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.
What are some of your prescriptions for 'taming the frenzy'?
People with organized minds take care of their minds in a wide variety of ways. The quickest path to taming frenzy is to move your body: go for a walk, go to the gym, take a yoga class or, if you don't have time for that, just do a vigorous physical activity for a short period. Even five minutes of stretching, skipping down a hallway or climbing a few flights of stairs can reduce frenzy. Research shows exercise makes the prefrontal cortex work better and counterbalances the physical damage of stress.
Next on the list is sleep, because our brains need time to recharge. A third way to tame the frenzy is through cultivating positive emotions, which are like butterflies – they don't stick around in contrast to the Velcro quality of negative emotions, so you actually have to harvest and amplify them. The best way to get the most 'juice' out of positive emotions is to share them with someone you care about.
Another key concept for moving towards an organized mind is mindfulness. The basic idea is to unhook your mind from all the automatic stuff going on in your brain – the frenzy, the chaos, the murkiness. Meditation is one way to achieve this. The goal is to create a little space between your mind and your negative thoughts and emotions, by proactively being in the present and noticing them, instead of being sucked in and getting lost in them.
Another strategy that helps one move towards an organized mind is good nutrition. The brain uses up 20 per cent of our food energy, so if you provide it with a steady level of blood glucose, it will have enough energy to stay focused and positive. You have to pay attention to what you're feeding your brain if you want it to run on 'high-octane fuel' – you can't just load up on simple carbs like sugar and white flour and expect it to function well. When you get the right combination of protein, healthy fats and carbs, your brain is awake and alive. This really matters in the afternoon, when energy starts to fade. The difference between having a piece of fish, rice, and veggies for lunch or a burger and fries or a slice of pizza is colossal.
For readers who want to achieve a more organized mind, what is the first step?
I suggest that people act like scientists and experiment with different approaches, to see what works best for them. Try getting just a bit more exercise – standing up from your computer and stretching, or walking up a few flights of stairs. When you do this, take your mind's attention out of your brain and into your body; concentrate on your breathing. This will disconnect you from the mental chaos. Another approach is to listen to a beautiful piece of music, or have a conversation with someone you care about, or do something nice for someone: go get a bowl of blueberries for your colleague or spend a few minutes saying thank you to someone about something.
The bottom line is that you are in charge, and you have a choice: you can choose to work on being more calm and less frenzied; you can choose to bounce back when you have a bad moment, a bad day – or even a bad year. We all have the ability to use our minds to better control our brains.
Strategies for Taming the Frenzy
- Look at a photo that makes you smile.
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Think of something that makes you grateful.
- Send someone a note of appreciation for what he or she brings to your life.
- Read a comic strip.
- Go outside and breathe in some fresh air.
- Do a yoga pose.
- Water a few plants.
- Text your partner and tell him/her that you love them.
- Take the dog for a short walk.
- Remember a pleasant memory.
- Get a colleague a coffee.
- Listen to a favourite piece of music.
The possibilities are endless.
Margaret Moore is the founder and CEO of Wellcoaches Corp. and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. She is the co-author, with Harvard Professor of Psychiatry Paul Hammerness, of Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time (Harlequin, 2012).