How to declutter your brain

The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.”  Marie Kondo

When Marie Kondo first burst into our world, my husband and I both became converts.

We took everything in our closet, put it on a pile on the floor and then, piece by piece, decided what to keep and what to discard by asking her 4 simple questions:

  1. What purpose does the item fulfill?
  2. Do I have a set home for this item?
  3. Am I showing enough gratitude toward the item?
  4. Does this spark joy? 

As promised, first our closet and then our house emptied, and we had more space in our lives.

As one year of dealing with uncertainty and worry becomes two, I’ve been thinking about “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” but ironically couldn’t find the book as a reference for this article because I had “Konmaried” it. 

I’ve been thinking about it because I’ve thought and heard friends and clients say things like,
         “I feel foggy and distracted.”
         “I can’t think clearly.”  
         “My mind feels cluttered.” 
         “I can’t seem to stop worrying.”

Mental clutter is a doozy and can take many shapes and forms, including worrying about the future, ruminating about the past, keeping mental to-do lists or rehashing an ongoing list of complaints and hassles.

So, what do you do when it’s your head, not your space, that feels cluttered? You Konmarie your mind, body and soul.

Following are 5 test-driven and effective methods for doing just that.

1. Meditate

There is a reason mediation has been around for thousands of years. Simply put, it works. It works to help you focus your mind and tidy up your cluttered thinking.
According to the Mayo Clinic (and many other research-based organizations), the benefits of meditation include:

  • Gaining a new perspective on stressful situations
  • Building skills to manage your stress
  • Increasing self-awareness
  • Focusing on the present
  • Reducing negative emotions
  • Increasing imagination and creativity
  • Increasing patience and tolerance

If the idea of sitting quietly for 30 minutes makes you want to scream, start tiny instead by doing something like committing to 1 minute of focused breathing after you climb into bed each night.

2. Set, and keep, strict boundaries around social media

According to USNews and World Report, “more than half of people we surveyed acknowledged that their social media use intensified their feelings of anxiety, depression or loneliness. They also told us that it contributed to their low self-esteem and made it harder for them to concentrate.”

Social media adds to our mind clutter. Period.

Yet it’s hard to break the habit because social media is engineered to release dopamine, which is a powerful neurotransmitter that helps to reinforce certain behaviors that result in reward. According to a Mayo Clinic article on screens, “Dopamine helps sustain people’s interest and attention, which is why it can hard for people to tear themselves away from a situation or behavior. It’s also self-reinforcing. The more times people experience the behavior, the more dopamine is released, and the more driven they are to return to the behavior.”

This helps explain why the global average of time spent on social media is 2 hours and 24 minutes a day. That’s 52,560 minutes a year.

To break the cycle, try taking a break for just one day. Give yourself the gift of 1,440 minutes to un-clutter your brain. And then move forward from there.

  • Limit yourself to 10-20 minutes of social media a day.
  • Declare one day a week social media free.
  • Substitute calling a friend for jumping on social media.

3. Move your body

According Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, “people who are physically active are happier and more satisfied with their lives. They have a stronger sense of purpose and experience more gratitude, love, and hope. They feel more connected to their communities and are less likely to suffer from loneliness or become depressed.”

The secret to moving your body more is to schedule it. Looking for inspiration?

  • Schedule a walk with a different friend at least 3 times a week. Not only will you spend more time with friends, but you’re also more likely to stick to your commitment to walk more.  
  • Calendar a 3-minute stretch break every hour.
  • Commit to doing one downward dog or 3 squats or one push-up every time you go to the bathroom. 

4. Deal with unresolved issues

I’m particularly good at not making decisions and can hem and haw with the best of them. So, I know that from the little things to the big, non-decisions take up valuable mental space. If you too allow things to rattle around in your brain, this step will be a huge help.

First, get all those pending decisions down on paper and out of your head. From the little to the big, write them down. (I do this over the course of a couple of days, because it takes me a while to go through the internal pile!)

After I’ve got my unresolved issues written down, I use one of the two methods below to deal with them. I’ve found the first method works well for simpler decisions and the second method works better for more complex decisions.

Method one:
 Pick a time when you won’t be disturbed, take 3 deep breaths and then read each item on your list and notice if your first reaction is positive or negative, then commit to the yes or no for that thing and schedule the first step. (For instance, *that shirt in a cart that I keep getting emails about… no. Empty the cart. *Repainting the bathroom… yes. Text 3 friends for a recommendation for a house painter.)

And, if you still can’t come to a yes or no, decide to not decide, add the item to a “junk drawer list,” shut the drawer and calendar a time to empty the drawer in the future.

Method two:
Try the WRAP Method, recommended by the Heath brothers in their book, “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.”  

  • Widen your options. Instead of thinking either / or, see if you can find additional possibilities. The Heath brothers suggest imagining that the option you’re currently leaning toward vanished and then think of what else you could do.  
  • Reality-test your assumptions. I’ve always been something of a toe dipper and love the idea of prototyping or trying on decision before committing. You can do this by test-driving your decision in a conversation or in a limited way.
  • Attain distance before deciding. Ask yourself what someone else (your best friend, boss, mortal enemy, favorite author…) might do in this situation.
  • Prepare to be wrong. The Heath brothers suggest asking yourself, “In six months, what evidence would make me retreat from this decision? What would make me double-down?”

5. Write it out 

In his article, The Stories That Bind Us, Bruce Feiler concludes, “…if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”

I’ve spent the past year writing about my history and find the above to be surprisingly true. Simply using a process that has helped me remember my stories and get them out on paper has done wonders for clearing away the clutter.

This process, called Guided Autobiography, was so profound, I trained and got certified so I could help others “write it out.”  If you’re curious about this method and my classes, you can learn more here.