5 Steps to Clear Mental Clutter
Is it time to clean out your spiritual closet? Is your emotional sock drawer overflowing? Productivity expert Erin Rooney Doland, author of "Unclutter Your Life in One Week," offers five steps to restore order.
- 2013 January-February
Clutter is anything that gets in the way of what matters most to you. It can certainly be material—unwanted trinkets and clothes that no longer fit—but clutter also can be spiritual, emotional, and psychological.
Maybe you’ve found yourself unable to meditate or pray because you can’t stop thinking about an insensitive remark your coworker made. Or you’ve filled hours of your life with worry and irritation about something you can’t control. Perhaps you’re still mad at a college roommate who has owed you rent money for decades, or the memory of an embarrassing moment in your past sometimes creeps into your thoughts and leaves you cringing and mortified for hours.
These aggravations and other negative thoughts about people and situations can get in the way of an intentional life focused on the things you actually value. Regrets, anger, frustrations, anxieties, envy, and other nonproductive emotions may be depleting your limited energy. And, unfortunately, mental clutter doesn’t magically disappear; the only way to alleviate mental clutter is to deal with it.
1. Assess the mess. Physical clutter is easy to identify, but mental clutter can be more difficult. What relationship in your life is draining? What consuming thoughts aren’t in accord with the life you desire? What distracts you from being fulfilled spiritually and emotionally? Try this to help identify the clutter: sit in silence, close your eyes, and try to clear your mind. As thoughts pour in and distract you from centering, pause to write them down. Return to sitting still with your eyes closed. Repeat the process until all those invasive thoughts are on paper and your mind finally feels quiet.
2. Sort. Categorize all that mental clutter into groups based on how you intend to process it. Group it into categories like: I can let it go right now, I can research and likely solve the problem, I can change my attitude/opinion about it, I can make amends, I can confront it with the help of a mental health professional.
3. Plan your attack. Treat this like any other project: you need clear direction for your actions and a timeline for when to take the next step. Working through the categories you created in step two, write a to-do list of the next steps you can take to reduce or completely get rid of your distractions. For example, you might decide to set a timer and wait 10 minutes before responding to emails that make your blood boil, forgive a friend even though she hasn’t apologized, or schedule 15 minutes this evening to research family therapists in your area. Once you have solidified your to-do list, open your calendar and schedule all time-sensitive actions for a specific date and time.
4. Throw out the backpack. Once you resolve an issue, don’t stash it in your mental backpack to retrieve later. If you have forgiven someone, do your best to never mention the transgression again. You’re done with the clutter; be resolved to let it go for good.
5. Avoid future traps. It’s pretty hard to avoid mental clutter for the rest of your life, but you can prevent some of it. Look for physical clues—when your outward space is chaotic it might be a sign your inner space is out of balance too. Keep a journal where you can offload your small, daily emotional clutter. You might consider scheduling five minutes every day to worry about all the things you can’t control. Then, if an unwanted anxiety pops into your head you can dismiss it by reminding yourself, I’ve scheduled time to think about that problem during the bus ride home, so right now I will focus my attention on writing this report. Cultivate habits that help you identify mental clutter when it starts, and turn your attention to something more meaningful.
Remember, you get to decide what fills your head and shapes your thoughts. Only you can clear the distractions and focus instead on what matters most to you, so stop letting clutter interfere with your meaningful path.