Thinking Straight: 5 Ways to Get Rid of Mental Clutter

It’s 10 o’clock on a Wednesday and you’re staring at the computer screen. You’re only halfway done with the report that your boss needs tomorrow morning. You type five more words, pause, sit back, and stare at the screen again. The words aren’t coming to you. As you search for them, your mind wanders to random places: what should I have for dinner? When is my credit card payment due? Is Mother’s Day this week or next week? Why does the beginning of this article make me think of the song “Piano Man?” Is Billy Joel still making music?

And now you’re on Wikipedia.

This situation is a common one. It’s probably the reason behind most Billy Joel selections on Spotify.

Billy Joel angry
Sorry, Billy.

Jokes aside (for now), you’ve probably had this experience recently. Or maybe you’ve recently gone to a meeting and, 15 minutes in, you realized you had no idea what the meeting was about. Or maybe you laid in bed all night wondering if a big sale was going to go through. Maybe all of these have happened to you recently and that’s why you can’t focus on this damn report.

We feel your pain. It’s a situation we’re all too familiar with as well. Because of that, however, we’ve started a few new habits that have helped us, and many others, deal with this problem. That isn’t to say we don’t still get distracted or overwhelmed sometimes, but it used to be crippling. Now, that hasn’t happened for the longest time (we’re not even sorry about that one).

5 Ways to Clear Mental Clutter

Meditation

Ok, we admit that we’re beating a dead horse here. I’m sure you’ve already familiar with the benefits of meditation. In fact, you’ve probably heard about them from Tim Ferriss, Phil Jackson, Dan Harris or a number of other people both cooler and more famous than we are (Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray..).

Yet we’re still bringing it up for two reasons. First, because it’s that effective. It’s already scientific fact that meditation has several health benefits but there’s one we’re focusing on here: the ability to train yourself to focus on one thing at a time. Our culture tends to encourage us to “multi-task” or juggle several things in our brain. What’s more, our technology makes it easy for us to turn that into habit. While that isn’t always bad, it does make it hard to push out distractions and focus on a single thing. It’s also why half the people in your office probably think they have ADD.

The second reason we bring up meditation is because of the way it’s usually presented. The word tends to bring up images of people sitting on the floor with their eyes closed and legs crossed.

When people explain how to do it, they usually say to “focus on your breathing.” Yes, this is meditation. But it’s also only one type of meditation. So, when people try this and they fall asleep or get bored or feel an itch, they get discouraged.

But have you ever stared at the rain sliding down a window and “spaced out?” Have you ever bounced a tennis ball repeatedly and just watched it? Have you ever stared off into the distance, not really thinking anything, until someone jolts you back? All of these things are meditation. They all center your mind on one thing–or nothing at all–and clear away everything else. So, if traditional meditation isn’t for you, take a few minutes each day to do one of those other activities. If you can think of something else that has given you that feeling before, then go with that. The important part is the result, not the method.

Journaling

While the things that pop into your mind can sometimes be random, many are often important. These can be thoughts about your worries, fears, and regrets. They can be about upcoming presentations, birthdays, or unpaid bills. You could be frightened by how quickly times flies or trying to figure out why your wife fell asleep in the middle of your attempt at seduction. Either way, these thoughts have a strange ability to change your mood.

If you’ve ever gone to a therapist or vented to a close friend, you know how good it feels to let these things out. Sometimes, all you need to diminish their impact is to set them free. A few of these problems seem to vanish once you voice them. For the rest, speaking them may not make them disappear, but it does reduce their power over you.

Since therapy is expensive and even the best friends prefer not to listen to daily rants, we suggest a journal. This doesn’t have to be the “dear diary” type of journal you associate with high school kids, though you’re welcome to do that too. It can be as simple as a spiral notebook that you unload your thoughts into. Since it’s just for you, don’t worry about grammar, spelling or even how neat your writing is. All that matters is that you take what’s jumping around in your brain and you move it onto the paper. After all, it worked for Doug, so you know it’s good.

