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.
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; in those with class III obesity (body mass index ≥ 40), the rate was especially high (43%) (Altfas 2002).
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”!
Multitasking: Strength or Weakness?
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.
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. Happily, training the brain to focus in productive and satisfying ways is possible.
The Rules of Order
Here’s an overview of the six rules of order. Apply these rules to your own life and share them with clients, who most likely deal with similar issues.
Rule No. 1: Tame Your Frenzy
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.”
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.
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.
Rule No. 2: Sustain Your Focus
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).
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. 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.
Rule No. 3: Apply the Brakes
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. If you are to maintain your concentration in the midst of an important task, knowing how and when to apply the brakes is crucial.
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. Notice when your clients get distracted during sessions, and apply this same technique.
Rule No. 4: Access Your Working Memory
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?
Rule No. 5. Shift Sets
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.
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 time. This strategy has great crossover with clients.
Rule No. 6. Connect the Dots
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.
Until you are thoroughly familiar with the rules of order, refer to them often—and keep practicing! Goodbye, frenzy!
AHA (American Heart Association). 2012. Stress management. www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/StressManagement/Stress-Management_UCM_001082_SubHomePage.jsp; retrieved Apr. 9, 2012.
Altfas, J.R. 2002. Prevalence of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder among adults in obesity treatment. BMC Psychiatry, 2, 9.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Hammerness, P., & Moore, M. 2012. Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life. Harlequin/Harvard Health.
Moore, M. 2008. It’s simple: Flow to health & happiness. IDEA Fitness Journal, 5 (9), 87-89.
U.S. Department of Transportation. 2010. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Distracted driving 2009. www.distraction.gov.