How to Effectively Manage Your Mental Clutter

How to Effectively Manage Your Mental Clutter
soldier looking out from a burrow, the burrow is a metaphor for mental clutter
Out From Under (enemy burrow New Guinea) Photo by Army Directorate of Public Relations, 1944 via State Library Victoria

As I was closing out my funeral trip by (unpacking and what-not), it occurred to me that it would take me a while to get back to normal mentally. I had accumulated a lot of mental clutter leading up to the trip, and it would be harder to sort out than unpacking a suitcase.

How to Effectively Manage Your Mental Clutter

While it is hard to physically declutter a space, it’s a lot harder to declutter your mind because it seems boundless. Even though it’s not. You might declutter your wardrobe once or twice a year because it gets over full, but it might be decades before your realise you have mental clutter to take care of.

Why You Need to Clear Your Mental Clutter

BIG things happen to you all the time. You may not see the impact straight away because you are too busy just trying to get through the day. Yet the impact (or stress) of these events builds up over time (just like cholesterol) and at some point, you go nuts for no apparent reason.

It helps to take a mental detox now and again to deal with the events and minimise the fallout. You will need to work through some of them (like bereavement) for closure; it takes time, and sometimes requires professional help.

Like old injuries, if they happened some time ago, you may not be aware that they are still an issue. But like someone hacking your computer, they are using up your bandwidth and reducing your ability to get things done. Fear and worry paralyse you and prevent you from making any progress. They also keep you in fight/flight mode so you are constantly reacting rather than making sound rational decisions.

Identifying Your Mental Clutter

You will probably know and understand many of the surface issues clogging up your mental hard drive, but is always some other thing you’ve forgotten about in the meantime. A very popular technique is the brain dump; writing a long list of all the things your need to do, or resolve.

Erin Rooney Doland advises that you try to meditate. It won’t be possible because you have too much going on in your head. Instead of naming the thoughts and letting them go, write them down. And as an added bonus, you might achieve that meditative state after all.

Dealing With Your Mental Clutter

According to Ryan Nicodemus, the first and most important step is to start taking care of your health. If your body is healthy, your brain is more likely to be in good condition too. Nicodemus argues that understanding how mental clutter manifests in your body you are closer to controlling it. For example, if you know you what hunger, lack of exercise or sleep feel like, you can eat, move, or sleep. Taking care of your physical health frees up more mental space for more important matters.

Others, like Peter Walsh, advise decluttering your physical surroundings to provide space for calm to move in. And when you have that in hand, move onto decluttering your finances, relationships, and career.

Follow up on your meditative brain dump and create a plan for dealing with the issues. Categorise them as “do it now”, do some research”, and “get help”. Then schedule tasks and find your professionals.

Alternatively, Jennifer Ford Berry argues that you need a clear purposeful vision of your life to help manage your mental clutter. Your day planner and to-do list help you keep on top of things as does reducing your exposure to other people’s mental clutter by limiting social media and television.  Plus, keeping your goals realistic and aiming for good enough rather than perfect.

Melissa Camara Wilkins advises taking a more holistic approach by monotasking at work, keeping your home clear of clutter and making intentional decisions that keep you focused on your purpose.

Preventing Mental Clutter

Another good way of dealing with mental clutter is to prevent it accumulating in the first place.

If you know you are entering the kind of event (like a job interview) that will leave you second guessing yourself, make some time to prepare. Imagine all the things that could go wrong – you will be prepared for them, and if they don’t happen the event will be much better than you expected!

When you come out the other side of one of those events, consider an Army style After Action Review. Examine the event from a distance, considering what your intentions were, what happened, and what needs to change next time. Resolve to do it better, and move on. No regrets.

Give yourself permission to take timeouts. When you get a nasty email, take a few minutes to think before you answer it. If a person abuses you, remove yourself from the situation before you can make it worse.

Resolving Mental Clutter

Just like physical clutter, mental clutter is different for all of us. One person’s tormented thoughts are another’s fond fantasies. The right amount of clutter for some is too much or too little for another. All of us are ultimately alone in our own heads.

You are the one who has to decide when you have moved passed mental clutter into a circumstance that might best be described as mental hoarding. You might need someone else to share the burden or help you decide what to throw out or to keep.

It’s not necessarily an indication that you are ill; you might just need more pointed advice about maintaining your mental wellness. If your mental clutter feels a little out of control, then consider starting with an organisation like beyondblue.

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