Declutter Your Mind: How to Stop Worrying, Relieve Anxiety, and Eliminate Negative Thinking - S.J. Scott, Barrie Davenport (2016)


Simplify Your Activities

“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

– Winnie the Pooh

How many times have you replied to the question, “How are you?” by answering, “I am so busy. Life is crazy right now?” When was the last time you or someone you know answered the “How are you?” questions with, “Life is great. I’m really relaxed and doing absolutely nothing.”

Everyone is in a hurry—doing, doing, doing.

But to what end?

Why are we filling our “to do” lists so we can hurry up and enjoy the leisure time that never seems to materialize?

We feel guilty if our hours aren’t packed with “productive” activities that are either income-producing or ego-enlarging. Doing nothing for any extended period feels like failing, even as we continue to develop time-saving technology, gadgets, and devices. The time we gain is quickly sucked up to quell the anxiety created by not enough to do.

According to a 2014 article in The Economist , “Individualistic cultures, which emphasize achievement over affiliation, help cultivate this time-is-money mindset. This creates an urgency to make every moment count, notes Harry Triandis, a social psychologist at the University of Illinois.”

Do you find yourself running around like a chicken, mindlessly checking items off your list so you feel productive and worthy?

Sometimes our schedules take over our lives, and we don’t give much thought to whether or not we are spending our time in ways that contribute to the mental clutter and stress that is so debilitating.

We get trapped on the treadmill of tasks and obligations, leaving little time for those things that allow us to be present and fully engaged.

Omid Safi, Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, in an article for On Being with Krista Tippet , says:

What happened to a world in which we can sit with the people we love so much and have slow conversations about the state of our heart and soul, conversations that slowly unfold, conversations with pregnant pauses and silences that we are in no rush to fill?

How did we create a world in which we have more and more and more to do with less time for leisure, less time for reflection, less time for community, less time to just…be?

There’s no doubting the fact that it’s hard to break free from the busyness trap. We’ve been brainwashed to believe that “idleness is the root of all evil.” We’re not suggesting that working hard, being productive, and having an active life are bad things. To the contrary, they can contribute to a fulfilling, happy life. But there is a diminishing point of return that creates the opposite effect, making you feel depleted and overwhelmed.

Cutting back and expunging non-essential activities can feel uncomfortable, and even threatening at first. If I cut back, what will people think? Will I lose income? Will I appear lazy? Will my kids get behind? Will my world fall apart?

The first step in cutting back is embracing it as a worthy endeavor—acknowledging that busyness is contributing to your mental clutter and accepting that less really can be more.

Here are eight strategies to declutter your schedule so you can enjoy more of what’s truly important:

Strategy #1. Prioritize your daily priorities.

Rather than trying to “fit in” your life priorities around your busy schedule, create space for your priorities first. For example, if spending time with your spouse or kids is a priority, then commit to the time you’ll spend with them every day. Don’t allow that time to be violated without good reasons that you define in advance.

Before you allow a priority to be dislodged for something “really important,” take a deep breath and think about it. Does “something important” take precedence over your life priorities?

Strategy #2. Purge your commitments.

Write down all of your personal and professional commitments and tasks for the next week (or month, if you know them). Review the list to see if there are any you can simply drop without serious consequence. Then review the list again to see what you might be able to delegate, delay, or shorten.

If you keep something on the list because you feel guilty, obligated, or uncomfortable, test letting go of it anyway to see what happens. You might discover that you feel liberated, and that the repercussions you feared don’t come to pass.

Strategy #3. Focus on three important daily goals.

Rather than trying to accomplish a laundry list of projects and tasks during your day, narrow it down to just three goals. Give yourself permission to do less, but with more intention, time, and focus.

You can certainly tackle more if you accomplish your three daily goals, but having just three set in place gives you a sense of control, inner peace, and accomplishment without the feeling of overwhelm and urgency.

Strategy #4. Build in sacred time.

Give yourself time during the day to do absolutely nothing. Sit in a chair and stare out the window, or walk outside and listen to the birds. You don’t have to meditate, breathe, plan, ruminate, or “do” anything. Just be.

Try this for five minutes a few times a day. Eventually you may feel comfortable “just being” for an hour or more a day.

Strategy #5. Re-examine your children’s schedule.

Parents today aren’t as willing as the previous generation of parents to allow their children to have unstructured free time. Kids are over-scheduled with multiple extracurricular activities and pre-planned play dates. Couple this with a much heavier homework load and the enticements of the virtual world, and it’s a wonder children spend any time at all in creative play, hanging out with family, or alone with their own imaginations.

Children—especially young children—require plenty of free time for their emotional health and mental development. As with adults, children can suffer from anxiety, depression, and other issues when they feel overwhelmed.

Dorothy Sluss, associate professor of elementary and early childhood education at James Madison University and president of the U.S. chapter of the International Play Association, says that for every week of intensive scheduled activity or sleepaway camp, children need three weeks of less-structured time.

Parents suffer as well from over-scheduling their kids. Spending hours in the car shuffling children from one activity to another is exhausting. Planning various activities for multiple children can have a severe negative impact on your mental energy. The anxiety created by hoping your child excels at t-ball or makes the traveling cheerleading squad only adds to the mental clutter in your life.

