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.

There is compelling evidence of a connection between disorganized minds, on the one hand, and medical conditions and poor health, on the other. 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 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—they are most likely dealing with similar issues.

Rule 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 doesn’t just harm 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 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, using your frenzy-taming tools to bring a calm, positive, energetic and creative mindset to the task at hand. In the evening, when connecting with family and friends, beam your undivided attention on conversations and watch them light up in the warmth of your intent focus.

Rule 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.

For more information, please see “Finding Focus” in the online IDEA Library. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7