Organize Your Mind… and the Rest Will Follow
You lose your keys, forget meetings, and miss deadlines. ADHD has introduced chaos, but it’s within your control to cultivate these simple habits of thought. Follow these tips to change your thinking and regain control of your life.
The door bursts open and in flies Jill, out of breath from climbing two flights of stairs to my second-floor office. She is flustered and upset. “Sorry I’m late!” says Jill, as she plops down on the chair facing my desk. “You wouldn’t believe my day. ”
Jill has been diagnosed with ADHD and is one of my patients. She is in her late 30s and a top research scientist in Boston. She is temporarily living with her friend while her own house is being renovated.
“Last night, when I came in,” she says, “I put my keys down somewhere, and this morning, I had no clue where they could be. I keep losing things! I looked everywhere — the usual places, which, of course, are not the usual places, since it’s not my apartment. If you think I am disorganized, you should see her place.”
“Well, did you find them?” I ask.
She nods ruefully. “Eventually.”
“Where were they?”
“Right on my friend’s kitchen table! All the time they were right there…right there in front of me. Unbelievable!”
“Sounds frustrating but pretty believable, as those keys have eluded you before.”
“My day was in shambles from that point on.” Jill had arrived at work late for a meeting, and returned to her desk to find a barrage of e-mail reminders that further annoyed and overwhelmed her. She sent out a snippy reply to the wrong person. Her e-mail gaffe kept her from attending to a project due by noon. She missed the deadline, turned it in two hours late, and received an unenthusiastic response from her supervisor.
“This happens all the time,” Jill says, teary-eyed, angry, and ashamed of her poor performance at work. “At this rate, I could lose my job…just because I can’t keep track of stupid things like keys.”
Launching a New Strategy
After a little while, I offered Jill a solution. “I have thought about how to start your day tomorrow. You need a launch pad for your keys. A place where you always put your keys and maybe your ID and glasses, too. That way, you’ll know that’s the place they’re always going to be… and every morning that’s where you’ll launch your day, ready for lift-off.”
This resonated with Jill. First, it was an action-oriented solution, something she could do right away and without great difficulty. But more important, the launch pad served as an image, a reminder of how one’s day can begin, not in confusion and distraction but with precision and predictability.
Since Jill adopted two launch pads — one at home and one at work for project materials and reminders — she hasn’t been late for an appointment with me or missed a beat delegating critical tasks to others in the office.
This small success helped Jill become more confident. She starts her morning on a more positive note, heading out the door on time and ready for a successful day at work, as opposed to being already demoralized, frustrated, and down on herself because of a moment’s inattentiveness.
My experience with Jill illustrates a few important points about organization. First, as most adults with ADHD have learned, moments of forgetfulness and disorganization can have major consequences. Second, just as one episode of forgetfulness triggers a series of negative events, so can one small step forward lead to giant leaps of improvement in the organization of one’s life.
The launch pad is a simple solution, but its effects go far beyond knowing where your keys are. You begin to think about other things you can organize. You have more time. You are less stressed before you leave the house in the morning. You enter a new environment more relaxed and thinking more clearly.
New studies in neuroscience explain why these changes occur. The brain has its own built-in system of organization and regulation, controlled by its own Rules of Order. The brain strives for order and can tamp down our emotions when they get in the way. A study shows that once you can better manage your emotions, you can harmonize the thinking parts of your brain, opening up a whole new world before you. As the case of Jill showed, you can’t get organized, or make rational decisions about how to get organized, when you’re distraught. The launch pad suggestion not only helped Jill react to the problem at hand, it started a new process of thinking for her. Here are some solutions that could start you down a new path.
When we lose our mindfulness — meaning our complete presence and attention to the task at hand — it feels like we’re losing our minds. When we’re in the shower, we’re thinking about a conflict with a work colleague. When we set down our keys, or park our car in a parking garage, we’re already on to the next task and don’t notice where we left them.
