Thanks to technology, we have access to information—and our jobs—24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, this can lead to ‘information overload,’ where we have multiple things to do, and not enough focus on any one task to get it done well. Margaret Moore, Founder and CEO of Wellcoaches and co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, teamed up with Dr. Paul Hammerness to share tips on how to clear your mind and be at the top of your game in their book Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: There’s a lot interest in neuroscience and how we can apply it to our daily lives. This book came out of the idea of translating the science that we’ve learned from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) studies into helping everyone organize their minds. It was a partnership between psychiatrists at Harvard and wellness coaches. My job was to translate the science into self-coaching solutions. One of my visions is to bring forward the partnership of physicians and wellness coaches to help people make lasting changes, so it was a natural for me to work with a doctor. A doctor gives you your diagnosis, and that’s all very nice, but now what do you do? How do you actually implement this? So, it’s a team effort.
Q: How does disorganization affect people’s lives?
A: When your brain is full of negative emotions, frenzy, distraction and just overwhelmed—you’re multitasking, and you’re running around—what happens is that you get very distended. Your brain gets worn down because it’s not designed to do all of these tasks. In today’s world, we’ve got more distractions that take over our brain than ever before. You end up in this state of chaos and frenzy, and that makes it hard to get things done. Also, you’re really tired—you’re too tired to even take care of yourself. So we’re kind of wearing out our brains, and that creates the disorganization. So, if you can have an energetic and organized mind, then everything goes better.
Q: What are some of the biggest distractions we face today?
A: Well, I think the first would be that we have to-do lists that are too long. We think about the 32 things we’re not doing when we’re doing the one thing we need to focus on. The second thing is with all of these new technologies, you don’t leave (the distractions) ever. Even when we go for social dinners, we can’t leave our cell phones behind. So you think about the amount of distractions we have, it’s never been greater. We’re all kind of hyper-distracted. The back of the brain was built to be looking for distractions all the time, so when you have too many, you overwhelm the front part of your brain. (The front part of the brain) is the thinking part which mitigates brain’s ability to cope and set distractions aside to get calm and focused and creative. The third factor is that all of these factors cause a downward spiral, which leads us to not have the energy to exercise and eat well and make good choices, and then our brain works even less well because our brain needs good fuel, rest and exercise. The brain works far better when we exercise regularly. When we don’t do all those things, then we make it even worse. So I would say those are the three big things: getting overwhelmed, the amount of distraction we face, and the fact we’re not taking care of ourselves.
Q: So, if you’re a naturally disorganized person, how do you start getting organized?
A: Well, first, I would build on what you already know works. Think about the combinations of things that put you in a calm state—say first thing in the morning. And rather than try to have really good focus for eight hours a day, set a goal for 30 minutes. Put yourself in the right frame of mind—whether you work out or do deep breathing or look at a picture that makes you feel good. Whatever you can do to get yourself into a good place. Set small goals. So, if you have a day now where every five minutes you change your focus to a different thing, give yourself a half-hour of complete focus. Turn your phone off, turn your wireless off, close your door and just enjoy getting into one thing. When you do that, you’re creative, and you get ‘the big picture.’
Q: How does getting organized improve your life?
A: When you scatter your focus across a lot of things, nothing gets done well. You don’t connect the dots and see patterns, and get to this strategy—sort of ‘above the tree.’ And when you’re sitting in the trees all the time, with all the distractions, you’re not feeling great about how you’re doing on a project or how you’re relating to your spouse or your child. Everything feels not quite right, and that leads you to be more down at the end of the day. The advantage to having these high-quality focus times, even though you still have the 32 things to do, is that every day you get a few things done really beautifully. You feel like you’re at your own level of brilliance. Also, you can let go of all the other things (on your to-do list) when you know you’ve done a great job with a few things. That puts you into a whole different frame of mind, and you then begin to steadily knock things off the list, do a great job, and everything gets done. It gets you into the calm, thoughtful, strategic, energetic place. You have a lot more energy, and you feel a lot better about your life. You’re more alive. Your energy is more alive because you’re using it well.
Q: What tips can you offer to people who already feel like they’re organized?
A: Even the super organized—because I’m one of those people too—we’re still overloading with too much to do. One thing that happens to people like us is that we’re able to focus, but we have trouble stopping our focus and take a rest because we can sit for hours. So what happens is we get ourselves depleted without realizing it. We actually have to make ourselves get up and take a break and change focus—whereas other people are always taking a break. So focused people don’t have that, but then we don’t stop, and we burn ourselves out. And focused people still get distracted: I was recently doing a workshop on a Saturday morning, and I got up at 5 am. I decided I was going to take 15 minutes for coffee, looking out at the ocean. I’m sitting there, and next thing you know, I’m sitting at my laptop, writing an e-mail to my client at 5:30 in the morning on a Saturday. I looked at myself and thought, ‘what am I doing here?’ My brain was hi-jacked. It takes nothing. We all are subject to distraction. All of us, organized or not, have negative frenzy, and so we all have to look at managing the frenzy, so that it doesn’t impair or ability to do things or to be creative.