Sonya and Paula react to overwhelm by telling themselves to Focus, dammit! You may do the same. This is like cramming sand into a clogged drainpipe; the problem is that your brain is already trying too hard to focus on too much. Nature has programmed certain settings into the attention function of your brain, but the time has come to reprogram it yourself.

The best way to learn this process is away from the demands of your life—someplace that isn't home or work. Try a shopping center, a carnival, Times Square, or any other environment filled with competing attention demands.

STEP ONE: Unclog your overwhelmed brain.
To begin, free your attention bottleneck by closing your eyes and taking deep, slow breaths. Concentrate only on the feeling, sound, taste, and smell of the air going into and out of your lungs.

STEP TWO: Choose a search image.
Pick an arbitrary category of items as your search image—for example, "things that are blue." Repeat the word blue as you open your eyes. Notice that blue things appear, and that other items become blurred. This is normal.

STEP THREE: Switch images.
Close your eyes again, breathing in and out until you feel relaxed, and choose a new category, such as "round things" (or tall women, or green cars, or whatever).

STEP FOUR: Relax to focus.
You may find that you can't visualize your selected search images, that you're distracted by noises, colors, activity. This happens because you're not used to setting your own attention focus. Instead of concentrating harder, think softer. Relax your senses; mentally repeat your search phrase ("blue," "round things," "tall women," "green car"). Gradually, you'll find that your eyes locate the image on their own.

STEP FIVE: Bring focus to a familiar activity.
Once you can target your attention while holding still, practice the same exercise during an ordinary activity like driving or jogging. As you cruise along, repeat the search-image phrase, "anything that moves." This will make you more alert to things that will keep you safe.

STEP SIX: Tackle the hard stuff.
Finally, take your attention-directing skills into a situation that usually overwhelms you. For Paula, it's her cluttered house; for Sonya, her schedule. Instead of diving in, they need to set their attention focus prior to entering the danger zone. Think of this as a mission statement—a carefully defined surgical strike, rather than a vague plan to do better. For Paula, a useful goal might be "I'll go into the home office, locate three books I haven't touched for years, and donate them to the library." Sonya might attack her planner with the mission "I'll cancel one commitment that isn't totally necessary."

It's crucial to keep repeating your mission statement throughout the attempt. Don't let your attention bottleneck widen to include any other factors. That's why each exercise should be small—to give you minimal time for becoming distracted. By making a series of attacks on things like clutter or obligations, weeding out everything you don't absolutely need, and using only one search image per attack, you'll begin to feel a new sense of control over your life.