Imagine your ideal day: You deliver multiple private or group sessions, bringing to each one a positive, intense and undistracted focus; with clients, you are actively and creatively engaged in meeting their needs as they evolve moment to moment. Your sessions are interspersed with mental and physical breaks just at the right times; you snack and attend to administrative tasks as needed, recharging and refueling your brain’s attentional software. You have plenty of reserve energy, mental and physical, for your own exercise and self-care, and there is a good dose left in the bank for your family and personal life outside of work.
This ideal sounds wonderful, but is it your reality day in, day out? No doubt you sometimes feel stressed, overwhelmed or disorganized. You may find it hard to give your full focus to client after client, or to shift your whole, undivided attention to family and friends when you are not working.
Fortunately, while you, and your clients, may at times be disorganized, the human brain is not. Although in today’s world almost everyone suffers from attention deficits, only ~5% of the adult population have clinically diagnosable attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and the prevalence is stable around the world (Kessler et al. 2006; Fayyad et al. 2007). The brain is a jewel of organization and structure, of different components working harmoniously together. By learning to organize your mind and “switch on” various components in the brain, you can enjoy a less scattered, more fulfilling and more productive life.
Chronic Frenzy: The New Normal?
Working in the health and wellness field, you are well informed on how persistent stress damages physical and mental health, contributing to the onset and worsening of many chronic diseases (AHA 2012).You are a tireless advocate for how physical exercise and mind-body practices reduce stress and improve health, vitality and mental function.
You are also well aware of the record-breaking levels of distraction caused in part by the proliferation of our technological devices and their amazing tools. No doubt you have watched your clients answer a text, an email or a phone call during an exercise session. Some people consider the Distraction Epidemic the psychological equivalent of the Obesity Epidemic. Distracted driving causes 8,000 car crashes daily (Genachowski 2011) and led to well over 5,000 deaths and more than 400,000 injuries each year from 2006 to 2009 (U.S. Department of Transportation 2010). Many of us feel so pressed by an unrelenting fire hose of messages delivered 24/7 by our various devices that we risk lives, ours and others’, to keep working—writing texts, reading emails or having important discussions on the phone—while we are driving.
The connection between disorganized minds, on the one hand, and medical conditions and poor health, on the other, is compelling. For example, researchers report that ADHD has been associated with excess weight; in one study, ADHD was present at a very elevated rate (27%) in patients receiving treatment for obesity as well as in patients (43%) with class III obesity (body mass index ≥ 40) (Altfas 2002). The National Institute of Aging concluded from a recent study that symptoms of a disorganized mind—namely, impulsivity, chronic negativity, high stress and multitasking—all correlate with higher weight. For example, adults in the top 10% rating for impulsivity (most impulsive) weighed an average of 24 pounds more than those in the bottom 10% (Sutin et al. 2011).
The price we pay for multitasking is perhaps less widely understood than the toll exacted by impulsivity, negative emotions or chronic stress. Valued as a skill, not a deficit, multitasking is often listed as a core competency for a variety of jobs. Many of us wear our multitasking ability like a badge of honor, as though we were competing for the title of “king or queen of multitasking”!
It’s time to take a step back. The brain functions best when the full beam of its attention software is focused on one and only one thing at a time (Hammerness & Moore 2012). When we focus on one task or one conversation in this way, we can be organized, creative, connected and productive, even brilliant from time to time. When we scatter and splatter our attention across many matters, with a sort of drive-by focus, we leave a little bit of it here, there and everywhere. We are prone to errors, and we miss key information and emotional cues. We retain little of what happens in our working memory, we certainly aren’t creative, and we rarely see new patterns or connections. This state of disorganization is another epidemic, one of divided attention.
In today’s world, sustaining a singular focus is a rare or at least occasional event for many of us. We rapidly shift focus from one task to another, from a meeting to an email to a text to a side conversation. Hence, many tasks get only a portion of the brain’s resources (Mithers 2007). Even when we have a rare opportunity to focus fully on a task, we are often hindered by a cloud of negative emotional frenzy caused by a lengthy to-do list or some recent troubling event that is sticking to us like Velcro. This static impairs the brain’s ability to focus and learn.
