Provision #754: Our Organizing Minds

Laser Provision

Today’s Provision is an appreciative review of a new book co-authored by my friend and colleague, Margaret Moore, the CEO of Wellcoaches Corporation and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. The premise of the book is simple: to organize our lives we must first organize our minds. What that means and how to get it done is what the book and this Provision is all about. If you’ve been looking for a fresh approach to long-standing problems of disorganization and distraction, then I invite you to fasten your seat belt and read on. In one Provision we will cover all six Rules of Order.

LifeTrek Provision

A few years ago, I co-authored the Coaching Psychology Manual with Margaret Moore. That Manual was the product of years of work by Margaret and me along with many others on the faculty of the Wellcoaches School of Coaching, a premiere training program for health and wellness coaches that has today trained more 5,000 coaches in 32 countries. Although I have been through many coach training programs myself, I can say that my involvement in Wellcoaches since 2003 has done more to advance my own thinking and practice as a coach than any other single opportunity. It is a great group, with a great program, and a great mission: to change the world by helping people to change, grow, and thrive.

Even though we have now launched our own evocative coaching training program through the Center for School Transformation, focused on improving coaching and leadership in schools, I continue to be active on the Wellcoaches faculty. Indeed, there is great synergy between the two programs and we both benefit from the ways in which we share and collaborate on the work.

Now, Margaret has teamed up with Paul Hammerness, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, to co-author a new book titled Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life. I recommend it highly, especially if you would like to understand the science behind the challenge of getting organized. This book is not just a bunch of self-help tips on how to cleanup your desk or stay on top of your appointments. This book is a look at how the mind works and how to structure things to help it work better. For those of you who have been enjoying my recent Provisions on Our Distributed Brain, this book fits right in with solid neuroscientific research and applications that can help just about anyone to get better organized.

Although their title will sell more books than my Provision title, the book starts with the recognition that the human mind is an organizing mind. It is organizing all the time. It is organizing your thoughts right now, as you read this Provision, assisting you to either stay focused or to set this aside for something more interesting, important, or salient. Sense making and pattern recognition are two natural brain functions, the quality and quantity of which distinguish human beings from other animals.

Unfortunately, for many people, the organizing mind is no longer up to the task. We can speculate ad infinitum as to why this might be so. The 24-7 stimulation of our digital world, which both overwhelms us with data and deprives us of sleep, is certainly a prime suspect. But that’s only part of the story. Changes in our diets and activity levels, for example, are also significant factors in the rise of not only chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension but also attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders (ADD and ADHD). As we have seen, the mind is not just in our heads. What happens in our bodies happens in our minds, and vice-versa. It’s all connected.

Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life works with this holistic view of the human mind and identifies six Rules of Order that can help people get better organized. I summarize them here, with a few choice quotes as well as a few reflections of my own along the way. If they make as much sense to you as they do to me, then I encourage you to get the book to learn more.

  1. Tame the Frenzy. No one can get organized if our emotions are out of control. Ironically, the more disorganized we are, the more likely it is that our emotions • especially anxiety, sadness, and anger • will be out of control, making it even harder to get organized. In their book, Hammerness and Moore argue persuasively that the first step to getting organized is to interrupt this vicious cycle. We must do something to calm down before we can do much else. That something, the authors argue, is fundamentally a cognitive task. We must engage the rational thinking parts of our brain in order to comfort and guide the upset feeling parts.The key takeaway is to recognize that we have a choice as to whether we do this or not. We are not the victims of our emotions. On the contrary, our emotions represent critical inputs for cognitive processes. The more upset we are the more important it is to take stock of our needs, to consider fresh viewpoints, and to do things that will get our emotions under control. Unless and until that happens, neither our minds nor our lives will be able to get organized. Dr. Hammerness writes:

    “Anxiety, sadness, anger happen. These emotions are part of the human emotional palette. But the good news is that they can be checked and handled. The science has now revealed to us the brain mechanisms that both feed and tame the frenzy and has also showed us that the more we work at it’the more we work to control our negative emotions’the more effective our efforts can be. They are efforts worth making. Because when you have calmed your frenzy, you will have the opportunity to be better focused, less distracted, and more organized.” Good strategies for doing this, Margaret notes, include mindfulness, self-care, life-planning, therapy, and experimenting with small steps that can generate big smiles.

