Decluttering Your Mind and Your Life
The dictionary definition of decluttering is the removal of unnecessary items from an untidy or overcrowded space.
The process can be applied to tangible physical items in your home or workplace, such as books, furniture and clothes. For ideas and useful advice on how to go about tackling this, see our page on decluttering your living spaces.
Decluttering can also be applied to intangible things, such as negative thoughts, worries and responsibilities, that constantly occupy your mind. A calendar crammed with too many commitments, or people making unnecessary demands on your time and attention, can become overwhelming and cause anxiety.
This page looks at a few simple ways to declutter your mind and your life.
Many of us suffer from having ‘too much on our minds’. You might be worrying about the future, reflecting on past regrets, or fretting about a long mental to-do list. When your mind is so busy with an array of different thoughts, it is difficult to focus and be productive. Everything can seem overwhelming and it often leads to feelings of anxiety or panic. You might be suffering from disturbed sleep as a result, which in turn exacerbates the problem as you become more tired (for more on this, see our page on the importance of sleep.)
There are some simple techniques that you can use to declutter a stressed and restless mind. These will help you to feel more calm and focused, leading to better sleep and productivity.
1. Declutter your physical space
A cluttered home or work space leads to a cluttered mind.
Cluttered surroundings are constantly telling your brain that there is stuff to be done, organising, cleaning, tidying. The brain feels bombarded by these stimuli, causing stress and anxiety. An uncluttered and organised living environment has a calming psychological effect. See our page on decluttering your living spaces for more.
2. Write Things Down
If your mind is awash with things that you need to remember, simply write them down.
Make a list on a notepad, an app or digital planning tool. Choose a place where thoughts, ideas, appointments, shopping lists etc. can be emptied from your mind and recorded, to be dealt with at another time. It is a good idea to keep a notepad by your bed, so that if you are woken in the night by something you need to remember, you can write it down and go back to sleep, instead of lying awake worrying that you might forget it.
You can take this a stage further by keeping a journal or diary. You can use this to write down specific worries, things you need address in a difficult conversation with someone, plans for the future, creative ideas and so on. Your aim is to clear space in your mind by emptying these thoughts onto the page.
Keep your journal or notepad nearby, so that if your concentration is interrupted by a sudden thought that you need to remember, you can write it down for later and carry on with what you were doing.
You may begin to find the process of writing down your thoughts in a diary or journal liberating and cathartic, particularly if you are mentally tackling some difficult issues. Or perhaps you are going through an exciting, challenging or daunting period in your life. Looking back over your entries and musings can be helpful for your personal development.
Your experiences might be helpful, interesting or even entertaining for others to read, leading you to consider publishing an ebook or writing a blog. For more on this see our page on keeping a diary or journal.
3. Stop multi-tasking and prioritise
If your to-do list seems unending, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of different tasks that you feel under obligation to do. All of this adds to mental clutter, leading to anxiety. You might feel like you ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’; you can’t think clearly about any one task when there are so many things jostling for your attention. It can be tempting to try and tackle several things at the same time, or to tick off lots of small but unnecessary tasks to make your list seem shorter. In doing so, you are not getting to grips with your main priorities and you still feel overwhelmed.
Be ruthless with your to-do list. Each day pick out the things that absolutely must be done on that day. Focus on a short list of your most important tasks and try to make sure that it is only these priorities that occupy your mind. For more useful tips, see our page on writing a to-do list.
In the same way as you would tackle a big decluttering project in your home, break down your larger items of mental clutter into smaller chunks that are easier to tackle individually. Set aside a specific amount of time in which you can focus completely on one particular important task. Keep all other mental clutter out of your head space while you are concentrating on the task in hand.
4. Dam the daily flood of information
The sheer volume of information, that we are exposed to from numerous sources every day, is mind boggling. Our brains are bombarded by news stories, social media, blogs, television, text messages, emails, surfing the internet. There are some simple ways of reducing this source of mental clutter:
Go through your email inbox and unsubscribe from mailing lists, email marketing, newsletters and blogs that you don’t use or read. Think carefully about what is relevant to you and disregard everything that isn’t.
Be disciplined about how much time you spend reading or watching the news, using social media, watching TV or aimlessly browsing the internet. Set yourself a time limit and stick to it.
Be critical about the sources of information you are choosing to read or interact with. If being exposed to these sources of information regularly is negatively affecting your mental health, have a complete break from them. For more, see our page on problematic smartphone use.
5. Be decisive and don’t feel awkward about saying no
If the sheer number of appointments and commitments in your calendar is overwhelming, consider whether they are all absolutely necessary or whether some can be postponed, delegated or cancelled altogether. You might find our page on work-life balance helpful.
Don’t feel under obligation to attend social events because you ‘feel you should’. Choose engagements that are worth your time and energy. Spend time with the people who boost your mental wellbeing. Attend activities that are beneficial for you personally or professionally and discard the rest if you can.
You might not find it easy to make these decisions or to have difficult conversations with your boss about unrealistic work expectations. See our pages on decision-making and assertiveness for helpful advice.
6. Don’t dwell on the past and don’t worry about what you can’t control
Many of us spend a lot of time ruminating over regrets, worrying about past mistakes or bad decisions, thinking about people we have hurt and hanging on to anger over past grievances. We also use up mental energy and head space worrying about the future, things that might (but probably won’t) happen and ‘what if?’ scenarios.
Worrying is a waste of valuable mental energy. Worry doesn’t make anything better, it clutters your mind and makes you feel worse.
Write down your worries and things that you are dwelling on. For each one, ask yourself, can I change this situation?
For example, can you make amends with a friend? Can you plan for different scenarios if you do end up losing your job as you feared?
If you have control over the problem, then do the things in your power to change it. If you can’t then let it go.
7. Make time for relaxation
Relaxation is not only restorative for a tired body, but also for a busy mind. There are a number of activities and techniques you can try, that will help to clear your mind of invasive thoughts and mental clutter. Our page on relaxation techniques will give you some ideas.
Meditation is possibly the most powerful tool for helping restore mental clarity. It involves learning to focus on the present moment, on your breathing and on the sensations in your body. See our page on yoga nidra for more information.
Too much mental clutter can have a negative impact on your life in the form of anxiety, sleep disturbance and a feeling of being overwhelmed. Using the techniques on this page will help you to begin emptying your mind and your life of unnecessary and unwanted worries and thoughts, restoring a sense of mental calm.