In this way, we end our days and weeks feeling as though much of what we’ve done has not been done well. We live in a state of chronic frenzy, lost among the trees rather than rising up to view the big-picture forest and gain a calm, wise perspective on the small and large domains of our lives at work and home.
Happily, training the brain to focus in productive and satisfying ways is possible.
The Rules of Order
The Organize Your Mind framework is a set of six “Rules of Order,” which relate to brain or cognitive abilities that are embedded features waiting to be activated. Learning to implement the six rules puts you in the driver’s seat: when your brain is organized, you know how to choose your focus—how, when, what and where; your choice reflects your thoughtful intention; and you are better able to steer your attention, rather than allowing it to be tossed around like a small boat in a rough sea.
Your brain is actually more like a race car than a small boat. To be a more efficient “driver,” you need to be awake and aware of what your brain is doing in any given moment. The rules of order are designed to help you maintain a friendly arms-length relationship with your brain’s automatic processes—so that instead of falling mindlessly into distraction or frenzy, you will be able to notice what your brain is doing and pause long enough to choose an appropriate response.
Here’s an overview of the six rules and how you can use them to improve your energy, creativity and productivity as you navigate today’s overstimulated world.
Before you can focus your attention, you must take charge of your negative emotional frenzy, which comes in various forms, including worry, anxiety, anger, sadness and irritation. Frenzy impairs and overwhelms your prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead), the brain’s “CEO.” Too much negative stress not only harms your health; it also damages your ability to focus. You can’t “think straight.”
Practical steps. The great news is that the same things that improve your health also enhance your mind’s ability to manage negative frenzy. Sleep well, exercise, do a mindfulness practice, take a few long out-breaths, or choose the slow lane from time to time, even for a few minutes.
Also try giving a name to the negative emotion you are experiencing (e.g., “I feel anxious”). This step alone will help the thinking brain manage and release the emotion, readying you for an intense focus (Lieberman et al. 2007). Eliciting a positive feeling in the moment—thinking fondly of someone you care about, listening to a song you enjoy, looking at a digital photo that brings a smile to your face—can help as well. Switching to a positive emotion will set the negative one aside for the time being.
This is not to say you should suppress or ignore your negative emotions. The negative in life has its place; it spurs us to change and is often our best teacher. However, cultivating the right dose of positive emotions is important for our capacity to handle our negative emotions. Above a 3:1 positivity ratio (visit www.positivityratio.com to do a quick assessment) is the tipping point for being resilient and adaptable (Cohn et al. 2009). When it’s time to focus, set aside the negative and schedule time to attend to it later as a stimulus to learn from it and grow.
Experiment with a variety of approaches until you settle on a few things that together make up your unique formula for taming frenzy. This formula will allow you to hone your attention skills and to draw on all of your brain’s resources when connecting with clients.
Now that your mind is calm and energetic, it is time to identify one task and one task only to focus on. Focus sessions, in which you apply all your brain’s attentional resources to a chosen activity, are deeply enriching and productive times in your day. Sometimes described as flow, full focus is among the top contributors to psychological well-being (Csikszentmihalyi 1990; Moore 2008).
Practical steps. Tell your brain what the intention or goal is for your focus session; for example, leading a personal training session, designing a new program or a meeting with a colleague. Turn off your phone and email, and ask your brain to stay focused for a defined time period. Specify the rules for engaging a distraction: What type of urgent matter would be more important than what you’re focusing on now?
As a personal trainer or group exercise leader, you have focus sessions—your classes or client appointments—already built into your schedule. If you have a desk job, schedule several focus sessions per day, following the guidelines above to set up ideal conditions for a calm, positive, energetic and creative mindset. In the evening, when connecting with family and friends, beam your undivided attention to conversations and watch them light up in the warmth of your intent focus.
Just as a car requires a good pair of brakes to halt at a red light, your focused brain needs to be able to stop in response to certain signals. Distractions are inevitable for human beings. Your brain’s radar regions are always scanning your internal and external environment, even when you are focused. If you are to maintain your concentration in the midst of an important task, knowing how and when to apply the brakes is crucial.
Practical steps. Rather than mindlessly succumb to a distraction (e.g., an email message or text), stop, breathe and consider whether the distraction is urgent enough to trump your focus session even briefly. If not, bring your attention back to the task at hand until it is time to take a brain break—to refresh your ability to focus—or until you have finished your session and are ready to move on to something new.
