It wasn’t easy to clear my mental clutter. In fact, I’m still not finished. And, if I’m totally honest, I’ll probably never be “done” cleaning up my brain. Sometimes, it feels like my mind is throwing an over-packed house party which is both loud and ill-advised. Even more accurately, it often feels like I’m waking up the morning after said house party, cleaning up the remnants of ideas, bouncing back and forth between tasks, and feeling too tired to get much accomplished. My mind isn’t always the most enjoyable place to be, but welcome!
I’ve struggled with mental clutter for years, though I’ve had periods of semi-control. In college and high school, I was militant about my handwritten schedules. At work, I lived and died by my Outlook calendar. And still, I would find myself lying awake in bed each night, my brain full of to-do’s, should’ve-done’s, and wish-I-would-have’s.
I would set down my purse in the evenings and pick up a Swiffer, determined to do all the things, all the time. Oh, and to keep my relationships and social life afloat too. All while processing emotions, feeding myself, and checking off that never-ending checklist in my brain. Easy, right?
I’ve only (very) recently come to terms with the real changes that were necessary in order to slow down and clean up my brain. To be honest, the changes aren’t fun. They aren’t easy.
But how did I do it? I made these two changes. Yes, just two!
1. I make intentional time for thinking, planning, dreaming—and worrying.
One of the most difficult and overwhelming parts of having an over-active, anxiety-ridden brain is the constant need to think about things. I think about what I need to do tomorrow, what I need to do in two months, what I should’ve done yesterday, and even what I wish I had done five years ago. All that thinking is…uh, interesting, and maybe occasionally productive. But it is also exhausting. Not only is it tiring for the busy-brained person, but my partner easily tires of hearing me stress about our next vacation, our last vacation, and what we’re having for dinner, all within moments of walking in the door. It’s simply not a sustainable way to live.
Constantly worrying and planning helped me feel productive and safe from “worst case scenarios,” but I knew I had to tone it down. To help manage the constant flow of concerns and ideas, I set a time for myself twice a day to do the bulk of my “clutter” thinking.
In the morning, I do this with my paper planner for list-making, my journal for thought-recording, and my cup of coffee (of course). At night, I make notes for tomorrow while I wind down with tea. I’ve found that the twice-daily routine makes it easier to calm my anxiety during the day. Instead of planning something out in the middle of a social lunch hour or some other inappropriate time, I give myself permission to set it down and come back to the thought during my Think Time.
2. I set limits.
You know how some parents have a "No Phones at the Dinner Table" rule? I do the same thing, but with my brain. Whether I’m taking a yoga class, eating dinner with my girlfriend, or going on a walk in my neighborhood, I’m sure to set up intentional quiet time for my brain every day. This doesn’t look like, say, zoning into a video game and dropping out of my real life. Its more akin to meditation or deep focus on another person, place, or thing that is outside of myself.
One thing we don’t like to admit about mental clutter is that it can be incredibly selfish. I think constantly about my schedule, my chores, my responsibilities, and my concerns. What does it look like to turn the “me” section of your brain completely off, just for an hour, in order to better accommodate the feelings and lives of others?
That’s it, everyone. That’s all I’ve done so far. With just those two small changes, I’ve noticed huge differences. I listen better. I sleep better. And I concentrate less (much, much less) on that to-do list in my head. Hopefully, as those two routines become constants in my day-to-day life, I’ll be able to move even farther away from mental clutter and step into a brain that is a little quieter, a tad calmer, and evermore loving and generous with myself and others.