This edited article is reprinted courtesy of Rotman Magazine, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.
An interview with Margaret Moore
A leading executive wellness coach and author describes how to thrive amidst the frenzy.
Technology and information overload have led to a ‘distraction epidemic’ that rivals the obesity epidemic in its pervasiveness. Please describe the situation.
Most of us are chronically over-scheduled, surrounded by noisy stimuli and highly reactive to our many devices – all of which overwhelms the ‘radar’ in our brains that detects and sorts all of these inputs. The prefrontal cortex – the front of the brain – is in charge of managing incoming stimuli and dealing with distractions, keeping us ‘on task’ and making good choices. It is described as ‘the CEO’ of the brain – the domain responsible for ‘executive function.’ When the prefrontal cortex is overloaded, it is very difficult to remain calm and to focus on the task at hand. As a result, many of us are struggling to manage and regulate ourselves.
What does an organized mind look like?
An organized mind is a thriving mind. Most of the time it is calm, positive, energetic, well-nourished, rested and focused. People with organized minds are able to tame frenzy and steer around distractions by scheduling regular brain breaks, bringing a ‘clean’ brain to their most important projects. They are cognitively agile and able to shift perspectives in order to be creative. Their organized minds lead them to connect the dots, and as a result they enjoy greater creativity, productivity – and have more energy and pleasure – at work and at home.
‘Frenzy’ is an emotional state brought on by both external and internal sources. What does internal frenzy look like?
Internal frenzy is the frenzy we create for ourselves, and it is driven in part by our response to the thoughts and feelings generated by all the outside frenzy. Unfortunately, for many of us, this isn’t an occasional or fleeting state: it has become a sort of cloud that follows us around for most of our waking hours. The broadest category of internal frenzy would probably be life’s stressors, which arrive when the demands in front of you are above and beyond your capacity to deal with them. Of course, there is ‘good stress,’ too: think of all the good things that you achieve under the right dose of stress – the right job, a wonderful home; these things didn’t happen without pressure or frenzy.
Whenever you stretch beyond your capacity, the prefrontal cortex is impaired. In brain scans, neuroscientists can now see the ‘lights’ that are on in an engaged brain, and there are literally fewer lights (i.e. reduced brain activity) when the prefrontal cortex is dealing with a high dose of negative emotions. When this happens, you can’t learn properly, you have trouble remembering things, and you aren’t creative. You also aren’t strategic and can’t see the big picture – you’re sort of only ‘half present.’
What types of situations lead to a state of internal frenzy?
You may have chosen a life path that is increasing your frenzy: the wrong career, the wrong job, the wrong marriage or the wrong social network. These are not easy areas to address, but even deciding that you will address them by proactively taking one small step at a time will provide hope that things will improve. But internal frenzy is most often caused by minor events, such as being irritated or impatient, chronically bothered by someone’s behaviour or other external events like traffic jams.
Research indicates that positive emotions are the active ingredients in resilience. Please explain how this works.
University of North Carolina Professor Barbara Fredrickson has done groundbreaking work on the biological role of positive emotions. She wrote a book called Positivity: The 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life. In her research, she found that the main thing that distinguishes someone who feels good about her life and someone who doesn’t is their level of resilience. Life satisfaction is mostly not about making lots of money or owning a mansion; it’s about feeling confident that you can handle life’s challenges and that you can bounce back from the adverse events that are a natural part of being human.
Prof. Frederickson set out to discover ‘what drives what’ when it comes to resilience, positivity, and life satisfaction: if you’re satisfied with your life, does that make you resilient? Or if you’re resilient, does that make you more positive? Which is the chicken and which is the egg? What she discovered is that what drives resilience is our level of positive emotion. We all have plenty of ‘negatives’ in our lives, but it turns out that we need the right dose of positives in order to be able to manage negative emotions. Prof. Fredrickson and another scientist, Marcial Losada, found that the ‘tipping point’ for resilience is three positive emotions to every one negative emotion, over time.