The goal of “Declutter Your Mind” is simple: to teach you “the habits, actions, and mindsets you can use to clean up the mental clutter that might be holding you back from being more focused and mindful.” To this end, its authors S.J. Scott and Barrie Davenport go over about 20 decluttering techniques that address the four areas of life that usually cause people most stress and anxiety: their thoughts, their life obligations, their relationships, and their surroundings. So, get ready for some “practical, science-backed actions” that can help you create real and lasting change – if practiced regularly, of course!
Decluttering your thoughts
The primary reason many people feel overwhelmed by life is an excessive amount of daily stress. Unfortunately, there are many things that can make you stressed out nowadays, including physical clutter, the fear of missing out, information overload, and the endless array of choices you face and have to make each day. There’s also something called the negativity bias – our evolution-based proclivity to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities and resources. Fortunately, there are ways to declutter your mind and train your brain to be more mindful and calmer. The following four habits should help you achieve this:
- Focused deep breathing. “One of the best ways to detach from negative thoughts and gain control over your mind,” write Scott and Davenport, “is through slow, deep, rhythmic breathing.” This type of breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, and thereby relaxes your muscles, reduces your heart rate and normalizes your brain function. It is of utmost importance that you practice it regularly. So, set aside 10 minutes of each day for a focused breathing break. To paraphrase Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, your feelings are temporary: they constantly come and go like clouds in a windy sky; use conscious breathing as your anchor.
- Meditation. By establishing a regular breathing break, you are simultaneously giving yourself “a trigger and starting point for your meditation practice.” And meditation, as Deepak Chopra writes, is not just “a way of making your mind quiet” but “a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day.” There are many different styles of meditation, but in essence, you know how it works: you sit quietly for some time and try to dismiss any distractions that come your way by focusing your attention on your breathing. If you want, you can even use a guided meditation: there are many smartphone apps that offer them for free, in both audio and video format.
- Reframe all negative thoughts. “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right!” Noted American industrialist Henry Ford said that once. As memorable as the phrase is, it’s only a variation of an age-old wisdom, one of the central Buddhist tenets: “You are what you think you are.” Unfortunately, what you think you are is usually half of what you can be – at best. That’s because the voice in your head is designed to work against you. Trick it by reframing your thought patterns before they get out of control. There are many strategies to achieve this. Just naming your thoughts out loud or shouting “stop” when you don’t like them – is a great start.
- Teach your old mind new tricks. “Interrupting cluttered thinking,” write Scott and Davenport, “is only part of the process of retraining your brain and learning to disassociate from negative thoughts. Your mind abhors a vacuum, so you need to fill the void with constructive thought so you don’t careen back into old patterns.” In other words, don’t just challenge your old thoughts – replace them. When you feel you’re overthinking something, start doing something else: it’s been shown to help. Also, try setting a worry timer, giving yourself 10 to 15 minutes to stress over whatever you want. Then – go back to normal.
Decluttering your life obligations
In addition to stress, there’s another big reason why we feel our lives to be constantly cluttered: too many obligations. In an age of instant communication, everything seems important and urgent somehow. The underlying cluttering problem, however, is a bit different: we know what to do and how to do it, but we don’t know why we’re doing it. Put simply, we’ve forgotten what’s truly important in our lives. Finding that out is the first and most important step toward decluttering your life obligations.
- Identifying your core values. If you want to live a more fulfilling life, then you need to know what fulfills you. So, whatever your plans might be, be sure to make them only after you’ve defined your core values. That is the only way to make the right decision in life and stay focused. Otherwise, you’re just searching for a light switch in the dark.
- Clarify your life priorities. Life consists of seven very wide areas: health, family, partnership, career, self-improvement, life management, and leisure. Your day, on the other hand, consists of about 15 waking hours, or no more than 100 waking hours a week. In other words, you have limited time and unlimited ways to get better at every area of life. The problem is that unless you prioritize the areas, you’ll end up squandering your time. So, do just that. Think of an ideal-world scenario and decide how many hours of those 100 per week would you prefer to devote to each of the seven areas. Then work toward it. Use your core values as a guide.
- Create quarterly S.M.A.R.T. goals. In addition to values and life priorities, you also need to have goals. However, if they are wrongly formulated or unattainable, rather than helping you stay focused, they may hurt your chances of success. The simplest way to come up with clear and well-defined goals for your future is through George Doran’s S.M.A.R.T. technique. The S.M.A.R.T. is actually an acronym. It stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound objectives. If you can’t use these adjectives to describe yours, then change them immediately!
- Connect goals to your passions. Whatever your values, priorities and goals are, chances are something along the way will drain you of your motivation and will. That’s where passion comes in. As a rule of thumb, only the enthusiastic can be perseverant in their efforts. Even though finding your passion isn’t the easiest thing in the world, it’s one of the most important. So, never stop looking for it. Revisit your life. Investigate yourself. Brainstorm your interests and skills and narrow them to ones that give you the most joy. If necessary, find a mentor; if possible, talk to likeminded people and get to know them better. Most importantly, if you ever find your bliss, start planning your income and saving money so that you can quit your current job and start the one of your dreams. Life is too short for compromises.
