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How to Organize Mental Clutter

Photo by Lucia Holm

Do you ever feel like you have a hundred things to get done and not enough time to do half of them? We are all busy people, but sometimes we get so caught up with ‘catching all the falling plates’ that we sacrifice doing the things we really want to be doing, the things that align with our desires and contribute most to our personal wellbeing.

We sometimes make the mistake in thinking that we are ‘super human’ and will be able to juggle it all with great success. “No need to write it down. I can handle it!” As more tasks get piled on, soon we become bombarded by the thoughts of tasks yet to be completed. And this added pressure will distract us in ways that are counterproductive to our goals.

Not writing these tasks down is just part of the problem; even if we wrote it all down, what if several tasks are equally important or dependant on one another? How do we prioritize conflicting to-do’s? After all, we only have so many hours in a day.

How do we break out of this cycle helplessness caused by an overwhelming number of priorities waiting to get done? How can we better manage and execute the activities that matter to us, such that we feel empowered and in control?

Backgrounds: A Personal Story

The past few months have been a period of adjustment for me, as several changes in my life took place simultaneously – I left my day job, ended a relationship, moved into a new living arrangement, got a second dog, and traveled to remote western China. Marching through the jungle that has become my house, with the new puppy circling around my feet (biting everything in sight) and with many things still packed in boxes, I can’t help but to feel a little irritable, unsettling and unwell as I notice all the clutter covering every possible surface.

“It will take days, if not weeks to get this all sorted out and organized.” I would say to myself, each time I’m reminded that I really should be cleaning and de-cluttering my living space.

What I really want to focus on is my writing, that and potty-training the new dog. But, I feel conflicted. On one hand, it’s tough to focus on writing (or anything else) if my environment is cluttered. On the other hand, since cleaning and organizing will take ‘forever’, I’d rather spend the time writing first. And thirdly, I have another list of pending responsibilities and promises that needs to be fulfilled.

As a result, I do a little of everything that tugs at my attention, not getting very much accomplished. Observing myself, I felt bothered and a little helpless. Last week, I came to a breaking point, “I’ve had it!!” I said to myself, and proceeded to spend the next 3 hours with my nose buried in a notepad, pen scribbling at accelerated speeds – as I collected and re-arranged my thoughts on paper.

As a result, I came up with an organized solution to solve my problem. I felt instantly relieved and no longer helpless, because now… I had a plan!

Let me share it with you.

A Closer Look

Before diving into the solution which worked for me, let’s highlight some observations.

1. Behavioral Pattern

In my scenario above, my exterior clutter was preventing me from focusing on my passion. I felt hesitant to proceed, because I was unsure which to focus on first, they both seemed important to me. Not making significant progress with either priority left me feeling unbalanced and uneasy.

Another possible scenario of a similar pattern is: the long hours I need to put into work are preventing me from focusing on my health and building an exercise routine. I feel hesitant to start my exercise routine, because I don’t feel like I have enough time in the day. Yet, conflictingly, if I incorporated exercise in my day, I would have more energy and wouldn’t need as many hours at work.

It is not a matter of procrastination. It is the mental pressure of knowing that we need to do something which makes us hesitant to proceed, yet failing to proceed prevents us from doing something else that is a priority to us.

We all have different scenarios and things that when left uncompleted make us feel unwell. Maybe clutter doesn’t bother you. What is it for you? What, when left undone, affects your emotional wellbeing?

2. ‘Action Alone is Not Enough’

We may be moving about in the act of living a balanced life, yet we can still feel mentally cluttered. This is because, when we have many pending to-dos, it is important to dump them out of our heads, and to track them with a system we regularly review.

Planning is more important than just taking blind action.

3. ‘We’ll Never Have Enough Time’

When we’re busy and engaged in one area of our life, we tend to think that “we’ll have time someday” to do those things that really matter to us. But someday will never come if we do not consciously plan to integrate those things into our daily life. It quickly becomes just another excuse to prolong us from doing those things.

“Conditions are never perfect.
‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.
If it’s important to you and you want to do it ‘eventually’,
just do it and correct the course along the way.”

~ Tim Ferriss

6 Step Solution to Manage Mental Clutter

simply-hot-coffee.jpg
Photo: Cindy Loughridge

It was really just a matter of dumping all the information I had lingering in my mental space, and organizing that dumped information in a cohesive fashion. Here we go!

