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Life's Messy. Train Your Brain to Adapt.

Margaret Moore, co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital/ Harvard Medical School, answers all our burning questions about how to sift through the chaos of the digital age and organize our lives and minds. (Hint: it starts with the brain.)

What's the Big Idea?


Margaret Moore is the founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital. Paul Hammerness, MD, is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Together, they hope to get at the physical and psychological roots of chaos. In a recent interview, Moore told Big Think that there is a cognitive basis for chronic disorganization.

Organization, she says, is not just about a cluttered desk. It’s about self-regulation, a skill that is developed by the pre-frontal cortex--the seat of executive function in the brain. The left pre-frontal cortex regulates your attention: it evaluates, judges, makes decisions. Modern life, with its barrage of incoming emails and phone calls and texts, taxes the pre-frontal cortex, inhibiting the brain’s ability to focus. Those who have naturally strong self-regulation can handle the overload—and those who don’t are left feeling guilty and out of control.

But the plasticity of the brain means we can all learn to be better focused and more organized. “When you can focus all of your brain on one thing, that’s when you’re at your best, she says. "You’re integrating all your brain. But it also consumes a huge amount of resources. You get tired. That’s really how the brain learns—when the brain is learning, it’s laying down new networks. The brain is changing when we focus. It takes a lot of energy, and when it’s depleted it isn’t able to manage the emotional brain. When your pre frontal cortex is depleted, your emotions rule all day. ”

Q: Can we actually reshape our habits just by thinking?

A: I did a coaching demonstration yesterday with a young woman who is really suffering from clutter at home—really suffering. If you look at the genetic wiring around organization, there’s a good amount of the population who have competent executive function. The other part of the population has better access to their emotions. That’s generalizing a lot, but those folks, like the woman I was coaching yesterday, are very good at living the moment, very good at connecting, they’ve got great emotional intelligence, they can pick up other people’s emotions—but they can’t find their keys. Those folks are really struggling. Privately they feel despair, because their emotional expression is turned high. It’s a strength, in terms of their ability to connect with people, but it’s a weakness when it comes to organizing.

Q: How do you take control, even when you're feeling overwhelmed?

A: Negativity is a very important part of life. When you have negative emotions, they have a message to give you—and they’re very good at getting it through. They overtake the good. They’re like crying babies demanding your attention. And so the first thing to say is, don’t permanently suppress them. Listen to them and figure out, ‘is this an error message? Or is this something I really need to pay attention to?’ The limbic system is an old part of the brain. It takes in a lot of input from a lot of places faster than they get to the thinking brain. So there’s often something important in the negative. Stress is the trigger for learning and growth. Stress is what makes us accomplish things. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s part of life. It’s not that you want to wipe it off the board. It’s more about what your relationship is with the negative.

Stress is designed biologically to be powerful; it takes over your brain much more than positive emotion. Your heart rate goes up, you breathe faster; your blood pressure goes up. It makes you ready to respond. It’s got a purpose, but it doesn’t help when it’s time to sit down and work on something for thirty minutes. Naming the emotion, giving it a language, in an empathetic caring way—just a little self-empathy instead of ‘I’m an idiot for feeling like this’—that in itself can shift it.

Q: How do we form these cognitive habits?

A: You have to train yourself. When you encounter the situation, you have to reappraise it. You do this by talking to your irrational emotions. Then practice changing the negative self-talk.

What's the Significance?

The quickest way to deal with stress, says Moore, is to summon a positive emotion. In her experience as a counselor, the most successful people are able to cultivate a three to one balance between positive and negative thoughts: “What we’re really talking about is using your brain’s most precious resource, which is your attention, in the way that it allows you to accomplish the most and make the biggest impact on the world.”

So why do we so often fail to stick to our organizational goals? "Perhaps you’ve got the motivation, you’ve got the willpower, but the confidence is crap," she says. "The motivation goes to sleep when you don’t think you can do it. You can only build confidence by doing it, by actually experiencing it." Organization is achieved through future-oriented thinking: the ability to monitor one's emotional response (i.e. "I want to watch TV now!") and redirect attention towards the activities that will help us achieve our goals (i.e. "if I spend 30 minutes doing the dishes now, I will wake up to a clean home tomorrow").

If you learn how your brain works and work with it, you can start to exercise more cognitive control over your own functioning. The first step is to figure out what is it that you really want that being organized will give you. "That’s the fuel that will keep you going when you’re struggling to change your brain," says Moore. "Every time you make a change that lasts, you’re changing your brain."

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