8 lasting ways to devote attention, time and energy to what’s most important to you.
When most of us think of spring cleaning, we think of cleaning our home, maybe the basement or some closets. The weather is pleasant so we can open up some doors and windows, maybe haul some crap to the curb that’s been accumulating around the house for years.
When we’re done and hang up that broom, we’re beat, but it feels good. We’ve given some stuff away, we’ve lightened the load. When we get rid of stuff and don’t run out to replace it, the stuff no longer requires our attention. The need to clean it, move it, store it, discard it goes away, freeing up time (and the to-do lists in our head) for more important things.
When we think of stuff, most of us think of physical things, but what about mental clutter? The reason Steve Jobs wore the same thing every day wasn’t because he was trying to become a minimalist or a monk, he just wanted a few less decisions to make every day. He wanted to reduce mental clutter.
Reducing mental clutter is simply following a daily practice to clear our mind allowing us to focus on what’s truly important. Our minds are actually trickier than a cluttered basement or apartment because, unlike inanimate objects, your brain constantly responds to outside stimulus like email, notifications on our phone, “service now” lights in our cars, “upgrade today” alerts for every piece of software on our computers. Think of it like a warehouse full of smoke detectors whose batteries are going dead randomly one at a time constantly beeping at us requiring us to find and fix the complaining piece of technology.
This gets at the core of simplification. If we can slowly and steadily reduce the number of inanimate objects, devices, media outlets, emails and stuff that will (ever) require our attention we will free up time to focus on our families, our health, our experiences and what’s important to us. When we use our smartphones and tablets it will be on our terms, distraction free.
Here are 8 habits that will have lasting benefits and reduce mental clutter.
- Scale back the number of notifications on your phone. Try turning them all off in settings and then see what you miss. You can really narrow down the number of electronic notifications you receive by only turning back on the ones that are truly important.
- Go on a low information diet. A Journal of Science study showed the average person absorbs information equivalent to 174 newspapers a day. The current news cycle with its pipeline of weekly terrorist attacks, opinions on presidential candidates, and reality TV celebrities can drive a person bat shit crazy. Get rid of commercial talk radio, news sites, email news alerts and then set aside just an hour a week to catch up on the news. Give yourself a digital break. Maybe spend an hour with the Sunday paper (the paper version) You’ll feel caught up on the news and, as an added bonus, no click bait to distract you.
- Take some time to write down where you are repeatedly spending unproductive time and money. For instance. can a two-car family become a one car family, if not right now maybe in a few years? Can you simplify your wardrobe and spend less time and money on laundry? Does your yard need to be super fertilized so the grass needs cutting every week?
- Write down a job description for your life. What are your core principles, what are your musts? Boil this down to a few simple objectives and start paring back the stuff that does not fit with those objectives. For example, if you live in a big house full of stuff, but your dream is really to travel, put a plan in place to move in that direction.
- Pay attention to what makes you anxious. Make a list of these things. Think about the 80/20 rule. There’s a pretty good chance that about 20% of these anxiety causing things or people create 80% of your hassles. Work on reducing that 20%.
- Simplify your personal finances. Work on consolidating investments into a single brokerage account and focus on index funds with fees below 0.06%. Use a simple, free tracking tool like Personal Capital to see everything in one place. Don’t take my word on this, see what John Bogle and Warren Buffett say on the matter.
- Take control of your email inbox. Talk about mental clutter! If you are auto subscribed to lots of emails and want to quickly unsubscribe or consolidate them into one daily summary, there’s a great free service called unroll.me. Since I’ve started using it 3 years ago, I have unsubscribed from over 800 email lists, and added another 770 to a rollup summary. Keep in mind, this is not spam, I’ve been using Gmail business (the free version) and they do an excellent job filtering the hard-core spam.
- Practice mindfulness. One of the best ways I’ve found to reduce mental clutter is to spend at least five minutes a day meditating. There’s many different ways to approach this but one of the best I’ve found is guided meditation using a free app like Calm.
As we work on reducing mental clutter and distractions we can spend more time thinking and planning. Focus on creative output versus input. To do lists are fine but what I found works best is keeping a catchall list then only pulling the most important few things off that list per day. I write these priorities down in a one page per day journal. There’s something about the act of writing the most important things down that makes it real, versus just another to-do item on your smartphone. Use the smartphone for the catchall list. I always schedule the output during my most productive hours and any input like going through emails in the dead zone, my least productive part of the day.
You’ll find that reducing mental clutter also has the added benefit of freeing up time. So, don’t forget to get outside and enjoy some of that spring weather.