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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

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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77 thoughts on How to Organize Mental Clutter

  1. What great timing for this article Tina, I could use some mental clarity right about now. Actually the two things that help me maintain mental clarity personally are hard exercising and fasting.

    I actually wrote a post not too long ago called Fasting: A Clear Mental State and Longer Life. Check it out when you get a chance Tina.

    Btw, Stumbled and Dugg.

  2. I think the most important thing is taking the time to “brain dump” as you said. We take in so much new information on a daily basis, but we rarely take the time necessary to process and sort out all the input we receive. Meditating is a great way to give your mind time to sort through all your mental discord. In fact, that’s often why when you sit down to meditate, you notice an increase in thoughts initially. Your brain is taking that quiet focus as a time to sort through all your thoughts.

  3. So many of us are overwhelmed by the day-to-day demands of our careers, our families, sometimes even our friends. We often feel there is not enough time in our lives to do the things we need to do, let alone to do the things we want to do. And, most importantly, there never seems to be time just for ourselves.

    Indecision is one of the main things that cause my “metal clutter”! :-0)

    I enjoyed the post. I admire the way you manage to weave your personal life story into the post.

  4. During the last month I got really sick for the first time in years. It was almost like I had forgotten what it’s like to be sick. However it certainly reminded me why I’m no passionate about being healthy!

    Anyway while I was sick I kept up the pace of work I’ve been putting into my blog. Things really started to get cluttered both physically (in the office and bedroom particularly) and mentally. Then to top it off we did a bunch of rearranging of rooms.

    To get back on track now that I’m feeling better the first thing I did was make a list. It certain does just dump a bunch of stuff out of the cluttered mind and free it up for actually taking action. Otherwise I find everything just gets stalled because there is just too much on my mind at once for me to take effective action.

    Thanks for a great article! :)


  5. Wow, Tina, I marvel at your level of mental organization. I have to say that when I have a lot to do, I go in the completely opposite direction. I STOP planning and organizing and just allow my inner wisdom to decide what really, truly needs doing right now.

    Oddly enough, when I do that, my mind drops at least half the tasks it wants to insist on. And I move directly from impulse into doing, without all that thinking first, which saves a lot of mental energy. The result is usually that I look back and marvel at how it all got done.

    A very different approach, but it works for me.

  6. I’m in need of this advice right Now. I’ve just got too many things to remember! Not only my kids’ schedules, I have to juggle my own. I need to cut down what is on my plate. It’s getting too much to handle! Thanks for your tips!!

  7. I’m with you Andrea. When I have too many tasks in my head, I tend to drop all of the ones that aren’t as important and focus on the ones that require immediate attention. I figure that if those tasks are truly important, they’ll come up again on their own. I guess I’m not as organized as you Tina, but someday I hope to be.

  8. This is a great article that I think many of us are in need of. I like to think of myself as a fairly organized person, but too often I use my organization as a tool to get out of actually doing the work I need to do. The procrastination is just because I feel like whatever task I’m avoiding is too large to conquer. However, if I create a budget of my workable hours during the week, I think I’ll be more likely to see just how much time I have to complete those “unconquerable” tasks. I’m going to put your ideas to work this week and see how it goes.

  9. Another thing that really helps me is humming. I read somewhere that recalling a tune and then humming it and letting your lips relax and tingle actually totally resets your brain because music is recalled in a different part of the brain. So sometimes if I’m feeling overwhelmed or ‘cluttered’ I hum an old song and close my eyes and it definitely works to relax and refresh your thinking!

  10. What I always admire about you Tina, you’re openly sharing about your life and struggle. But more than that, you have bounced back, and it’s really a lesson we all need to learn!

  11. Great post, as always :)
    Right now I have a lot of things troubling me: final exams (and all the work they require), college assignments (and all the work they require too!), looking for a job, making my blog grow, and, most important of all, I’m moving to another place quite soon, so I need to start organizing that.
    Your articles always seem to come when I need them most. I’ll put into practice you advice!

  12. “Planning is more important than just taking blind action.”

    This is SO true! I think many of us (my hand is raised) have a tendency to just DO and we end up running around aimlessly, wasting our time.

    What an excellent layout of ideas to get organized and start accomplishing out goals/tasks! Thanks for sharing your insight, Tina. Eric.

  13. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in such an organized manner, Tina!

    I’m in the process of a big transition in my life right now and one habit I am building is to do focused work for the first work hour of every day. It’s a difficult challenge, so I’m tracking my results often.

