Think of it as a traffic jamin your brain. Thoughts moving this way and that,some of them racing along on highways to help you get things done in the here and now, while others – those endless lists of things to do, perhaps – sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic just waiting for a gap.
Mental clutter is almost worse than having a cluttered living or work space because you can’t walk away from it –you carry it with you wherever you go. And just like physical clutter, mental clutter can make life feel chaotic and out of control.
“Clutter causes psychological stress,”says Larissa Ernst, a clinical psychologist based in Cape Town. “People end up feeling as if they’re all over the place, stressed out and tired.”
A cluttered mind affects your ability to think clearly and focus on what really matters. You know the feeling – your mind is moving in every direction at once and often the result is that you feel less efficient because it’s so mentally exhausting.
But how do you clear away clutter you can’t see? It’s not as if you can arrange neatly labelled storage units in your mind. Perhaps not. But you can make decisions and you can choose how you spend your time and energy – and that’s really all it boils down to.
Try these tips to help you create some space in your head and stop your mind feeling like an overstuffed suitcase.
Breathe deeply and slowly
One of the best ways to bring yourself into the present and to stop your mind jumping haphazardly from one thought to the next is to focus on your breathing. It’s simple and effective, takes only a few minutes and you can do it anywhere – on the bus, in your car or at your desk.
Breathe slowly through your nose, concentrate on your breath and feel it filling up your lungs, then slowly exhale, feeling the air come out.
Slow, deep breathing has a calming effect in itself but thinking about it as you do it calms you even more because it stops your mind straying.
When we’re stressed our bodies react by tensing up, Johannesburg-based psychologist Tyrone Edgar says.
“There’s a redirection of blood flow, stress hormones are released and there’s a change in breathing. Because this stress reaction is physiological you can deal with it physiologically by doing deep breathing,” he says.
Edgar suggests inhaling slowly and deeply through the nose to a count of five and then exhaling to a count of five. Even a few minutes of doing it leaves you more relaxed and clear-headed and you’ll find that the more you do it the easier it is to switch off from the noise in your head.
Write it down
There’s no need to keep everything stored in your brain. Writing things down is a way to download the chatter that’s going on inside your head – the re-minder to buy cardboard for your daughter’s school project and a birthday pres-ent for your sister-in-law and that you need to fill out your tax forms.
This kind of prattle can interrupt your thought process and that doesn’t help when you’re trying to get important things done.
“Often we don’t realise how many different contexts we’re functioning in at any given point,” Ernst says.
“Make a list of all those to-do’s you keep active in your head. By writing them down you stop those things milling around in your mind.”
It’s useful not only for to-do lists –write down ideas for future projects or other bits and pieces of information. And it doesn’t need to be on paper. There are plenty of online tools available, such as reminder apps.
Limit what’s coming in
With so much information at your fingertips thanks to the internet it’s difficult not to immerse yourself in it. Especially when it’s right there on your phone,accessible 24/7.
But having information coming at you all the time can make your brain feel congested. Limit the information coming in by setting a daily limit on the amount of time you spend on social media sites and browsing the internet.You should also unsubscribe from any newsletters or blogs you don’t actually read or don’t find useful.
Don’t just tidy – organise
Sorting out your environment helps be-cause physical clutter leads to mental clutter. It bombards you with visual stimuli, signalling your brain that there are things to be done, which is mentally exhausting.
“If your physical environment is cluttered it can overwhelm your senses,” Edgar says. “Declutter your space and it’s likely your mind will become decluttered too.”
But for it to really work you have to do more than just tidy up. Tidying is a visual thing and while this is important it’s only half the job. The other half is organising your things so your space is functional.Throw out unused and unwanted items and have a system for storing items you need.
Learn to let go
Worry, anger and frustration take up space in your head. It’s natural to feel these emotions but if you’re unable to take action to change the thing that’s making you worried, angry or frustrated,it’s better to let it go. Worry in particular erodes your mental energy and gets you nowhere.
Some mental clutter is related to your past – things you regret, opportunities you’ve missed or mistakes you’ve made.“A cluttered mind is often trapped in the past or worrying about the future,” Edgar says.
Ernst calls it “emotional unfinished business” that we accumulate when we don’t resolve conflict or effectively deal with the things that frustrate, upset and anger us or that make us feel sad and lonely.
“See if you can pinpoint and write down what your emotional unfinished business is,” she suggests.
“Then look at ways in which you can finish what’s unfinished – and if not,figure out a way to let it go.”