Declutter your mind

17 February, 2020

The less the mess, the sharper your brain. Get back on track with a mental spring-cleaning.

For many of us, our days get consumed by trying to complete different tasks and fulfil our numerous responsibilities – both big and small. The constant flow of stuff that we are bombarded with can be overwhelming, making our minds go into serious overdrive. It can also distract us from the higher priority things that we should be focusing more attention and energy on.

Just like cupboards, pantries and desktops, your mind too needs a spring-cleaning from time to time. So, this week, my message focuses on how to declutter your mind. What steps can you take to quiet the mental bustle, regain control of your thoughts and boost focus?

Without regular tidying up, the brain tends to turn into a crowded mess, filled with hundreds of to-do items, hazy ideas and unfinished plans. You feel as if you’re perpetually in overdrive, being pulled in a hundred different directions. This chaotic mental state confuses your priorities and makes it difficult to devote yourself fully to a single task. As Psychology Today explains:

Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli, causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.

Not only does an overwhelmed mind decrease focus and increase stress, it also keeps you from spending time on the things you truly love – because they get lost in the relentless noise.

By clearing out unnecessary mental baggage and organising your thoughts, you will be able create room for genuine priorities. With increased clarity and fewer distractions, the quality of your attention also improves – you become more productive at work, enjoy your leisure time fully, and are better able to nurture your relationships.

Here are 10 suggestions to help declutter your mind:

1. Write it all down

Ryder Carroll, inventor of the popular Bullet Journal, recommends starting with a mental inventory. Grab a pen and paper, and write down absolutely everything that’s buzzing around in your brain – what you need to do, what you should do, and what you want to do. This allows you to see, at a glance, everything you’ve been carrying around in your head. (It’s exactly like tackling a wardrobe or bookshelf – experts recommend taking out all your belongings and putting them together before you begin decluttering.) As Carroll explains in his TEDx talk:

We have to externalize our thoughts to declutter our mind. Holding thoughts in your mind is like trying to grasp water – it’s nearly impossible. But by writing down our thoughts, we can capture them clearly so we can work with them later.

2. Lighten your load

With your mental inventory in front of you, examine what’s taking up your attention, time and energy. For each item that’s currently on your plate, ask yourself: Is it important? Do I enjoy it? Is this the best use of my resources? If there are things that are neither vital nor giving you any pleasure, it might be time to let them go. As Carroll notes:

For every item you cross off your list, you’re becoming less and less distracted.

We sometimes continue to perform tasks long after they’ve outlived their usefulness. For example, you may have started editing your team member’s weekly update emails when she first joined the organisation – but is it really necessary now that she’s thoroughly familiar with the format?

3. Be decisive

According to pro organisers, “clutter is simply delayed decisions”. These might be major (Should I hire A or B?) or minor (Which font should I use for my presentation?) – either way, pending decisions keep whirling around in your brain, occupying precious real estate. Instead of agonising and procrastinating endlessly, get decisive: weigh the pros and cons, make a choice and don’t look back. This is especially important in the case of simple decisions which are definitely not worth so much of your time and energy.

4. Set priorities

In 15 Ways to Declutter Your Mind, leadership coach Melissa Eisler walks you through the process of prioritisation:

Once you data dump by writing down your tasks, start to categorize them in order of importance.

If you are finding that everything that you are writing down feels important, you can further identify items that are urgent – meaning if you don’t complete them today, it will have serious negative consequences on your life (i.e., a project with rigid deadlines, taking medication, paying a bill, etc.). 

Then, start assessing the value of all the other important items. What items are most in line with your life goals? Those should be your next priority, after your urgent items. Keep assigning value to your items until you have prioritized everything on your list.

5. Embrace automation

Are there tasks that keep popping up repeatedly in your head that could be outsourced to technology? Whether it’s sorting emails into specific folders or paying the monthly credit card bill, a lot of brain clutter can be eased by automation. Don’t put this off, or it will become yet another item for your brain to carry around! Take a couple of hours today itself to do some research, pick the best option and automate at least 1-2 small, repetitive tasks on your mental list.

6. Include things you love

Now that you’ve cleared away the non-essential debris, made pending decisions and automated some items, your mind finally has room to breathe – and that means you can focus on things that truly matter to you. Examine your written-down thoughts again: you’ll probably find half-shaped plans and incomplete goals in there. Air these out: you may have outgrown some, while others may no longer be possible. Identify one thing to focus on – whether it’s kick-starting a passion project at the workplace, learning a new language or supporting a cause close to your heart.

7. Break it down

The goals mentioned above are big and complex, which can make them intimidating and difficult to achieve. Carroll advises dividing your dream into small, actionable projects with a clearly defined set of actions and a maximum timeline of one month. For example, if you want to learn to cook, don’t start by trying to whip up an exotic meal for six people. Instead, perfect a few simple recipes made with familiar ingredients. In Carroll’s words:

These small projects allow us to cultivate our curiosities and help them grow, maybe even help some of them blossom into full-fledged passions. At the very least, we learn more about ourselves and the things that we want.

8. Keep a post-it handy

Whether you’re a fan of timeboxing or old-school lists, it’s always a good idea to have a temporary post-it sitting at your workspace. This way, when a to-do suddenly pops up in your head, you can quickly write it down – this frees your brain from the responsibility of reminding you about it every few minutes, which can be very distracting. At the end of the day, you can add all the new to-do’s into your preferred productivity system.

9. Create a “junk drawer”

If you’re constantly struck by new ideas and questions, storing them all in your mind can quickly make things very crowded. Why not create a “junk drawer” for these, suggests Janet Choi in 5 Ways to De-clutter Your Mind and Regain Your Focus:

Instead of continually accumulating mental clutter, take a load off by creating a digital “junk drawer.” Start by dumping your thoughts onto an electronic page with a tool like Evernote. This allows you to shove all your brilliant ideas, notes, lists, and saved articles that don’t have another home into one digital place, which will help you clear out some valuable mental space.

Your “junk drawer” could be in the form of an app or even a small notebook – anything that’s easy to carry around. This way, all your brainwaves and curiosities will be stored in a single place, and you can come back to them when you have some free time.

10. Make time to worry

Yes, you read that right! In the article mentioned above, Eisler (who is also a yoga and meditation instructor) suggests scheduling your anxiety so it doesn’t overwhelm your mind the rest of the time:

To avoid spinning your mental wheels, schedule time – maybe 15 minutes a week or a day – to worry and ruminate. During that time, don’t hold back; let it all out. When you start to worry between your scheduled worry times, remind yourself that you set aside time and then let those worries go. By confining your worries to a scheduled time, you don’t allow them to take over your mind and life.


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