I talk a lot about decluttering our spaces so that we can feel calm, rested and make room for people, things, and experiences with real joy and meaning. Having a clutter-free home and workspace also helps us focus better and be more productive and creative throughout the day.
What if, however, you already have a cluttered mind?
There are some days, or stretches of days, when my mind gets bogged down and I'm forgetting things, making mistakes, and constantly struggling. I feel scattered and overwhelmed and don't perform my best, which only aggravates me and clutters my mind with negativity even further.
First of all, let's all just agree that these days will happen to the best of us and we don't need to be so hard on ourselves when they do. If we just smile and accept that "it's one of those days but things are looking up" things will have already started to get better.
Secondly, I've found that just like decluttering my office and entryway keeps them functioning well, my brain benefits from a deep declutter on a regular basis as well. I have fewer 'bad days' when I simplify what's in my brain just as I do the space around me.
Clutter in our minds is probably the worst kind of clutter because it fills up our brains and crowds out the capacity even for basics like not burning supper, let alone for tasks like writing or project managing. Clutter happens because of mental fatigue, which is over-activity. The endless activity could be positive things like learning something new or diving into a project at work, or it might be negative things like worrying or overanalyzing or playing the past on repeat mode.
Whether good or bad, the overdrive eventually catches up, and not only depletes our mental energy, but has taken up every inch of space in our brain. Which means our performance level goes down, and the results we want from our days are not reached.
As aggravating as a cluttered mind is, the worst part is that left unchecked, mental fatigue and brain clutter will lead to chronic stress and depression, which in turn can lead to chronic disease. And it will also affect your relationships with others, both because you'll be less sociable and pleasant and because your depleted energy will be draining on them as well.
So just as you set aside time for tidying and decluttering your home and your desk, make it a habit to develop a specific brain decluttering practice. Don't make it complex - just take a few of these simple actions and reap the positive benefits.
1. Do a brain purge.
Yes, just as you would purge your closet and get rid of things you don't need or that don't bring you joy, do the same with your brain. Physically sit in a quiet spot where you won't be interrupted and start scanning your brain for what it's holding on to. A stack of paper or post-it notes will act as your trash bin - write down everything that's on your mind on a piece of paper and put it into a pile. Mentally go through your day and write down every worry, anxiety, fear, thing you need to remember, insecurity, idea you've been kicking around, dream, desire, memory, observation, gossip...everything. You may have quite a stack! Now you have an inventory of everything that's been cluttering up your brain. I bet it's more than you realized. No wonder you've been having a hard time concentrating!
2. Keep only the essential.
Go through the papers and identify those things that are essential to you living your best life and moving it forward. Discard those that are not useful to you. Ask yourself, "Am I going to use this worry? Am I going to use this information?" Just as you would when decluttering your closet, keep a 'maybe' pile if you're unsure about letting some thought or memory go. Set it aside to come back to later. For all of the rest of the discarded papers, put them in the trash or burn them, and mentally and verbally say goodbye to them forever, thereby freeing up space in your brain.
3. Organize what you keep.
Begin a bullet journal that's categorized for the things you decide to keep in your head. These could include to-do's, ideas, goals, things to learn more about, things to share with someone, etc. Your keep pile and maybe pile gets organized into the proper categories. Then every night, get in the habit of emptying what's in your head for the day into the journal. Any worries, ideas, positive experiences you want to remember - keep them all in a running list by category. When you know they're written down, they don't take up space in your mind any longer. And when you re-read the list the next night, you may very well just cross out some of the things for good and never think about them again.
4. Don't fill your mind right back up again.
Be careful how much you allow back into your mind on a daily basis. Perhaps you can think of ways to eliminate or reduce the amount of information and noise you consume. For example, instead of reading three different news sites in depth every day, maybe you just need to scan the headlines and make note of a few things you want to come back to once a week to read more fully. Another idea is to keep a notebook or a tool like Evernote or even a voice recording app on your phone to capture ideas and to-do's on the fly. I simply use the notepad app on my phone to keep running lists. Then I don't have to try to keep all of these daily things in my head where they clutter up the space I need for important tasks and thoughts.
5. Keep your mental tasks to the essentials, and either discard or automate the rest.
To get rid of so much going on in your head, you may just have to get rid of some activities you're actually doing! Think about what's taking up your time and energy. Are they all things that are essential to what you want to accomplish in life? If not, try to excuse yourself from them. Of course some things, like say brushing your teeth, cooking meals and paying bills, you can't eliminate. But you could probably make them simpler and even automate some. For example, keep your toothbrush, paste and floss all in one cup in your medicine cabinet so your body automatically knows what to do every day, and you don't have to use up brain power thinking about it. Take the time to set up a menu plan that rotates every week or two, so you only need a few favourite recipes that you can follow practically in your sleep. It will also ensure a grocery list that's the same every time you shop. Perhaps even consider ordering your groceries online to be delivered automatically each week. Set up your bills on automated payments every month so you never have to remember to get online and pay them. Same goes for social media - use services like Buffer to schedule and automate posts.
6. Get Good Nutrition, Sleep and Exercise.
A healthy body makes for a healthy mind. It's really that simple. Get more plants into your diet, re-jig your routine if you need more sleep, and schedule in time to get moving every day. Your mental capacity will grow and you'll notice the positive effects of that extra space immediately.
7. Don't ingest negative things.
Just as we should be careful of ingesting food and drinks that add useless clutter to our bodies, we need to be careful not to ingest anything that clutters our minds. This includes negative news, negative conversations, and too much TV. I'm guilty of watching too much of TV - I think of it as a way to unwind and relax. But in reality, it fills my head with a lot of noise and not much in the way of positive growth. Instead, I find when I read a book, take a walk, have a bath, or listen to music I'm much calmer and experience more clarity and peace of mind.
8. Seek out nature.
Surrounding yourself with nature is a quick and easy way to let go of anything that really doesn't matter. Experiencing the beautify of nature has a powerful way of grounding you and resetting your brain.
9. Single-task and batch tasks.
There is no such thing as multi-tasking; our brains actually have to move back and forth at a quick speed on the two or more things we are doing at the same time. This isn't efficient and it leads to increased brain clutter and an increase in mistakes. Do one thing at a time. If you get interrupted, stop and deal with it, then go back to what you were doing. When you have a bunch of tasks that are similar, for example getting lunches ready, do them all at one time once per week by baking ahead of time and stocking a specific lunch cabinet or basket in the pantry. Then you won't need to think about what to pack for lunch tomorrow on your way home from work today.
10. Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is about living in the present and being awake to your senses and everything around you. It's being able to stand outside of yourself and not let external things affect you. We need to practice being mindful because it really does take consistent practice. It doesn't come naturally, but by learning to be more aware and present during routine tasks, we'll be able to enjoy every moment more instead of collecting clutter thinking about the future or the past.
I realize we're not all minimalists and we all have different values, goals, and energy levels. But I think I can safely say that we all want to be happy, worry-free, and have a quiet, uncluttered mind with the capacity for peak potential. We can get there by choosing to put these simple actions to work.