Your daily routine is long and exhausting.
After a long day of work and what feels like unnecessary busyness, you return home hoping to settle down and give your attention to something more meaningful.
But minutes later, your mind begins to replay stressful events that occurred earlier that day. They come back so vividly that you feel as though you’re reliving the exact same drudgery you felt back when they actually happened.
Before you know it, your mind has become full of thoughts that have everything to do with what makes you miserable and nothing to do with what makes you happy.
You sigh in frustration, unable to savour the things you love when you finally get time for them.
If you can relate to this, then you no doubt know how it feels to deal with mental clutter.
Recognising when you’re suffering from mental clutter can be tricky since mental space is mostly invisible. Most often, it’s your feelings that will let you know when your mind is taking on more burden than it can bare.
Below are some more concrete examples of what it’s like to deal with mental clutter;
• Struggling to give your full attention to one thing even if it’s only for a few minutes
• Struggling to stop thinking about negative stories told in the media
• Dwelling about stressful worst case scenarios that haven’t happened yet
• Feeling like you’re overwhelmed by information overload
• Mental and emotional fatigue causing you to constantly feel tired and lethargic
Don’t feel bad if you’ve experienced some or most of these scenarios. I know I certainly have.
I know how frustrating it is to be unable to read a book because your mind keeps wandering elsewhere. I know how frustrating it is to spend your entire day worrying about what might (or might not) happen tomorrow.
And I know how frustrating it is when your attention is stolen by things that don’t bring you value.
Mental clutter can be one of the most challenging forms of clutter to eliminate.
Unlike with physical and digital clutter, you can’t just simply donate a pile of unused clothes to a local charity shop or delete a bunch of irrelevant files from your computer and enjoy the benefits near instantly.
Mental decluttering takes a little more time.
But consider the benefits of a clearer mental space;
• Wouldn’t it be great to feel less fatigued and less overwhelmed everyday?
• Wouldn’t it be great to be able to focus and be able to get important work done?
• Wouldn’t it be great to give the things you love your full attention and for nothing (not even the noise of today’s world) to get in the way?
If your answer was yes to all three of these questions, I’d like to talk about how you can eliminate mental clutter and have the mental clarity you deserve.
1. Deal with physical and digital clutter first
Sometimes your mental clutter can be nothing more than an internal manifestation of the excess stuff around you.
It’s difficult to simplify your mental space in a cluttered environment full of things that pull your thoughts away from what matters most to you.
If your physical and digital spaces aren’t currently as simple as you’d like them to be, I’d recommend starting there.
If you still feel overwhelmed even after removing physical and digital clutter, it’s likely that your mental clutter is the result of something else in your life such as your habits and daily routine.
In which case, the remains of this post should help.
Many take pride in their perceived ability to multitask.
Some employers will even list being able to multitask as part of their job descriptions.
But despite what is commonly accepted, multitasking is neurologically impossible.
While it is possible to focus your attention elsewhere while your body carries out mundane tasks on autopilot (sometimes referred to as background-tasking), no human brain can ever focus on two different mentally demanding tasks at the same time.
The more accurate term for what is commonly referred to as multitasking, is actually task switching.
When you attempt to do multiple tasks at the same time, your attention is divided and unfocused as it constantly switches back and forth from one task to another.
This constant switching not only creates mental fatigue, but it also destroys your ability to focus clearly as each task is essentially a distraction to all of the others.
If you want a clearer mind, you must make a conscious effort to do only one thing at a time.
If you only take one thing away from this post, make it this one.
3. Eliminate distractions
While most of the distractions you face may seem quick and harmless, research suggests that once distracted it can as long as twenty minutes to regain your focus on that particular task.
Even if the distraction only lasts a few seconds, that’s potentially twenty minutes of mental clutter your mind has to suffer from.
Notice where your distractions are coming from and make a conscious effort to eliminate them. Don’t let interrupting phone calls, notifications, or anything else pull your attention away from the things that are important to you.
4. Eliminate background noises
Trying to think clearly while surrounded by several different channels of noise can be extremely difficult. Even if you’re pretty good at blocking out background noise, it can still be subtly distracting when you’re trying to focus.
When you need to give something your full attention, never have the television or music with lyrics playing in the background.
Learn to work in silence so that you can appreciate television and music later when you have attention to spare.
If the silence starts to make you feel uncomfortable, try playing some instrumental ambient music to help create an atmosphere (Spotify has some brilliantly curated playlists for this).
5. Adopt a low media diet
As nice as it can be to know what’s going on in the world, many of the stories you’ll hear in the media can fill you with feelings of anxiety, powerlessness and insignificance all of which do little to improve your life.
