Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Margaret Moore on how to organize your writing life

JAN BROGAN - As you might have picked up by now, I love books about the brain and at the top of my most recent reading list is Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life by Margaret Moore and Paul Hammerness, MD.

It's all about ways to keep focused in this world of non-stop distractions, how to keep your eyes on your own particular prize. A lot of the advice is useful for learning to reduce stress and live a healthy lifestyle, but I found it especially relevant to writing goals. Having run the writing challenges, I know how many other writers out there could use inspiration on how to ignore the distractions and stay focused, so I invited Margaret, also known as Coach Meg, to Jungle Red and she graciously agreed to visit.

She is is co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, a founding advisor of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the founder and CEO of Wellcoaches Corporation. If you are lucky enough to hire Coach Meg for your executive coach, you pay top rates. Here, she gives us some of her advice for free.

Writers are the worst procrastinators and they also struggle with balancing their lives with writing and promotion, so I asked Coach Meg to explain one concept in the book that I found especially useful. It's called "focus time."

COACH MEG: Focus time (when you bring all of the brain’s attentional resrouces – top, down, back, front, right left – into the full spotlight of focus) is the most enriching and productive time of our days. It’s one of the top contributors to psychological well-being. Schedule at least one focus session per day where you set up the ideal conditions for a calm, positive, energetic, and creative mindset.

JAN: You not only need to schedule it. You need to guard it with your life! Writers are vulnerable to distraction. We talk a lot here at Jungle Red about the lure of email and the Internet and how it sidetracks us from our writing goals. Can you give us some of your tips for controlling the impulse to check email or surf the net?

COACH MEG: First notice when and how you are responding automatically to impulses – it happens frequently. Most effective approach is to turn off the wireless so no email or web is available. If you are waiting for an urgent message, tell your brain (Hello Brain, while we will scan email for the urgent message we are expecting, we will let go of any others that come along, all of which can wait until the end of the focus session.)

JAN_ Writers, or probably anyone who works at home, faces a lot of interruption in a day. I was fascinated by the concept of shift sets, and your advice to make conscious decisions when your day gets interrupted - how to capitalize on the interruption instead of resenting it. Can you give us an example?

COACH MEG: Scenario 1 – something urgent comes up, more pressing that what you’re doing now. Make a decision to shift completely to the new activity for a defined period, then perhaps shift back to the original period.

2. S Scenario 2 – your brain is tired and your productivity has slowed or stalled. Take a brain break. Save tasks like making a bed, cleaning out the dishwasher, putting in a load of laundry, making a quick call to set up an appt for your brain break times. Go exercise during brain breaks.

JAN: You talk a lot about mindfulness, what might the advantages of mindfulness training or practice be for a writers?

COACH MEG: In order for your mind to better “drive” your racing car brain, your mind needs to be awake and aware of what your mind and brain are both doing in any given moment. The ideal state is that your mind is objective (and not falling mindlessly into distraction or frenzy) and has an arms-length relationship with the brain’s automatic processes, noticing them and pausing to choose a response.

A mindful brain is a clean and healthy brain that can focus without distractions, be productive and creative, and make fewer errors. Other benefits include better immune system, decreased depression and chronic pain.

Experiment to find a meditation practice which works for you (you notice benefits in a week or two). There's also more on mindfulness and a meditation exercise to help clear the brain for work at my website (under mindfulness tab).

JAN: Writers have to balance writing with promotion. Right now you must be doing the same thing, balancing book promotion with coaching your clients - do you have tricks that you can share?

COACH MEG: I monitor the state of my brain and body continually:

Is it tired and needs a quick break, or a workout?

Hungry or thirsty, needing a snack or meal with the right balance of protein/fat/carbs as optimal fuel, water or “antioxidants” (such as a bowl of berries)?

Wanting some spontaneity – do anything you feel like for a short period?

Needing to stretch to loosen muscle tension?

