Everyone misplaces their keys (or their glasses or their cellphone) sometimes; some of us more often than others.
But all of us can start taking some steps today to get better organized in order to hang on to our keys and accomplish the tasks we need to complete, now and in the future. In our book, Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life (Harlequin, 2012), Dr. Paul Hammerness, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and I offer some strategies that could help, based on the latest research in neuroscience as well as our collective decades of clinical and coaching experience.
Tame the Frenzy, Keep Your Focus
Imagine you've just come home from a trip to the market. As you walk in the door, your spouse asks if you picked up everything, and discovers that you missed a few items. Facing his or her criticism, you get frustrated, enter into a heated discussion about responsibility, and put your keys down … somewhere. After the groceries have finally been put away, those keys are nowhere to be found. You barely remember the actions you took when you walked in the door, and now you're getting a little frantic.
Before you can focus your attention on the keys, you need to take charge of what I call your emotional frenzy, which is powered by all your worry, anger, sadness, and irritation. Frenzy can overwhelm your prefrontal cortex — the brain's executive function region, or CEO — so that you feel like you can't focus or think straight. When your mind gets hijacked by negative emotions, those keys are likely to remain lost.
Here are two, well, key changes to make to help restore order to your life. First, make sure you have a "usual" place where important items, like keys, cellphones and wallets, always go. We call this spot a "launching pad." But that's the easy part. You also can start employing strategies to steady your emotions when you're involved in important, stressful or unusual tasks. There are shortcuts that can help calm your frenzy and tap into a steadier, more positive mindset — for example, exercise, even just a short walk or a quick set of stretches; or some deep breathing; or the repetition of a favorite meditation or prayer.
Stay Mindful, and You'll Stay in Control
We often lose our mindfulness, which is our complete presence and attention to the task at hand. When we're driving, we're thinking about work or our kids. When we're watching a movie, we're thinking about our bills. And when we set down our keys, we're thinking about what to make for dinner. When we were children, we were good at being mindful, but as adults, our minds are full of stresses, strains and responsibilities. Fortunately, there are paths we can follow back to mindfulness:
- Build awareness. Start noticing when you're most likely to lose mindfulness and jot those times down in a notebook to help yourself focus on those situations.
- Set a goal. Think about what percentage of your time you are mindful and totally present in the moment. Maybe you're at 5 out of 10 now. Where do you want to get?
- Start applying the brakes. In other words, exercise "inhibitory control." By inhibiting, we mean the ability to restrain or control your attention. Your ability to apply the cognitive brakes — to thoughtfully "inhibit" an action, or, more to the point, a distraction, that may lead you away from the task at hand — is a hallmark of an organized mind. It's akin to the importance of a good set of brakes on a car. Inhibition allows us to stay organized and on top of our game in the face of an ever-changing environment.
- Practice. Concentrate on one task at a time, for a week at a time. For example, this week, be mindful of where you put your keys, or how you organize bills. Each time it comes up, stop and take a few moments to consider what you're doing and how. Next week, focus on your glasses, or food shopping. Make this focus a routine, notice what works, and pat yourself on the back when you see improvement.
It's 10 pm. Not only do you know where your keys are, but after managing distractions and maintaining your focus, you've accomplished something, too. Sleep well.