6 tips for curing your scatterbrain

We leave a trail of missing car keys, forgotten appointments and half-finished projects as we veer from one crisis to the next. Life feels rushed, stressful and out of control, no matter how many lists we write or time management tools we try.

If you’ve been known as scatterbrained, dreamy, ditzy or just plain old vague, don’t give up on an orderly, calm life just yet. Harvard psychiatrist Dr Paul Hammerness says there is a way to move from chaos to calm and it has nothing to do with a great list-writing technique or alarms on your phone. The secret is in understanding how the brain works and why some people are focused, attentive and organised, while others find those concepts difficult.

In his book Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life (Harvard Health Publications), co-written with personal coach Margaret Moore, Dr Hammerness says brain imaging provides new insights into how the brain works to organise our thoughts, actions and emotions. He’s devised six key principles or “Rules of Order” to help you — and even the non-scatterbrained — become more effective.

Lasting change

Surprisingly, these principles have little to do with time management or prioritising tasks and more to do with becoming calmer, having greater impulse control and being able to shift focus efficiently.

Dr Hammerness is a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist who specialises in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Every day he sees patients, both children and adults, who have this disorder and other organisational difficulties. “A lot of people will go with the latest gimmick, the latest automatic reminders, the new organiser,” says Dr Hammerness. “I just don’t see why those would provide lasting change.

“You’ve got to have a change in your mindset and your knowledge and your understanding about what it means to be organised to really get to a different place. What people need is a framework, a way of thinking about organisation.”

He’s packaged up well-researched, recognised cognitive theories into his six Rules of Order, as a practical framework for a more orderly life. Along with the Rules of Order are tips from co-author Margaret Moore, referred to as Coach Meg in the book, to apply the principles and help you steer a path through distractions to lead a less stressful life at home and at work.

1. Tame the frenzy

This is one of the most important rules as well as the least understood and hardest to address, says Dr Hammerness. It’s related to taking control of your emotions so you can approach tasks in a calm, relaxed manner. Powerful feelings, such as being stressed, angry or sad, can cloud your thinking brain, hampering your ability to reason effectively. “Those primary emotions — anxiety, sadness, anger — are the ones more likely to be associated with those who feel disorganised, distracted and overwhelmed,” he writes.

But you can get a handle on your frenzy through a number of different techniques and practices. For example, Dr Hammerness recommends “cognitive reappraisal” or taking a fresh look at a stressful situation and how it is making you feel.

MRI scans have shown that when people use cognitive strategies to try to reduce negative emotions, an increase in activity can be seen in the cortical “thinking” brain. “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 organised,” writes Dr Hammerness.

“Frenzy happens. Anxiety, sadness and anger happen. These emotions are part of the human emotional palette. But the good news is they can be checked and handled.”

Coach Meg’s suggestions are:

  • Make life changes that reduce your frenzy, such as changing jobs if possible.
  • Take note of your stressful states and understand what sets them off so you are better able to control them. “The more you understand your calm and frenzy patterns, the better you will be at removing or reducing the sources of frenzy,” she says in the book.
  • Exercise, eat well, meditate and deal with long-standing frenzy. “Learn that your response to frenzy is a choice and make a choice to lift the frenzy.”

2. Sustain attention

Once you’ve established emotional control, the next step is to learn to stay focused for greater lengths of time, as this is a fundamental building block of organisation. One exercise Dr Hammerness gives his patients is to ask them to concentrate on one task for half an hour without becoming distracted by Facebook, tweets, cups of tea or email checking.

“People are surprised to find they are not doing anything for half an hour. It’s more like 5–10 minutes and then they are onto something different,” he says. “That’s a pretty small amount of time. I’m not saying people should try to focus like a zombie or robot for two- or four-hour slots. Just chunks of half an hour for a task — and I don’t think we’re even doing that.”

Coach Meg’s suggestions are:

  • Practise meditation and mindfulness. Notice where you are, how you feel, your surroundings and just be, for a short while every day.
  • Set goals for attention. How focused were you today? Rate yourself from 1 to 10 and try to increase your score over time.
  • Schedule interruption-free zones at work. Start with 15 minutes then 30 minutes and build up to several hours a day over a few months but take a five-minute break every 90 minutes.

3. Apply the brakes

It’s not only important to be able to focus but to also know when to switch your attention to something else, especially when you’re heading down a cul-de-sac. This impulse control may mean pausing before replying to a friend who has asked you for a favour, or calling it quits when a garage clean-up operation is taking twice as long as you anticipated and other chores await.

“Your ability to apply the cognitive brakes, to thoughtfully ‘inhibit’ an action that may lead down a rabbit hole of trouble and confusion, is the hallmark of an organised mind,” Dr Hammerness says in the book. “If you want to get better organised, you must learn to obey the stop sign.”