Step 1: Brain Dump

List out all the tasks you need to do, which are running through your head right now. Write the list down (or type it out) as it comes to you. We don’t need to be complete with this step. This list just gives us an idea of the types of things that have been bothering us. The act of writing this list down also serves as a mental relief.

Step 2: Brainstorm Life Categories

Looking at the above list, come up with a list of categories or life areas that are important to us. The categories will encapsulate the items from the list and future tasks not yet on the list. Additionally, if we ignored any of the life areas, we would be left feeling unbalanced or unwell. For me, the life areas important to me right now are:

  • Work – sample activities: Writing, emails, interview questions, etc.
  • Personal Wellbeing – sample activities: meditation, reviewing goals/schedules/plans, reading something inspirational, exercise, etc.
  • Household – sample activities: cleaning, organizing, training dogs, grocery shopping, paying bills, running errands, etc.
  • Personal Projects – sample activities: working on my personal blog, sorting travel pictures, learning hobbies (salsa dancing, language skills), budget & financial planning, etc.

Step 3: Understanding Each Category

For each life area, use a new sheet of paper.

  • At the top of the page, write “Life Area: <fill in>“, where <fill in> is the name of the life area.
  • Title the first half of the page “General Tasks
  • Title the second half of the page “Pending Task List
  • In the first section, General Tasks, list in bullet points all the possible activities that would fall into this category. For example, for my Life Area: Work, some activities include:
    • Answering emails
    • Creating new articles
    • Advertising inquires
    • Site improvement and updates
    • Accounting
    • Reviewing and Setting Monthly Goals
  • In the second section, Pending Task List, list in bullet points all the current to-do tasks that you can think of that would fall into this category. Take this opportunity to move the mental reminders out of your head and onto paper. For example, my Life Area: Work, includes some of the following:
    • Complete interview question for person X
    • Get back to Y company with the requested Bio and Picture
    • Complete the article on topic Z which I started last week

Do this for each life area from step 2. Feel free to use more paper if you run out of room. Keep the list as visually organized as possible. The point of this exercise is three fold:

  1. To clear up mental clutter, by moving all the self reminder thoughts onto paper.
  2. It’s easier to track and manage tasks when it’s all laid out in front of us.
  3. To see which life area has the most pending to-dos, thus requiring more time and attention.

Step 4: Budget Time for Each Category

  • Daily Estimate – Look at your daily habits and schedule, how many hours a day will you have in total to devote to all of these areas? Example, my productive day generally goes from 10am to 8pm, which gives me 10 hours a day devoted to the life areas. The remaining 14 hours is for other activities such as sleeping, commuting, eating, watching TV, doing nothing.
  • Weekly Estimate – 10 hours x 7 days = 70 hours a week to divide up between the four areas of my life that’s important to me.
  • Budget Workable Hours – Review each of the life areas and its pending tasks from step 3. Estimate how much time to give it, on a weekly basis. From looking at my own lists, I know that the area of Household has priority, since there’s a lot that needs to be done and not doing them affects my sense of wellbeing and my work; thus I should give it more time. My weekly budget at the moment looks something like this for each of my four life areas:
    • Household - 20 hours
    • Work - 25 hours
    • Personal Projects - 15 hours
    • Personal Wellbeing - 10 hours
  • Daily Breakdown – Roughly estimate how many hours a day to give each life area on a daily basis. It helps to draw out a table, with days of the week along the top row and life area names along the left column. My estimate looks something like this:
    • Weekdays: Work 5 hours, Household 2 hours, P. Project 2 hours, P.Wellbeing 1 hour.
    • Weekends: Household 5 hours, P.Project and P.Wellbeing 2-3 hours each.

Step 5: Doing

As we are going about our day working on each of the life areas, flip to the page for that life area and pick the item under Pending Task List that has the highest priority to do first.

When working on one task. Focus completely on that task. If more to-do reminders come to mind, add them instantly into the Pending Task List for the appropriate life area.

Step 6: Tracking

Refer to your time budget several times throughout the day. Remember to be flexible. Nothing is set in stone. The time budget is there to help us as a guide, not as an unbreakable schedule. Take note how much time you are spending in each life area, and adjust appropriately.

Remember to be gentle with yourself. Notice all the improvements you’ve made and how much better you feel.

As we change, so will our priorities. Make sure to revisit our time budgets regularly and update time devoted to each of the life areas, as our life situation changes.

What is bothering you right now? What are some things that you are putting off, that if you just got them done, will contribute significantly to your state of wellbeing? What are some life areas most important to you? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section. See you there!

