Essential Skills to Declutter Your Mind, Reduce Chronic Stress, and Do Your Best Work


All too often our minds can feel like a cluttered workspace: Piles of thoughts here, disheveled scraps of emotion over there, jumbles of worry and regret strewn about all over the floor. And no plan to contain the madness or stem the tide.

Unfortunately, just like a cluttered desk makes it difficult to get any work done, a cluttered mind can make navigating even the most basic parts of our day exceedingly stressful and frustratingly inefficient. And that’s to say nothing of how much harder it makes dealing with major challenges and setbacks.

In this article I’ll walk through 7 habits that anybody can learn to cultivate in order to decrease our stress, dampen our worries, and live our lives more fully.

Note: Don’t try all of these at once. Start with one or two. If you find them helpful, continue with them until they become a firm habit and part of your life. Only then add in another.

 

1. Mindfulness

What is it?

The term mindfulness means many things to many people, but at it’s core, mindfulness is the habit of being aware without thinking. While much of our days and lives are spent in a problem-solving and analytical mental gear (judging, predicting, comparing, evaluating, assessing, worrying, etc.), mindfulness is about cultivating a second mental gear in which we are simply being aware of and noticing our own minds and the world around us. There are two primary ways to cultivate mindfulness: a traditional mindfulness meditation practice and Ordinary Mindfulness.

Why it’s important.

By cultivating mindfulness, we are strengthening two essential mental muscles that are often neglected as a consequence of our bussyiness-obsessed lifestyles: meta-cognition and attentional shifting.

Why it’s hard.

Strangely, one of the most common things that seems to derail people from cultivating mindfulness is that it’s pretty boring, often disappointingly so. Mindfulness is so trendy these days and has been so hyped up that many of us come to it with unreasonable expectations that it will profoundly change our lives after a few deep breathing sessions. And when it doesn’t, we can quickly become disillusioned. In reality, cultivating mindfulness is the psychological equivalent of exercising regularly or brushing your teeth—powerful but kinda boring. Set your expectations accordingly.

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2. Maintaining a Consistent Organizational System

What is it?

An organizational system is an external (i.e. not in your head) strategy and plan for keeping track of what we need to do and accomplish. Whether we’re a student, CEO, Stay-at-Home Mom/Dad, or a avante garde sculpture artist, we all need some way to keep track of what’s important to us and have a reliable plan for making those things happen with some degree of efficiency and punctuality.

Why it’s important.

Ultimately, creating and maintaining something as stodgy sounding as an organizational system is really about living your life according to your values and highest aspirations rather than the passing whims of the moment. By creating and maintaining a reliable organizational system, we give ourselves the best possible chance of efficiently processing the day-to-day Have-Tos in our lives so that we have sufficient time and energy to focus on the Want-Tos (the things that really matter to us). Being organized is also way less stressful!

Why it’s hard.

Many of us don’t end up sticking with an organizational system for two reasons, both of which have to do with goodness-of-fit:

  1. We choose an organizational system that looks appealing but isn’t really a good fit for our current life situation or the way we tend to think. If you’re an old-fashioned pen and paper kind of person, don’t feel like you need a fancy productivity app just because that’s what all the cool kids are doing these day. A day planner and a few hanging file folders can work beautifully.
  2. We don’t think to or aren’t sure how to adapt an organizational system to our unique needs and personalities. Even if we choose a system that is roughly a good fit for us, it probably still won’t be a good fit out of the box. When you’re learning about a new organizational system, make sure to read it with an eye toward, “How would this fit with my life and how could I modify it to fit better?”

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3. Assertiveness

What is it?

Assertiveness is all about setting effective and healthy boundaries for what we do and don’t want in our lives. It’s about asking for what we want or need, setting clear limits on what we will not tolerate, and being willing to follow through on the consequences of having our boundaries violated. In short, assertiveness is the capacity to be direct and straightforward in what we say and do.

Why it’s important.

When we aren’t able or willing to be assertive we end up living other people’s lives rather than our own. In addition to the obvious downside of not living the life we want or believe in, a lack of assertiveness has two major negative consequences:

  1. It erodes our self-confidence and self-efficacy. By constantly deferring what we want in favor of what we think others want, we’re training our brains to believe that we’re not as important as others. This is a recipe for chronic dissatisfaction with our lives and even depression.
  2. It makes us chronically anxious. I won’t get into the mechanics of how this happens, but it’s enough to say that in my clinical experience as a psychologist and therapist, I’ve rarely seen a someone who struggled with major anxiety who didn’t also have a significant difficulty being assertive in some aspect of their life.

Why it’s hard.

Many of us were raised in environments where indirect communication was the norm (e.g.: sarcasm, teasing, guilt-tripping, hint-hinting, etc.). And when it wasn’t indirect, it often swung to the other end of the communication spectrum and became aggressive (shouting, threatening, verbal abuse, etc.). Consequently, we may not have had much exposure to a healthier alternative—Assertive Communication—and when we try to do it, it feels awkward and strange so we revert back to what feels more normal and comfortable.

