I guess at this point in my life, some would say I have gone completely “around the bend” or “over the edge” about this issue of getting more focused, organized and productive. It is no longer just an area of interest for me. It is my career, my passion and pretty much all I want to do for the rest of my life. I believe that studying about and teaching this body of knowledge is my true “calling,” and my fascination with this field continues to grow stronger each day.
If you study any topic diligently, sooner or later you begin to see fascinating connections and begin to understand how the various strands of knowledge and snippets of information come together at a common point. When this starts to happen, you can’t help but wonder about the unifying element of it all. You wonder, “Is there a central idea, concept or focal point that pulls it all together?”
So…is there a focal point or unifying element of getting focused, organized and productive? I’m beginning to think there is!
If you observe highly focused people, you can usually track their behavior to the same controlling source. If you trace good organizing habits to their source, you always arrive at the same place. If you track down what makes a person highly productive, once again, you find yourself heading in the same direction. It’s as if you backed down the train tracks heading out of New York City until you arrived at their originating point. If you do this, sooner or later, you arrive at or near 42nd Street and Park Avenue…New York’s Grand Central Terminal.
In similar fashion, if you back down the tracks leading to focus, organization and productivity…they take you to the Grand Central Terminal of human beings…the brain.
I often tell people who are struggling to get organized, “If you get your mind right…everything else will begin to easily fall into place.” I suspect most people probably pass this off as a casual statement or consider it tired, worn-out advice. However, in my mind, there is no better advice I can offer. I have studied this topic for a long, long time. I am becoming more convinced that the human brain is the focal point that pulls everything together. Therefore, if you understand more about how the brain works, you will begin to uncover the true secrets of living a more focused, organized and productive life.
A friend of mine recently bought a very expensive, very sophisticated new car. Right after he bought it, we jumped in his car and took a short ride. The car is the high-tech automotive equivalent of a thermos. It knows! Just as a thermos somehow “magically” knows to keep cold things cold, and hot things hot…this car knows how to assess various situations and respond accordingly and appropriately. It has enough buttons, switches, bells, whistles, gadgets and features to keep a rocket scientist happy for quite some time. Fortunately, my friend is a maven with regard to such matters, and I am convinced he will learn to use all the technological wonders available in his new car. However, I imagine some people will buy a car just like my friend’s and never learn to use a fraction of the gadgets. All the gadgets will be available, ready for use…but they will get little use out of them until they take the time to understand how these features work.
In a sense, this is a good metaphor for your brain. It also has a lot of interesting bells, whistles, gadgets and features. You increase your ability to take advantage of these wonderful features if you know more about how they work. Here are just a few examples:
- The brain has three separate systems that either work in harmony or compete for control over your behavior. One system is in control of your automatic functions such as breathing, heartbeat, temperature, metabolism, etc. A separate brain system controls your emotional functions. A third system controls your ability to think and exercise sound judgment. Everything works best when the systems are in balance and working together. When you see someone who is focused, organized and productive, the three systems are operating in harmony. The best way to create balance among the three systems is to pace yourself properly (as opposed to overloading your systems with too much input) and simply think about what you are doing…when you are doing it. Another way of saying this is: Do one thing at a time! Somewhat rare behavior these days. The brain systems work together best when you focus on one thing at a time.
- When you begin to overload your brain systems by multitasking, rushing or operating under too much stress, your emotional brain (the limbic system) takes over and starts calling the shots. One part of your emotional brain (the amygdala) hijacks your body and takes total control over your behavior. Although this can be a good thing at times (for example, if you find yourself being chased by a saber-toothed tiger), unlike a thermos, the emotional brain doesn’t always know how to respond appropriately to incoming messages from your five senses. For example, when the incoming messages indicate a tiger is on your tail, every nonessential brain system that doesn’t have a lot to do with running in the opposite direction is essentially shut down. One of the first systems to shut down is the thinking system of your brain (the neocortex). Your emotional brain basically says, “Don’t think…run!” The good news…we are not chased by tigers very often these days. The bad news…the brain doesn’t know that. Anytime you operate under too much stress, the brain thinks a tiger is on your tail and shuts down the thinking functions of your brain. In general, when the thinking functions of your brain are shut down, you default to your habits…good or bad.
- The moral of this story…if you are going to operate in a state of heightened emotions, you had better install some very good habits in your brain and nervous system to handle things important to you. That’s why they make pilots, astronauts and military people drill on emergency procedures so much. When the amygdala hijacks their bodies, they can still function effectively. Therefore, forming habits is the key to success in getting more focused, organized and productive. Planners, file systems, electronic gadgets and gizmos only work if the proper habits are formed first.
- The brain also houses your memory system, which operates much like a sophisticated tape recorder. Unlike a regular tape recorder, the brain’s memory system stores both facts and feelings. When things happen to you, a part of your emotional brain (the hippocampus) records the facts related to what happened and another part (the amygdala, again) records the feelings associated with the facts. When a similar, not necessarily identical, set of facts occur in the future, the tape recorder is turned on and the recorded feelings resurface and strongly influence your behavior. For example, if your parents scared you as a child by saying, “Don’t talk to strangers,” a little too often with a little too much emotion, you may have trouble being a superstar salesperson as an adult. You’ve probably got a tape running that inhibits your ability to perform one of the most critical functions in sales…talking to strangers. Most people have strong tapes related to money, taking orders, giving orders, being assertive and other issues related to being a successful businessperson. Some of your tapes serve you well…some don’t! Learning more about your tapes can be an enlightening experience.
- Although people often compare the brain to a computer, it is really better to think of it more as a chemical factory. All instructions issued by the brain are carried out by chemicals call neurotransmitters. Therefore, what you eat, how much you exercise, how you breathe, and anything you do that alters the chemicals flowing through your brain can alter your behavior. Basically, the neurotransmitters running through your brain and nervous system fall into two categories…excitatory or inhibitory. So, take a look at your current life speed and figure out if you need to slow down or speed up. Here’s a hint…learning how to breathe properly is a good use of your time if you want to influence neurotransmitters.
I could go on and on about how the brain, tapes, neurotransmitters and other factors influence behavior. But here’s the main point: If you really want to experience quantum leaps in your ability to get more focused, organized and productive…learn a little more about how your brain works. When you understand more about how the brain works, you can actually begin to exercise some measure of control over it, especially when you are operating under stress. Otherwise, it controls you…and you wonder why you intended to do one thing…but did another thing entirely.