There are many routes to recultivating the mindfulness we all once had as children. Here’s one path to follow that will also lead you back to your missing car keys:
- Build awareness. Start noticing when you are mindful or when you’ve lost mindfulness — jot it down in a notebook or create a notes page on your cell phone.
- Set a goal. Think about what percent of the time you are mindful, fully awake, and present in the moment. Perhaps you’re at 50 percent. Where do you want to get to and by when?
- See the present moment as a gift. Appreciate it. Or stop to take a few deep breaths and focus on your breathing to slow down your mind.
- Practice becoming mindful. For example, “This week I will be mindful about where I put my cell phone. I will take a few seconds to consider where to store it in my briefcase or pocket and to notice when I’m placing it. Next week, I’ll work on my keys. The week after, my glasses. Then I’ll fully enjoy my first cup of coffee or savor a small piece of dark chocolate in the late afternoon.”
“Ooh, that looks interesting!”
We’ve become a society in pursuit of instant gratification. We can’t wait. We want to know. We need to know. Right now! Unfortunately, most new information isn’t urgent and, perhaps, not even important. However, we haven’t trained our brains to handle the second step: to ask, “Is this urgent?”
To overcome distractibility, you need to develop a two-step brain pattern:
- Evaluate the incoming information.
- Shift back to the present if the information isn’t urgent, or jump off and focus on the new information if you judge it to be a high priority.
A helpful way to do this is to rate the urgency and importance of each new message or input. Give it a rating of 1-10. Anything seven and over demands immediate attention. Anything four or below can probably be ignored for the time being.
Remember that technology can help us: Most cell phones now ask us if we want to listen to a new voicemail or read a new text now or later. With e-mail you have the option to click on the pop-up announcing a new message or not.
“Ugh, this place is a mess!”
It’s amazing how clutter can impact the brain, making it feel as out of control and unapproachable as our sock drawer. Don’t you envy the people who can tolerate, even enjoy, chaotic mess and seem immune to it?
Decluttering your life requires a long-term plan, but why not start today by taking the small, gradual measures needed to untangle the mess and restore order, both outside (home/office) and inside (your brain).
- Get a partner — your child, mate, or friend — to help you declutter. A work buddy can offer a fresh perspective; he can see the sky from the messy weeds. Be open to his suggestions about what should go where and make it fun. After a few hours of decluttering, celebrate your teamwork and productive time together by enjoying a good meal (your treat!) or going for a long walk.
- After a session with your friend or mate, schedule solo decluttering periods of an hour, once a week at first, and, eventually, once a month, to make sure you stay on top of things.
- Schedule ongoing decluttering time — 15 minutes per week — to keep rooms under control.
- Be sure to focus on and appreciate how many areas have been brought to order along the way, not on how much is left to do.
“Uh, sorry I’m late…”
This may be a sign that your commitments are beyond your personal bandwidth. If so, consider the following suggestions to conquer habitual lateness:
- Trim your sails. Write down a list of your commitments — daily, weekly, monthly. (Your spouse or a partner can help.) Determine if some of these can be jettisoned, delegated, or reduced. Prevent over-scheduling by learning to say no. Reduce your list of regular commitments by at least 10 percent.
- Get your 15-minute daily downtime. Lateness and forgetfulness may be signs that you need some downtime to restore calm and balance and to increase brain function. Harvard University mind and body expert Herbert Benson, M.D., recommends 10 to 15 minutes a day of a repetitive, mindful activity (deep breathing, meditation, yoga). You can do it in the morning to start the day on a calm footing or in late afternoon.
- Adjust your emotional balance. Your lateness may be a sign of too few positive emotions or too many negative emotions, both of which hurt brain function, particularly memory. Check your ratio of positive to negative emotions on positivityratio.com. The tipping point is 3:1, above which our brains function well and below which they don’t do well at all.
“I thought I was doing it all, but…”
If you are concerned that you can’t multitask, don’t fret. Research has shown that multitasking isn’t effective. Singletasking is better.
Each task, brief or otherwise, is best done with your full attention, not a quarter, half, or even three-quarters of it. Whether you’re talking to your kids, answering an e-mail, or looking at the window to appreciate something pretty, bring your entire consciousness to each task.
