15 Ways to Declutter Your Brain
“I just want to run away! There’s so much to do and remember… and I’m already so exhausted!”
That’s the cry for help I hear almost daily in my women’s-only therapy practice.
Prior to opening my therapy office and expanding to offer online counseling services, I would have guessed that most women felt pretty “together” in life… after all, they always post the most glamorous photos on Instagram, right?
However, a decade in the emotional wellness field has taught me that it’s just not true! As a whole, we are a bundle of nerves, going about our days with a seemingly endless to-do list in our minds or on our iPhones.
While there are slews of great tips all over the web for conquering physical clutter, I focus as a therapist and coach on helping my clients clear their mental or emotional clutter. Thinking with clarity leads to organized physical surroundings, which then leads back again to mental clarity… it’s a circle that I know you’ll want to dive right into!
Today I’ve created for you a list of 15 ways to limit mental and emotional clutter:
One. Eliminate toxic relationships. There are days as a therapist that I spend embroiled in someone else’s deeply painful crisis. It’s a workplace hazard, and I accept it as an occasional part of my job. Even though my work requires very little physical exertion, a few times a year I collapse in a heap at the end of the evening feeling as if I’d spent the day busting up concrete blocks. Toxic people in our lives give us that same kind of beaten-down feeling: they are needy, or condescending, or entirely negative. We spend all of our emotional resource trying to placate them, but their thirst for our time and energy is insatiable. In these cases, you must set clear boundaries or you risk your own sanity. If it’s not possible to end these relationships entirely, consider ways that you can at least limit your exposure to these people. I interviewed NJ Rongner about practical ways to do this over at the How To Be A Grownup podcast.
Two. Try knolling. Last year I listened to a woodworking podcast episode about the concept of knolling, which means essentially taking a moment to align all of the objects in your workspace for maximum efficiency before ever starting a task. For a woodworker, this might mean setting up the appropriate hammer, nails, and saw blades in order of their use. For you, this might mean clearing your desk of extraneous papers, stacking all of your pens into a cup, or even moving to a workspace where you face a blank wall. Mental distraction from cluttered tools is inevitable.
Three. Unlock the power of a brain dump. You’ve heard about fight or flight, right? When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I find that my first instinct is to fight: I dig my heels in on whatever project is within arm’s reach. However, this doesn’t help with that nagging scattered feeling. Instead, I find much more clarity from pulling out a clean sheet of paper and spending 10 minutes free-writing all the things bouncing around in my head. Simply having these concerns on paper will eliminate the mental energy your brain must expend to hold onto an idea… and it frees valuable brain space up for thinking (rather than ruminating on worries).
Four. Spend time purposefully daydreaming. Ever wonder why all of your great ideas come to you in the shower? It’s likely because you’re in one place, still and relaxed, allowing your mind to wander while you complete a task that requires no brain power. Imagine what great ideas might come up if you purposefully spent 15 minutes per day only on daydreaming! Plus, this white space in the mind is very peaceful and allows the feeling of margin in your day.
Five. Limit your entertainment. I recently heard an episode on The Minimalist Podcast suggesting that commercials, advertisements and magazines clutter our mind. These powerful marketing tools are meant to compel us to take a certain action – to buy something, go somewhere, or search online for something. Imagine how freeing it would be to eliminate even half of the estimated 5,000 advertisements Americans see in a day.
Six. Declutter your Facebook account. I realize that we all feel obligated to accept friend requests from networking contacts, distant cousins, and moms of kids in our child’s karate class. However, these are folks we normally wouldn’t interact with on a daily basis. It’s completely overwhelming to not only see the opinions and activities from such a wide net of people on a daily basis, but often times we hear from our Facebook friends several times per hour! My rule of thumb is this: if you wouldn’t invite this person to your home for dinner, then they don’t belong in your news feed. Use Facebook settings to turn off notifications from the newsfeed of everyone except your closest friends. They’ll never know that you’ve stopped following their endless stream of political memes.
Seven. Minimize decision fatigue. Even though most people would say that their mornings are incredibly stressful, I can say honestly that mornings are the easiest time of my day. I attribute this to eliminating extraneous decisions from my pre-work rush. Thought it may sound boring, I eat the same thing for breakfast every day, perform the exact same grooming routine in the same order, and I even plan out my wardrobe sometimes for a month in advance so that I’m not standing in my closet deciding at 7am. I recently explained the whole system over at Two Little Rippers in an article called End Morning Madness.