Resources:

There are many, many books on the topic of assertive communication, and many of them are pretty good. I think Making Intimate Connections by Albert Ellis is a good place to start.

 

4. Deep Work

What is it?

Deep Work is the ability to perform valuable, cognitively-demanding activities in a distraction-free state. The idea of Deep Work was created by Cal Newport in his book of the same name. In a practical sense, Deep Work is a method for cultivating sustained attention which is similarly important to but distinct from the attentional shifting discussed in the mindfulness section above.

Why it’s important.

The ability to hold our attention on one thing for sustained periods of time without giving in to distraction is critical because it allows us to operate at or near the upper bounds of our cognitive potential—which is essential to doing our best work. Whether you’re a writer, artist, engineer, craftsman, philosopher, teacher, surgeon, or attorney, the ability to bring your full mental ability to bear on a particular project or problem is essential.

Why it’s hard.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport suggests that the primary obstacle facing most people in their ability to perform and develop the capacity for deep work is digital distraction. Because we are constantly plugged into the internet (email, social media, text messages, etc.), we are training our brains to feel at home with a mind that is constantly flitting from one thing to an other. As a result, we find the act of keeping our mind on one thing for any length of time to be uncomfortable or even painful.

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5. Emotion-focused Journaling

What is it?

Make some time, more days than not, to write about how you feel. Typically this takes the form of journaling. Simply write about and articulate whatever is going on in your life emotionally, big or small. The key is to write continuously without any censoring or editing. Like a free writing exercise you might do as a part of a creative writing class.

Why it’s important.

Much of our suffering can be traced back in one form or another to a single mistake we all make, all the time: Emotional Reasoning. Emotional reasoning occurs when we react or make decisions based on how we feel at a given moment rather than acting intentional based on our values and what’s truly important to us. And good way to be less emotionally reactive is to make time to validate and clarify what we’re feeling on a regular basis. As a result, we tend to be more mindful of our emotions, able to acknowledge and validate them rather than impulsively reacting so as to avoid them.

Why it’s hard.

Journaling seems a little hokey and woo-woo for many of us. I recommend approaching it in a pragmatic, experimentalist fashion: Commit to spending 5 minutes a day journaling for a week. That’s it. If you don’t like and it’s not helpful, drop it and you’ve only lost about a half hour’s worth of time.

Resources:

You don’t need a book to teach you how to journal. Pull out a legal pad, a few pages of copy paper, or a stack of sticky notes, and just start writing. 10 minutes a day is plenty.

 

6. Deliberate Worry

What is it?

Deliberate Worry is a practice for training our minds out of the tendency toward automatic worry and rumination. The basic idea is to schedule a short amount of time every day to worry on purpose and on paper. Deliberate Worry has three parts: The Brain Barf (listing all your worries on paper), Identifying Actionable Problems, and Scheduling Next Smallest Actions.

Why it’s important.

A consistent practice of Deliberate Worry has 3 main benefits:

  1. By creating a consistent time and space for our brains to worry, we discourage them from worrying intrusively during inopportune times throughout the day (or night).
  2. By distinguishing problems from worries on paper, we’re better able to recognize a particular thought pattern as a worry in the moment and disengage from it rather than persist in it because we think it’s a problem that can be solved by thinking more about it.
  3. It’s one of the most effective strategies for eliminating sleep anxiety and insomnia, and therefore improving the quality of our sleep (which improves just about everything else).

Why it’s hard.

By definition, worries are uncomfortable and scary. So it’s natural for us to recoil from the idea of seeking them out on purpose, perhaps because we’re worried that it might trigger even more worry and anxiety. Again, I recommend a trial period: Give it a shot for a week or so. I think you’ll find that—counterintuitively—you actually feel less worried and anxious after worrying on purpose than you did before you started.

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7. Essentialism

What is it?

Essentialism is a values-driven and minimalist approach to life and work put forth by Greg McKeown in his book of the same name. It’s based on the idea that “only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” Essentially, it’s an application of the Pareto Principle to our entire lives: If 80% of our satisfaction and achievement in life comes from 20% of our activities, we ought to consider investing more of our time and energy in that 20%.

Why it’s important.

As I’ve tried to show in previous points how chronic distraction, poor organization, and the inability to shift and maintain focus can all lead to unnecessary stress and anxiety in a given situation. But on a larger scale, when we spend our lives bouncing from one thing to the next—unable to distinguish the trivial from the truly important—a chronic sense of restlessness and dis-ease can creep into our lives. And ultimately, as our lives march forward, regret may grow as we realize the extent to which we invested our time and energy into superficial rather than essential pursuits.

Why it’s hard?

As a grand philosophy of life, Essentialism can sound daunting—paralyzing even. But it doesn’t have to be. The trick, as usual, is to begin very small. We can start by cultivate the simple habit of looking at our behavior through the lens of Essentialism—to ask, Is this activity truly essential or merely trivial? Am I living “by design or by default”?

Resources:

Can You Do Me a Favor?

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