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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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77 thoughts on How to Organize Mental Clutter

  1. I loved the way you broke the time budget down. What a great idea!
    Thank you!

  2. Very inspiring. I’m glad I came across your link today and decided to have a look. Hopefully by following some of the advices here could clear up some of my mental clutter… arrrgghh…. and back to work on my entertainment blog.. How can it be ‘entertaining’ if the blogger herself is not? Thanks for the enlightenment. =)

  3. Vinie

    Hi Tina,

    It was good to see a new post from you in my RSS reader after a gap. I keep looking forward to the articles you write which, I am sure people will agree, are of great help to all.

    Thank you for inspiring me and many others with your writing :)

    Warmest Regards,
    Vinie

  4. Great article on mental “de-cluttering”. I’ve personally found that one of the best ways to de-clutter is to focus on reducing or eliminating those activities that cause the clutter in the first place. This involves an attack on the source of clutter rather than focusing on the symptoms of a clutter-filled life.

    One of the worst clutter creating activities in existence today would fall under your “work” category…….this activity is e-mail. E-mail clutters your mind, distracts you, and ultimately leads to an unproductive day if it is not managed properly.

    The challenge is to “unplug” yourself from e-mail but to do so in a way that all e-mails still get answered and that you know immediately about anything critical that comes into your inbox. Can’t be done? It has been done and proven.

    Stay away from your e-mail….don’t peek at it….destroy the Email Monster…….address only those e-mails that your Email Manager tells you that you need to respond to at the end of each day.

    If you do so, you’ll go a long way in de-cluttering your mental state and increasing your daily productivity.

  5. L.

    Again a great article to improve my everday life. Especially in the last few weeks I’m feeling more and more depleted and it seems, as every day there are more tasks to be done for me, actually without anything being done at all!

    Alone at school, there are so many things to be done within the next weeks:
    – a presentation, which I have to do for English
    – a writing, I have to finish for German
    – a dork, I have to deal with somehow
    – etc.

    But of course, I also want to focus on my personal projects(as you call it in the article) like working on my writing skills, playing the piano more often, etc.

    Since there is so many stuff that seems to overwhelm me at the moment and I’m feeling so depressed because of all that mental clutter, I definitly gonna try your 5 steps out!

    Thanks so much for that =)

    (And sorry for the bad english, but I’m merely a german student^^)

  6. This is a great way to get grounded, something I do every couple of months as my to do list gets overwhelmingly enormous. A great tool to use is Excel or the spreadsheet in Google Docs. Putting everything in a grid makes it super easy to organize and rearrange. Awesome tips!

  7. Great post but my counting makes it a six step program.

    It lists:
    Step 1: Brain Dump
    Step 2: Brainstorm Life Categories
    Step 3: Understanding Each Category
    Step 4: Budget Time for Each Category
    Step 5: Doing
    Step 5: Tracking

  8. Hi Tina,

    I am a Chinese girl live in Beijing.
    How was your trip in western China?

    It was so good to see a new post from you and I keep looking forward to the articles you write .

    This advice is very useful for me right Now.
    I’ve just got too many things to do every day and I think may be I have to change my life.

    thank you again your post.

    P.S. I also have my own blog (Chinese version), you can come by sometime if you can speak Chinese. ^_^

  9. This is great! I’m going to use these techniques.

    My most important ‘area’ is relationships- family, friends and finding a good partner. :)

  10. I love getting a glimpse into your thought processes and how you found mental clarity. I think that when you take charge of your life (as you have) you need to keep close tabs on everything, which is much harder than just living unconsciously. I really admire you! :)

  11. I love the idea of budgeting your time. I never thought of it that way, even though we all do it in some form anyway. I can tell you I need to budget how much I spend on the internet vs. other pursuits!

  12. Quality post! It seems like people only complete half the battle; after writing our various to do list, most never plan how much time they need to invest in each activity. I have too many self reminder thoughts- at the moment I try to get in the habit of writing them out. I’ve never considered what the monthly time total might be. Interesting. Understanding each category is my favorite portion of the article. :) Thanks!

  13. Personally, I’ve never had much track with budgeting time. I’ve read through books like Getting Things Done and life, I find, rarely cooperates for very long. Nor would I expect it to. Juggling multiple priorities can indeed be a real mental strain. I find all we can do is focus on the most important tasks. Get that out of the way, and there’ll be time for everything else. We often know what that is, even if we don’t want to admit it.

