This is the view from my bed right now:
Unpacking is still very much a work in process, since I was still too ill for months after the move to work on this properly. (Not to mention our life was in quite a state of disarray after welcoming a child and then encountering cancer in such close succession.)
We are making progress, but it has been slow.
I’m not a naturally tidy person – I tend to let things pile up a little bit, as big plans and good intentions turn into unfinished projects.
But clutter still affects me – as I think it does for all of us.
There were numerous moments yesterday where I found myself just standing and staring at the piles like a deer in headlights. I was too overwhelmed to even know how to start.
I’ve heard the sayings that our space is a reflection of us – ‘tidy room, tidy mind.’ I think there is truth in this. The serenity and calm from being in a peaceful, welcoming space is a powerful thing. I felt it when we initially moved into this flat with just suitcases and could soak up the calm of the emptiness.
But sometimes, we are living in the midst of chaos. And we still need a way to find space inside our own minds.
Yesterday ended up being a success story. Drawing on years of to-do list making and reading self-help and productivity books, I used a system I often find helpful to create space for myself. I managed to move from this place of feeling overwhelmed into a place of positive action, and turned a potentially stressful day into a positive one.
It surprises me every time that this works, since it is so simple. Which is why I think I keep reinventing the wheel instead of trying this when I am first feeling mentally cluttered. But this is what has worked for me time and again, so I finally wrote it out as a guide for myself. Hopefully it may be useful for someone else, too.
1. Take out a blank sheet of printer paper.
It’s important that it’s loose. You don’t need the commitment of being bound into a notebook – this isn’t something attached or bound anywhere. You aren’t saving ideas for posterity – you are dumping clutter you will then be able to discard. You don’t need to feel the weight of other ideas that a journal contains when you hold it in your hand.
This is not the time for scrap paper – you need clarity and that means clean blankness. Similarly, avoid paper with lines. The empty space means you can draw or organise things however you imagine them.
It might be tempting to work with sticky notes or butcher paper – resist the temptation. Sticky notes can feel fragmented, and something larger than a page becomes overwhelming. A single page gives enough space to explore while also containing things at a size your brain can easily process. (You can always subdivide the page if you want categories, or use more pages if you need more space.)
The crisp, unsubstantial magic of blank white paper is perfect.
2. Focus your attention on that clear space.
Imagine it as a room for your mind. It is peaceful, quiet, and clear. It is just the right size. Keep your attention on that rectangular square. Breathe in the tranquility of a space that is clean and full of possibility. Breathe out, releasing the clutter and tension that is crowding your mind.
3. Dump. No judgments.
Start putting down whatever is in your mind on that piece of paper. There are no limits, no rules. You can write things down in whatever way feels most natural to you. You also aren’t limited to words.
Draw pictures, make columns, create webs, use colours – follow however the ideas want to come out, without trying to corral them into a structure.
The goal is to take what is in your mind and put it out somewhere so you can look at it.
Now is not the time to organise things – that can come later. All you need to do is free up space in your mind and see what’s there.
We all have things we think about over and over again. These rattle around and stress us out. So in the initial phase, the main target is to get those little nagging concerns out where you can see them.
These issues may be something concrete like a broken cabinet door. Or it may be more complicated, like a relationship that is stressing you out. If it comes up in your mind, it belongs on the piece of paper.
4. Use fresh paper to go deeper.
After you do an initial dump, you might find there are categories or areas you want to explore in more detail.
They can each have their own room – as many as you like!
Do a deep dive into one area. Keep trying to follow your own brain’s pattern, even if it doesn’t seem logical or sensible to you. This is the best way to get the mental clutter out where you can look at it.
5. Follow your intuition to create a to-do list.
The goal of this list is not to capture everything you need to do it. It’s to identify the things that feel most important, and that will have the biggest impact on your mental state and sense of calm.
Look at your list and see what leaps off the page to you and feels most important. Often, these are the first things we wrote down, that are bouncing around at the top of our mental worry list.
But sometimes, particularly if we are good at delaying gratification or pushing ourselves to think logically, you have to dig a little deeper to figure out which are the bits that feel most urgent and essential to your inner voice right now.
This is not what anyone else would say is important. It’s identifying which items are causing you the most stress – or desire – right now.
Put a number 1 next to the thing that feels most important in your gut. If you could only do one thing on this list to make your life feel better what would it be?
Then, keep working your way down. What’s the next most important thing? Then the next after that?
It’s a good idea to stop around number 5 if you can, otherwise it can start to feel a bit overwhelming. (If there are two things that are equal, in your mind, don’t worry – just pick as best you can.)
Some of these may be small things (pay a specific medical bill), some of them may be big categories (unpack house).
This will help you figure out where to start from within the chaos.
The goal isn’t to finish the list. The goal is making sure your time, attention, and energy is going where it will make the most impact to your state of mind and wellbeing.
There are so many ways to make lists or organise things, and it’s tempting to the think that the more complex the system the better it is.
But under these circumstances, I think the best way to organise the brain is the simplest:
A blank piece of white printer paper.
No matter the clutter piling up around you, there is a clean, crisp white sheet that can contain any and everything you want to put into it.