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About the author

Tina Su is a mom, a wife, a lover of Apple products and a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) for our motivational community: Think Simple Now. She is obsessed with encouraging and empowering people to lead conscious and happy lives. Subscribe to new inspiring stories each week. You can also subscribe to Tina on Facebook.

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75 thoughts on How to Organize Mental Clutter

  1. I love the concept of “mental clutter” and I particularly think this a great quote relating to your post: “‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.” Those words really resonate with me and I really appreciate your thoughts on how to rid our lives of mental clutter so that we can be more effective individuals. Thanks for a great entry!

  2. I think part of the problem is information overload. Too much information leads to procrastination because you keep weighing your options.

  3. Liz

    Maybe I’m alone here, but I find this task even more overwhelming than what I usually do everyday, which is make a list for that day, with tasks under different categories. I’m especially anxious when it comes to committing to a time budget.

    It gives me agita just thinking about it!

    Perhaps that signals something I need to work on, which is facing up to the fact that true time management is not my strong suit. I just need to suck it up and try to complete this exercise!

  4. N

    I could relate to your thoughts, but I tried to implement the same action plan as yours, and found it too complicated for me to follow. Any other suggestions perhaps?
    I am struggling to strike a balance between work and my other normal life.

    Cheers

  5. Thanks for this article. I agree that the “brain dump” is an excellent idea for just clearing the mind and getting it all out. I find that this relieves stress and helps to clear the way for real organizing.

  6. Janey

    Thanks for this information. I do tend to make lists when overwhelmed, but this overall, on-going system seems like it will be far more effective. I have emailed this link to a dozen friends and relatives–and I very seldom do that. I have used concept mapping software for projects that will do this job well. Thanks, again . This is really great.

  7. Ashley Cutler

    It is sort of funny that I just came across this post because I just recently performed this exercise almost exactly. In answer to a few people who thought the weekly time estimation and tracking may not be worth it, I highly suggest it. I think one reason is that many times I complete things on daily lists but when i look at the end of the week, many priorities weren’t addressed at all. If you’re like me, you may be spending 40 hours per week on email and may not even know it.

  8. Susan G

    Awesome article! Found this when Stumbling…

    I would suggest that for your Brain Dumps you use an online tool that you can search and review later, and then copy and paste to further prioritize down the road.

    I use Penzu to keep a personal (and private) journal, but when I have a lot going on, I just do a dump of all my thoughts and I instantly relax. I also don’t have to worry that my thoughts are lost or around the house somewhere on a piece of paper—they are in my private diary!

  9. Ray

    Not what I was looking for, but an incredible organizational system. The answer to becoming balanced, fulfilled and happy. Congratulations and thanks!

  10. I always find recognizing personal behavior patterns is invaluable. As per Tim Ferriss (I saw he was quoted), I think considerable time needs to be spent on deciding what actually needs to be done. Besides external clutter, there are usually numerous facets of internal clutter that are self-imposed responsibilities that may not actually be imposing. Removing the internal clutter may be a more difficult task, but it makes the externalities seem exponentially less daunting.

  11. Mel

    Have to agree with some others, great article, cool solution but I feel overwhelmed just thinking about taking on this approach.

    I’ve already got tons of written ideas and actions and plans and I’m only just keeping my head above water .. some of the time.

    Maybe putting all this stuff in my head and on paper into an online version where I can trap it and see it and organise it may be the way forward for me.

    Thanks for the thought provoking!

  12. merelunacy

    I liked reading this, thank you. Google Docs in conjunction with Google Calendar is how I personally do this. Mind you it still needs a lot of work, but it’s a start.

  13. Great new way to look at clutter and be more efficient with you time. Thanks for the tips!

  14. Its such a great way to display steps to organize mental clutter…..in the personal sense of experiencing life, I would not go that far as to assign the amount of hours to each category of “life” one has…cause then it would become too tedious for me. But for the rest of the chores, furniture repairs, dogs time (or cats), its definitely something I will use as a guide to further organize clutter piled up in my brain, ty for sharing !!! blessings.

  15. Shelby

    Thank you so much for this article! I have taken this advice and found it very helpful. These are the words I’ve been needing to hear for such a long time. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Balance has been restored in my life :) Have a great day!!!

  16. Karen R.

    I am 43 years old and have beaten myself up over my lack of mental organization all of my adult life–this system resonates perfectly with me and I am going to “map the mess” in my brain TODAY! Thank you for providing the way that will finally work best for me!

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