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Organize your mind to organize your life

By Margaret Moore, Special to CNN
September 25, 2013 -- Updated 1717 GMT (0117 HKT)
 The brain was not designed to focus on more than one thing at a time.
The brain was not designed to focus on more than one thing at a time.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The connection between disorganized minds and unhealthy habits is compelling
  • Before you can focus your attention, you must tame negative emotions
  • Exercise, deep breathing or meditation, and a good night's sleep all help mentally

Editor's note: Margaret Moore (aka Coach Meg) is the co-author of "Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life." She is the director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital and the founder and CEO of Wellcoaches Corporation.

(CNN) -- If there's one big lesson I've learned over the past decade while training thousands of health and wellness coaches and coaching many clients, it's this: An organized mind enables full engagement in a health-giving style of life.

So I jumped at the opportunity to co-author "Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life" with Harvard psychiatrist Paul Hammerness, where we translate the science of brain organization into six principles, or "rules of order," and offer self-coaching solutions.

The kind of organization I'm talking about is not decluttering your office or home, or purchasing the latest app to organize to-dos and projects.

I'm talking about the mind's ability to attain a higher order of order -- a calm, wise, positive, strategic perspective -- and the skills it takes to get there in small or large domains of life, including health and well-being.

Neuroscientists are opening a window into the disorganized minds of those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD,) providing insights into how to train our brains to become more organized.

We know that disorganization is not just a problem of ADHD sufferers. It's an epidemic. I don't know anyone whose mind isn't frenzied, distracted or divided by multitasking a good deal of the time.

The connection between disorganized minds and unhealthy habits is compelling. 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% rating for impulsivity.

Dr. Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore co-authored \
Dr. Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore co-authored "Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life."

Whether or not you have an organized mind depends upon your ability to "drive" your attention and keep it focused when you're under pressure or faced with challenging conditions.

Just like driving a race car, a lot of skills are required. Fortunately, these skills are built into the brain's normal wiring. So how do you start to tap into your innate ability to be organized?

Rule No. 1: Tame your frenzy

Before you can focus your attention, you need to take charge of your negative emotional frenzy (worry, anger, sadness, irritation). This frenzy impairs and overwhelms your prefrontal cortex, the brain's CEO or executive function region, so that you can't "think straight."

Too much negative stress damages your ability to focus and harms your health. The great news is that the same things that improve your health can improve your mind's ability to manage negative frenzy. Sleep well, exercise, do a mindfulness practice or choose the slow lane from time to time, even for a few minutes.

Find your unique formula to tame your frenzy so that you drive your attention to its best possible focus.

Rule No. 2: Sustain your focus

Now that your mind is calm, identify one task and one task only. The brain was not designed to focus on more than one thing at a time. Tell your brain what the intention or goal is for your focused session. Turn off your phone and e-mail, shut the door and set the timer for 20 to 30 minutes as a first step.

Rule No. 3: Apply the brakes

Your focused brain also needs to be able to stop, just as surely as a good pair of brakes brings your car to a halt at a red light.

Your brain's radar regions are always scanning your internal and external environment, even when you are focused. Distractions are inevitable if you are human. Rather than mindlessly succumb to a distraction while in the midst of an important task (including health-giving activities such as exercising, cooking a healthy meal or relaxing), stop, breathe and consider whether the distraction is urgent enough to trump the current priority.

If not, bring your attention back to the important task until it is time to take a brain break to recharge your brain's batteries, or move to a new task.

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, turning over various elements in your mind, helps you problem-solve, generate new ideas and insights, and see the new patterns that lead you to a strategic perspective.

More great news: The same strategies that allow you to tame frenzy enable you to better access your working memory -- exercise, deep breathing or meditation, and a good night's sleep.

Rule No. 5: Shift sets

Now it's time to move your focus to a new task. Move all of your attention fully to the next task and give it your undivided attention. This brain skill, called "set-shifting," allows you to leave behind one task and leap to a new one with a fresh and productive focus.

Set-shifting is also described as cognitive agility or flexibility. Often our most creative ideas come, seemingly out of the blue, when we're taking a brain break or focusing completely on something else.

How interesting it is that having a fit and flexible mind is just as valuable to a life you love as a fit and flexible body.

Rule No. 6: Connect the dots

You've learned how to tame your frenzy and focus your attention on one thing at a time. You can handle distractions. Your working memory is ready for action when you need it. You are nimble, able to shift deftly from one task to the next. You take breaks, move your body and shift your focus to invite new ideas, insights and connections.

Together, these "rules of order" will help you change not only your habits of attention, but the way you look at your life. Instead of being stressed, you'll be calmly in control.

You'll be more productive and therefore have more time to do things that are healthy for your body and mind. You'll feel good about yourself, and positive emotions are health promoting. And you'll be able to use your organized mind to set health and fitness goals and focus well on achieving them.

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