An Interview with Margaret Moore, B.S., M.B.A., on Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life
David Van Nuys, Ph.D.: Tue, Jul 31st 2012
Editor's Note: Mental Help Net would like to let you know that this will be the last Wise Counsel podcast published (all previous ones will remain in the archives and available to listeners). The site is committed to continuing to bring you new and updated content going forward. We wish to thank Dr. David Van Nuys for the wonderful interviews that he has brought to everyone over the past five and a half years.
In this podcast, Margaret Moore talks about the book, Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life that she co-authored with Harvard psychiatrist Paul Hammerness. Margaret Moore, aka Coach Meg, is the founder and CEO of Wellcoaches Corporation, a leader in building international standards for professional coaches in health and wellness. Coach Meg says that she believes one of the breakthroughs in this book is that they really bring home that multitasking does not serve people. Sure, there may be times when people have got to spin a few plates together, but when they do that, they in fact get to a place where they're not using all of their brain's resources for any one thing, so they're not strategic, they're not creative, they're not productive, and by the end of the day, their poor brain is exhausted because it's been jumping around far too quickly and nothing has really moved forward. People don't feel as though they've got a command of any of the topics; they're sort of on the surface. And that can be quite draining. We don't have enough reflection time and we don't have enough quality focus time, we end up feeling as though we're in the trees all the time. We can't see our way through to the big picture. And that even creates more frenzy. And so next thing you know, we're just in a crate of -- panic is probably too strong a word, but we're really very distractible, very jumpy, and we don't connect with people because we're distracted; we're not even thinking about the other person and really focusing on what they have to say. So our relationships suffer. We don't take good care of ourselves because we're so whacked by the end of a day that's been so involved in multitasking that we don't have the energy to cook a healthy meal or go for a walk or recharge our batteries. So it has big consequences, this not driving our attention with more presence and care. The core principle here is that the brain is only designed to focus on one thing at a time, so it doesn't have the capacity, like a computer does, to run things simultaneously. So when you are scattering across four or five things together -- like moving from a document to a conversation to a -- what happens is that you're only bringing a little bit of your brain to any one thing in any one moment. The ordered mind is, first, able to create sustained, full attentional focus, undistracted, unfrenzied; and then access working memory so that you can put together new perspectives and create new ways of looking at things to get to the big picture, to connect the dots; and then shifting your attention intentionally, because sometimes the hyper focus can suppress other parts of your brain from generating ideas, and sometimes the best ideas come when you're in the shower or going for a walk.
David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by Mentalhelp.net, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.
On today's show, we'll be talking with Margaret Moore about the book she co-authored with Harvard psychiatrist Paul Hammerness, Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life. Margaret Moore, aka Coach Meg, is the founder and CEO of Wellcoaches Corporation, a leader in building international standards for professional coaches in health and wellness. Coach Meg is codirector of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. She's a founding advisor of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School, which is integrating lifestyle medicine and coaching into primary care. And she is co-course director of the annual Coaching and Leadership in Healthcare conference offered by Harvard Medical School. Along with co-author Paul Hammerness, M.D., Coach Meg is the lead author of the first coaching textbook in health care, Coaching Psychology Manual, published by Lippincott. And their new book, Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, is a Harvard Health Publication published by Harlequin. Now, here's the interview.
Margaret Moore, or should I say Coach Meg, welcome to Wise Counsel.
Margaret Moore: Thank you. Lovely to be here.
David: Well, I've been reading your new book, Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, which you co-authored with Dr. Paul Hammerness. Now, he's a Harvard psychiatrist and you're an executive coach, and these two worlds would seem to be very far apart. How did the two of you get together?
Margaret Moore: That's a good question. Well, I, in fact -- my first career was in the biotechnology industry, and 12 years ago I began a company that is now the leader in defining standards for professional health and wellness coaches. So I run a school of coaching for health professionals, and that's really my main [audio skip].