And it doesn’t always end after you stop reading or turn off the television. Some stories can be so troubling that they linger in your mind, echoing through your head even days later.
Limit your media consumption to only the topics that resonate with you.
If politics doesn’t make you happy, then I’d highly recommend that you spend as little time as possible exposed to it (when important events do happen, you’ll hear about them one way or another from the people around you.)
What kind of news do you generally like to hear about connects with your likes and interests and inspires you to make the most of your day?
6. Embrace boredom
In his book, Deep Work, Computer Science Professor, Cal Newport talks about something he referred to as “embracing boredom”.
In a nutshell, he explains how taking every opportunity possible to seek out distractions can train your mind surrender to them instead of focusing on what’s right in front of you.
The fast pace of today’s world insidiously encourages you to always be doing something. As if it were a crime to let your mind slow down and do nothing for even just a second.
The next time you get five minutes to yourself, instead of checking social media or reading a newspaper, use that time to simply do nothing.
Let your thoughts wander wherever they want to and enjoy the freedom of not having to spend your energy trying to concentrate.
There’s nothing wrong with being bored.
In fact, it’s in moments of boredom that your mind has a great opportunity to slow down and think more clearly..
7. Give up on trying memorise everything
Long ago, before writing notes became commonly accepted, people stored their knowledge almost completely within their mental space.
In fact, note taking was actually met with a great deal of resistance.
Those who wrote notes were often considered to be less knowledgeable, while those who relied solely on memory believed themselves to be intellectually superior (which makes the recent resurgence of paper notebooks as the more authentic alternative to digital notebooks a little ironic, wouldn’t you say?)
Regardless of whatever ideals people might have about note taking, we live in a far more complex world now than any other time in human history.
We face certain challenges today that did not exist even decades ago. And there are far more things we have to remember now than ever before.
No matter what criticism people throw at you, there’s nothing wrong with relying on Google to answer your questions just as there’s nothing wrong with relying on Evernote to remember everything.
Use technology to help you organise and remember the important things so your mind is free to remember the joyful things.
8. Finish before you start
With more and more content available than ever before, the temptation to try to consume multiple pieces of content at the same time is great.
But when we switch from one task to another, our attention has a tendency to remain with the previous tasks for a certain amount of time before eventually shifting to the new task.
Cal Newport called this; “Attention Residue”.
The more you switch between tasks, the more likely you’ll struggle to focus on the current task because your attention hasn’t quite caught up.
If you want a clearer mental space, you must finish what you’re doing before moving on instead of switching back and forth between multiple different tasks.
Here are some examples of what I mean:
• Finish one area of housework before moving onto another
• Finish the book you’re reading before starting another
• Finish the project you’re working on before launching another
9. Let go of thoughts that hurt you
Negativity can be a difficult thing to define because some thoughts can seem unpleasant but are actually helpful to you.
Take a look at the following;
• I don’t want to let others down
• I don’t want live in debt again
• I’m afraid of failing
These kinds of thoughts may seem negative at first glance, but they can also help drive you to succeed in accomplishing whatever it is you want to do in life.
Compare those thoughts to the following;
• I’m not good enough
• I’ll never fit in no matter where I go
• I’ll never succeed at anything in life
Thoughts such as these do little to help you and can often keep you in a never ending downward spiral of despair.
It’s these kinds of thoughts that have no place in a clear mental space.
The quickest way I know to find out if a thought is truly negative, is to ask a simple question;
Does this help me?
Do your most prominent thoughts make you want to get out of bed in the morning and live your life?
Or do they make you want to just watch TV for 6 hours straight eating unhealthy foods as you wallow in apathy?
More often than you might think, your fear, regrets and discomfort can actually be really useful. If observed carefully, they can help you identify what’s truly important to you from what’s not.
Steven Pressfield explained in his book, The War of Art, that the more fear you feel towards something, the more certain you can be that it’s important to you.
But if you feel that your thoughts are preventing you from making progress in your life (instead of driving you forward), you need to replace them with new thoughts.
Here’s what I recommend to get started;
1. Spend less time around pessimistic people who tear you down and spend more time with people who support and believe in you
2. Read less stories about people who fail and more stories about people who have succeeded at whatever it is that you want to do in life
3. Focus on improving the fundamental skills you need to do what you want to do so you can be more confident in your abilities
Enjoying a clearer mental space
Review each of these tips and write down the ones that apply most to you and your situation.
Then after you apply them, enjoy the benefits of a clearer mental space.
Enjoy being able to focus on what’s going on right in front of you. Enjoy the liberation of not having to remember things that don’t fill you with joy.
And enjoy the experience of being able to do the things you love with clarity and with confidence.