When I was growing up, one of the things I remember always hearing my mom say was something like, “I have so much to do that I’m not doing any of it!” As a kid, I didn’t know quite what to make of this saying—probably because, as a kid, I didn’t have many important things that I really had to do—but I eventually came to understand exactly what she meant. You’ve been there haven’t you? You have so much to do that you feel like a deer in the headlights, and end up getting nothing done! I know I have. Depending on who you ask, they might even say "that’s the story of my life!" In fact, unless I intentionally push myself in the opposite direction, I use my busy schedule as an excuse to just do a little of this and a little of that, mostly the work I’m comfortable with or the easy stuff, and not accomplish anything of substance. That’s because it is far easier, though not exactly exciting or rewarding, for us to panic in that crisis mode rather than sticking to a few important priorities and doing what needs to be done.
But the solution to this problem has to go beyond effective priority setting. Fundamentally, it is not a problem of time, but an issue of mindset. One approach to dealing with the problem is getting involved in impeccable communication with those who are counting on you to deliver something to them in a certain time frame. It may help to prioritize, concentrate, and focus on what’s most important, but unless you remain in communication with others who are counting on you for your contributions, you will constantly be thinking of how they are being affected by your failure to deliver, what they are thinking of you because of it, and so on.
If you know that you have given your word to something and have not gone back to clean it up and let the other person know what they can expect of you, you end up dealing with mental clutter in the form of that little voice in the back of your mind whose chief function appears at times to be to remind you of all of your shortcomings. This can be helpful if you haven’t done something you know you should have, the little voice operating like your integrity conscience, but if you constantly put yourself in positions where it is impossible for you to deliver to everyone you have committed to, you’re just going to end up with mental clutter in the form of self-accusation and negative self-talk.
Mental clutter, like physical clutter, is detrimental to your quality of life, but not always because there is stuff in your way. Notably, the most insidious damage done by clutter is the fact that you don’t always notice its there. A person who is a hoarder didn’t become that way overnight. Chances are, he or she gradually started holding on to objects that serve no purpose in their life and, due to hedonic adaptation, got used to the gradual change in their environment and eventually, lost the ability to see any possibility beyond tunneling through a mountain of useless objects to do the basic tasks in their home. And this is where it comes to shifting our mindset about clutter.
Interestingly, people don’t actually become hoarders simply by holding on to stuff. Rather, they hold on to stuff because they have become hoarders. By all accounts, most of us living in modern societies have way more stuff than we actually need, but we aren’t considered to be hoarding, because these things do not interfere with our functioning and quality of life. The difference between a hoarder and a “normal” person is not in the stuff they have, but in their mindset. All the proof you need is to witness the defensiveness and possessiveness with which hoarders regard their clutter; if it is all cleaned up and hauled away, a few months later they have built it up once again. Why? Because they changed their external environment, but not their internal environment. They never changed their mindset, and so the clutter returns. It is the same with mental clutter.
One of the reasons that people hoard is that it provides them comfort, especially in the form of familiarity, in response to some stressor. They hold on to old things and broken things and harmful things because they know those things and what to expect from them. They hold on to these things because is always less scary to return to the familiar, even when it is literally killing you, than to venture out and take a chance on something new. And this is because when you are in survival mode, as they are, your little voice only cares about you surviving, not thriving. When it comes to survival, the sure thing almost always the safer bet than the new and unknown, and that little voice makes sure you know that by triggering crippling anxiety at even the thought of change.
And remember, the damage isn’t done necessarily by the stuff itself, but by the stress it causes in the background and the opportunity cost for keeping it around. When you have a lot of clutter, you can’t invite friends over for fear of shame or simply lack of space. You can’t carry out basic daily activities like cooking and cleaning. You can’t get new furniture or appliances because there is no room for them. You entire life devolves to revolve around your stuff, managing it, holding on to it, and trying to survive in spite of it. You end up not being able to get anything done as you basically just wait out the clock for something, anything, to save you from yourself. But, as Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah has put it, “No one and nothing can free you, but your own understanding.”
Mental clutter causes the same kind of damage. By holding on to old, unnecessary beliefs and thoughts, we fill our minds with obstacles that we have to navigate every time we want to do something. Even if we want to bring in new habits or skills, we find we have no more room, even as we refuse to get rid of the old. We find it difficult to even consider the perspective of others, much less be faithful in delivering on promises we make to them, because we are trying to keep our piles of mental stuff from toppling over. And even on those rare occasions when we are being productive, we are going much slower than we could be because of all the clutter we are dragging along, like a car so overloaded that the chassis is scraping the road. Just as with hoarders, even if everything on your to-do list of mental clutter is checked off, unless you change your mindset, you will find it filled up—and yourself in a panic—in no time at all. And we do all this because it is comfortable and it is familiar, and it means that we don’t have to do the really scary thing: take full responsibility for our lives and our choices.