And what happened is that I have co-founded an Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, and I got to know the Harvard health team, and they have been working on finding a way for me to collaborate with a physician, bringing coaching and physicians together; which is actually one of my missions is to enable the partnership of a doctor and a coach in helping people implement whatever the prescription might be that involves changing your life in some way. And so that has been part of my kind of vision of where I want to go, and so this book really fell right into the sweet spot for me.
David: Well, I have been interested in the whole phenomenon of coaching and its rise kind of as either an alternative to clinical psychology, psychology, or a companion. And you seem to have really gotten yourself into a very sweet niche there being at Harvard. Maybe you can say just a little bit more about coaching and its place vis-à-vis related professions, such as social work, psychology, counseling, etc.
Margaret Moore: Yes, well, that can be confusing for people, what is it that we do that that's different. And there is some overlap because more and more therapists, psychologists, social workers are using coaching methods. One of the simplest distinctions that I borrow from my colleague Carol Kauffman, who's the director of our Institute of Coaching, is that coaches follow the trail of dreams and therapists follow the trail of tears. Coaches are not in the business of healing. We're not here to fix problems. We're not here to remedy pathology. We're not here to really heal from a deep place.
Coaches are all about where do I want to go that seems kind of challenging. You know, I'm a healthy, functioning adult, but the areas of my life I want to change have eluded me up until now, and I think that getting some help and a partnership here might both increase my probability of success and accelerate the process. So coaching is very much about building a new future and focusing on the things that are kind of above ground as opposed to understanding the patterns and traumas that lead me to do things that I don't understand.
David: Okay, well, that's very helpful. Let me ask you to back away a little bit from the mouthpiece, because there's a little bit of static-y sound. So I think if you're a little bit further back, maybe that will be diminished.
Margaret Moore: Okay. How's that? Better?
David: Yeah, I think that's better.
Margaret Moore: I can put my headset on. I didn't because usually the sound is better from the handset.
David: Yeah. This is sounding good now.
Margaret Moore: Okay.
David: My understanding is that the book grew out of Dr. Hammerness's clinical work with patients suffering from ADD and ADHD. Do I have that right?
Margaret Moore: Well, yes and no. Paul is a clinical researcher around ADHD, so he is also engaged in understanding the biological underpinnings of ADHD. And the book is not intended for people with ADHD. It was not designed for that purpose. However, the science around how the brain is designed to be organized has emerged from all the interest and attention to ADD -- what are the deficits and where are they based in the brain or what parts do they integrate. And they turn out to be, even in a person without ADD, it's the same kind of functions. We call them the "rules of order" in the book. And so it's the study of ADD that has given a gift to the rest of us to really appreciate when the brain is working well in terms of being organized -- you know, what parts work well and how can the rest of us really improve their functioning?
David: At first I thought it might be a stretch to generalize from patients suffering from ADD and ADHD to the rest of the population, but then I suppose that, actually, we've learned a lot about so-called normals through the study of various kinds of pathology. So that really fits right into, I think, a long tradition. So the ADD and ADHD are population are struggling with controlling their attention and keeping it focused. And I guess you can argue that most of us struggle with attention because of all the pressures and distractions in our modern, especially in our electronic lives. Our gadgets have really upped the ante, haven't they?
Margaret Moore: Yes. So that's why this book is suited to our times, because we are all -- while someone with ADD or ADHD unfortunately suffers from deficits across a whole range of different domains, we've overloaded our circuits in the sense that we have more frenzy around us than ever, which impairs our prefrontal cortex. We have more distractions, and so that's where the devices come in. The brain's radar is on all the time. It's looking for stimuli to respond to, especially things that might signal danger, and so the radar is on. And, of course, when you have got unending text and emails and phone calls, your radar gets kind of overused, and so we're more distractible than ever. And then compound that: we live in a world where many people boast about multitasking as though it was a good thing.
