure out how to organize your research because it forces you to figure out what you actually use while writing, and what method works best with your own writing process. There is no singular “best” way to organize your research because everyone’s brain, method of gathering information, and writing process is different.

My obsession with the perfect productivity / organization method was merely my own anxiety about doing it wrong.

The best way to get over anxiety is to simply do the thing that you’re anxious about and practice self-compassion. If you’re learning and making progress, you’re not doing it wrong. Improving and developing a method that works for you takes time for everyone.

I went through two hard drive meltdowns, an erased DevonThink database, and a frozen Kindle that deleted two years of notes.

I ended up organizing the PDFs into folders on my computer, one for each chapter.

I used Scrivener to write the whole thing.

And how did I organize the structure? COLORED INDEX CARDS.


Chip Heath and Gretchen Rubin

What a day!

I recently finished collaborating with Chip Heath, coauthor of Switch and Made to Stick. Next year is Hilton’s centennial, and Chip and I just spent several months researching the company to write The Hilton Effect together. It was exciting to learn so much about its history and impact on the hospitality industry.

Why has the brand been so successful? Social psychology came to the rescue with a compelling explanation. Travel is infinitely beneficial: it expands our worldview and self-efficacy, increases our cognitive flexibility, and can make us happier by giving us more memories and peak moments. But it’s also tiring. It’s exhausting having to constantly figure out what to do, which is why having extra comforts in your hotel room is so key.



I was also interviewed for Gretchen Rubin’s excellent website! We share a favored quote:

“One coin won’t make you rich, but the only way to get rich is by collecting coins.”

How to Make Smarter Decisions About What You Eat

Forming opinions about things is a process of noticing good/bad information until we’ve crossed a magical “I have decided what I think about this thing!” threshold. When you’re selecting between two different kinds of food—a salad or a brownie—how do you decide what to eat?
Your choices depend on the marbles you pick up, information you notice, or which criteria you pay attention to. Over time, information supporting one side starts to outweigh information for the other side, which is supported by your intuition/gut/emotional response. (Newsflash: your intuition is not always smart.)
Two different criteria we might use to decide what to eat, for example, are nutrition and taste. Information that’s processed faster gets added to the scale faster, meaning that it’s easy to consider taste over everything else (especially very noticeable or salient information, like sugar, fat, and salt, that used to be more important for survival, but now lead us towards obesity).
People who focus their attention on the health value of food would look at the salad and brownie, and think about these items in terms of nutrition. Bing! They’d choose the salad.
People who change their habits and make smarter dietary choices shift their values by emphasizing nutrition, viewing healthier food as more rewarding. Over the long run, people who process health-related information about food more quickly are better able to control their weight. Focusing your attention is a key element of self-control. The way we control our own behavior and choices is really just a stand-in for our values: what do we value more in the moment?
How can we make smarter choices about food?
  • People who can’t improve their eating habits tend to get stuck, and continue to view “healthy” food as “less tasty.”
  • Develop faster positive associations about nutritious food: healthy food can be delicious. (The Man Who Ate Everything is a great book if you want to get over food phobias.)
  • Looking at or being exposed to something gives us more opportunities to think of all of its positive qualities, making us more likely to choose it. The closer something is to us, the more tempted we are. If you want to limit how much of something you eat, don’t buy it. Don’t go to a restaurant where it’s served. Stay away.
  • Spend time with people who make smarter choices.
  • Make smart choices in advance: prepare your meals.
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking that healthy food doesn’t taste good.
  • The more you prioritize nutrition, the easier that decision becomes. Studies (like this one) show links between BMI and what people value when they look at food.

Ready to get lucky?

Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction. Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow, and the day after that. Look at who you want to be, and start sculpting yourself into that person. You may not get exactly where you thought you’d be, but you will be doing things that suit you in a profession you believe in. Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become.

® 2012-2018 Karla Starr | All rights reserved | Privacy Policy

Can You Learn to be Lucky: Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others by Karla Starr

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