This post is part of the April A to Z Blog Challenge. For more on my 2016 theme of Private Revolution, see A Is for Ambition. Click here to read all posts in the Private Revolution A to Z Challenge blog series.

CMind Clutter

There are so many great choices for the letter C: creativity, change, courage, confidence, comeuppance. 🙂

In the end, though, I chose clutter because that’s been much of my focus this year: recognizing and decluttering the thoughts in my head that take up far more room than they deserve and that sap my motivation and creative energy.

What am I talking about?

  • Worry about things I cannot control
  • Regrets that serve no purpose
  • Self-pity (as opposed to self-compassion)
  • Wishing things were different
  • Wishing other people would change
  • Replaying embarrassing or shameful situations

You probably have your own list. I should mention that I regularly practice gratitude and fully recognize what a good life I have (and that being alive at all is a gift). Even so, lately I’ve been unusually aware of how much mental and emotional space is taken up by mind clutter. I had even more mind clutter in my early adulthood, but it bothered me less. Maybe now my expectations for myself are higher, or maybe with age, I know I need to manage my energy more efficiently.

What are some of the problems with mind clutter?

  • I don’t focus as well as I’d like on creative projects and ideas.
  • I don’t engage as fully in books, art, movies, music, and other art forms.
  • I find it harder to give my full attention to other people, not just for a second or two, but for extended periods of time.
  • I end up feeling bad about myself and the world in general.
  • I am more tired, both physically and mentally.

Simply telling myself stop the mind clutter doesn’t help, and I certainly don’t want to add guilt about mind clutter to the pile of clutter in my head.

Here are a few strategies that do work for me.

Mental Imagery. Having some mental image I can use throughout the day to change course before mind clutter takes hold helps me to pivot to the positive more quickly. One of my favorites is to picture myself in a circular room with doors all around me, and I am the only one able to open or close them (maybe a bit Alice-in-Wonderlandish, but you get the idea). When I recognize a thought as mind clutter, I picture myself walking to that door, gently but firmly closing it, and turning around to open another door (to the outside, to a library, to a story or essay I’m writing, to memories I choose to focus on).

Similarly, in terms of past regrets or guilt that serves no purpose (and I do think that regret and guilt are sometimes useful), I might imagine mind clutter as volumes of a book that I close, wrap in a pretty ribbon, and shelve away. Then I imagine myself walking away and opening a fresh, new book to fill.

Substitution Thoughts. Having a thought or memory to substitute for the usual mind clutter is also useful. What works well for me is to have a gratitude list that gets to the heart of what’s important—family, friends, shelter, health—the more specific the better (e.g., I am grateful for being a mother, for my son and daughter-in-law and their presence in my life).

My friend and someone whom I admire, Joy Navan wrote as part of the A to Z Challenge about using mental memory boxes as a form of active reminiscing. This seems particularly useful when we start replaying unwanted memories—put away that memory box and open another:

“One of the pleasures of growing old with one’s memory reasonably intact is the art of gathering one’s memories, creating gilded and bejewelled mental memory boxes for them; and having the ability to open the boxes, bringing the remembrances to mind again and again.” Read more of Joy’s post

Mindfulness. So many things come back to mindfulness. It really is true that being able to manage inner thoughts gets easier with mindfulness practice. A recent Psychology Today post discusses the relationship between mindfulness and the ability to switch our attention:

“Mindfulness training typically involves learning how-to voluntary shift your attention from potentially negative ‘mind wandering’ to a state of self-acceptance while focusing on immediate sensations (such as inhaling and exhaling) in the present tense.”

Do you have a way of dealing with the clutter in your head?