Whenever I’ve tried to get more organized in the past, all the self-help books and seminars that I’ve looked into included advice like “buy a bunch of baskets to sort your mail,” “use an electronic calendar,” “color-code your e-mails” and “multitask so things don’t pile up.”

I was expecting more of the same when I saw the title of a new book on the subject—Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life—but instead there was a surprise inside.

The authors refute pretty much all the organization advice that we’ve ever heard. They claim that to get more organized, we need to start by organizing our brains—in other words, a frenzied and scattered mind is what truly leads to a messy life.

To learn more, I called the coauthors of the book, Margaret Moore, MBA, an executive wellness coach and codirector of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital—a pioneering hospital in terms of instituting psychological interventions—in Belmont, Massachusetts, and Paul Hammerness, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who has spent a lot of time researching attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and how the brain gets distracted. They told me how they had translated complex brain science into easy-to-follow, powerful tactics that may help my readers regain control over their lives.


My first question to the authors was, “What do you mean by ‘organized?’”—because if you want to get things done, you do have to have a calendar, a place for your mail, etc.! They explained to me that while those things can be helpful, they’re all useless if your brain itself isn’t focused. For example, you can schedule all sorts of tasks on your calendar, but if you can’t learn how to manage your attention span, then you won’t finish any of the tasks. So here’s how to control your ability to concentrate…

Step 1: Calm the brain. You can’t properly focus when you’re overwhelmed, anxious, sad or frustrated by, say, work or family issues, said Dr. Hammerness. The solution to this is taking a “brain break”—instead of dwelling on the stress and becoming paralyzed by thoughts of your sick mother, for instance, or the fact that you didn’t get a raise last year, spend two minutes doing something totally different that will distract you from thinking those thoughts. This could include exercise (such as a brisk walk, a stair climb or anything that gets your blood pumping)…closing your eyes and breathing deeply…listening to calming music…calling a friend (short conversation, please!)…or gazing at and appreciating a photo or flower on your desk. This brain break will cleanse your mental palate and put you in a more positive state of mind, giving you a fighting chance to refocus on the task at hand, said Hammerness.

You may have to experiment to find out what sorts of brain breaks work for you. But that’s no burden—they last only two minutes each.

Step 2: Sustain your attention. Lots of organization gurus recommend “chunking” tasks into short bursts as a way to feel less intimidated by large projects. But five or 10 minutes on a complicated task such as writing a business report or planning an event often doesn’t cut it, because large projects require creative problem-solving and extensive, adventurous explorations of thought, not just fragments of attention. Solution: Tell yourself that you’ll give 30 consecutive minutes or, better yet, a full hour to your next big priority (you can even set a timer)—and then follow through. That means close your door and ignore (or shut off) the phone ringer, e-mail and text notifications, Facebook status updates, tweets, background music or TV noise, and all other potential distractions. This step takes self-discipline, but Moore says that it’ll teach you mindfulness. In other words, we usually drift in and out of tasks, letting each interruption steal us away from whatever we were working on, and then we wonder where the time went. But by blocking out larger chunks of time, you’ll pay more attention to the project at hand and make more of each passing minute.

Step 3: To stay on track, file away new ideas. Say you’re finally starting to clean out your garage one morning (a task that you’ve been trying to complete for months) and you think of a great recipe that you want to make for dinner that evening. Your first impulse might be to put down your trash bag so you can run to the supermarket to buy those ingredients—and you might be telling yourself, “Better do it before I forget.”

That’s a trap. “Many people fear that they’ll forget important information if they don’t act on it immediately—leading them to jump sporadically from action to action,” Dr. Hammerness said. “But many people remember more than they think if they just try it.”

Here’s an experiment: Try trusting yourself to remember your new thoughts so that you can act on them later. Regularly getting seven to eight hours of sleep will help with that. But if, after several weeks, you find that too many of your new ideas end up slipping away, then go ahead and make a habit of writing them down.

While having some physical system for keeping track of things is critical for most people, no system will work if your brain isn’t ready to engage and do its part.