  2. Sustain Attention. Once our emotions are calmed down it’s important to make productive use of that time of ease. Otherwise, we will just be on a roller-coaster, going from one emotional firestorm to the next without making any progress in between. Such productivity requires focused attention. Instead of using the time to chill out, watching television, for example, we can use the time to start noticing the things that help us to be more successful and in control.In this regard, Dr. Hammerness distinguishes between two types or modes of attention•goal directed or stimulus driven. We know all about stimulus-driven attention. When we are faced with a sudden, unexpected movement or sound, for example, we become very attentive, very quickly. We may even become scared “half to death.” More often than not, however, stimulus-driven attention is scattered attention that responds to whatever distraction crosses our minds or pops up in our environments. Such attention is the bane of those who suffer from ADD or ADHD.

    The key to getting organized, once our emotions are under control, is goal-directed attention. All that means is that we think about our goals for increasingly extended periods of time. Margaret suggests that thinking about our strengths as well as some of our best, goal-directed experiences in the past can serve the same purpose. One of the many benefits of working with a coach is that we get to think out loud about our goals, strengths, and peak experiences for 20-60 minutes at a time. The more we practice paying attention to our goals, in whatever context, the better our powers of attention will be.

  3. Apply the Brakes. Unfortunately, sustained attention is difficult for many people, even when we are not feeling particularly frenzied. That’s why Dr. Hammerness argues that even as we practice goal-directed attention we should also practice consciously bracketing our response to distracting stimuli, both internal and external. When we are thinking about our goals and we remember an errand we forgot to run or an email we forgot to send, we can bracket that thought, perhaps writing it down on a piece of paper to come back to later, rather than to give it our attention in the moment.Such “inhibitory control” is an essential part of our organizing minds. It doesn’t work to be “go-go” all the time; we also need to exercise our “no-go” functions if we hope to get ourselves organized. Longtime readers of Provisions will recognize the STOP acronym developed by Tim Gallwey as closely related to this function: Step back, Think, Organize our thoughts, Proceed. The secret is being able to do this in the moment, for what Gallwey refers to as a short STOP, before going too far down the path of getting distracted by a stimulus.

    The organizing mind is constantly weighing alternatives, within a “go/no-go” matrix. The organized mind weighs those alternatives consciously while the disorganized mind weighs those alternatives unconsciously. That’s the difference. As a conscious process, we can set priorities and make decisions that serve us well. As an unconscious process, we are at the mercy of whatever wells up inside us or comes along beside us. So practice conscious interruptions. You could do that right now. Stop reading, close your eyes, and take a breath before you go on to the next paragraph. By checking your swing, to use a baseball analogy, you get a chance to swing again and hit a better ball later.

  4. Mold Information. The first three Rules of Order are about getting ready; the next three Rules are about getting organized. In our book, Evocative Coaching, my wife and I refer to these two movements as the No-Fault Turn and the Strengths-Building Turn. Our Turns, and the place they have in coaching, are closely related to these Rules of Order. Once we are calm, focused, and prioritized, we can then move forward in new and more effective ways. To do that, Dr. Hammerness notes, we have to mold information which is fundamentally a task of the short-term or working memory. If we don’t remember what happened yesterday, there’s no way to work with that information today.”Think of it as the interaction between memory and attention,” Dr. Hammerness writes. “Working memory allows you to hold and process information over short periods of time and to use information as a guide to future behavior even after the information is out of sight (something we call ‘representational thinking’). It’s a kind of clearinghouse for the information we need to function on a day-to-day basis.”

    Margaret notes that one of the best ways to improve our working memory and to mold information is to get a good night’s sleep. The notion of “sleeping on something” is not just an expression. It literally describes how our brains work. If we don’t get at least six hours of good, restful sleep a night we will not be able to remember and to work with things well. Margaret has other recommendations as well, such as creating memory books, debating issues, talking with your hands, and exercising, but nothing is more important to working memory than sleep.