Margaret Moore: And one of the breakthroughs, I think, in this book is that we really bring home that multitasking does not serve you. Sure, there may be times when you've got to spin a few plates together, but when you do that, you in fact get to a place where you're not using all of your brain's resources for any one thing, so you're not strategic, you're not creative, you're not productive, and by the end of the day, your poor brain is exhausted because it's been jumping around far too quickly and nothing has really moved forward. You don't feel as though you've got a command of any of the topics; you're sort of on the surface. And that can be quite draining. So I think all of those things together, I mean, have led us -- while the incidence, the prevalence of ADD has not increased, we all suffer from a little bit of the deficits that people with ADD do.
David: Well, I can really relate to what you're saying. It's fairly early in the morning here, and yet already I've been on my computer and I've been distracted by a variety of email messages and then funny little bits that people attached in attachments and they wanted me to watch little YouTube videos. And I was going to look in my spam folder, and I'm just now remembering that I got distracted by some other stuff and forgot to go through my spam folder in case there's something important there. And it goes on and on.
Our electronic gadgets have transformed our lives -- and nobody's more hooked on them than me -- and yet, as you point out, they definitely have a downside. And the dream of the past was that machines would liberate us from work, but it's turned out -- in my observation, it's turned out that what they do is they make it possible for us to do more work in a given amount of time, and so we're all taking on more work, wearing more hats.
Let me just tell you a story real quick in this regard. I also do some marketing research work, and a client from years ago was Kodak. And I had a very demanding client there who wanted to be kept in the loop constantly. And this was before email and texting were quite as big as they are now, and it was more about faxing. And so I calculated that on that particular project I had to send back and forth over 300 faxes just to kind of "keep her in the loop." And that wasn't anything that I could bill her for, but it was eating up just tons of time and energy.
Margaret Moore: Yes, and of course that -- I mean when I started my career, it was just the beginning of having a desktop computer. There were no voice mails. Remember you had to phone and if nobody answered, nobody answered. [Laughs]
David: Right. Yeah.
Margaret Moore: And back in those days, we had Sundays.
David: Oh, yeah.
Margaret Moore: Where you kind of got bored.
David: I worked out of my home. I aspired, when I first heard about what was called the "electronic cottage," and I thought, oh, what a great idea. I can work out of my home. Well, the end story of that is, when you work out of your home, you work all the time and you work every day.
Margaret Moore: You do, and I have the same phenomenon. I mean, I think that technology has been brilliant in what it allows us to do and how much it allows us to do. But it's also a little bit addictive because it's constant stimulation. And what happens is we let our attention be hijacked by a fun little thing that comes in, something that really could have waited an hour until you got something important done. And so we've lost control of our intentional spotlight. I sort of imagine the attention like being a beam that comes out of the center of your forehead.
David: Yes, me too.
Margaret Moore: And when you have all of it together, like you're using both sides -- your right, left, back, front, top, down, all of your brain, your memory, your emotions, your thoughts, your senses, your past learning and experiences -- when you bring all of that to shine on one thing, you can be brilliant. You can have great ideas. You can make leaps forward -- connecting the docs, as we described as the last rule in the book.
And so because we don't do that enough, because we don't have enough reflection time and we don't have enough quality focus time, we end up feeling as though we're in the trees all the time. We can't see our way through to the big picture. And that even creates more frenzy. And so next thing you know, we're just in a crate of -- panic is probably too strong a word, but we're really very distractible, very jumpy, and we don't connect with people because we're distracted; we're not even thinking about the other person and really focusing on what they have to say.
So our relationships suffer. We don't take good care of ourselves because we're so whacked by the end of a day that's been so involved in multitasking that we don't have the energy to cook a healthy meal or go for a walk or recharge our batteries. So it has big consequences, this not driving our attention with more presence and care.
David: Yeah. And as you pointed out earlier, we tend to feel proud of what great multitaskers we are, as long as we don't fall behind. But it seems like I've been seeing research that's really questioning both the health consequences and the work effectiveness or efficiency of multitasking.
Margaret Moore: Right.
David: And you kind of alluded to that. Can you say something more about that?