Eight. Grab some quiet time. While I’ve already mentioned the benefits of daydreaming, there are also innumerable health and wellness benefits to meditation. If the idea sounds a little too “woo woo” for you, check out the free Headspace app. The host, Andy, talks you through slow breathing exercises for relaxation that will ultimately leave you with incredible focus and mental clarity. I haven’t met one person yet who was turned off by this no-nonsense, non-jargony approach to meditation.
Nine. Commute in silence. Speaking of headspace, let’s talk about giving yourself some quiet time between work and home. In the last few years I became virtually addicted to podcasts, listening to 4 or more hours of business podcasts each week. While this exposed me to tons of valuable information, it also left me overwhelmed and anxious about implementing all of the ideas I heard. Once I began commuting mostly in silence, I noticed a huge jump in my productivity.
Ten. Understand the full mental weight of your possessions. My precious friend, Jason, fantasizes romantically about the idea of spending weekends with his young family out on the local rivers. However, ownership of a boat requires a great deal of mental energy. There’s the securing of insurance, plus paying the bill every few months… the need for a boat storage facility and its associated costs, as well as buying and maintaining extra equipment like life jackets. Consider which possessions are sapping your mental resources and decide if there is a way to rent or borrow these items instead of owning them.
Eleven. Batch your mail. Second to mornings, my clients report that arriving home after work is the most stressful time of the day. There are backpacks to unload, meals to prep, dogs to feed, and more. I find that mail can be a source of mental angst in the midst of this afternoon rush. Opening, sorting, shredding, recycling, and responding to mail on a daily basis takes up valuable brain space. Instead, collect all of your mail into a box and attack it only once each week. Not only will you feel less emotionally frazzled upon arriving home, but you’ll also find that the entire process speeds up quite a bit when conquered all in one sitting.
Twelve. Keep a journal beside you bed. Hoards of friends tell me they have trouble falling asleep because of an inability to turn off their minds. I label that as mental clutter! If you seem to be unable to fall asleep or if you wake up in the night with worries, a journal and pen beside your bed can be a lifesaver. This allows you to put all of your concerns down on paper (see #3) and then have more restful sleep.
Thirteen. Implement a Worry Time. This is a therapeutic technique that seems counterintuitive but works marvelously! If your mind is pulled away throughout the day on distracting worries – health issues, childcare woes, school projects, politics – then a Worry Time could prove very beneficial. Start by setting up a 30-minute daily appointment with yourself with the specific intent of worrying. Yes, you read that right! Once your designated Worry Time is on the calendar for a specific 30-minute window, begin carrying a journal with you everywhere (or use your Notes app). Every time your mind wanders to a worrisome situation or idea, pull out your notebook and jot a couple of words describing the worry. Then say to yourself, “I don’t have to worry about that now, because I’m going to worry about it at 7pm tonight.” This allows your mind to feel more relaxed in the moment because there is a set time to attend to the distressing problem later. You may find that by the time Worry Time rolls around you can actually mark off some items without devoting any attention at all to them.
Fourteen. Start your day from quiet. Vast research shows that the most successful people on our planet actually take some time to sit quietly and contemplate their day prior to diving in. The best advice I ever heard comes from Peter Voogd, who says that every 6 months he writes out a plan of his 5 top goals, his 5 most compelling reasons for pursuing them, and the key habits he would need to implement in order to achieve these goals. Peter laminates the page and spends a few moments quietly reading it before each day begins. Imagine the momentum you could gain from clearly reviewing your mission every day!
Fifteen. Consider expert help. What many people simply describe as mental clutter, feeling frazzled, or overthinking are actually legitimate symptoms of anxiety. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, symptoms of clinical anxiety can include: difficulty controlling worries about a variety of issues (big or small), muscle tension (sometimes manifested as tight shoulders, jaw pain or headaches), trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, stomach distress (like difficulty eating, nausea, heartburn, diarrhea or vomiting), or even irritability. If you have two or more of these symptoms, consider contacting a professional counselor in your area to talk about these issues. PsychologyToday.com hosts a list of provider profiles that you can peruse to find a good fit for your particular situation, and insurance often covers these services. The right therapist can help you learn relaxation training skills and new ways of thinking that can greatly reduce negative symptoms.
There you have it! My list of 15 Ways to Reduce Mental Clutter, all based on a decade-long career in the mental health field. Be sure to check out our free courses for anxiety and stress relief or follow us on social media at facebook.com/ThoughtfulJourneyCounseling.
About the Guest Writer
Celeste Coffman is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified School Counselor who is passionate about teaching clients research-proven strategies for managing anxiety and stress. With over a decade of experience in the field, Celeste prides herself on bringing wit, enthusiasm, and encouragement to the counseling room. You can find her online at www.CelesteCoffman.com.