Mental clutter, like physical clutter, is distraction and reduces your ability to focus and get the work done. Mental clutter forces you to keep redirecting your brain to the task at hand. Mental clutter makes our productivity weaknesses – procrastinating, getting distracting, getting off focus, being intimidated by big projects – much harder to fight. Having a load of mental clutter is like giving your distraction-prone self a whole buffet of options to choose from instead of working. So, the first step to being more productive? Clearing the clutter.
Do a Daily Brain Purge
When you’re clearing out physical clutter, you start with a couple of simple but essential tools: trash bags and cardboard boxes. These tools give you a place to put the clutter. The stuff that has no value goes into the trash bag. The stuff that does have value gets sorted into the cardboard box: one for stuff that you don’t need or want, but that might be valuable to someone else, and one for stuff you need to keep and put in its right place. We need to apply that same trashing and sorting concept to our mental clutter, and do it on a regular basis. Daily is best.
Step 1: Get it on paper.
There are several methods for a daily brain purge, and none are better than others. It’s a matter of preference. I like simply sitting down with a notebook and writing. As in, with a pen. On actual paper. How quaint and old-fashioned and supremely inefficient; I know, I know. But it works best for me. As far as when to do this purge, I prefer morning; I’m usually bright and full of ideas, and the discipline of sitting and writing helps me to sort them all out, get down the things that are weighing me down mentally and distracting me from work, and figure out what I need to focus on for the day ahead.
There are plenty of variations on my preferred Daily Brain Purge method:
- Write in long-hand to pull out all the stuff your brain has hidden away. Just giving yourself the freedom of prose, pen and paper can help you find out all sorts of ideas, worries, distractions, solutions, and more.
- Type it out. Some people like the sound and feel of the keyboard.
- Make a list. No need for complete sentences; just list out everything you can think of. Don’t stop to analyze it, just get it on paper (or computer screen).
- Map it out. Use mind-mapping and brain-storming techniques to clear your mind of the mental load.
Step 2: Sort it out.
Once you’ve gotten stuff on paper, you need to apply that simple sorting method we discussed above. Here’s what I do: as I’m writing in my notebook, I leave a wide margin on the right-hand side. As I’m writing about whatever is on my mind, other things will pop into my consciousness: to-do items, emails, ideas, grocery items, people I need to call, a birthday coming up, whatever. I just jot those down in my right-hand margin so I can easily find them later.
You can do the same kind of sorting process as you’re writing or typing or mapping; or you can go back and read through your notes after you’ve gotten them all on paper. Sort through what you’ve written and decide where it belongs: in the virtual trash bag, headed to someone else, or in the pile of “stuff you want to keep/need to do.”
Whatever label each item gets, though, don’t skip the final step, which is to get labeled items sorted into the right container so you can find them later.
Step 3: Get it in the right box.
This is a step people often skip, and it’s why the mental clutter keeps piling up. You may have written stuff down, but if your brain isn’t confident that you’ll remember it when you need to remember it, you’ll keep getting those little nagging brain-prompts. So: you have to get the action items and must-remember points where you’ll see them when you need to see them.
If you have a scheduling system in place, plug those babies in there. You might not be surprised to learn that I prefer an old-fashioned, quaintly inefficient paper calendar. Whatever system you prefer, there are only two important points to remember: you have to put stuff in your schedule, and you have to check your schedule daily. Otherwise, what’s the point in having a schedule?
For the mental items that need to move on to someone else, take action to get rid of them as quickly as possible. Call or email people as needed, the sooner the better, then make a point of (at least mentally) scratching those items off your list. Let other people take care of their own responsibilities.
Step 4: Â Repeat.
Information comes to us, daily, in super-sized portions. Life never slows down. If you want the mental clarity to focus and stay productive, you’ve got to regularly clear the mental clutter. The more of a routine you make this mental clearing, the better you will get at it.
Do you have any tips for cutting out mental clutter, staying focused, and being more productive?
Annie Mueller enjoys creating a personal yet professional voice to render complex topics understandable. Her passion is helping home, small, and micro businesses succeed. Read more about Annie here.