    I am finding that if I can stick to that habit I get a lot of work done early in the day. The next step will be to try to extend my focus for longer!

  14. Great post Tina. I believe that if there really isn’t enough time in our life, it is time to shift our attention to things that provide the most value and minimize doing things that isn’t really adding value to our life. I like your idea of budgeting our time in to different areas of our life. By doing that we can set our priorities right.

    Personal Development Blogger

  15. Heya Tina,

    Why are you so good to me? ;) You always seem to deliver articles that chime in with what I’m going through as I’m trying to sort things out.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

    – Will :)

  16. I do agree with your that brain dump does help me to get myself focus in getting things organized. I’m glad that my mind now is much simple and my work is more efficient.

  17. Tina,
    This is great! It sounds like a lot is shifting in your life. That always happens for me when I am poised for a huge period of growth in my life. It’s impressive how diligent and committed you are to embracing life and it’s challenges.

    The organizational and time management system I use is called Mission Control It’s simple and comprehensive. You should check it out when you have a chance.

    Have an awesome day.


  18. g

    I’m glad that I found this on Digg. I’m inspired by the brief tid-bits you gave about quitting your job, ending your relationship, and moving to rural China. I’ve often thought about perusing a similar scenario so that I can have more time and freedom to write and identify what my passions and priorities are.

    One of the hardest parts about being sucked into a stringent work schedule and relationship is that you often exchange your long term priorities for short term conveniences. I have not lost sight of my long term goals and passions, I never fully identified them.

  19. I so lo-o-o-v-e that you are going thru all these things at once – it seems to be how I reorganize my life every 5 years: fruit basket turn-over! I too recently quit my job, am moving 9 hours away, leasing my house (new, working with lawyers), learning a new “business” as well as wanting to set aside time to write. My “puppy” needs a fence and dog house and manners, even at age 3 (luckily my fiance (another major change) is open to providing that for him!). If I had enough time today to read and act on your blog, I’d be there. As it is, one piece is finally moving forward – the final move of stuff from one state to another, and I need to get on the road in about 30-90 minutes for a 9 hour ride. No internet. Pack, meet with carpet/room measurers, supervise loading into a moving van, back on the road and back here in 3-4 days. The lease is not yet complete – need to write to the lawyer (something new for me to deal with), etc. etc. I hope none of your aggravations of moving are centered on getting utilities or such turned on. I have heard that can happen overseas. May all your adventures be fun (somehow!) and know that many of us envy you for making such a trip. Please write and let us know more about western China – I’ve only seen the pictures of the “mountains” (going straight up) from Epcot. What a wonderful adventure!!!

    P.S. This also ties in so closely with what I’ve written on my blog about losing weight and keeping it off – hence the signature “Di Eats the Elephant” (one bite at a time) and I also love Tim Ferriss’s ideas on how to divide all those tasks into bites! Rock on!

  20. This is great because just this morning I came up with an idea to get ahead with school and stuff. You can take on anything when you know how to handle it. I was surprised how much of a difference it made.

  21. Zoe

    Wow, I just wrote a post about “idea dumps” for focusing creative ideas. Dumping it all out is a splendid practice.

    Although this system sounds a bit intimidating, it also sounds like a really interesting way to step back and see how you’re using your time (and how it could be used). I think I’ll take a shot at this exercise.

  22. You put it so well, even in my mentally cluttered, randomly distracted, wonderfully, but maybe should be worryingly, explorative state these days, I found your advice well laid out and easy to follow. A tonic to my frazzlement.

    Having left my day job recently, moved to a new country, moved to a new, old house in dire need of repairs and temporarily without a kitchen, started blogging, lost focus on writing my art book, gained focus on re-becoming a jewelry artist…I am often, no, nearly always grappling with trying to see the clear the ground so I can see the path and the air so I can keep an eye focused on my dreams.

    I’m going to link to this post on my blog’s next post – I suspect I know a few people who will feel the same as I do about it!

  23. I use three by five cards for each client/project – I write each element down and as I shuffle through the cards I can work on what is most important or most interesting at that moment. I can’t agree more – you have to get it down and out of your head.

  24. juana Michelle

    Thank you so much. You really inspired me and lately I have lacked just that, inspiration.. As I read your article I begun making my lists and organizing my what to do’s, etc.. Funny how I forget to do what always works and allows me to feel my very best~
    Take Care and Thank you for inspiring me!!!

  25. Wonderful article. I can so relate to this- and plan to take some action on getting rid of my mental clutter!

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