Margaret Moore: Well, yes. I mean the core principle here is that the brain is only designed to focus on one thing at a time, so it doesn't have the capacity, like a computer does, to run things simultaneously. So when you are scattering across four or five things together -- like moving from a document to a conversation to a -- what happens is that you're only bringing a little bit of your brain to any one thing in any one moment. And I think when it comes to putting the dishes out of the dishwasher or -- you know, there are some things where you don't need all of your brain's attention unless you want to use it as kind of a meditative state.
I think the best example of why it doesn't work is if you're driving. You know, there are 8,000 car crashes a day now because of distractions. You can't text and drive at the same time. I mean you just can't do those two things together, and I think that really brings home when you've got something mission critical, then it's almost dangerous; it's certainly not productive.
And I think people have to go back to doing one thing at a time; and even if it's just for five minutes, getting deeper into something and getting further along with it; and then what we call "set shifting," which is jumping all of your attention to the next thing, like a basketball player, taking -- and then really fully shift. Leave the last thing behind, don't fret about the other 32 things you're not doing, and then really attend to the next thing. And if you practice doing that, you'll start to notice how much better it feels, because when you have immersed yourself in a full focus, it's one of the peak states of psychological well-being. I mean you may about Csikszentmihalyi's books and work on flow.
David: Yes, I do.
Margaret Moore: And the state of flow. Yeah, so that is --
David: Yeah, I've used that book in my teaching, as a matter of fact. I am retired from university teaching, but that was one of the texts I used in a class on human potential.
Margaret Moore: Right, well, flow is focus at its best.
Margaret Moore: And when you get into flow, you are energized, you are productive, you're using your strengths, you're competent, you're learning, you don't want to stretch too much or you'd be anxious. That is what focus at its best is. And, as you know from Csikszentmihalyi's work, the more of that we have in our lives, the better our mental well-being. And now most of us have most of our flow opportunities at work, and we waste them because we don't shut the door and shut down the email and texts. We actually allow ourselves to be distracted and not fully engage in the flow experience.
And I don't think it's about having flow experiences from 7:00 to 5:00. It's more about carving out these intense, beautiful focus periods in a day, even just a few, and then intentionally being spontaneous. Especially if you're a creative type, you probably will have great urges to just do what you please. Go follow your impulses; watch the YouTube video; check out something online; make a phone call; go whatever. And I think those periods are -- I see as brain breaks, where you take your foot off the pedal and you just drift along, like the way weekends ought to be ideally. And we need that too.
So it's not about focusing completely all the time. It's doing a certain amount of that and then really taking your foot off the pedal and just enjoying and savoring and maybe moving your body, going for a walk or going up some stairs, or do something to give your brain a break. Because the thing about focus is that it uses up an enormous amount of brain resources. Your brain uses up something like a third of your energy supply in your blood. And so it gets depleted and you've got to refuel, and so you've got to have kind of the balance of flow and then recover, and then focus and then recover.
David: Well, I'm glad to hear you talk about the need for taking a break and mini-vacations because, as I was going through your book, one part of me is kind of groaning, oh, no, here's another thing I need to add to everything that I need to do; is to practice --
Margaret Moore: [Laughs] Yeah.
David: -- is to incorporate the practices these people are advocating into my life. I have to add it onto meditating and keeping a journal and tracking my dreams and doing yoga, etc.
Margaret Moore: Yes, right. [Laughs]
David: So you've already alluded to some principles that you put forth in your book. You talked about six principles which you call the "rules of order." And I assume that the order is referring to an ordered mind and an ordered life as opposed to chaos. Is that right?
Margaret Moore: Yes. An ordered mind. And the ordered mind is, first, able to create sustained, full attentional focus, undistracted, unfrenzied; and then access working memory so that you can put together new perspectives and create new ways of looking at things to get to the big picture, to connect the dots; and then shifting your attention intentionally, because sometimes the hyper focus can suppress other parts of your brain from generating ideas, and sometimes the best ideas come when you're in the shower or going for a walk.
David: Oh, definitely for me, the shower. The shower is the place.
Margaret Moore: Right.
David: I get so many ideas in the show.
Margaret Moore: And so that's an intention -- yeah. You might want to reframe the adding of these additional things to viewing these additional things as opportunities for breaks.
