How to Organize Mental Clutter
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
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
- 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:
- To clear up mental clutter, by moving all the self reminder thoughts onto paper.
- It’s easier to track and manage tasks when it’s all laid out in front of us.
- 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!