  5. Shift Sets. It would be a mistake to think that someone who has an organized life is simply someone who is good at planning. “Make the plan, work the plan.” Oh, if life were only that simple! Stuff happens and the key to success lies in our ability to shift sets accordingly. Flexibility, not rigidity, is of the essence of the organizing mind.Set shifting is very different than multitasking. Multitasking may work with computers, that are designed to run different processes simultaneously, but it does not work well with human beings. Other than functions of our autonomic nervous system, it is actually impossible to focus consciously on two tasks at once. And it can even be dangerous. Yet people text and drive all the time, to mention only one common example.

    The organizing mind is a nimble mind, able to shift gears in order to achieve its goals. Once again, the question is one of awareness and choice. Are we set shifting after a time, or at least a moment, of conscious thought, interfacing our priorities with environmental realities, or are we just being pulled from one thing to the next? The organizing mind doesn’t like being pulled willy-nilly; it likes to pull purposively, changing course when necessary and making things happen for good.

  6. Connect the Dots. Dr Hammerness identifies three brain networks that are important to the organizing mind. The alerting network keeps us awake and vigilant to new information and opportunities. The orienting network enables us to mobilize our resources to respond to that information. The controlling network chooses and directs what we do. Dr. Hammerness compares these three networks to the ready-set-go commands at the start of a sprint. “Ready” gets us poised and prepared for the race that is imminent. “Set” gets us into our sprinter’s crouch. “Go” gets us to spring into action at the sound of the shot, pulling it all together’the mechanics of our stride, the proper form, the awareness of who’s in the next lane and what our competitor’s strengths are•as we race down the track.Without the sound of the shot, these three networks are involved in all that we do. The question, again, is whether or not they are within our conscious awareness. If that sprinter is not paying attention, he or she will not win the race. So, too, with every race in life. If we are not paying attention then we will not connect the dots and things will not happen.

    Fortunately, Margaret concludes, “your brain is wired for organization and you can, in essence, learn from yourself, learn some of the skills and tap into some of the abilities that you already possess in order to become more organized, more in control and less overwhelmed in every facet of life.” That’s when the breakthroughs happen. That’s when we see new ways of set shifting and doing things so as to be more successful than ever before. That’s when we launch, with all systems go.

At the end of the book, Margaret gives the most practical advice of all: focus on organizing just one domain at a time, have faith, approach it as a challenge, and remember the constant of change. There will never be a moment when you are done getting organized. Your mind is an organizing mind, from the cradle to the grave. So enjoy the journey and make it happen.

Coaching Inquiries: How would you describe the state of your organizing mind? Is it on autopilot or have you taken control? What would help you to be more aware and active? How could you get more sleep? How would you describe your priorities in life and work? How could you pay more attention to them both now and in the future? Who could coach you through the conversation?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. 

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

Your poem, Unbidden, is Simply and elegantly beautiful. Thank you!

Deep thought! Thanks for contributing.

I’m loving this brain kick you’re on with your Provisions. More ingredients for my soup! 🙂

In your Provision, The Subtle Energies of Intelligence, you mention the five minds of Howard Gardner. Well, in my opinion, you are a brilliant example of “having it all”! You represent so amazingly the balance of a disciplined, synthesized, creating, respectful, ethical mind. Your Provisions bring the greater world of knowledge and contemplation to those of us that are not quite so well rounded in the five minds.

I am not sure if you saw the article by Atul Gawande, “Personal Best,” recently in The New Yorker where he talks about taking on a coach in his surgical practice. About one third of the article looks at the use of coaches in schools. (Ed. Note: Yes, I am familiar with the article and Jim Knight, the instructional coach mentioned in the article, is a friend and colleague. Spoke at his Conference last fall. Small world!)

Thanks so much for your leadership with the International Association of Coaching. I’ve personally gleaned many insights from your writing, including the Provisions you send every Sunday, and you have added to the history and literature of the field. Thank you for this service to coaching and coaches. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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