One of the most interesting things I learned in co-authoring the Harvard Health book Organize Your Mind, Organize your Life with Harvard psychiatrist Paul Hammerness is that the brain is designed to beautifully handle one focus, one task at a time. It is not designed for multiple, parallel tasks.
When you shine your full attention on a conversation, a meeting, a project, or on driving your car, you access the full spectrum of your brain’s resources. Top, down, right, left, back, front, all together the brain has an immense capacity to be creative, productive, and organized, avoid errors, and connect deeply with others who matter to us.
In today’s world, such a singular focus is a rare — or at least occasional — event. We rapidly move our focus from one task to another, from a meeting to an email to a text to a side conversation. The brain can’t easily move the totality of its resources all together in an instant, and repeatedly. Hence many tasks get only a part of our brain’s resources, often leaving us feeling as though much has not been done well at the end of a day.
This state of disorganization is an epidemic of distracted and divided focus.
I’m talking about a higher level of brain organization, beyond priorities, time management, and to-do lists — the kind of organization that allows you to rise above the forest to get to the big picture, and feel as though you are well-oriented, in control, and getting a great return from your investment in each task that you have chosen to attend to.
The good news is that you are in the driver’s seat: You choose your focus, how, when, what, and where. Your choice then reflects your thoughtful intention, steering your focus well, rather than allowing it to be tossed around like a small boat in a rough sea. The following six steps or “Rules of Order” which we present in our book can help you navigate our over-stimulated world while cultivating an organized mind.
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. Multiple inputs zoom at us head-on all day long, demanding all of our brain resources. This frenzy impairs and overwhelms the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s CEO region, so that we can’t “think straight.”
While an optimal dose of stress is a valuable state for stretching us to learn, recovery is stress’s best friend, allowing us to rest and recharge so that we are ready to take on even more challenging tasks. Exercise your body, do a mindfulness practice, or choose the slow lane from time to time. This will tame your frenzy, allow space for productive thinking and reflecting to calmly regain your 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? What are you calling your attention to focus on? Keep your thinking on track and your plans in place before engaging with the vast possibilities around you. Begin to maintain your uni-focus, one task 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 whether you should continue to focus on the task at hand. Or 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 No. 1. To be able to stop is vital — a thoughtful application of the brakes, not simply succumbing mindlessly to either hyperfocus or distraction.
Rule 4: Mold Information.
Your brain has the remarkable ability to hold various pieces of information it has intently focused upon, analyzed, 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 was doing x, then came across y, but outcome z didn’t look good, so I want to return to x.” Use intentional self-talk to draw on your working memory so you can quickly run different scenarios through in your head. Think beyond one moment in time, asking yourself: How have I responded in the past, and how did that work or not work for me?
The combination of a well-functioning working memory with the ability to set-shift — a state of mental flexibility and nimbleness — leads to creative leaps in thinking. Rather than rigidly following a linear path, allow your mind to jump, even leap, by welcoming the input of distractions or seeking out distractions, 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.
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 having an organized mind in small or large domains of your life.
Following these “Organize Your Mind” rules allows you to push the on and off buttons with calm intention. Soon you will find moments, then hours, then days and weeks of calm, sustained focus. You will master your impulses and enjoy mental flexibility, creativity, and connectivity. Say goodbye to distraction and say hello to the beauty of an organized mind.