Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life

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The human race has reached a point of information overload, or at least a point where people often feel so overwhelmed by daily demands that they risk their lives while driving for one more text or phone call. Some people consider the distraction epidemic the psychological equivalent of obesity epidemic. Fitness professionals are not immune to overload, perhaps at times you feel distracted, stressed, or disorganized. You may find it hard to bring your full attention to client after client, or shift your whole, undivided attention to family and friends when you are not working.

In the new book Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, to be launched January 2012 by Harvard Health Books and Harlequin, I team up with Harvard psychiatrist and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) expert Paul Hammerness, M.D., to describe six rules of order for using “top down” organization, or brain science, to move from a state of frenzy to get to the big picture around the small and large domains of life.1 While you may sometimes be disorganized, your brain is not. The brain is a jewel of organization and structure, of different components working harmoniously together.

Other models of “getting organized” begin with organizing your priorities, time, and surroundings—your desk, your household, rather than organizing your mind. The Organize Your Mind rules relate to brain or “cognitive” abilities that are embedded features in our brains, waiting to be switched on. Here’s a brief preview of the six rules and how you can use them to improve your energy, creativity, and productivity.

Rule 1: Tame the Frenzy. Before you can get focused, you need to get into control, or at least have a handle on your emotional frenzy, various negative thoughts and emotions that are buzzing around you. This frenzy impairs and overwhelms the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s CEO region, so that you can’t “think straight.” While an optimal dose of stress is a valuable state for stretching you to learn, too much negativity rapidly depletes your brain. Recovery is stress’s best friend, allowing you to rest and recharge so that you are ready to resume an intense and productive focus. Exercise your body, do a mindfulness practice, or choose the slow lane from time to time. These activities will help tame your frenzy, allow space for productive thinking and reflecting so that you can calmly regain your focus and perspective.

Rule 2: Sustain Attention. Sustained focus is now possible in your calm, grounded state. Stay connected to your intention: what is the goal of the moment, closely watching a client’s muscle alignment in a training session, or connecting with a loved one—what are you calling your attention to focus on? Keep your thinking on-track and your plans in place before engaging with distractions around you. Begin to maintain your uni-focus, one task or client at a time, and set aside all other distractions for a precious period.

Rule 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. From time to time, move the spotlight of your attention on asking whether you should continue to focus on the task at hand. When a new piece of information comes to you in the midst of an important task, stop and consider whether this new data point now trumps what just was priority #1. To be able to stop is vital—a thoughtful application of the brakes, not simply succumbing mindlessly to either hyper-focus or distraction.

Rule 4: Mold Information. Your brain has the remarkable ability to hold various pieces of information it has intently focused upon, ana- lyzed, and processed, and then use this information to guide future action—even after the information is completely out of visual sight. This brain skill of gathering and holding your “working memory,” allows you to simultaneously concentrate on the larger important task, while accumulating the data needed to better inform what you decide to do next. For example, you may think to yourself: “I asked my client to do x, then noticed y, and remembered  from a prior session, so I decide to switch to a new approach.” Be intentional in your self-talk to draw on your working memo- ry so you can quickly run different scenarios through in your head. Think beyond one moment in time, asking: how has my client responded in the past, and how did that work or not work?

Rule 5: Shift Sets. The combination of a well functioning working memory with the ability to shift your full attention quickly from task to task, a state of mental agility, leads to creative leaps in thinking. Rather than rigidly fol- lowing a linear path, of say writing an article or designing a new exercise program without stop, allow your mind to jump, even leap, by welcoming the input of distractions or seeking out distractions (searching the web, reading a new article, having a conversation with a col- league) to generate new insights and ideas. Cultivate lightness in thought, be flexible and nimble, and be ready to move your full attention completely from one activity to another in the service of making new connections.

We are not talking about multi-tasking here. The brain is designed to focus only on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking leads you to an incomplete focus on all of the tasks, so that at the end of the day you feel you didn’t do any- thing beautifully. Shifting sets is about shifting your full attention completely from one task to the next, shining all of your brain’s resources on one activity at a time. Amazingly the task left completely behind benefits from the incubation period and when you return to it fully, new ideas will likely emerge.

Rule 6: Connect the Dots. Putting all of these “rules” together helps you stay on task in the moment, not succumb to distraction, and have creative ideas. It also moves you in the direction of connecting the dots, revealing a big picture and an organized mind in small or large  domains of your life. You may develop a clearer vision of what will work best for a client or a welcome, new perspective on where to direct your career.

Following these “Organize Your Mind” rules allows you to push the on and off buttons of your focus with calm intention. Soon you will find moments, then hours, then days and weeks of calm, sustained focus, mastering your impulses, and enjoying mental flexibility, creativity, and connectivity. Say goodbye to distraction and say hello to the beauty of an organized mind.

Originally published in ACSM Certified News Coaching Column

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