David: Okay. So maybe you'd be willing to take us -- to step us through each other the six rules of order and tell us a bit about each one.
Margaret Moore: Sure. So the starting point is what we call "taming frenzy," and that has to do with letting go of the negative emotions and static, at least for the time you're focusing, because negative emotions impair the prefrontal cortex's ability to focus, as has been shown.
David: Yeah, I can really relate to that one, yeah. I mentioned that I do market research, and one of the aspects of that is that, after doing a bunch of interviews -- things like focus group interviews -- I have to write a report. And I used to go into that state of frenzy and panic after the group, because I would think, oh, my God; I've been so immersed in this discussion, I can't remember what anybody is thinking. How in the world am I going to -? You know, I can't remember what people said. How am I going to weave this into any kind of coherent report or recommendations?
What I learned over the years was to just set that panic aside and remind myself to not worry about it and to just sleep on it, and to trust that in the morning I would have a better sense of proportion and what was important. And, indeed, that learning has really served me well. So I think that relates directly to what you were just talking about.
Margaret Moore: It does, yeah. One of the best ways to tame frenzy, of course, is to get a good night's sleep, to rest your body. And if you're fretting about how you're going to solve a problem, you know the brain does a lot automatically. And who knows what happens in our dreams -- it's not my area of expertise. But I believe that my brain is processing the problems of the day. And I do arrive with -- and that's what's cool about the brain: you focus, but when you unfocus, defocus, your brain is still working. There are parts of it that are still chewing over stuff even when you're not thinking about it intentionally.
Margaret Moore: And so when you can set aside the fact that there are 32 more things to do or that something difficult is going on, whatever it is -- if you can just set it aside while you're focusing, then your brain will work better. So, taming frenzy, it's a big topic. There's many ways to do it, and there's physical ways to do it. There's deeper work you can do to kind of appraise "am I over-reacting to this? Is this really the -?" Like you discovered with your market research projects, is my worry really justified. Maybe it's not and maybe the sensible answer is to just enjoy a relaxing evening and knowing the next morning it will fall into place. So that's the start.
Then the second is to create the conditions to sustain your focus, so that really depends on you. I mean I know people who like to have a little music in the background or sometimes people need a little something else going on -- I, in fact, need quiet -- but whatever that takes. And then the distractions come along because the brain's radar is on, so you've got to learn how to, as we say in the book, "apply the brakes." The brain can break the distraction. You don't need to be hijacked by it. You can intentionally notice that here's a distraction.
There's a call, and instead of just like grabbing the phone and picking it up before your thinking brain's even had a chance to catch up -- you know, you sort of responded to the impulse -- if you stop and say to yourself, "Dear Brain, do we really want to answer this call right now? Is this the right way to spend this next few moments? Is it better to let it go?" -- and if we can become more conscious about what decisions we make about distractions, we'll make better choices and we'll know when to put the distraction aside and when not.
David: Yeah. I don't know if this is relevant here or not, but when I first went away to college, I was flooded with anxiety about whether I would make it academically. And I had never kept my room neat when I was growing up, but I found keeping a neat, organized, tidy room really helped to tame my anxiety. And that still seems to fit with my personality. I'm still that way, but my wife's just the opposite. I associate a certain amount of tidiness with feeling like I have a certain amount of control in my life. She, on the other hand, feels liberated by what I regard as clutter. Aren't there maybe just two different personality types?
Margaret Moore: Well, exactly, yeah. And I think that's a key point, because one of the things you learn as a coach and a therapist is everybody, everyone, has a unique way, a unique formula for managing their wild and crazy brain. And some people do -- I mean, well, you come out of an academic setting; you know there are some professors who literally live in a little space in between piles.
David: [Laughs] Oh, yeah. I never got that bad. One does tend to drift in that direction. There's a strong drift in that direction. But I have colleagues who have -- you go into their offices at some peril because there are stacks of journals and books everywhere.
