I’m a self-confessed decluttering addict who secretly worships Marie Kondo and thrives on minimalism, in all aspects of life! Yep, that’s me! But up until recently, my bouts of spring cleaning were solely focused on my physical environment…until I discovered that decluttering my mind was just as important as decluttering my space.
“If you want to fly, you have to give up what weighs you down”Roy T. Bennett
What is mental clutter?
Just like your home, your workspace, your pantry, your wardrobe or your shelves can quickly (and sometimes “inexplicably”!) fill up with stuff, so does your mind. This phenomenon is referred to as mental overload: the state that occurs when the amount or intensity of information exceeds the individual’s processing capacity.
Mental clutter can include worrying about the future or ruminating about the past but what drains our brains the most is the huge amount of incomplete tasks that are floating around in our heads. Mark Atkinson, MD and human potential teacher, reports that the average number of incomplete tasks we have operating at any one time is between 20 and 50 when in actual fact, most people can only handle between 4-5 comfortably.
How can it affect your life?
When your mind is cluttered, you lack focus. According to the Zeigarnik Effect (based on Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik’s research), unresolved and interrupted tasks thieve the attention of your brain until you have a clear proposal of what you’re going to do to deal with them. The human mind hates unfinished tasks. Part of your energy is being swallowed up by each task and this can stifle your creativity.
What’s more, according to science, if you’re unable to get through the backlog in your brain, you’ll be slower and less efficient in processing information which may lead to poor decision making. Having less mind space can also trigger bouts of anxiety and stress. And ultimately, that feeling of overwhelm leads to procrastinating: you’re trying to move in so many different directions at once that you end up getting very little done. If you’re often looking for ways to numb yourself (for example binge watching TV until late), in order to stop thinking, then you know how it feels.
Try these 5 steps to declutter your mind
It can be a daunting task…but once you taste its liberating potential, you’ll come back for more!
Don’t underestimate the freedom and creativity that come from decluttering and organising your living and working spaces. Your brain likes order, and constant visual reminders of disorganisation drain your cognitive resources, kill your productivity and reduce your ability to focus.
Go through your home, your workspace and your inbox and follow Marie Kondo’s wise guidance: “discard everything that does not “spark joy”. Donate and get rid of things that do not provide a service.” When the energy of your living or working space evokes clarity and organisation, then the life and work that unfold are inspired by that energy.
This process can provide instant relief! Write on a piece of paper ALL of the outstanding tasks and things to be done: conversations with people, projects, personal life, finances, work life, etc. write them all down!
You can do this in one go or dedicate 10min each day to dump things on your list until you feel “empty”. Once you allow the floodgates to open, it’s incredible how much lighter you can feel and how much more clarity you can experience.
Now, for some of you, the list you came up with in the step above may be rather humongous! You need to categorise these items on your list in order of importance. “But everything is important!” I hear you say. Well, if that’s your perception, add the “urgent” category to your sorting. These are the tasks that will have serious negative consequences if you don’t address them in priority. Be very honest here. You can use the time management matrix inspired by Stephen Covey’s work HERE.
It pays to assess the important items on your list in line with your personal or professional values and your life goals. What items are most in line with them? Those should be your next priority, after your urgent items. Keep going until you’ve assigned a priority to each item on your list.
Multitasking may seem efficient on the surface, but studies have shown that multitasking actually reduces productivity and fills your mind with too much activity. Instead, go down your list of priorities and focus on one task at a time to avoid mental overload. To avoid getting lost in time, you can set a timer for how long you want to spend on any given task, to ensure you manage your time well. Clear away everything else, until you’re done with that task. Then focus on the next task, and so on.
When it comes to taking action, remember the three D’s: Decide, Delete and Delegate.
- Decide: whenever you have a task on your plate there are only two options: decide to do it now or decide to do it later. If you decide to do it later, schedule it now!
- Delete: if you don’t have time and it’s not important? Be ruthless. Delete this task.
- Delegate: what doesn’t need to be done by you? I know what you’re thinking, I’m a bit of a mind-reader…” But no one can do this as well and as fast as I can!”. We all suffer from this. When you choose to delegate, it frees up a lot of precious time to attend to what’s truly important to you. Asking for support is a sign of maturity and resourcefulness.
As you go about the process of decluttering your mind, you’re freeing up energy and space to think clearly, focus on what really matters and reignite your passion and creativity. Your life will thank you for it.
If you have any questions about this process or need help to take concrete action, check out Clean and Lean, the service I offer to assess and adjust your living and work spaces to ensure they’re supportive of your health and wellbeing (not working against them).
Getting Things Done by David Allen
First Things First by Stephen Covey
Change your brain, change your life by Daniel Amen
The life-changing magic of tydying by Marie Kondo
Access all references for this article HERE.
This is great Elise. My brain definitely can’t handle too many options. Getting things out of the head and dumping them on my iPad has been a godsend. Now, I just need to figure out the whole prioritising things 🙂
Great read 🙂
Glad you found this useful Josh. And yes prioritising…it deserves more than a small paragraph, right! I like this quote from Dan Millman: “Think of your priorities not in terms of what activities you do, but when you do them. Timing is everything.”