    I do, however, greatly support the concept of a brain dump onto paper, your computer, your cellphone, or any combination thereof. I would simply recommend being prepared to throw out a lot of the not really needed or not so practical thoughts, put others on a back-burner, and condense and simplify where possible.

    As for getting the most important, yet large tasks done right away, there’s a simple focus technique that often works for me: “What is the immediate task in front of me?” It’s usually something very simple, and I tell myself that for right now, this is all I need to think about or do. One step at a time, as simple as possible.

    For the Christian, I would recommend one additional step to the above: Make God the #1 priority. Higher than work, play, or any other responsibilities. Rest in Him, have faith, and your load will be that much lighter and your worries that much less. He has never failed me, even when the task seemed impossible.

  14. Tony,
    I think that you point to a potential pitfall in planning and budgeting time and tasks. I think it is easy to get caught up in planning and spend too much time doing that and never develop lasting habits.
    To me faith is crucial in accomplishing anything life. Some people have it growing up, some people aren’t interested, and for others like me life circumstances forced me to look for and develop faith.
    Thanks for your commentary. Have an awesome day.

    Marc

  15. John Carly

    Great Post!!!

  16. Morgan

    Thanks Tina for this article! What great timing!

    Most articles and books that I’ve read try to teach how to de-clutter the external, but what to do when there are a thousand unspoken internal tasks in addition to the external ones? I seriously needed a plan for mental decluttering, stat! Not only that, mental clutter seeps out into physical clutter, which creates a cycle of procrastination and entrapment.

    I’ve started my mental task list…hopefully it’ll translate into some serious actions.

  17. Hi Tina

    Good to have you back.

    Juliet

  18. As each person discerns thoughts that no longer serve them, this is an invitation to stop thinking those thoughts. The universe works in simple ways. Human beings often make life more complicated than it is.

  19. As always, an amazing read. Thank you very much!

  20. Jacklyn Ker

    Great article. I thought I can multi-task pretty well, till recently, I felt every part of my life has been yelling at me for attention. I’ve been slacking on my exercise, always giving the excuse of my busy work schedule. And now, I have to stay home to recuperate from flu and tiredness.

    You are right, Tina. I’m starting to feel unbalance, not knowing how that feeling come about. I’m lucky to have come across this article. Have to get my plan out and restart again with new energy.

    Thanks!

    Love, Jacklyn Ker

  21. God is blessing you…

    Have an awesome weekend ahead!

  22. Wonderful article Tina. I fist came across the idea of weekly planning after reading Steven Covey’s 7 Habits and 8th Habit a few years ago (You can find reviews of both books on my site). Covey has some awesome planning software that helps you keep track and review your goals, mission, core life categories and tasks and then has you schedule them throughout the week in your calendar to be sure they get done. Whichever tool you use, the idea of weekly planning and goal setting is invaluable. At first it felt like spending an extra hour at the beginning of the week just made me busier but I can’t tell you how much I am able to get done now that I schedule everything. And more importantly, my mind actually gets to be clear (most of the time…) while doing my tasks.

    Unfortunately the Covey software is not offered for Mac so when I switched, I changed my system which has turned out to be awesome (and kind of fun). I use iCal to jot down my random to dos that I think of throughout the week, then each Sunday I spend an hour looking at them, putting them into my life categories and then just dragging them right onto my iCal onto the day and time that I want to complete them. I also color code them by life category. Doing this with iCal forces me to think about how much time each task will take up so that I don’t find myself totally overloading my schedule, which can easily happen if you just list things. I recommend trying this system if any of you have Macs. You could obviously do it with a pc but it might not be as fun ;)

    Also to make it a little more fun and to elicit some emotion behind my life categories, I have given them some descriptive names. Have a look.

    My life categories:
    1. Flying out of the gym- personal fitness and nutrition
    2. Give it away!- giving back to others and to the community
    3. Making ears ring- doing nice things for others, keeping up with my relationships
    4. $$$ while I explore- non-work projects that I hope will make me extra cash that I can use while I travel and explore. i.e. working on and writing book reviews for Reading For Your Success.
    5. Enjoy the Slow Dance- relaxation and mediation, spritual
    6. Expand the mind- reading, writing, journaling and other personal development
    7. Discovering businesses- working on my investment business

    Thanks again for the new ideas Tina!

    Have a great week,
    Scott

  23. That’s a great post. For tracking time, I use a web app called GoalsOnTrack(free) which can track your goals and to-do lists and the amount of time you spend on them.

  24. i love reading your blog. i love lists reminds me of cracked.com, that’s probably why reading your blog is so enjoyable :p. oh and i love the hex color you’re using for as your font color.

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