Margaret Moore: Right. And I, like you, if I'm with someone who -- and I'm looking over their shoulder at their email inbox and there are like 670 emails, I feel my heart racing. I think, oh, if I can't see white space at the bottom of my inbox a couple times a day, I -- so I think, at the end of the day, how you respond to things is very personal. It has to do with your wiring, and no one can tell another "this is the way to do it." You really have to know yourself.
One of those kind of cool things about this whole era of neuroscience is that we really are -- and nobody knows what the mind is. Is it separate from the brain or is it just a part of the brain? But the fact is we have the ability to observe ourselves, and when you can watch yourself in action and separate yourself from your automatic, noisy brain and start to notice when it works best and what you need to make it work best, then you start to get control over your brain. And I think that's a whole new -- I mean we think about the monks who go off for three-year retreats, silent retreats, to learn how to manage their brains, and we say, "I mean I'm not doing that." But there's a lot we can do to improve how we are paying attention to managing our brains.
David: Well, I think that's -- is that one of your rules of order? I forget which one we're on now, but isn't mindfulness one of them?
Margaret Moore: Mindfulness isn't actually a standalone rule. It doesn't really have the neuroscience behind it. It's sort of a -- but mindfulness is a -- I mean it's central. In fact, we -- in a way, mindlessness is a distracted, frenzied mind, because you are allowing the automatic stuff in the brain to run the show as opposed to using your mind to separate from that. Which is really the whole point of meditation, is to be able to drive a little space between the mind, which is driving the whole show, and the brain, which is a part of the body that does a lot of things automatically. And I think using your intentional software is a really great example of using your mind to manage your brain, because your focus is your main resource as a human being -- what you attend to.
David: Yeah. I'm getting up there in age, and memory's a big issue in your book, and I've reached that age where I'm experiencing senior moments that are fairly shocking to me. And it seems to be related to what you were just speaking about, that some part of me is running on automatic. I think I'm preoccupied. I've got some thought process running in my head so that I'm not fully paying attention to what I'm doing. And somehow my automatic thing has gotten off the rail and I've just poured my orange juice into the cereal instead of into the glass.
Margaret Moore: [Laughs] Right. Yeah. I know and I'm noticing the connection between age and memory too. And one of the interesting things about working memory -- because accessing working memory is one of the rules, one of the next rules. Now that you've got a nice, clean brain and you're focusing well, the raw material to have new ideas and make new connections is your working memory.
And one of the coolest things I learned in writing the book is that a way to improve your access to your working memory is to practice looking at two sides of an issue: so debating something with someone constructively, where you take different, divergent views; or like watching CNN and then Fox News, or reading The Wall Street Journal and then The New York Times.
And while I don't think that anyone knows whether this is what's happening, but I kind of imagine the thing that does age is our cognitive agility, our ability to really shift perspective quickly. And as we get older, I think we get more set in our ways. We sort of take a stance, and we don't challenge it. And when we're young, we're never really sure of our ground and so we're more malleable.
And I think that part of the -- you may be already doing this, but something to think about is to intentionally really try to see the other side of the point of view. And if you get to do that more often, it's almost as though you sort of grease the wheels so your brain can move from one way of looking at things to another. And for some reason that allows better access to working memory.
David: Well, that's hopeful for me because I tend to have always been that way of taking multiple views, and certainly doing all these interviews keeps me on my toes --
Margaret Moore: That's great.
David: -- in terms of taking different perspectives. Well, I want to make sure we cover all six principles. Where are we now in the list?
Margaret Moore: So we've done taming frenzy, sustaining focus, and applying the brakes to distractions. Then the next one is "accessing your working memory," which the neuroscientists call "molding information," sort of holding and molding bits of information and looking at them in new ways. Then we have "set shifting," which is shifting your attention intentionally and all of it.
And I made the connection between set shifting and creativity. Of course, this is not anything close to the whole story of what enables creativity, but I think often the best ideas come when you shift your focus away from something and allow more spontaneity and just leave something behind. And, in fact, another book you might want to look at is Your Creative Brain by one of our fellow Harvard Health authors, which is a whole roadmap for creativity, which goes into many more aspects of the way the brain works in different stages than I'm taking you through.
