This morning I woke up with my mind filled with lists. All the things I want to accomplish next week, the week after, and onward into forever seemed to be whirling around inside my thoughts. I felt as though my mind was a library and all of the books decided to begin flying around. While the image is rather amusing I felt it was a perfect time to share my take on mental organization. Keeping the mind in order spills over to the physical world as well. When I notice someone with a particularly messy car or desk, I often suspect that is much like the state of their thoughts. There is nothing wrong with a messy desk or a messy mind for that matter, it is all perspective. However getting your life in order puts you on the path to your goals, plain and simple. These ideas are not for rewiring your mind, or to transform you into a hyper vigilant type A personality, this is simply a way to optimize and begin moving toward a more efficient perspective. How do we begin to break the cycle of anxiety and worry surrounding an impending assignment deadline? How can we better organize and achieve the goals we set for ourselves? How can we quiet racing thoughts to even begin all of this? So for all of my worriers, my procrastinators, and those who are forever “cleaning” while never actually doing anything, this is for you. There are endless articles offering tips on how to get organized, most of which suggest buying a label maker and plastic bins to store all the clutter. Hell, there is even a store dedicated to plastic containers all committed to storing your stuff in a more organized way. (My mum loves this place and incidentally labels all of her belongings.) There is nothing wrong with labeling your socks or containers, but in my experience buying more things to store your things in is not the solution. This mindset of compartmentalization only contributes to a hoarding mentality. Here I want to tackle the root issue behind mental and physical clutter: It isn’t the stuff you own but the perspective surrounding the things you own which is tripping you up.
Planning and then Action.
Blindly beginning a project often results in burnout. My father once gave me some wonderful advice about writing which I find carries over to all areas of my life. “Begin with the end in mind”. Spend fifteen minutes and write down a to-do list. The important thing here is to spend no more than fifteen minutes on the planning stage, as it is very easy to spend all your time making lists and taking no action. Set quantifiable goals. When are you going to do it? Be specific. What will the end result be? How long are you spending on this project? You will notice this is the shortest section and that is intentional. Do not spend hours planning.
I am huge fan of timers to accompany my goals. As my calendar fills up I find that my time becomes more valuable to me than anything else. Correctly budgeting my time brings the goal or project into reality without stress. This is normally the step that begin to trip people up. It is simple to throw yourself into a project and when you begin to feel sick of it to wander off. Set time limits for decision making as well as for the actual activity. If you are the sort of person who can write to-do lists for hours but never actually begin then I challenge you to set a timer for five minutes, and that is the time you get for planning your activity. After the timer goes off, set a second alarm for fifteen minutes to work on said task. This step often sends some people into a panic. I challenge you to address your behavior. When you set out to tackle a project, be that cleaning the bathroom or writing a paper, what sort of feelings and thoughts come to you? Do you chronically avoid your project until you encounter guilt? Are you one of the folks who insists they thrives under pressure? This is not just a matter of completing a single project, this is beginning to dig into your inner works, this is about addressing what is causing you to put off working or feel overwhelmed. Instead of toiling until you feel tired, which is rather subjective anyway, I challenge you to set a timer for fifteen minutes. Each time you set out to accomplish a task make it a habit of setting a timer. At the end of a fifteen minute period I want you to take accurate stock of what you have done. This helps you begin to accurately assess your time, which establishes a successful pattern for future endeavors.
Track your Progress
This is the kicker, folks. Quantifiable and documented results are vital in your journey out of mental clutter. For example perhaps you have a deadline approaching for your thesis and the pressure is beginning to get to you, you palms are sweating and your anxiety is rising. As you think about this monster of a project you consider perhaps just taking a nap and trying to get mental reprieve from the anxiety for just a moment. (We have all been there.) But wait! You look back in the notes you have been keeping about your projects and deadlines, in in browsing those notes you see all the deadlines you have met and all the amazing things you have gotten together and created. In moments of anxiety and the beginning of a melt down I find it incredibly helpful to have a reference point, something quantifiable to prove to myself that I can conquer just about anything.
This is a starting point for those of you who periodically feel overtaken by deadlines. This piece does not address clutter control or hoarding behavior as that is a very large topic in itself. The holidays are a stressful time for most people and the tendency to indulge in retail therapy or crazy cleaning sessions before the in laws arrive is a real feeling. I encourage you to take a few moments to examine your anxious thoughts before you dive into short term manic projects. What could be different when you give yourself some space to investigate how the emotions influence your behavior? How do things change when you address behavior that does not serve you?