Doug writing in his journal
#datingyourself
Clearing Physical Clutter

Back in college, my room was constantly a mess. I had clothes on the floor, books on the bed and more fast food receipts than I care to admit strewn across my desk. I didn’t like cleaning. After all, why would I? Cleaning sucks and it takes forever. Since I was technically an adult and nobody was forcing me to clean, I never did.

Unless I had a paper due the next day.

Spongebob writing an essay

For whatever reason, the moment I sat down to write a paper I had neglected, my room bothered me. I angrily expressed that I couldn’t work in those conditions and that the room had to be clean before I could start writing. Part of this, of course, was me stalling even more. However, there was some truth to it. After sharing this story with several people, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

It turns out that clutter can actually harm both our focus and our creativity. And this actually makes sense. Have you ever felt a weight lifted off of you after you donated a big bag of things you don’t use anymore? Doesn’t your room just feel a lot cleaner when you make your bed? Being in a place that is tidy actually frees your brain to think and create.

To get started, take a few tips from tidying expert Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. For starters, go through your things: books, clothes, souvenirs..etc. Pick up each one, one at a time, and hold it in your hands. If it immediately brings you a sense of happiness, keep it. If it doesn’t immediately give you that feeling, put it in a bag to donate. Don’t take the time to wonder if it “may come in handy one day.” If it’s a book you bought four years ago, admit that it doesn’t interest you like you thought it would and let it go. Once you’ve sorted, you’ll now have plenty of space to hold everything you’re keeping, which reduces mess. Not only that, you’ll also surround yourself only with things that make you happy.

Bullet Journaling

Despite the similar name, Bullet Journaling is very different from regular Journaling. While journaling is a way to release your thoughts, bullet journaling is a quick way to maintain your schedule. Here’s how it works:

You can use any journal or notebook as long is it’s fairly small and durable. The first page serves as an index that will, at first, be blank. Number each page of your journal on the bottom corner. After the index, your journal will begin, with notes broken down like this:

  • Every item on your To-Do list is a bullet point.
  • When you complete an item, write an X over the bullet.
  • If an item is “scheduled,” like a dentist appointment, use the < symbol
  • If you need to move the item to a different day, use the >
  • For any random notes, use a –
  • Finally, for important events, draw an open circle
  • At the end of the month, write down the page numbers in your index for each corresponding month (e.g. January: 7-10)

And that’s it. You can come up with your own symbols for your specific needs but don’t overdo it. The point of the bullet journal is that it’s simple, so you don’t want to add much.

So, why is this better than a planner or schedule that you may be using already? Unlike a schedule, a bullet journal allows for thoughts or ideas that you don’t want to forget. Plus, it’s more portable than a calendar. With planners, rescheduling a task you couldn’t finish is usually a messier process. The bullet journal, on the other hand, is a planner, notebook and calendar in one. Make sure that anything that needs to be done is written here and that you know how you will go about accomplishing it. That will help keep it from causing you stress before bed.

Take Walks

When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, walks can be a great way to sort through everything. Personally, I like to take walks and quietly talk to myself about what’s on my mind. By doing this, I break down the situation and what I can do, plus the possible results of each action.

Walk in a beautiful park in autumn
If you live here, you have no business being on the computer when you’re not at work. And I hate you.

Even when you’re not stressed, though, walking outside has fantastic benefits. One of the most beneficial is its ability to refresh your mind, especially after a long day. As Cal Newport brings up in Deep Work, this is known as Attention Restoration Theory. Attention Restoration Theory basically states that a walk outside keeps your mind engaged with all the things there are to see (people walking their dogs, the sunset, flowers…etc). At the same time, you come across all of these things in a laid back, leisurely way. Nothing is forcing you to focus on it. You’re coming across things at your own pace. This allows your mind to relax and wind down from the day’s mental activity.

Your Assignment

Today, give at least one of these a shot. Better yet, go for two. In the morning, use a journal to clear out your mind so you can focus on the day ahead. Or take a walk after dinner through your neighborhood. Look out the window of your office and just stare off into space for a few minutes. For extra credit, make it a priority this weekend to get rid of the clutter in your bedroom. Then, just for the hell of it, blast some “Uptown Girl.”