But I think this ability to shift away from something -- for many of us the hyper focus can work against our ideas, and it's the breaks that allow us to come back with a fresh perspective. And so really inviting yourself to -- and this is maybe the biggest thing I've done, because I have an organized, focused brain, but I tend to stay at things too long when I'm actually depleted, and I don't let go of them. And the best thing that's happened to me is to give myself permission to get up when I need to get up, and get away when I need to get away, and know when that is, even if I only have 10 minutes at that moment because I happen to be pooped that day.
You know, just knowing when I'm running out of steam, and then appreciating that often it's only two minutes and I'm refreshed. But if you let that go too long, like four hours or hours at the end of the day, it's hard to hit the reset button. But if you give yourself little breaks. So I think that that set shifting, that giving yourself breaks, shifting your focus completely to something else, is an important contributor to connecting the dots, which is the final step.
Because when you do all these things together, you begin to see things in new ways, and that's how the brain learns, is making connections. And so I imagine -- this is a metaphor; it really can't be seen in an MRI machine -- but as we create new habits, new ways of looking at things, new emotional states, we're laying down a new integrated circuit in our brain. You know, each time we have an idea, probably this one neuron jumps and connects to the next, and then over time you start to build new networks. And as we get older, the cool thing is that we end up with a lot of networks, which means we have so much rich experience to draw from, if we're able to open and close the doors quickly enough to access it.
I think the peak time for being the organized mind is actually 50s and older, in my experience. As long as you aren't suffering from any kind of early dementia or anything that's unusual, you really have this rich, rich set of networks to draw on that you've created over time. And if you can stay cognitively young and agile, the little deficits in your memory will be more than made up by just the incredible complexity of all the experience. It all adds up into great judgment.
And so the big picture is that place when you feel calm, you feel as though you're centered, you feel kind of an equilibrium, you feel wise, you think, "Oh, I got this. I got this under my belt," and that feels so darn good. And when we can get there with any part of our lives in a single conversation or a huge project or a marriage, then we feel really good about life and we're energized by that. And that's really the state of being organized that we really want people to have more of.
David: You talk about the rich associations that one can draw upon ideally in their 50s and 60s, and I wonder if that's what past generations refer to as wisdom -- perhaps not as recognized these days as in the past.
Margaret Moore: I think that's right. I think that, as we get older, we have to make the effort to stay connected to the younger generations, because if you start saying I don't get them and I don't understand why they tweet 600 or text 600 times a day, you can sort of find yourself isolated. But I think if you stay connected to young people and, yes, that wisdom -- well, I remember reading about some research that showed when you have an era where demographically there are a lot of people who are youngish grandparents, society is calmer because the grandparents help out the young parents who are frenzied, and they help the grandkids. And you get this -- there's a calming influence when this works well, on all of society. And I think that's what you --
David: That's fascinating. Yeah, that's fascinating. So who do you think is the ideal candidate for your book? Who should read this book?
Margaret Moore: Well, there really is something in here for anyone. I'd say -- and I've started coaching people around the book. I couldn't really talk about it until quite recently. And I think -- you know, we talk about executive function, the ability of the prefrontal cortex, to regulate and organize the rest of the mind and brain. And some of us have an executive function that is less strength than others.
The creative types who have a lot of ideas, a lot of -- you know, they're kind of quite good access to their emotions, they're people people -- those folks tend to struggle more with organization. They don't have any problems in their brain; they just didn't get the kind of CEO brain that can really put down emotions and put them aside and stay very much on the mental game. And I've found that the folks who kind of lean towards the creative side are the ones that struggle more, and that when they start to realize the dynamic between the thinking brain and the feeling brain and begin to really see it in action, it can be a huge breakthrough.
Having said that, the folks with organized minds still benefit. One of my CEO clients, who wrote the endorsement on the book, read it as a favor to me and he found some parts very important, in particular the frenzy part, that the negative frenzy impairs focus. And so there really is a little in there for -- this is a book that almost everybody can benefit. If you're a college student, boy, are you suffering from frenzy today.
