Declutter Your Brain

minimalism productivity Oct 05, 2020

Do you find yourself constantly worrying that you’ll forget something important?

Or perhaps you’ve started to shut down mentally, because you just can’t keep up with everything on your proverbial plate?

We humans (and especially we women!) have a tendency to bite off more than we can chew. We underestimate how long things will take, and overestimate the number of tasks we can reasonably squeeze into a day.

We also tend to skew the importance of the various items on our lists, particularly when we keep them in our head – magnifying some, downplaying others.

These two tendencies are traps that can make our life far more difficult and uncomfortable than it needs to be. They often lead to overwhelm, shame, and even numbing behaviour as we try to avoid the discomfort of knowing we fell short of our goals.

Our brains are incredible machines of creativity, but they weren’t designed to function as task management systems. Our short-term memory capacity is quite limited, and is hampered further if we are sleep-deprived or eat a poor diet. As David Allen, the productivity guru and author of Getting Things Done says,

“The short-term memory part of your mind – the part that tends to hold all of the incomplete, undecided, and unorganized “stuff” – functions much like RAM on a personal computer. Your conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place. You can think about only two or three things at once. But the incomplete items are still being stored in the short-term memory space. […] Most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams. They’re constantly distracted, their focus disturbed by their own internal mental overload.”

You probably already know that physically decluttering a space creates an increased sense of peace, tranquility and control.

I’d like to introduce you to a parallel concept: decluttering your brain.

Chances are, you’ve done some form of this intuitively at various times in your life. You may have referred to it as a “brain dump”, or “brainstorming session” (the two are actually not quite the same thing, but we’ll suspend the semantics for the purpose of this discussion).

We tend to do this only when we hit the wall; in a fit of desperation, we grab a sheet of paper and a pen, and frantically list out all the things that are swirling around in our mind.

And it helps.

But getting it all on paper is often as far as we go. Perhaps we scan the list, throw up our hands, and convince ourselves it’s all just TOO MUCH. And then we go numb ourselves by playing a video game, or binging a TV show, or eating a tub of ice cream. Ain’t procrastination grand?

Or perhaps we just start at the top of the list, and chip away at it, never feeling like we’re making progress, because we keep thinking of more things to add to the bottom of the list.

David Allen’s GTD method is the opposite extreme – he advocates constant brain dumping, moment by moment, throughout your day, and maintaining multiple “context-specific” lists, such as “at office”, “at home”, “at computer” and “errands”. The idea is to achieve a state Allen calls “mind like water”, where your brain’s storage is essentially empty at all times.

I’ve tried the GTD approach, and found it to be overkill. Ironically, I spent more time maintaining the system than actually getting things done!

But there is a happy medium that I’ve discovered, and this system works like a charm:

1. Make the “brain declutter” a regular practice, rather than a crisis-intervention technique.

It’s not for me to dictate how often you should do this, although somewhere between once a week and once per day is the sweet spot. Experiment with various frequencies until you find what works best for you.

While you create your “brain declutter”, check in with your goals list (ideally this list is written down, but if not, take a moment to listen to your heart and what is truly important to you to achieve in your life). Be sure to include something on the list, each time you draft it, that will move those long-term goals and dreams forward; if you don’t, they will forever remain just dreams. 

2. Scan the list and cross off anything that can be deferred, delegated, or discarded.

Defer:

Be ruthless here. If it doesn’t have to happen before your next scheduled brain declutter, it comes off the list immediately. You can put it on a “someday/maybe” or “parking lot” list if it’s a truly brilliant idea, but make sure you are reviewing that list regularly as well.   

I used to stick these things on my calendar on a future date, until I realized that was creating additional stress for me. If it was important enough that you thought of it today, trust me, you’ll think of it again when the next brain declutter happens. And if you don’t, guess what? It wasn’t as important as you thought it was!

Delegate:

Is this something you can get someone else to do? If so, give it to them, and cross it off the list.

This doesn’t have to be job-related, by the way. I realized a couple of years ago that instead of spending the better part of a weekend cleaning my 1,500 square foot home every couple of weeks, I could hire a housecleaner to do a deep clean once a month, and just spend a few minutes each day maintaining the basics in between. Your time has value!

In a future blog post, I’ll share with you how to figure out just how valuable your time actually is, and we’ll even calculate your “hourly rate” to make cost-benefit calculations a breeze!

Discard:

Quite often, when we take a step back and look objectively at our list, we realize that certain tasks are entirely optional. These are the “nice-to-haves”. It would be great to get these things done, if we had the time, but nothing significant will change in our life if we let them go.

One cautionary note here: be honest with yourself, and be sure you aren’t discarding something essential because it’s potentially difficult. Is it really optional, or is it just unpleasant? 

3. Prioritize the remaining items on the list

Instead of just starting at the top and working your way down, the most effective approach is to put your list in priority order. Consider the following factors:

Time:

How long will each item realistically take, and where can you fit it into your fixed agenda? A good trick here is to add 10% - 25% additional time to your initial estimate, because as mentioned above, we tend to underestimate how long things will actually take us to do.

Motivation:

Some of the items on your list might be things you don’t relish the thought of doing, even though you acknowledge their importance. Willpower is a finite resource that wanes as the day goes on; if you have one of these challenging items on your list, I highly recommend giving it priority #1.

Not only will it be easier to muster the energy and willpower to “eat that frog” at the beginning of your day, but having conquered it, you’ll get a boost of satisfaction that will propel you forward and make the rest of the day feel like smooth sailing.

Logistics:

Does the task require you to interact with other people? Do you need to access physical resources that are only available at certain times? These considerations can dictate what priority you give to that list item. They also often will require formally scheduling the item in your calendar.

I’m not a fan of hyper-scheduling (my term for the practice of adding every single daily task into a time slot in your calendar), because it can lead to despair and discouragement when the wheels fall off, as they inevitably do from time to time. But when connecting with other people or resources is required, a fixed appointment absolutely makes sense, and helps to keep you on track. 

4. Take Action!

Now that you have your pared-down list of essentials, it’s time to get to work.

If you’ve decided to make this a daily practice, you should have ended up with quite a short list, comprising only those things that MUST be done, by YOU, ideally TODAY.

Work your way down the list, and don’t forget to savour the win each time you complete a task and cross it off. 

5. Reassess

Don’t beat yourself up if even this shortened list doesn’t get completed. Life happens, and if any unfinished tasks are still a priority, they will naturally show up in your next brain declutter.

Don’t automatically and reflexively add the unfinished item(s) to your next list, however. Come at it with a fresh perspective, beginning your brain declutter anew based on the current reality. You might be surprised to find that something you thought was important is now one of your “discard” or “defer” items.

 

Decluttering your brain, when adopted as a regular practice, will bring a sense of increased control over your work and life. It will restore inner peace, giving you confidence to know that you are focusing on the things that truly matter to you, and that advance your long-term goals and dreams.


If you are still feeling scattered, or having trouble deciding what to focus on as you navigate this thing we call life, I’m here to help! Click here to book a free 15-minute chat to help get you back on course.

xo

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