I laughed out loud at an internet meme the other day that said “my brain has too many tabs open.” That’s the way of it for a lot of us, though. While we’re working, we’re thinking about dentist appointments and soccer games; while we’re at soccer, we’re thinking about dinner prep and getting everyone showered and into bed before ten. While we’re trying to fall asleep, we’re thinking of the state of the world, the state of our personal lives, and the state of our unfolded laundry…
No? Just me? Ask any parent, in particular, and they will tell you that shutting off their minds is the single hardest thing to do and part of that ‘constantly on’ activity is that our minds are cluttered. Too cluttered… Too many tabs open… Too much going on.
So short of giving up all modern conveniences and taking on a monastic lifestyle up on the tip top of a mountain, how can you declutter your mind so that you can work and live better, smarter and more happily?
Ways to Declutter Your Mind
This is how:
Before you can declutter your mental space, you need to declutter your physical space
Sit in your living room, family room or bedroom. Now look around. Is it messy? Is there ‘stuff’ everywhere? Do the kids toys migrate to every space in the house? Are there piles of clothes that you’ll have to sniff to identify as being clean or dirty? If you said yes to any of those questions, you’re living with too much clutter.
Your first step to a more zen state of mind is to make your space a little more calm. And if you can’t achieve that throughout the house, give it to yourself in the one space you can claim as your own: your bedroom. Okay, yes, you might be sharing that space with someone else but where there’s a will, there’s a way! Banish the laundry piles and start organizing your closets to create at least one space that feels relaxing!
If your office is where you feel the most chaotic, declutter your workspace. It will be time and effort well spent as a neat environment helps you stay on task and focused. While Einstein thought that a messy desk was a sign of genius, for most of us, working surrounded by piles is not the way to clear your mind and get the job done!
Make lists to release some space in your brain
Task lists are a great way to declutter your mind. You’re worried about forgetting something so if you make a habit of transitioning all of those ‘to do’s’ on to paper or in an app, you can rest easy knowing that the list is there, you haven’t forgotten anything and you can move on to other tabs in your brain.
Breaking big tasks down into smaller chunks is another good way to get it all down on paper, so you can declutter your mind, and leave you with the feeling that you’re getting things done.
Decide what’s most important and focus on that
Prioritizing what’s in your brain will help bring some order to the chaos and allow you to close a few of those tabs. What’s more important to you? A clean kitchen or being present at your kid’s soccer game? There are only so many waking hours in the day and at some point you will have to decide what is a priority and what isn’t. And don’t dither over deciding what’s a priority and what isn’t. That indecisiveness is in itself a brain clutter creator. Make a decision and move on.
For some people, it helps to journal about priorities; to put them down on paper so as to get serious about them. Whatever works for you is the best way to move forward. If journaling just feels like yet another chore you need to get done, then don’t do it. There’s no right or wrong here!
Learn to say no
Part of deciding what’s important for you to focus on and what isn’t is learning how to say no. For many of you, it is in your nature to say yes to every request that comes your way: invitations to parties, grand openings, book launches, extra projects at work, helping a colleague move, filling a spot at a school event… the list goes on and on. At some point, as part of the act of prioritizing, you have to decide what you’re going to say no to and then you actually have to do it. Easier said than done, but you’ll be surprised how much better you feel when you’re brain and body aren’t running on empty!
Set up some ground rules and be systematic
I find when I feel like my mind is a little out of control, it helps if there is something in my life I CAN control. To that end, I use schedules to keep on top of certain things so they don’t get out of hand and add to the mayhem. For example, I never go to bed with a sink full of dishes. Dirty dishes first thing in the morning is just disgusting to me, so this is one of those little habits that lets me exercise some control in amongst the hullabaloo.
Menu planning, for example, is a great way to exercise some control. Free up some of the space in your brain that has been devoted to the never ending question: “What’s for dinner?” by knowing, a week ahead EXACTLY what’s for dinner! Once you get into the habit of doing this, week in and week out, you won’t know how you ever lived before and you’ll free up a lot of brain space!
Another one that works for many people is to leave the tech out of the bedroom. The temptation to flip on Twitter in a moment of sleeplessness can be hard to ignore but it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll come upon something that will get your brain grinding instead of relaxing.
If you can’t change something, do like Elsa and let it go
If there are things you cannot control, situations the outcomes of which you have no influence or bearing, let them go. If you see a friend living their life in a way that you just know is going to end in disaster, let it go. Don’t try and be a hero and change it for them. Be there for your friend but don’t try and take over.
And let go of the past. So much of what clutters our minds are events from our past that are long gone, that cannot be altered now and yet that we continue to give power to! So you haven’t finished the novel that you had planned to write by age 40. So what? Is the world going to end? No. Do better tomorrow but let yesterday go.
Skip the multitasking
Once thought to be the skill of the ultra powerful super mom, multitasking is actually counterproductive, in most instances. Multitasking doesn’t allow you to focus on one task or thought and filter out unnecessary information. Instead, your mind is racing to stay on task, trying to do several things well, which rarely works out.
Limit the information coming in
A particular problem is people who ‘media multitask’. That is, people who engage on several media platforms at the same time. So if you’re Tweeting, while posting to your Instagram and watching CNN all at the same time, you’re creating a drain on your brain that is hard to catch up on afterwards.
“People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, a group of Stanford researchers has found.” (Source)
Ultimately, limiting the amount of information going in will help you to control the mayhem in your mind.
Get some exercise
At one point, a friend of mine was going through a super stressful period. Her job was hard, her boss was impossible, her boyfriend was… well, he was a jerk. So she took up dragon boating. Yes, the big canoe-like boats that people have races in, with dragon heads at the front of them! For the hour or so that her corporate team trained every other night, she let go of everything else in her brain and focused on the exercise. The rush of endorphins helped her calm down and see the positive side of things and she was able to better manage all the stress, knowing that she had a way to release it.
Maybe dragon boating is a stretch for you, but a walk around the neighbourhood shouldn’t be! Go to a park, commune with nature, look for frogs in a pond… Particularly if you’re having trouble prioritizing aspects of your life, and tabs in your brain, a break from the everyday can help you rework that list!
If exercise really isn’t your thing, then launch your creative side. Paint, draw, garden… do whatever it is that you enjoy doing that isn’t yet another chore on a long list. The ‘time out’ for your brain will do it a world of good!
Each one of these nine tips are worth exploring to get your open tabs from 10 or 20 down to 5, tops! It’s important for your own well being and self care to take care of your brain. Decluttering it will help you manage stress, which we know has major implications for our physical and mental health. So take a deep breath, start making lists and take time out for you.