Coach Meg’s suggestions are:

  • Use the STOP tool — Step back, Think, Organise your thoughts then Proceed.
  • Keep a journal for a day or two, noting when you respond to an impulse without thinking. It’s the first step in training your brain to better manage impulses.
  • Have a heart-to-head conversation so your mind and your emotions can work out a solution that is realistic and manageable.

4. Mould information

This rule of order relates to working memory, which is the store of useful information you’ve gathered over the past few days, hours or even minutes. It’s different from your long-term memory, which keeps details about events, facts, trivia and people from years gone by. Being able to “mould information” is the ability to access this store of useful information from recent days and problem-solve — to help you remember where you put your car keys, as a very simple example.

“This is the kind of memory that can hold on to recent information and work with it, mould it, so to speak, to allow information that is no longer right in front of you to be useful and accessible to you,” writes Dr Hammerness. “The ability to mould information is a problem-solving step as well as an analytical and creative step.”

Coach Meg’s suggestions are:

  • Sleep to rest and remember. Keep a regular sleep schedule and aim for 7–8 hours a night.
  • Challenge your brain by reading material you wouldn’t normally read.
  • Remember to exercise — exercise will help you to remember. In one study, fitter over-55s had hippocampuses that were 35–40 per cent greater in mass than sedentary individuals.

5. Shift sets

This rule of order involves being able to effectively switch your focus from one task to another, handling the “news flash” or the last-minute change in plans. “This cognitive flexibility and adaptability is known as set shifting,” says Dr Hammerness.

The person who “shift sets” with skill is someone who is focused but also flexible, nimble and ready to move from one task to another if needed. “Some people do this naturally. Others have a difficult time in making these switches. And if you can’t … you’re going to find yourself frustrated, overwhelmed and disorganised.”

Coach Meg’s suggestions are:

  • Shift setting usually requires a decision to be made, so when you change direction, do it with clarity and commitment.
  • Don’t confuse multi-tasking with shifting gears (see box). Shift focus completely to the new job before returning to the old if necessary.
  • Take a walk around the block, stand up and stretch, or do some yoga stretches to clear the mind and prepare for a set shift.

6. Connect the dots

Being organised sounds like a boring concept aimed at creating the perfect worker bee. But it’s really concerned with making more time in your life so you can do the things you find meaningful and constructive. The brain works on networks and the final Rule of Order is about putting it all together to help the various thinking parts of the brain work in harmony so you can start to see the bigger picture of your life.

It’s connecting the dots and learning to quiet the inner frenzy, to develop consistent and sustained focus, being able to flexibly adapt to new stimuli and mould information.

“The real goal of the organised mind is to be able to see the big picture and act on it, living from a higher plane of order,” writes Coach Meg. “It’s not that chaos won’t happen but that you’ll be able to better deal with it, to roll with the punches and to rise above difficult situations without making matters worse. It’s about starting to create the life you want.”

Coach Meg says:

  • Start with one domain to work on. This could be your job, relationship, work or health but pick the one you’re most determined to succeed in.
  • Enjoy and appreciate all those moments along the way of getting organised, as well as the great view when you get there. But remember, life is full of surprises, and this state may not last long!
  • Have faith; you’ve now found the skill to become organised, along with the inner peace that comes from moving from chaos to order.


Modern day cons

Doing a multitude of things at once is a skill that many people – women in particular – wear as a badge of honour. But working in this manner is a trap, rather than the pinnacle of efficiency, says Dr Paul Hammerness.

Multi-tasking, or the ability to chat on the phone, check your daughter’s spelling all while keeping an eye on the stir-fry, is a time management myth.

“It’s the myth of multi-tasking, which is a horrible idea that people really embrace,” says Dr Hammerness. “They end up scattering their attention and doing six things at once, but accomplishing very little, well, at the end of the day.

“They would do far better to focus even just for half an hour.”

But there’s a distinction between multi-tasking and being able to handle the interruption of an urgent phone call.

“We talk about being flexible, about being able to shift your focus, so if an important phone call comes during a meeting, I wouldn’t call it multi-tasking if you deal with that,” he says. “But shift your focus and handle that fully, then get back to what you’re doing. Don’t try to do both things at once.”

And as for the shiny mobile gadgets that scream “look at me, look at me” – there’s a simple, speedy solution.

“What does the brain pay attention to? The brain pays attention to things that are interesting, that are changing, that are exciting, that are visual,” says Dr Hammerness.

“So to have these incredible handheld devices with videos in the palm of your hand, that text as well, it’s so enthralling that the brain just loves it and is drawn to it.”

Take the brave step of switching off, especially when you have to focus or during social times, such as dinner at home.

“Do adults really need a phone on, during a family meal or during a meeting? No, we don’t.”


The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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