It’s hard to make the decision to cut back on your child’s extracurricular activities, especially in a culture that idolizes competition for even the youngest. But you’ll do your child and yourself a favor by finding balance between enrichment activities and complete down time.

Strategy #6. Leave work on time.

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times , Americans “put in more hours at our jobs than any people in the industrialized world, except Koreans. We take far fewer days of vacation than Europeans. In the last several years, many among us have seen our workload double while our incomes have stayed flat.”

But the article goes on the say, “Numerous studies have indicated that people who put in too many hours at their jobs, either by choice or by requirement, become inefficient. With rare exceptions, they burn out and lose their creative edge.”

If you are putting in more hours than are required by your job, or you find you’re sacrificing other life priorities because of the time you spend working, then you might want to reevaluate your work hours. This is especially important if you’re an entrepreneur or work from home as Steve and Barrie do.

Even if you feel passionate about your work, being overwhelmed can still create emotional health problems if you’re not balancing it with rest, relationships, and other relaxing activities.

If you work excessive hours, try gradually cutting back, starting with one day a week. Leave work on time, or, if you work from home, turn off your computer at 5:00 pm and commit to leaving it off for the night.

Strategy #7. Take a digital sabbatical.

We’ve already discussed how excessive digital activities can lead to mental agitation. Even when we’re not using our smartphones or laptops, they are always hovering nearby, calling to us to check in on work and see what’s happening on Facebook, or luring us to play the latest game app.

Although our parents had plenty of distractions, they didn’t have the constant take-your-phone-to-the-bathroom habits we experience today with our devices. It’s become more the exception than the norm to see someone walking down the street without a cell phone stuck to their ear or in their hands texting.

It may make you hyperventilate to consider this idea, but one of the best ways to gain mental clarity in your life is to frequently take “digital sabbaticals” where you have no access to your cell phone, tablet, computer, or any device that connects you to the Internet.

Start with just one full day or a weekend, or consider using your vacation time as a digital detox where you simply relax and spend time with real people doing real-world activities. If you find that it helps you feel less stressed, then schedule these retreats into your life on a regular basis.

Strategy #8. Harness the power of flow and focus.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high) is a Hungarian psychologist and pioneer in the work on understanding happiness, creativity, human fulfillment, and the notion of “flow”—a term he coined to describe a state of experience involving heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play, and work. He’s the author of the bestselling book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience .

Cziksentmihalyi defines flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

During a “flow” state, a person is completely absorbed in an activity, especially one that involves creative abilities. During this activity, they feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.” They are highly focused and undistracted.

Relaxation time spent alone or with family and friends is an excellent antidote to mental clutter, but time spent in the flow state takes it to another level. The flow state can be equated to a meditative state during which you and the activity are one, and your actions feel effortless.

Your mind becomes so absorbed in the activity that you feel transported and almost forget yourself because you are so immersed in the present moment. The flow state, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is the “optimal experience,” and the source of our greatest happiness and fulfillment.

He identifies various elements involved in achieving flow, which include:

·                   There are clear goals every step of the way.

·                   There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.

·                   There is a balance between challenges and skills.

·                   Action and awareness are merged.

·                   Distractions are excluded from consciousness.

·                   There is no worry of failure.

·                   Self-consciousness disappears.

·                   The sense of time becomes distorted.

·                   The activity becomes an end in itself.

You can achieve flow state by doing the following:

Find a challenge.

Choose an activity that you enjoy doing and find somewhat challenging. It can be anything, whether it’s playing the violin, writing your book, doing yoga, playing golf, or focusing on a work project. An activity with a clear set of rules or defined goals makes the challenge better because you can act without questioning what should be done, or how.

Develop your skills.

In order to be able to meet the challenge, you have to develop your skills and become proficient. If the activity is too easy, you’ll grow bored quickly, and your mind will wander, preventing you from achieving the flow state. However, if it’s too hard, you’ll be overwhelmed and you won’t be able to achieve that subconscious competence that is necessary for the flow state.

Set clear goals.

You need to be very clear on what you want to achieve with your activity and how you’ll know if you’re succeeding. For example, you might say, “I’m going to write a chapter in my book. I’ll know that I’m succeeding if I define what the chapter will be about, outline the key points I want to make, research the facts I need to include, and know how I’ll structure the material.”

Focus intently on the task at hand.

In order to maintain a flow state, you’ll need to eliminate all other distractions. You don’t want anything to pull your attention away from the task or disrupt the state you’re in. Once your concentration is broken, you have to rebuild the flow state.

Set aside enough time.

It will take you at least 15 minutes to begin to get into the flow state, and a while longer after that until you feel fully present and immersed in the activity. Once you enter the flow state, you want to have plenty of time to complete your goals and reach the “peak experience.”

Monitor your emotional state.

If you’re having trouble entering the flow state, monitor your emotions. If you’re in an aroused state of anxiety, try a calming exercise like breathing or meditation. If your energy level is low and you’re feeling sluggish, do something to invigorate you, such as exercise, eating a healthy snack, or calling a friend. Then go back to your activity and try again.

When you are highly focused in a state of flow, you are fully present with the moment. It’s during these moments that your mind is the least cluttered and distracted.

When you find yourself ruminating or agitated, take a few deep calming breaths and begin a flow activity for 30 minutes to an hour or so. Give yourself enough time to become immersed in the activity, and you’ll find it has a calming effect on you, in addition to helping you become more productive and happy.