After a bustling month of trips out of town, work events, and family issues, I noticed that I had some trouble quieting my buzzing mind. My focus was stuck in disco-ball mode, diffracted into a kaleidoscope of glinting pieces. As a result, I wasn’t able to hone in on my priorities—and instead, I gave in to procrastination.
One day, as I put off answering work emails by tidying up my spewing desk of papers, receipts, and devices, I started thinking about how my mental desktop could use some cleaning, too. After all, it’s easy to see that a messy workspace dampens productivity, but I often forget that a messy mind can do the same.
You see, your brain isn’t built to split its attention in too many directions. It needs to be somewhat organized and at peace for you to be able to filter information into the right mental folders and actually get stuff done. And to get your brain into that ideal state, you have to make space by clearing some mental clutter.
So if your mind is feeling a little muddled, start by using these five tips to organize your thoughts, worries, and tasks. You’ll quickly gain some clear space, which will help you refresh, refocus, and get your brain back on track.
Lists are like the Container Store for the mind—they help you compartmentalize your mental clutter in a thousand different ways. Sounds simple, yes, but adding a few lists to your life really works.
First, parking something on a to-do list frees up some valuable mental room, because once a nagging task is on your list, you don’t have to worry about remembering it anymore. With all your responsibilities organized in one place, you can strategically choose what to do next instead of flying by the seat of your pants. (Check out a few of my favorite tips for maximizing your to-do list.)
But, a to-do list alone can only get you so far (more on that later). To go a step further, make a priority list in addition to or based on your to-do list. This is a daily list of your top two or three priorities (it’s key to keep it limited to avoid creating just another general to-do list) to help ensure you’re making progress on stuff that matters. This is where you choose impact over what you might feel is urgent. When you actively identify something as a priority, you’ll be more likely to focus on it like a laser beam through the clutter instead of pushing it off to another day.
And finally (don’t worry, just one more!), create a done list to record everything you’ve accomplished during the day. Then, when you feel like you’re getting lost amidst the buzz, you can take a look at what you’ve done—which will give you a boost of motivation and renewed focus to keep achieving.
2. Automate Away
That being said, a word of caution: When your to-do list is cluttered with small, repetitive tasks, it’s easy to get caught up in whatever comes up first, rather than what’s actually the most important. To cut out some of those less-than-urgent responsibilities, try an automating service, like Zapier, which gives you the ability to delegate repetitive work tasks to a personal internet assistant.
For instance, as part of my job, I need to keep track of pitches and guest bloggers, so I set up a “zap” to automatically save specific kinds of emails to a separate Evernote notebook. That way, when I need to sort through potential posts, I don’t have to waste time rooting around in my inbox. Other popular “zaps” include automatically adding Eventbrite attendees to MailChimp and automatically scheduling social media posts through Buffer.
The beauty of this kind of automatic delegation is that you can simply set it and forget it—majorly cutting down on your to-do list. So instead of interrupting the flow of your workday with little tasks, you can concentrate on the high-impact stuff that requires your full focus and attention.
3. Embrace the Junk Drawer
The junk drawer is a home and office vice and necessity where you stuff crumpled up notes, maybe-dead batteries, and all sorts of odds and ends that don’t have a proper home.
Surprisingly, this strategy can also work for your mind: Instead of continually accumulating mental clutter, take a load off by creating a digital “junk drawer.” Start by dumping your thoughts onto an electronic page with a tool like Evernote. This allows you to shove all your brilliant ideas, notes, lists, and saved articles that don’t have another home into one digital place, which will help you clear out some valuable mental space—without adding papers and notebooks to your actual junk drawer.
And don’t worry—with a quick shuffle through the “junk,” (i.e., a quick search), you’ll easily be able to find anything you need.
4. Manage Your Inbox
I’m no Inbox Zero wizard, but I know I get more done when I don’t have to cringe every time I open my email. Knowing your inbox isn’t overflowing can save you a lot of mental stress, which can help you focus on other, more important tasks. So, save yourself from slowly drowning subject line by subject line by doing some inbox spring cleaning.
First, unsubscribe from promotional emails (that you never actually open) and turn off those clogging notifications from LinkedIn and Facebook. Then, filter and funnel different types of nonessential email into specified sections of your inbox, so that you can have them on hand if you need them—but don’t have to see them every time you log in.
5. Think About It
When you have a never-ending list of things to do, it often feels counterproductive to spend time reflecting—more thoughts will just add to the mental clutter, right? But, in my experience, charging ahead without taking time to reflect will just make the mess worse.
Turns out, regularly reviewing how you’ve been spending your time will give you insight into how you got to your present state, how to move forward strategically, and how you work best in general.
So, start making time for quiet reflection or journaling. Think about (or write down) what’s stressing you out, why a particular project isn’t taking off, or when during the day you’re most productive. By unpacking and articulating your zooming thoughts, instead of feeling like one big exclamation (argh! and blergh! are common ones for me), you’ll be able to pinpoint exactly what you need to do to move forward.
Remember, your state of mind is intertwined with the quality of your work and relaxation. So, ditch the disco ball attention span, take some deep breaths, and do some mental tidying. In the end, you’ll get back in touch with your true priorities.