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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 October 22, 2019

        How to Focus and Concentrate Better to Boost Productivity

        How to Focus and Concentrate Better to Boost Productivity

        We live in a world of massive distraction. No matter where you are today, there is always going to be distractions. Your colleagues talking about their latest date, notification messages popping up on your screens, and not just your mobile phone screens. And even if you try to find a quiet place, there will always be someone with a mobile device that is beeping and chirping.

        With all these distractions, it is incredibly difficult to concentrate on anything for very long. Something will distract you and that means you will find it very difficult to focus on anything.

        So how to focus and concentrate better? How to focus better and produce work that lifts us and takes us closer towards achieving our outcomes?

        1. Get Used to Turning off Your Devices

        Yes, I know this one is hard for most people. We believe our devices are so vital to our lives that the thought of turning them off makes us feel insecure. The reality is they are not so vital and the world is not going to end within the next thirty minutes.

        So turn them off. Your battery will thank you for it. More importantly though is when you are free from your mobile distraction addiction, you will begin to concentrate more on what needs to get done.

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        You do not need to do this for very long. You could set a thirty-minute time frame for being completely mobile free. Let’s say you have an important piece of work to complete by lunchtime today. Turn off your mobile device between 10 am and 11 am and see what happens.

        If you have never done this before, you will feel very uncomfortable at first. Your brain will be fighting you. It will be telling you all sorts of horror stories such as a meteorite is about to hit earth, or your boss is very angry and is trying to contact you. None of these things is true, but your brain is going to fight you. Prepare yourself for the fight.

        Over time, as you do this more frequently, you will soon begin to find your brain fights you less and less. When you do turn on your device after your period of focused work and discover that the world did not end, you have not lost an important customer and all you have are a few email newsletters, a confirmation of an online order you made earlier and a text message from your mum asking you to call about dinner this weekend, you will start to feel more comfortable turning things off.

        2. Create a Playlist in Your Favourite Music Streaming App

        Many of us listen to music using some form of music streaming service, and it is very easy to create our own playlists of songs. This means we can create playlists for specific purposes.

        Many years ago, when I was just starting to drive, there was a trend selling driving compilation tapes and CDs. The songs on these tapes and CDs were uplifting driving music songs. Songs such as C W McCall’s Convoy theme and the Allman Brothers Band’s, Jessica. They were great songs to drive to and helped to keep us awake and focused while we were driving.

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        Today, we can create playlists to help us to focus on our work. Choose non-vocal music that has a low tempo. Music from artists such as Ben Böhmer, Ilan Bluestone or Andrew Bayer has the perfect tempo.

        Whenever you want to go into deep, focused work, listen to that playlist. What happens is your brain soon associates when you listen to the playlist you created with focused work and it’s time to concentrate on what it is you want to do.

        3. Have a Place to Go to When You Need to Concentrate

        If you eat, surf online and read at your desk, you will find your desk a very distracting place to do your work. One way to get your brain to understand it is focused work time is, to use the same place each time for just focused work.

        This could be a quiet place in your office, or it could be a special coffee shop you use specifically for focused work. Again, what you are doing is associating an environment with focus.

        Just as with having a playlist to listen to when you want to concentrate, having a physical place that accomplishes the same thing will also put you in the right frame of mind to be more focused.

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        When you do find the right place to do your focused work, then only do focused work there. Never surf, never do any online shopping. Just do your work and then leave. You want to be training your brain to associate focused work with that environment and nothing else.

        If you need to make a phone call, respond to an email or message, then go outside and do it. From now on, this place is your special working place and that is all you use it for.

        Every morning, I do fifteens minutes of meditation. Each time, I sit down to do my meditation, I use the same music playlist and the same place. As soon as I put my earphones in and sit down in this place, my mind immediately knows it is meditation time and I become relaxed and focused almost immediately. I have trained my brain over a few months to associate a sound and a place with relaxed, thoughtful meditation. It works.

        4. Get up and Move

        We humans have a limited attention span. How long you can stay focused for depends on your own personal makeup. It can range from between twenty minutes to around two hours. With practice, you can stay focused for longer, but it takes time and it takes a lot of practice.

        When you do find yourself being unable to concentrate any longer, get up from where you are and move. Go for a walk, move around and get some air. Do something completely different from what you were doing when you were concentrating.

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        If you were writing a report in front of a screen, get away from your screens and look out the window and appreciate the view. Take a walk in the local park, or just walk around your office. You need to give your brain completely different stimuli.

        Your brain is like a muscle. There is only so much it can do before it fatigues. If you are doing some focused work in Photoshop and then switch to surfing the internet, you are not giving your brain any rest. You are still using many of the same parts of your brain.

        It’s like doing fifty pushups and then immediately trying to do bench presses. Although you are doing a different exercise, you are still exercising your chest. What you need to be doing to build up superior levels of concentrated focus is, in a sense, do fifty pushups and then a session of squats. Now you are exercising your chest and then your legs. Two completely different exercises.

        Do the same with your brain. Do focused visual work and then do some form of movement with a different type of work. Focused visual work followed by a discussion with a colleague about another unrelated piece of work, for example.

        The Bottom Line

        It is not difficult to train your brain to become better at concentrating and focusing, but you do need to exercise deliberate practice. You need to develop the intention to focus and be very strict with yourself.

        Set time aside in your calendar and make sure you tell your colleagues that you will be ‘off the grid’ for a couple of hours. With practice and a little time, you will soon find yourself being able to resist temptations and focus better.

        More Resources About Boosting Focus and Productivity

        Featured photo credit: Wenni Zhou via unsplash.com

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