Humans Thrive on Short Bursts of Focused Attention

Portrait of Julie Morgenstern

I got to know Julie Morgenstern‘s terrific work from her many bestselling books on order, productivity, time management, and organization. In particular, I’m a big fan of Organizing from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Organizing Your Home, Your Office and Your Life. At the end of Outer Order, Inner Calm, I suggest just a few books for further reading, and this book is one of them. It’s concrete, practical, and realistic. I also love Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Your Lifereally, I like all her books.

Now Julie Morgenstern has tackled an order/organization/productivity subject that bedevils many of us, in her new book Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You.

How do we manage the family schedule? How do we use smartphones wisely? How do we give kids a lot of care and attention, but also take care of ourselves? Julie tackles issues like these and puts these issues into perspective.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Julie about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Julie: Every morning I do a 5 to 7-minute exercise routine. It’s a combination of sit-ups, push-ups, Pilates moves, and aerobics that I’ve been doing, religiously, since I was 13 years old. I do it no matter where I am—on a trip, at home, overnight at a friend’s house—all it requires is enough floor space for the length of my body, some width to kick and that’s it. This little routine is as natural to me as brushing my teeth or making my bed: my day doesn’t feel complete (or off on the right foot) without having done it. For me, it ensures that I’ve started the day by doing something for myself; strengthening my body and getting centered. I pull on that well of strength all day long, no matter what I’m doing.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old
How much having a balanced life leads to happiness. At 18, I was intensely, some may say myopically, focused on work accomplishments. I haven’t necessarily lost that ability to hyper-focus, but for a long time—probably well into my thirties—I felt most invigorated by what I was able to get done. I thought fun was frivolous, a waste of time. My dad, who was quite committed to fun, used to ask me all the time, “Jul, what are you doing for fun?” And I’d say, “Dad, are you kidding me? I’ve got things to do! No time to waste!” Eventually, I  realized that to really be happy and fulfilled, I couldn’t possibly put all my eggs in one basket  (in my case, work; but for other people it might be a relationship or a role as a parent).

When it comes to happiness, I’ve learned it’s good to diversify your sources. Balancing your time and energy across a bunch of different things that bring you fulfillment—work, friendships, family,  self care-creates a strong foundation, a safety net for joy at any given moment. If one category is under-delivering, you can turn to another reliable source for happiness, and stay resilient as each department of your life goes through natural ups and downs. I know my dad would approve.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
When I set out to write my latest book Time to Parent, the instruction manual on how to organize and manage our time during the child-rearing years, my burning question was this: How much time and attention do kids need to feel loved and secure? While I had 30 years of extensive experience coaching and organizing parents around the world, I wasn’t a parenting expert, so I had to turn to the experts on human development and the science to see what the research had to say.  I got lost in the stacks—for about eight years! I read hundreds of studies, volumes of books and interviewed leading  experts in every field from pediatrics to psychology to sociology and education.

The research was astonishing—science is exploding with discoveries about the power of time and attention to human development—and it helped me land on two central lessons of the book. The first is that quality connections between a kid and a caregiver are as essential a nutrient for a child’s development as food and sunshine. Quality, connected time contributes to a child’s self esteem, social competence, academic and career success, executive function and resilience. It even inoculates us against the onset of chronic disease as adults. (This last one really blew me away!) The second lesson is that humans thrive on short bursts of focused attention—literally 5 to 20 minutes at a time—delivered consistently. The book helps parents build space for those bursts in the chaos of every day life. It’s easily the most surprising and liberating thing for parents to understand, because with intention, everyone can make sure kids are getting what they need to thrive and be happy.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I started smoking as a teenager and by the time I finally got around to quitting, I was up to two packs a day. Besides the fact that I smelled like a walking ashtray, my entire day was organized around when I could have a cigarette. At some point in my early twenties, I got scared when I noticed how out of breath I got while walking up a set of stairs. What would become of middle-aged me if 20-something me could barely make it up two flights of stairs? After a few false starts, I finally tried hypnosis. The hypnotherapist asked me two simple questions: When do you smoke? What do you get out of smoking? I loved that second question because it helped me realize that every bad behavior has a positive intention. I used smoking as a shot of courage before I had to do something that made me nervous—write a paper, schmooze at a cocktail party, speak in front of a crowd. Once I understood what smoking did for me without judgement, the hypnotherapist asked me to come up with something else. Getting a hug from my parents before school had always done the trick, so she hypnotized me to feel that hug–by just squeezing my fist every time I needed that shot of courage. It worked! And I never smoked again.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a c
onversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
I was having dinner maybe 12 or 15 years ago with my client and friend, Harriet. We were in a restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, when an elderly woman, who was a friend of Harriet’s, happened to pass by. Harriet called out to the older woman, Mary, to come in say hello. Mary must have been 93 years old, but she was full of zip and smarts. Harriett, who delighted in people, said, “Mary, you’re 93, what wisdom have you learned in your life?” Mary said “Don’t pay good money for expert advice and not take it.” I instantly internalized that nugget of wisdom and from that day forward have never wasted time paying for good advice and not taking it. I just take it. It saves an enormous energy, second-guessing and worry—all time that can be put to much better use.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Like everybody else on the planet, I struggle with the lure of distraction; especially when I’m working on a particularly challenging or daunting project. It’s easy to give into shiny objects in close proximity—my email, the Internet, anything else. When I feel myself gravitating away from a given task to my cell phone, I have a simple phrase that pulls me back into the moment: “Is that the highest and best use of my time?” The minute I ask myself that, I’m able to halt the gravitational pull from my iPhone (or my inbox) and be more engaged with the person or project at hand.

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
Oh, yes! Two big things. First, people think organizing is about getting rid of things. That’s wrong. Decluttering is about getting rid of things. Organizing is about designing systems that give you access to what you use and love. It’s about designing systems that help you pursue your goals and live your life by making you more efficient in everything you need and want to do—whether it’s cooking a meal, getting dressed, running a business, getting your kids to soccer practice on time.

The second misperception is that running the logistics for a family should be manageable for one person. Not so! Organizing for one person is hard enough. Setting up multi-user family systems—for people with different personalities, changing abilities and skills, goals—is incredibly hard for anybody, let alone mere mortals. The solution is to make systems that are simple, automated (when possible) and maintainable by a five-year old. And to share the workload of creating and maintaining a family’s systems—that’s one of the best ways for family members to take care of each other.




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