Needing to connect with another human being?

I call this body intelligence and for more on why it's so important, click on this link: body intelligence .

JAN - Thanks, Coach Meg!! She will also be checking in today to answer questions, so fire away!


  1. AH. I have learned, I think, not to multi-task. I now do one thing, then do the next thing. I try to rein in my brain by making a list, so there's no constant checking with it to make sure I haven't forgotten something.

    I also plan my worry--for instance, if something is due in a month, but I really don
    t have to think about it until two weeks from now, I tell myself--I'll think about that next Tuesday. And then I let it go until then.

    Still, though, I spend most of my time on overload, and have a very hard tim relaxing. I feel guilty if I do. LIke right ow--Im supposed to be leaving for more later...xoxo

  2. Such good advice, Margaret. I do that. Turn off my Internet. Then I set the timer and work until the ding gives me permission to take a break.

    When I multitask I break things -- moving and not looking. It's that mindfulness thing.

  3. Thanks for the great advice, Coach Meg. I really like the idea of brain breaks as someone who works from home. Is there an ideal length of time for a brain break? Or an upper limit that stops it from becoming procrastination?

  4. SO interesting, Hallie. I don't break things (knock on wood) but I lose things. I absolutely can't remember where I put's very frustrating, and I know it's because I'm not thinking about it when I do it.

  5. Hank, I lose everything all the time and I'M NOT multi-tasking, but I'm mindwandering, which means I'm often not inputting the correct information while I'm doing something.


  6. Sadly, I'm glad to hear that, Jan. Sometimes I don't even have a memory of doing it. It's terrifying.

    ALso terrifying--that I remember that I actively put whatever it was someplace where I wouldn't lose it. And then, I can't remember where that was.

    Now I say it out loud--I'm putting the gift card in the top drawer. SOmetimes, that works.

  7. This is perfect for me today! Thanks, Jan and Coach Meg!

    I spent yesterday and today, writing a huge federal grant (for the poet side of me--keep fingers crossed for me, please, Reds!). I used to write grants for a living and know when I do, I must turn off email, etc., except for taking planned very short breaks (like this one). Like Hank and Hallie, I've learned not to multi-task on this. There's so much to juggle--and some of it's numbers & money!--that I can't keep it all together if I don't focus that way.

    I know that's my best state for good writing, too, but I don't do it often enough. The imminent deadline and hugeness of grants force me to focus. I need to bring that over into my everyday writing.

    Time to return to the grant that ate my life. Hugs to all. xoxo

    My captcha is "comesses." Does that mean we're partners in "mess"?

  8. Excellent post. I find that when I'm a bit stuck in the book, not knowing where it's going, I feel this strong urge to take more breaks, even though what gets me through the stuckness is to JUST WRITE and take fewer breaks.

    When I leave off the internet and set the timer, like Hallie, I do my best work.

  9. I know I should set timer and turn off the Internet, but reading about it makes me want to look at email a thousand times more. And do a lot of chores that I'd be otherwise loathe to do (clean bathrooms sounded good this morning.)

    Though it makes sense as I'm working on the dreaded synopsis for the third food critic mystery...

  10. It's not so much that I multi task, it's more that I do six other things on the way to the main task. I go to get the tape and notice we need a roll of paper towels in the kitchen and when I go for the paper towels I see someone who shall remain nameless has borrow my shampoo again and left it downstairs and when I go downstairs I see the folded laundry which needs to go upstairs and I eventually get back to the parcel I was packing but I don't usually have the tape.

    Mr. Wonderful on the other hand goes for the tape and comes back with tape.

  11. Yes, Darline, I do that too. I think it's all about the central processor.

    Mine is often on vacation

  12. Great advice, Coach Meg, and I have printed out your meditation to do every morning.

    My problem when I am in deadline writing mode is being able to switch off my brain when I wake in the night. Any suggestions?

