Over the past month, I've been talking about clearing out your mental clutter to gain more mental clarity for greater success. To wrap things up, here are seven daily practices that will help you gain control of any thoughts continuously swirling around in your head. Add these tips to your toolbox for when you find yourself ruminating or overwhelmed by unhelpful thoughts.
Whether you can’t focus because of the to-do list running in your head, or you can’t sleep because you’re stuck worrying about work, we all get stuck in a “thought loop” sometimes. Your brain won’t turn off or let you focus, and it zaps your energy and productivity. Try one (or a few) of the tips below the next time you find your mind overflowing; or, better yet, choose one and make it a habit to keep those thoughts from turning up in the first place.
1. Mindful Breathing. If you feel overwhelmed or are experiencing a lack of focus, practicing a mindful breathing technique can help calm your heart and clear your mind. Simply close your eyes, and observe your breath. When you breathe in, say “in”. When you breathe out, say “out”. As your breathing calms down, you’ll regain a sense of control.
Deep breathing has been proven to help lower stress and blood pressure. In addition to calming the physical body, concentrating on your breathing can help you achieve better focus. Focusing on just your breath can help block out the other thoughts fighting for space in your mind.
If you find this difficult at first, try using one of the many meditation or breathing apps out there. Some smart watches also have breathing techniques as a feature. There are different types of breathing exercises, but I like to keep things simple. In. Out. In. Out.
2. Move Your Body. Daily exercise or physical movement is a great way to clear your mind. Like breathing exercises, it forces you to concentrate on the task at hand. It’s hard to worry about your to-do list when you’re dancing, running, or playing tennis!
Exercise also changes your brain for the better. It increases the production of endorphins, which helps to calm and relax your body and mind. Other benefits of exercising include increased self-esteem, fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, improved sleep, a feeling of control in your life, and enhanced mood and optimism.
I know that when I’m feeling down, unmotivated, or unfocused, exercise is usually the last thing I want to do. But I also know that if I do, I’ll feel 100% better. Just the other day I was struggling to get things done on my computer. The internet kept dropping, and eventually, I had to call the service provider. After a long, unproductive day, I had to go help coach the middle school mountain bike team. I had no desire to get on my bike, but I went because I had committed to be there. Five minutes in, my mood started to shift and by the end of the practice, I felt much happier. I went home, was able to quickly finish the work from earlier, and I had a great sleep.
If you don’t do much exercise now, try starting your day with a short walk or another activity like yoga. I find that on days I swim or walk in the morning, my productivity is much better.
3. Write Your Thoughts Down. When your brain feels like it’s overflowing, try to write down as many thoughts as you can. This doesn’t require a formal journal to be effective, either. Grab a pen and paper and just write down what’s taking up space in your head.
For some people, writing their thoughts down takes the weight of their thoughts away. You could write down a list of your worries, the steps needed to accomplish a big task, or even details of a relationship that’s straining your mental energy. There aren’t any rules to this, so why not give it a try? The idea is to put the thoughts down on paper so you can acknowledge them, let them go, and clear your mind.
If you’ve read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, she speaks about “Morning Pages”. I can’t recall the particulars, but she suggests doing a brain dump each morning right after you get up to boost creativity.
4. Read A Book. Reading a good book allows you to escape from reality and lose yourself in the story for a while. While watching a movie or TV show can provide you with a similar feeling of escapism, they don’t allow your mind to slow down and be calm in the same way reading does.
5. Make Lists. This is similar to writing down your thoughts, because the idea is to make space in your brain by putting your ideas on paper instead. If you find you always have a running to-do list in your head, make some space in your brain by keeping physical lists instead. This could be on paper or in an app, a day planner, or a calendar. Apps can even send you reminders! Take this a step further by prioritizing your tasks to be even more efficient.
If you find falling asleep difficult, try to write down the next day’s to-do list before bed. You just might fall asleep faster and will be less likely to wake up in the middle of the night with anxious thoughts.
6. Stop Interruptions. Research is showing that multitasking is not better or more efficient. Yet with so many possible interruptions from your phone, email, co-workers, a chatty partner, or even a load of laundry calling your name, the temptation to do more than one thing at once is a hard one to ignore.
So what can you do? Try to find ways to stop the interruptions from happening. Some ideas could be: turn off your email notifications and check them at set times during the day. Get an app that limits your social media activity or restricts it on your phone. Shut your office door or put a “do not disturb” sign on it.
Constant interruptions end up pulling your focus away from the task at hand and can significantly decrease your ability to focus on what needs to get done. The fewer interruptions you have to deal with, the less cluttered your mind will be and the greater success you'll achieve.
7. Quit Procrastinating. This is probably the hardest (for me, anyway). When you have a lot going on, it’s easy to want to put things off until later. But if you leave everything to the last minute, you could end up with excessive mind clutter because the tasks are in your brain, nagging to get done.
If you’re a big procrastinator, try the two-minute rule. Ask yourself what you could do in two minutes or less that will move a task forward. The best outcome would be that you get into the task and do more to complete it; but even if you only spend two minutes sorting the pantry, it’s better than zero minutes.
If one of the above tips is jumping out at you, try adding it to your daily routine. Experiment with the different strategies to clear your mental clutter, and adjust them to work for you. Finally, be patient. Decluttering your mind won’t happen in one day, but if you are realistic and consistent, you will see a difference in your focus and clarity. Change will come.
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