Imagine it like turning your head and fixing your gaze on another, and connecting fully, as we do when we are falling in love and want to send a sign of our feelings. You need to make a clear break, a mental transition from task to task and not let the previous task or future task infect the current one. When you bring your full presence to a task, time slows down and expands, and much can get done in small moments.
“I am barely hanging on here.”
How do you avoid the sense that you can’t get ahead because you’re trying to keep up with the constant wave of demands on your time? By striving for control that supports calm, having confidence that everything will get done, and by taking satisfaction from accomplishing things. To regain these important qualities, try these at-work accommodations to help you establish a time-zone plan:
- Schedule interruption-free zones, the most productive times each day. Start with 15 minutes, then 30, and build up to several hours a day over a few months.
- Schedule zones to deal with interruptions when you need a break from demanding projects — say 20 minutes per day — to check texts, calls, Tweets, and so on.
- Practice not looking at texts, e-mails, and such when you are in an interruption-free zone. You’ll enjoy the sense of control that comes from not responding in knee-jerk fashion.
“This is all just too much…”
Stress caused by distraction and disorganization can lead to an overall deterioration of physical and mental health. When you feel like your check-engine light is flashing, hit the reset button with these strategies to reduce stress.
- Take a few moments a few times a week to review what you’ve got going, the good things in your life that you should be grateful for. This may sound trite, but it will help you shift to a more positive footing.
- Redefine who you want to be — moving from stressed-out wreck to what? Calm and confident? Who’s your role model?
- Turn priorities upside down and take care of your health first, which will give you more energy, balance, and calm to get things done.
- Find one health behavior to get under control-just one. Maybe it’s exercise, and, perhaps, exercising someplace more convenient than the gym will take less time. So get out and walk or buy a workout video you can do at home. You’ll be doing something good for your health and your stress level.
“I’m teetering on the edge!”
A lot of people have a nagging sense that they are teetering on the edge and that all it will take is one more assignment to send them plummeting into chaos.
If you feel this way, remember that, while it may seem that you are about to go over the edge, you haven’t. The thing to deal with is your nagging sense. You are choosing to have negative thoughts that nag you. Perhaps you could employ cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to jump out of that pattern by thinking, “I’m doing a good job; I’m keeping my cool and balance in spite of the risk of going over the edge.”
So shift your mental picture from one of you trembling on the precipice to you confidently walking along the edge, filled with the promise of discovery. Yes, that’s you, on your way to great new things. Enjoy the view!
Excerpted from Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, by Paul Hammerness, M.D., and Margaret Moore, with John Hanc. Reprinted with permission of Harlequin.
Six Skills to Master for an Orderly Brain
Developing and mastering these essential brain skills will give you more focus and your life greater order.
- Tame the frenzy. Be quietly in control. Before you can engage the mind, you must control, or at least have a handle on, your emotions. It’s hard to be thoughtful or efficient when you’re irritated, frustrated, and distraught.
- Sustain attention. You need to be able to maintain your focus and successfully ignore distractions in order to plan and coordinate behaviors, to be organized, and to accomplish something.
- Apply the brakes. The organized brain must be able to inhibit or stop an action or thought, just as a good pair of brakes brings your car to a halt at a stop light. Think of it as a compassionate hand on the shoulder or a traffic cop holding up a raised hand.
- Mold information. Your brain has the ability to hold information it has focused on, analyze the information, process it, and use it to guide future behavior.
- Shift sets. The organized brain is ever ready for the new game in town, the news flash, the timely opportunity, or the last-minute change in plans. You need to be focused in the present, but you also must be able to process and weigh the relative importance of competing stimuli and to be flexible, nimble, and ready to move from one task to another or from one thought to another.
- Connect the dots. The organized and efficient individual is able to pull together the five rules we’ve just talked about, and bring these abilities to bear on the problem or the situation at hand.
Excerpted from Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, by Paul Hammerness.
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Updated on May 24, 2021