As a side note, I want to be clear that I am not implying that we are not legitimately busy. In fact, despite the industrial revolution, recent innovations in technology and the world economy, all of which was supposed to make life easier and more leisurely, we are all busier than ever! But before I move on, I’d like you to consider that most of us are only as busy as we have chosen to be, and often because we feel we have to be. Being busy and panicked and stressed out is almost a competition in our modern society that seems to value jobs and work above almost everything else, and so many of us have gotten to the point where we don’t even feel comfortable just relaxing anymore! Significantly, everything that we have on our gigantic to-do lists was either put there by us or by our consent. We are all busy, but almost none of us have to be as busy as we are, and the only reason we are is because have chosen to be, perhaps for reasons unbeknownst to us. Of course, it’s not like we can just drop certain things and simplify our lives…except that we can, if we choose to. The important thing to notice is that just as being extremely busy is a choice, so is choosing to be less overburdened by the mental clutter that entails.
My wife and I used the Marie Kondo method of tidying up our home a couple of years ago, long before the KonMari method became a Netflix hit and a hot trend. It reminds me of the “5s method” that has been used in work environments for decades, but with a heart and intention to “spark joy” as Marie Kondo puts it. I would highly recommend this method, by the way, if you feel your home or office could use a bit of tidying up, and just as equally, if you feel your mind needs a little tidying up.
I would encourage you to take a look through your mental clutter and see what it is time to let go of. And it may take some time and focus to bring your mental clutter to the forefront, since it is usually unnoticed in the background, so I suggest you use a notebook and some quiet time for this exercise. Maybe you won’t be looking for things that “spark joy,” but perhaps the criteria should be whether this belief or habit or commitment helps you. If not, ask yourself why you are keeping it around, and whether doing so has any positive or negative effects on your life. If you find some aspect of your mental clutter that is not helpful and is actually harmful, then it is time to let that belief go, or declare 100% or 0% commitment to that thing.
What are some examples of mental clutter? Here is a partial list to get you started:
Committing to too many priorities and not being clear about which ones are the ones that cannot be at the mercy of the rest of the items on the list
Missed commitments, combined with the failure to get back with those who have been left hanging
Worrying about potential negative outcomes in the future
Regret, resentment, and unforgiveness regarding past events
Your concerns about yourself and whether you are looking good or bad in the eyes of others
Holding on to old, useless, and harmful beliefs about the world or yourself
Thinking about everything you have to do, instead of focusing on What’s Important Now
My suggestions on how to begin minimizing mental clutter and gain a higher level of clarity are as follows:
Grant forgiveness if you have been wronged
Ask for forgiveness if you have wronged someone
Close the loop on your outstanding commitment to ensure you and others involved are on the same page relative to timelines and deliverables
Declare your total or zero commitment to partial and conditional commitments you have been holding on to
Take responsibility for the state of your to-do list, both in crossing things off and putting things on to it
Clearly identify the top few priorities that must take precedence over everything else
Distribute the mental load by delegating effectively. Expect others to accept stewardship of the objectives they have committed to deliver rather than giving them tasks to do and you carrying the entire mental load of making sure it all gets taken care of.
Focus on creating extraordinary outcomes that shift your focus away from yourself to others, so you can get clutter out of the way for their sake
Think about why you have been holding on to mental clutter and how it benefits you to do so
Taking responsibility for clearing up your mental clutter is crucial if you are a leader, with or without a title, who is counted on by others in the organization to provide direction and a sense of clarity. Your lack of clarity translates directly into chaos and wasted effort in the organization. Your preoccupation with your concerns and worries is immediately noticed in how you carry yourself and how you come across. Your confidence and ability to make timely decisions that in the organization’s best interest depends not only on your intelligence but your ability to sharpen your focus and reduce the distractions. And for those of us who do not consider ourselves leaders—even though we are all leaders of our own lives—clutter is no less detrimental. It prevents us from being as effective as we can be, for ourselves and others, and it unnecessarily prevents us from enjoying our own lives. I would like to write more on this subject in the future, but, for now, I hope this has given you a good place to start tidying up your mental clutter.
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About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.
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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!
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