Decluttering your relationships
Whether with parents, partners, bosses or children, bad relationships have been shown to be one of the leading causes of unhappiness. Conversely, high-quality relationships are sometimes what makes the difference between contentment and anxiety. So, as Scott and Davenport write, “Creating, maintaining, and nurturing good relationships is necessary for our well-being and peace of mind.” There’s a reason why the previous sentence includes three proactive words: the best way to improve your relationships – if not the only one – is by being the one who imitates the changes. After all, you can’t change others: the only person you have any real power over is you. Here are four ways you can improve yourself in order to improve your relationships:
- Be more present. Quality time doesn’t mean taking your partner or friend to a restaurant and spending most of your time browsing Facebook. If you want better relationships, you need to learn to be more present in them. That means you need to learn to become an empathic listener and a mindful speaker. When you are with someone – be with that someone and nobody else. Also, you need to stop comparing yourself unfavorably to other people. Comparisons lead to emotional suffering and nobody who experiences pain can be present for somebody else.
- Getting unstuck from the past. Few things destroy the promising future of a relationship as a nagging past. Learn to let go. Resolve what you can and offer forgiveness for what you can’t. Challenge painful stories until they stop being painful. Try to refocus on “the now” whenever you’ve caught yourself thinking about “the before.” As Master Oogway said wisely in “Kung Fu Panda,” “Don’t be too concerned with what was and what will be. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”
- Mindfulness with your partner. Of all the relationships in our lives, our intimate love relationships usually stand apart as the most important. Ironically, they are usually the ones that present people with the biggest challenges and the most problems. The best way to improve your love relationships is through mindfulness, which is both a great tool for reducing stress and an even better way to strengthen intimate connections. So, get your partner on board for a few mindfulness sessions a week. Start listening to them without defensiveness. Be emotionally present. And try to communicate authentically, not just because. In cases of communication breakdown, look for lessons, not for conflicts. Above all, at least once a week, schedule distraction-free quality sessions with your partner. These will change your life.
- Let go of certain people. Sometimes, relationships – whether with friends or partners – just don’t work. In cases such as those, letting go is the only strategy Scott and Davenport deem worthy of consideration. Though this is “rarely easy or pain-free,” you must give yourself permission to do it from time to time. Once again, life is too short for compromises.
Decluttering your surroundings
Seemingly unimportant, physical clutter can cause enormous amounts of stress. No wonder bestselling author Tisha Morris refers to this kind of clutter as “stagnant energy,” saying that, “Where there’s clutter in your home, there will be clutter in [you] – either physically, mentally or emotionally.” So, to round things off, let’s look at a few ways you can “declutter your immediate surroundings in order to free up mental space for the important goals and people in your life.”
- Simplify your home. The more cluttered your home, the less you might be able to focus, as visual chaos has been shown by Princeton researchers to severely restrict this ability. In general, people are far more productive and calmer in tidy and organized rooms than in rooms packed with books, magazines and furniture. Your home – which is currently a reflection of who you were – is holding you back, keeping you stuck in the past; by redecorating, you are letting go, Elsa-style. “The space in which we live,” tidying guru Marie Kondo taught us, “should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.”
- Simplify your digital life. “If you add up the time spent on each digital device, every day,” warn Scott and Davenport, “then you probably have a closer relationship with the virtual world than you have with your spouse, children, or friends. Is this really how you want to live your life?” If the answer is “no,” you know what to do: turn off notifications, institute Zero Inbox policy and use apps to limit the time you spend on Facebook and Twitter. Moreover, unless you develop a digital “value system” and find a better way to organize the stuff on your computer, you’re pretty much living the life of a digital hoarder. That won’t change unless you change it.
- Simplify your activities. Living in a world that cultivates a time-is-money mindset means being in a hurry all the time. It also means feeling bad when you are doing nothing for extended periods of time. Why should that be the case? We’ve invented half of the things we’ve invented to save ourselves time. Yet, we seem to have less time than ever before. Change that. Start prioritizing your activities and purging your commitments. Focus on three daily goals – no more, no less. Build sacred time into your schedule – time to do absolutely nothing. While you’re at it, take a digital sabbatical from time to time. Perhaps most importantly, whatever happens, leave work on time. For some reason, most people don’t.
- Simplify your distractions. If you’re spending just one hour a day procrastinating, you’re losing a full workday a week, or about two months a year to procrastination. Christopher Parker was right when he compared procrastination to a credit card: both are a lot of fun until you get the bill. The main reason we procrastinate is because of distractions. To remove them from your life, be purposeful: find a space where you can work, read, think, and dream without any interruptions. Turn off your phone and your laptop. Put a “no disturb” sign on your door. At least a few hours a day, we all deserve a break from, well, unproductive breaks.
- Simplify your actions. Even though it’s not possible to be present all the time, you can try to achieve this as often as you can, as it adds to the quality of your life. When you clean your house, do it mindfully. Eat slowly, while doing nothing else. Take a walk from time to time to experience nature. Even better, let walking itself be your goal and destination. Finally, exercise and pay attention to your body through your choices; the mind may forget, but the body never does.
Pretty much an extended compilation of previous books by Scott and Davenport (such as, say, “10-Minute Declutter” and “10-Minute Digital Declutter”), “Declutter Your Mind” is nothing less than a handy step-by-step guide to stop worrying and eliminating negative thinking.
However, it is nothing more as well. There are no original or new ideas in Scott and Davenport’s book, neither are there new approaches or ways to communicate them. But that’s what some guidebooks aim to do: bring together knowledge from others in an easy-to-digest, step-by-step form. If that’s what you’re looking for, “Declutter Your Mind” may be your kind of book.
Decluttering your mind is a four-step process – it entails decluttering your thoughts, your obligations, your relationships and your surroundings. Start today, not necessarily in that order.