Reducing Mental Clutter: Identifying the Problems
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Reducing Mental Clutter: Some Solutions

Clear mind

 Yesterday's post on reducing my personal mental clutter apparently struck a chord with a lot of people.

Farhan and Steve Bridger are with me on the whole multiple open tabs thing. So is Talia. And Sarah Stewart apparently distracts herself with Twitter, while Christine Martell shares my angst about needing to get clearer about her big goals.

This is good. At least I know I'm not alone.

I promised to share some of what I'm trying to do to deal with the problem in today's post. But I'm also going to point to some of the ideas my readers had because isn't that why we spill our guts on the Interwebs in the first place? To get others to commiserate and share their ideas?

So this is what I've been doing:

1. Keep Gmail and Netvibes closed, except for specific periods during the day when I'll deal with email and read my feeds. This is something suggested by the GTD cult and by Tim Ferris, but it's advice that I find hard to take. It actually seems to cause me physical pain.

2. Minimize multi-tasking. Also difficult to do, but when I can I'm much more productive.

3. Observe the 2-minute rule. This is another GTD fix that I started with in 2008 but that fell by the wayside. It's back.

4. When I start thinking about other people and the problems I need to solve for them, stop myself and ask what I'm trying to avoid by doing this so I can get back on task. This one sounds a little strange, I know, but I've found that when I start thinking about how my ex needs to deal with our daughters, I know that I'm really just trying to NOT deal with something else. I'm trying to cut down on letting my "fixer" mode interfere with actually fixing things that I have the power to fix.

5. Limit the scope of work and stick to those limits. I have the capacity to give a client about 4 times more than they expect from me. This can be good, but it can also be a killer. Sometimes I've even found that they wish I'd given them less. Scope creep is a big problem, but I'm trying to keep it under control.

6. Journal every day to get stuff out of my head and down on paper. I'm trying to journal every morning and also when I feel like I have something to work through, just so I can get it out of my head. It seems to be helping.

7. Use index cards. This is a big one. I'm writing each task on a separate index card. I know it's both low-tech and environmentally un-friendly, but for now it's helping me organize and re-organize what needs to be done in a visceral kind of way. I can group related tasks together and also group by days of the week, hours of the day, etc. I know there are digital ways to do this, but for whatever reason, I'm needing something physical right now to ground me.

8. Work this as a process, rather than focusing on "Am I more productive today?" Sometimes when I focus too much on the end result ("I need to get my act together!") this actually becomes its own form of mental clutter. So what I'm trying to do is focus on the different elements, rather than my desired end result. Call it a 12-Step program with fewer steps.

I also got a lot of excellent ideas and feedback from commenters:

  • Even though I mentioned daydreaming as a way to avoid work, Steve Bridger pointed out (and Amy Harbison agreed) that it can be a positive development too. His post also led me to a great resource called "Mindapples," where readers submit 5 daily things they do for mental health. It has a whole host of other strategies for me to explore and try.
  • Cammy Bean reminded me that it's easy to get bogged down in doom and gloom,  but that the way to get back to "the glass is half full" is to focus on solutions. That's actually what led me to journal about this problem. I was getting sick of listening to my own whining and needed to find SOMETHING to do differently.
  • Mike Slater said he leaves his computer and goes for a 2-3 hour walk when he needs to. That's something I find easier to do when the weather is nicer, but maybe I need to stop being such a big baby. At the least, maybe I need to play a little Wii tennis or something.
  • Farhan  leaves open the tabs he needs to get a particular job done and closes everything else. He is also checking email only a few times a day. Amazingly, the world apparently keeps turning!

What else did we miss? What are your favorite ways to reduce mental clutter?

Flickr photo via FreeWill


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I used to get overwhelmed with work when I was growing up. I would end up doing nothing I needed to do because I was so overwhelmed. I think of that whenever I get into that rut where I'm not getting anything accomplished. I find creating a list and CROSSING OUT what I did makes me feel like I've done something. The key is to break down tasks to multiple increments so you have something to cross off (i.e if you are preparing a consultation , break it down to: speak with customer about a, b, c; plan course outline, create handouts, update website, etc...Not: prepare course).

There is something empowering about being able to cross things off the list. I then "reward" myself with a half hour break. Then on to the list again.

I have been procrastinating on my dissertation and went ahead with the next phase even though I wasn't finished with the transcriptions. It felt good to go on and accomplish something which has given me incentive to continue to work on the transcriptions.

Finally, I agree that you need the day dreaming time. I feel it helps to "defrag" you brain so you can concentrate later on.