David: Yes, right.
Margaret Moore: I mean college students are just -- if you're in your 20s, you're trying to start a career in a tough, tough economic climate, and so you can often be on a rollercoaster ride. Thirties and 40s you're juggling family and career. Fifties and 60s you're paying for college and now you're really thinking about how am I going to spend the next few decades in the best way possible, and you really want your mind to be well organized for that, you want your brain to work great for as long as it can. So each stage has a different agenda around organization, but the same principles apply.
David: Okay, well, I don't want to leave you without talking a little bit lists. I've never been a big one for planning things out ahead of time. I've kind of followed my nose through life and I guess been guided by my intuition -- with a lot of anxiety about that along the way -- but not being terribly organized. But I do find that having lists of tasks for the day, particularly at this stage of my life, really helps me to keep focused and to remember what I want to get done. What's your take on lists?
Margaret Moore: Well, I think it's a tool, and it really is personal. I've gotten to know the woman who created the website www.listproducer.com. She's a TV producer, and it's quite a cool website, and she does nice things on lists. So she's taken lists to a whole new stratosphere, if you want to look into it. The act of hand writing down a few things enhances your access to them, the working memory access. And so I think the act of writing things down at the beginning of the day or the night before, in itself, can be a tool. You also have to be careful it doesn't run out of control, because you can have lists on your computer, lists on your phone, lists on your desk.
David: That's true.
Margaret Moore: The next thing you know your lists are disorganized. I've certainly been in places like that. I find that a short list each day is the way to go, because if I listed everything I have to do for all of my jobs, I would feel frenzied, and so --
David: Yeah, that's what I do. Short lists.
Margaret Moore: So I actually try not to focus on everything all the time, because then I end up paralyzed for a few moments. So I think, again, know thyself; does a list work for you? I really like Evernote, which is a journaling app.
David: Oh, me too.
Margaret Moore: Yeah. I particularly like that. And there are now endless apps for this. So I think my best advice would be really try to understand what works for you and what doesn't and why, and then be a scientist, experiment with things. Don't push yourself to have an answer. Play with things, go through an experimental period. Try one thing one day. Assess: does that work? What was good about it, what wasn't? And if you play around, you start to get a sense; it's that thing that works because this is what it does for me. So you sort of have to find your own model, and it always is changing because there's always new things to try. And so I think if you're in a mode of flexibility, finding a good thing, but being open to other things, you'll find the things that work and then you can be at peace.
David: Well, being at peace I think is a great place for us to close.
Margaret Moore: Yes. [Laughs]
David: So, on that thought, Coach Meg, Margaret Moore, thanks so much for being my guest on Wise Counsel.
Margaret Moore: Thank you, David. It was a great pleasure.
David: I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Margaret Moore. The book by Coach Meg and Dr. Paul Hammerness is full of valuable and practical tips for bringing more organization into your life. They take turns writing the various sections of the book, with Dr. Hammerness offering lots of specific detail on both brain functioning and research background, and Coach Meg offering up exercises and concrete advice for implementation based on her extensive coaching experience. Two URLs you might be interested in are www.organizeyourmind.com, and www.wellcoaches.com.
You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by Mentalhelp.net. If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit Mentalhelp.net, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the Mentalhelp.net home page.
If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like ShrinkRapRadio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at www.shrinkrapradio.com. Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.
Margaret Moore, aka Coach Meg, is the founder and CEO of Wellcoaches Corporation, a leader in building international standards for professional coaches in health and wellness. Coach Meg is codirector of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. She is a founding advisor of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School, which is integrating lifestyle medicine and coaching into primary care, and she is co-course director of the annual Coaching in Leadership & Healthcare conference offered by Harvard Medical School. Along with co-Author, Paul Hammerness, MD, Coach Meg is the lead author of the first coaching textbook in healthcare (Coaching Psychology Manual, published by Lippincott). Her new book, Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, is a Harvard Health Publication published by Harlequin.