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How Clutter Drains Your Brain (and What You Can Do About It)

How Clutter Drains Your Brain (and What You Can Do About It)

You’re sitting on the subway or bus, trying to read something. It could be related to a work project or it could even be for pleasure. A person comes and sits down next to you. They’re in the middle of a loud personal conversation about their friend’s romantic antics. Now, instead of focusing on your reading, you find yourself hearing parts about someone’s love life — and, in fact, you have to consciously focus on ignoring that conversation to get your own reading done.

Most people think it’s easy to ignore these little distractions, but it’s not. The brain has a limited amount of functions it can perform at a given time. Distractions and clutter that aren’t worth attention take up some of that space in the brain and reduce the space remaining for things that matter — and thinking overall.

Ignoring anything takes energy, and the brain becomes passive when it can’t control what to think about. Ignoring clutter around you (noise, distractions) often takes the same amount of energy as focusing.

The Unaware Distractions

In a physical sense, think of your desk at work. There are usually folders, pencils, and other nick-knacks all around. You know you shouldn’t fiddle with these — it’s not the point and it won’t help you focus — but as a day draws on and energy wanes, you’re often drawn to doing just that. It takes up space in your mind to ignore these little things.

Those are just physical things, too — the explosion of the digital world has made this even more complicated. Somewhere between 89 and 115 billion business emails are sent every day globally,[1] and many people do not have good systems for organizing their inboxes.[2]

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The same can happen with non-physical elements like friendships. If you’re in an annoying text exchange with a friend and you know (from your lock screen) that the latest, just-arrived text is completely annoying, you might tell yourself, “I’ll exit this conversation and just ignore it.” But you know the text is sitting there. You’re going to burn lots of mental energy trying to avoid that text.

This all becomes a problem because our lives have so much clutter, both physical, mental and digital. All this creates clutter and the need to ignore, which makes the brain work harder.

    Photo credit: Source

    Too Much Stuff Burns out the Brain

    Now imagine this situation, you hate reading, and you’re put in an empty room with a book. What’s going to eventually happen? You’re going to read that book.

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    But this isn’t the usual reality. Most rooms with books tend to also contain— or have nearby— TVs, smartphones, computers, and other potential distractions. Asking you to finish reading that book will take you a lot of mental energy to ignore all other stuff first.

    Even though you may think that you have got used to the stuff around and don’t find them distracting, all those things are constantly stimulating your thoughts unconsciously. “I know I should read the book, but maybe I should clean the TV set first.“, or “I know I’d better start to read this book, but the computer should be placed on my desk instead.

    To think about ignoring those thoughts, again, burns up your brain energy.

      Photo credit: Source

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      Take Back Your Brain Energy

      When you know your priority on what is important, you know what to remove from life and free up brain energy.

      In a work context, two-third of managers cannot name the priorities of their organization.[3] This often filters down throughout the organization, confusing workflows and burning people out on supposedly important projects that, in reality, aren’t tied to actual priorities at all.

      This happens in personal and relationship contexts as well. People are often unclear on what they want out of life and partners, etc.[4] They spend time away from priority, trying to manage/ignore toxic relationships, the curated social media lives of their friends, etc.

      It’s that your brain energy needs to be spent on legitimate priority tasks. That means value-add work, strong friendships, burgeoning relationships, friends, family, pets, career goals, and the like. It doesn’t need to be spent on low-priority, cluttered tasks.

      But because of how our brains work, and the energy we need to spend on ignoring the clutter and noise around us, we often spend a lot of time and energy on the low-priority tasks and events.

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      Begin by removing the “stuff” in your life that doesn’t truly serve a purpose. That can be very challenging for many people, but thankfully there is a formula to help you throw away stuff without regret: The Declutter Formula That Helps You Throw Stuff Away. Learn it, know it, and try your best to follow it.

      Only when you remove the unnecessary distractions and mental energy-zappers can you truly begin to re-focus your life. Every time when you see clutter around you, think about how much mental energy you have to spend on ignoring them.

      The first step is de-cluttering your life, both physically and digitally. Only then will you be able to focus your mental energies in the right direction.

      When you remove the unnecessary elements from your life, that’s when your energy can be used for those elements to really help you grow as a successful, well-connected person. It all starts with the elimination of clutter.

        Photo credit: Source

        Featured photo credit: The Gary Art Good via thegaryartgood.blogspot.com

        Reference

        More by this author

        Leon Ho

        Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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        Last Updated on July 10, 2020

        The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

        The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

        Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

        Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

        The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

        Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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        Program Your Own Algorithms

        Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

        Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

        By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

        How to Form a Ritual

        I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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        Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

        1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
        2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
        3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
        4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

        Ways to Use a Ritual

        Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

        1. Waking Up

        Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

        2. Web Usage

        How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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        3. Reading

        How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

        4. Friendliness

        Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

        5. Working

        One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

        6. Going to the gym

        If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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        7. Exercise

        Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

        8. Sleeping

        Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

        8. Weekly Reviews

        The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

        Final Thoughts

        We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

        More Tips to Conquer Time Wasters and Procrastination

         

        Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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