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5 Steps to a Clearer Mind

Believe it or not, at least a third of your worries should get trashed.

Have you ever tried working on a project only to find thoughts from all the other areas of your life intruding in your mind, making it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand?

This kind of distracted state can be debilitating. It might be a sign that you have ADD and could benefit from any of a number of treatment options or coping strategies. It might be a sign of other problems as well. But there’s a very good chance that you’ve simply acquired too many open loops in your mind, and you can get long-lasting relief within the hour.

I teach a five-step method for getting a clear mind. It’s a simplified version of David Allen’s inbox-sorting procedure, and it very often works wonders when done correctly and to completion:

The Clear Mind Procedure

  1. Write down everything that’s on your mind on one piece of paper (use more than one piece if you need).
  2. Create three columns on a second piece of paper, and label them: To Be Done; Maybe Later; and Delete. Sort all the items on the first piece of paper into the three columns on the second piece of paper.
  3. Take each item from the Delete column, send it off into space, and tell it never to return (with a corny little ceremony if that helps).
  4. Take the items from the Maybe Later column and put them on a Maybe Later list. (If you don’t keep one, start one).
  5. Take the items from the To Be Done column and put them into your planning system. (If you don’t have a planning system, get one).

This process often works wonders for people. However, as simple as it is, it can still be easy to misunderstand some of the steps, and these misunderstandings can keep you from realizing all the benefits of the process.

What Kinds of Things Do People Have on Their Minds?

Whenever I clear my own mind I find that about one-third of the items are things I can delete, a third can go on my Maybe Later list, and a third are things I need to do something about soon.

But some people, when following the process for the first time, have reported very different results. They report that almost every item they wrote down is in the To Be Done column. They have nothing, or next to nothing, in their Maybe Later and Delete columns.

Why do some people find many items to delete and defer, while others find almost nothing?

It could be that different people have different kinds of things on their minds.

It could be that people in the latter group are too attached to their various aspirations and perceived obligations, and need to learn how to let some of these things go (or at least demote some to the Maybe Later list).

And it could be that people who don’t have anything to defer or delete aren’t actually writing down everything that’s on their minds.

“Everything” means Everything

I’ve been walking others through this process recently, and I’ve noticed that, for the most part, people just aren’t writing down everything that’s on their minds—they’re just writing down their unfinished tasks.

But unfinished tasks are not the only things that clutter our minds.

So let me prompt you, reader, with the following clarification. When you write down everything that’s on your mind, write down everything that’s on your mind, including:

  • unfinished tasks
  • trips you want to take
  • people with whom you should touch base
  • skills you want to develop
  • subjects you want to learn
  • areas of your life in which you feel inadequate (such as your physical appearance, your knowledge, or your skills)
  • regrets about past choices
  • daydreams about what you would do differently if you could re-wind the clock and start over again
  • ways you feel trapped in your life
  • interpersonal conflict issues
  • home repair issues
  • home renovation ideas
  • things you’re dissatisfied with and want to change
  • goals other people want you to pursue
  • worries about the economy
  • worries about loved ones
  • habits you want to establish or break (but have had little success with to this point)
  • and pretty much anything else that has come to mind at some point over the last few days

All that stuff competes for your attention. And if you want a clear mind, you must deal with all of it.

When prompted like this many people begin to realize for the first time how much clutter they’ve allowed to collect in their minds. And they begin to realize how much of that clutter is stuff they can’t do anything about, or at least don’t need to do anything about right now. It’s just taking up space, time, and attention.

Give It a Try

Go ahead. Give it a try. And don’t be surprised if you get dozens (or even hundreds) of things off your mind.

If you would like to be walked through the process in a little more detail, I've got a free email course called "Clear Mind in a Complex World."

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