Mental clutter is the result of all the times you said ‘maybe, later’; the decisions you avoided, the people you never called back, the clothes you kept dumping onto the chair, the online course you never completed, the article you never started writing, the interesting read you saved for later, and so on.
Now, you find it difficult to concentrate on one task for too long and falling asleep is a struggle. You constantly switch between the multiple tabs on your web browser. You are forgetful of trivial things and sometimes slur when talking because the ideas in your head race faster than your words can catch up. You draft half replies to e-mails before switching to something else. In a day, you go over your to-do list more times than the actual work you are supposed to be doing, hoping to be able to reorganise your thoughts each time. The constant back and forth, without any feeling of accomplishment is exhausting. The only thing you eventually find comfort in is binge watching TV shows.
Just like a nagging child screaming for ice-cream on a never ending loop, unchecked tasks on an expansive to-do list, unimplemented ideas, delayed decisions and the information overload on social media, compete for our attention and demand action.
The problem is often obvious. We, however, are either already so preoccupied to add ‘fixing the problem’ to our list of worries, or just can’t find the motivation for it. But since you have decided you have got to do something about it, here is a list of things I do when I feel overwhelmed by the clutter:
Dump it on a piece of paper I find writing on a piece of paper therapeutic. Apps and software do fine, but I’d say give paper and pen a shot at least once. Quick but short-lived way: Feeling overwhelmed? Spill out all the random thoughts in your head; from things you want to do to people you need to call, jot down whatever comes to mind. Tedious but stimulating and long-lasting: A lot of times, clutter is caused by the belief that everything is equally important and so we can’t prioritise and choose which one to do first. Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix (see below) can help.
Even better - Turn it into a habit: Keep a daily journal to dump ALL your thoughts into. A bonus would be to write down action points stating what you are going to do and when about all the thoughts you noted down, at the end each journal entry. You can use these action points as a list of things to do for the next day (or year). This way, you’re almost always clutter free.
Use a to-do list: A to-do list helps organise thoughts into actionable items (unlike a journal that is more detailed and includes feelings, fears and random ideas). An average to-do list: It has all the tasks you need to do and emits a sense of urgency to do everything. This one will help as a temporary decluttering device but not for long. A good to-do list: From your average to-do list, identify tasks that will not take you more than 2 minutes each to complete. Do them now. Next, chop down the list to leave only the three most important tasks for the day. Anything else only deserves your attention after you have completed these three. The Eisenhower decision matrix can help you. (Don’t fool yourself into believing all tasks are equally important – because they’re not. Chances are they wouldn’t get ticked off the to-do list anyway so why not temporarily chuck them out yourself and get rid of the clutter) A great to-do list (or planner, to be more precise): A great to-do list doesn’t just identify tasks but also when and in how much time you will do each. Stick to it. Any time you have in between is when you do all the other tasks. Additionally, make this list the night before and e-mail it to yourself. When you check your e-mail the next day, you will already know what to do.
Get rid of the digital clutter Close the unwanted tabs in your web browser: They’re all screaming for attention. Often it is a small quote or point that we want to hold on to for a while. Note it down somewhere, if necessary and then close the tab. Delete and unsubscribe: Delete all unread subscription e-mails because you are never going to read them anyway. Identify a few that you regularly look forward to AND read and unsubscribe all others. One approach, for starters, can be to keep it if you have found at least 2 of their emails very interesting or helpful in the last 6 months. Turn off mobile-notifications: Refuse to be dragged into a storm of information overload by turning off distracting notifications. Clear your desktop: When you see everything on your desktop, you are reminded that it all needs your attention. Regardless of whether you do a quick and dirty by putting all the other folders into one folder named ‘desktop’ or whether you do the recommended sorting, organising and deleting of all your data, clear your desktop. Be easy on yourself - take a break Don’t ignore the need to relax, socialise and enjoy. Distance yourself from work every once in a while to silence the noise in your head and shed some of it by the time you get back to work. Try the Pomodoro technique of scheduling breaks.
Get into routine Anxiety accentuates mental clutter. A routine on the other hand brings order to your life. Set a morning and evening routine: Decide what the first 5 things on your morning routine will be and try and stick to them (a variation here and there is fine of course) to get a clutter free start to your day. Decide your cut off time and get ample night sleep to rewire your brain for the next day. Reduce decision fatigue: If having to make too many decisions makes you anxious, find ways to reduce the number of times in a day you have to make a decision. Pre-decide what you are going to wear each day of the month, what you will have for breakfast every day of the week, and so on. Drink water at regular intervals: Add water to your routine. I have gone without water for months (I am a cola person) but experienced visible differences in my memory, attentiveness, focus and clarity every time I start drinking water. Exercise: If going to the gym or setting aside time for exercise daily isn’t possible, start with 20 minutes once a week. A short walk or dancing to your favourite song are easy ways of shedding the clutter (and some calories). It helps rid yourself of negative emotions too. Set reminders: I am easily impressed by people who never forget an important date but if you can’t deal with the pressure, set reminders. Have a planner on your desk at all times with important deadlines, meetings, events and birthdays clearly marked out.
But here is what is most important: reading up on ways to declutter is only the first step. Try out some or all of these and find out what works best for you. Then do it regularly. I, for one, need to clear up my desktop now and start drinking more water. Which one will you try first?