  13. Thank you for this post! Sometimes I feel I'm at the mercy of impulses, feelings, and distractions. It's amazing I get anything done at all!

  14. Hi Lisa,
    Yes, according to research I'm gathering for an article, something like almost fifty percent of people responding to national survey, felt that way. That distractions were actually reducing their ability to think deeply and solve problems.

    Coach Meg will be here in about an hour to answer questions!!


  15. I much prefer my mind the way it is, disorganized and free. I sit down at my computer and say to it, "Okay, mind-o-mine, write," and it does. When I'm done I say, "What next?" Then mind-o-mine and I go do it. xoxo

  16. Hello from Coach Meg. Some thoughts on comments.

    For Hank - it's hard to get away and relax when you work at home. Create "transitions" to relaxing - walk around the block, stretch on the floor or do yoga poses, deep breaths, basically shift your mind to your body for a few moments. Experiment to find what works and for how long.

    Hallie - Multitasking is a form of mindlessness!

    Sheri - I find that the length of brain breaks varies - the minimum is two minutes away from my desk taking care of little things or doing a little exercise like hanging from a bar or stretching. By the end of the afternoon I seem to need longer breaks - 10-15 minutes. I often schedule my workouts or showers as brain breaks- that works great.

    Linda - sometimes when we must give our undivided attention to a project we appreciate our raw focus power - it is possible to focus all of our brain's resources. Then the creative challenge is to create conditions when we are doing things that don't have the same powerful call to focus.

    Edith - so true to distinguish between a real need for a brain break and a desire to procrastinate and follow an impulse. Good exercise of mindfulness - how do I best manage my brain in this moment?

    Darlene - sometimes it feels good to be spontaneous following whatever task emerges in the moment even if it takes six tasks to get to the original one. Stop and choose which approach suits you now. Overcontrol of our focus can cause our inner rebel to try even harder to distract us.

    Jan - sometimes the central processor really does need a break and sometimes it needs to stay on top, in charge. Too much of either isn't ideal for creative types.

    Rhys - ugh - the middle of the night frenzy - your brain has rested some and now it wants to solve problems again when you're not really rested enough. Gently moving your mind to your heart/lungs and just breathing can help. Jotting things down too. Or lying on floor with legs up a wall - this is quite relaxing, makes you sleepy, and a good pre-bedtime ritual.

    This happened to me last night and I don't think it's possible to abolish it completely. Being physically active and fit will tire out your body so it sleeps through the night most of the time.

    Lisa - it's your prefrontal cortex that is at the mercy of your emotional brain. Exercise and meditation both build the prefrontal cortex's ability to manage impulses, as does steady glucose levels from a balance of protein, fat, and carbs.

    Reine - sounds like you know what your Mind-of-Mine needs best, to spontaneously choose the focus that fits the moment and then jump in with both feet not fretting about what is not getting done. Good example of a formula that you created that fits your brain's wiring.

  17. I'm loving these tips and plan to start incorporating mindfulness into my usually disorganized, once-crisis-to-the-next day. Since I seem to have developed adult ADD, I need all the help I can get.

    I'm sad, however, to see chocolate chip cookies don't qualify as optimal fuel.

  18. Thank you, Coach Meg and Jan! I think I need to buy the book!

  19. Thank you, Coach Meg and Jan! I think I need to buy the book!

  20. And huge congrats to Rhys and Lucy (as Roberta) for their Agatha nominations!

  21. Dear Coach Meg, I'm not sure I had anything to do with it via any conscious level. It just happens. I sometimes have to push and just keep focussing.

    Perhaps I should take that back. When I had a lot of assignments in school, like during reading period with 4, 40-60 page papers due, I would sometimes ask myself what was most important right then. The answer was always the same: the paper due next. Then I would write until it was done.

  22. I guess it should be a requirement for everybody to set aside a few minutes for focus time every day. It can be a bit like meditation or rest time where they can de-stress; that can help their overall well-being and health.