Begin to notice when and how you respond automatically to impulses. Perhaps your impulses frequently hijack your attention. An effective approach is to turn off your wireless devices so you have no access to email, texts or the Web. If you are waiting for an urgent call, tell your brain, “Hello Brain, while we will scan phone calls for the urgent message we are expecting, we will let go of any others that come along, all of which can wait until the end of the focus session.”
If what you are doing isn’t your favorite task, be aware that your impulses may urge you to do something more interesting. Then it’s time for a heart-to-head conversation, in which you acknowledge your heart’s desire to do something else and schedule time to do just that.
Your brain is designed to store a basket of bits of information in short-term memory (aka “working memory”). Accessing your short-term memory, which involves turning over various elements in your mind, helps you to problem-solve, to generate ideas and insights and to see new patterns. Discerning new patterns is an important step in gaining a wise, strategic perspective. For example, by exploring the connections among various elements in a client’s life, you may help the client discover that what leads him to skip workouts is not a lack of time, but a disorganized mind that causes stress, mental depletion and lower productivity. When you are working creatively with clients or are busy with other tasks or projects, accessing and considering lots of relevant bits of information will allow you to see new patterns: What combination of things leads you to function at your best?
Practical steps. More great news: the same strategies that allow you to tame frenzy improve access to working memory. Be sure to exercise, practice deep breathing or meditation, and in particular get a good night’s sleep.
Besides these fundamentals, an interesting approach is to engage in fully understanding and appreciating opposing perspectives. You will have better access to your working memory if you watch both CNN and Fox News or if you take part in constructive debates and truly absorb the different perspectives (Hammersmith & Moore 2012). Gesturing with your hands also improves working memory access, as does writing things down by hand (Brown & Fenske 2011).
Now it’s time to transfer your focus to a new session or task. The key is to move all of your brain’s resources to the next activity and give it your undivided attention, just as you did with the previous one. This brain skill is called set-shifting (also described as “cognitive agility” or “cognitive flexibility”). Set-shifting allows you to leave behind one task and leap to a new one with a fresh and productive focus—without worrying about the 32 other things on your to-do list.
You needn’t fret about leaving tasks behind. The human brain can continue to chew on problems, even when its focus is elsewhere (Mason et al. 2007). That’s why great ideas often appear to come out of nowhere when we’re in the shower or on the treadmill, when the brain’s focus is less intense. How interesting it is that having a fit and flexible mind is just as valuable as having a fit and flexible body.
Practical steps. To become adept at set-shifting, shift all of your focus, all of your attention, to the next task. Avoid polluting your next task with worry about the previous task or other negative frenzy. Jump with curiosity and calmness, confident that you will return to the last task with new mental energy and ideas; give the current task your best, and you will get through your to-do list in the fullness of time.
When your brain is becoming depleted, sometimes the best place to shift your focus is to your body; for example, go for a walk, do some stretches or exercises, breathe deeply or climb stairs. When you shift your mindful attention to your body, your heart and breath, your muscles, your limbs, you give your brain a break. Even a few moments can be a refreshing, recharging experience for your brain.
Now you’ve learned how to tame your frenzy, and you know the importance of focusing on one thing at a time. You can handle distractions. Your working memory is ready for creative action when you need it, and you invite in new ideas, insights and connections. You are nimble, able to shift deftly from one session or task to the next. You take breaks and move your body to recharge your brain.
Together, these “rules of order” will help you change not only your habits of attention but also the way you look at your life. You’ll be less stressed and more calmly in control. You’ll be more productive and therefore have more time to do things that are nourishing for your body and mind. Rather than being mindlessly hijacked by impulses, you’ll honor the needs embedded in the impulses and address those needs at appropriate times.
Practical steps. Until you are thoroughly familiar with the rules of order, refer to them often—and keep practicing!
Positive emotions improve your brain function and your health (Kok & Fredrickson 2010; Cohn et al. 2009). Feeling good about your new organized self will lift you into an upward spiral, mentally and physically. You will be organized, creative and productive with your clients. Even better, you’ll model an organized mind for your clients, colleagues, family and friends. Time to trade in the languishing that comes with a disorganized mind and find fulfillment through full focus!
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