Michele -

Your post caused me to pause and reflect specifically on points no. 4 and 5. I suffer from the same affliction and I think they are related. I think both stem from a desire to be helpful, which is both a blessing and a curse (strength turned into a weakness if not watched). I don't know if you have ever read the Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. The book is a great read. He talks about the mind being like an elephant and its rider, and how it becomes largely a matter of training yourself. There is a nice summary of it in a GTD context, but one that is useful overall, at GTD Times at this url

Re scope creep, I know there is definitely a part that I play, but in working on getting better definition from the other side, I have found that it takes a lot of effort and persistence because there can be a murky haze on the other side that bleeds into things I am doing. Tightly written project definitions help ... specifically ones that I write and then use as a guide help. There is large benefit to better clarity though so the effort is worth it.

Best of luck to you in your adventure.

People always say to be positive, yet there is a balance between being too positive and not seeing the world the way it is and being too negative and shutting off solutions or seeing that many of those huge things we need to tackle, are not as important in the scheme of greater things... such as that report daunting yes, your job yes, but consider it in the context of, say, a mountain growing a 1/4 inch or some other positive grand thing (not acid rain or the bees, frogs, bats, oaks, pines vanishing kind of grand thing). I find just resting on some image of a great force of nature is like going for a walk, but without the 2-3 hours I don't have nor the weather conditions I cannot enjoy for 11 months a year (New England).

Virginia--I like the metaphor of daydreaming as a version of "de-fragging"--very true. My challenge is also making sure that I'm daydreaming in a positive way, rather than ruminating, which is another way I can go off into my own little mental world.

WDF--I did read The Happiness Hypothesis and remember that elephant metaphor well. The GTD Elephant article is a great one that I hadn't seen. Thanks for the resource! And thanks for the sympathy on scope creep. I agree that when you can have clarity, it works better. I find that my mind (the elephant part) resists that at times. :-)

And P Griffith--great idea to just think about the grand scheme of things in nature. Maybe I need to have more nature pictures around me in my office. Right now I'm staring at a blank wall (my attempt to not distract myself), but maybe I need some mountains and trees and rocks to remind me of perspective.

If I am given the choice, I would like to go back to pen and paper!

I do not use my mobile phone UNLESS I must. I do not chat online unless I must. Of course I know Twitter by name, but that is where I stopped ... all these 'instant' things -- stop and think -- are they really necessary? Why is it so important that I have to Twitter and announce to the WWW that I have just finished reading xxx, or I am in xxx ??? Something is getting out of hand ... are we doing all these just because we want to be part of the crowd, OR do we absolute need to get ourselves distracted and become ineffective by all these online distractions?? I think we all have to sit down and have some serious talks to ourselves -- Is vanity (to show that I am one of the crowd) so important that INSTANT is a must???

Many, Many years ago when letters would take days and weeks to be somewhere, we take efforts and careful thought in penning a letter to a dear one. These days we Twitter, we SMS. Broken thoughts. Broken messages with in-comprehensive spelling. We are careless because IF we made a mistake remedy is quick at hand. That concentration, that devotion is doing something for a person is no longer there. Is quantity (how many messages, how many Twitters, how many SMSs, how many online friends) so much more important than QUALITY?

I go the slow boat. Any time. Any where.

Thanks so much for this Michelle.

Something I've just started doing this week (since your last post) is favouriting tweets that I want to get back to later, and also, when I find a link I want to look into more, I just bookmark it with delicious straight away, and then get back to it AFTER work!

This is working for me so far, which is encouraging. Have also fully taken on board your closing gmail idea. Plus my work email as well. I try to check it every two or three hours. No email is THAT important that it can't wait a few hours to be replied too!

I guess if I put these things into practice slowly (one at a time) then I will eventually get rid of all my mental clutter, and hopefully be a more productive worker.

Just came over from your original blog I stumbled upon today, describing the causes of mental clutter. Of all the suggested solutions, one of my top ones would be to journal every day to get stuff out of your head and down on paper. But if you have to keep writing down the same things over and over because they keep coming back on a regular basis, then it becomes a chore. That's why I figured out a way to create PERMANENT unconditional freedom from any unwanted condition in my life, so they don't clutter my mind ever again if that's what I choose. Yes it does take making a choice to be free, now and forever, if you want permanent freedom, and I realize that it could be scary to let go of our old "friends" for good. But I found that many things really need no longer be there and I have gotten rid of them for good, and I am better off as a result (and mostly don't need to deal with the bad feeelings that used to be there a lot of the time)

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