Better time management isnt the only solution to feeling overwhelmed. You may have a case of “brain clutter.”
When you’re feeling stressed and unproductive, your first instinct might be to look for a better system:
Before you blame the system, first check to see if you have excessive mental friction and brain clutter.
As Brigid Schulte explains in her book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, “Getting a handle on overwhelm was not just about creating more space and order on my calendar and in my office, but doing the same in my mind.”
Eliminating mental friction will create that space and order in your mind. Typical causes of mental friction include:
Unclutter Your Brain
1. Ambivalence and Indecision
In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researcher Frenk van Harreveld discovered that “When ambivalence is high, choice is unpleasant because of the uncertainty about the consequences of the choice.”
All of that unpleasantness leads to procrastination. The simplest way to reduce ambivalence is to be very clear about what’s most important to you, and narrow it down to just a few priorities. When you aren’t constantly caught up between competing priorities, you have more energy to take action.
If you have multiple roles in your life, your priorities will shift throughout the day. Decide on your priorities for specific periods of time and you will increase focus and productivity. For example, choose one high-priority focus for your first hour of work, followed by 30 minutes of another priority, such as knocking things off your to-do list, or handling email.
When you’re clear about your priorities, you reduce the number of decisions in favor of automatic routines and processes. Making decisions in advance like this helps alleviate decision fatigue.
For example, when you know that you want to exercise each day, make a plan so that you don’t have to use precious decision-making capabilities to decide when, how, and where you’re going to do it.
Tolerations are those things that bug you, but not enough for you to do anything about. When they pop into your awareness, they start an inner dialogue that’s annoying. Tolerations could be as simple as a drawer that sticks or as major as an unsafe car you commute in every day.
To eliminate tolerations, first become aware of them. Make a list of everything that’s bugging you. Choose three things to fix or change this week. Set aside a specific amount of time each week to eliminate tolerations.
In addition, recognize that some tolerations can’t be fixed as much as they need to be accepted. Fix or change what you can, and choose to accept the rest.
3. Unfinished Projects
About 10 percent of the energy consumed in an average household is used by chargers and devices plugged in but not in use, simply waiting in standby mode. In fact, many electronics and appliances (such as your TV) will use more energy in the 20 or more hours per day they’re off, but still plugged in, than during the time that theyre actually on and in use.
Drifting from project to project without purposefully completing the task you’re working on is like leaving chargers and electronics plugged in you are using mental energy to stay “plugged in.”
This doesnt mean you have to keep going until everything is done, but the projects need to be paused and unplugged for now. While it’s fairly easy to know if a discrete task is complete, it can be more difficult to do for larger on-going projects. Choose a stopping point in advance.
4. Mental Clutter
This is the flotsam and jetsam of daily life that has no permanent home. It’s the things you need to do, the things you want to remember, the special dates, a funny story. It’s easier to keep a space neat when everything has a place. Same with your mind.
Have a calendar, a master to-do list and a place to jot down every random thing that pops into your mind that you want to remember. When you rely on your memory to keep track of your tasks and grocery list and someday projects, your brain quickly gets overwhelmed.
Get all of this information out of your head and onto paper or an electronic file. This frees up space to concentrate on the tasks that really matter to you.
Recognizing and reducing mental friction and brain clutter is a process. It doesn’t need to happen all at once to see immediate changes in productivity and feelings of energy. Change one small thing, then another.
As author Schulte learned, “Clearing the clutter in my head and the guilt that hung over every halfhearted decision has given me more peace of mind than any elaborate time management system.”
How can you start to de clutter your brain today?
As you seek to change the way you live, prepare yourself: all change, including change in personal habits, is stressful. Old habits are hard to break, and daily life patterns are the most deeply ingrained habits of all.
There are times when you may feel overwhelmed by it all. Remember to be gentle with yourself. Do one thing at a time, with all of your energy, your attention, and your heart. With all the planning, evaluating, and scheduling involved in this process, don’t try to do too much.
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