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Decluttering the Mind

Digital distraction can limit your joy.

Everywhere I turn these days, someone is talking about “tidying up.” The first time this happened was when Marie Kondo’s famous book hit shelves, capturing the imagination of a country whose citizens love their stuff.

In the grocery store line, I’d overhear friends and partners jokingly ask each other, “But does this extra-large flat of toilet paper bring you joy?” At Ikea, I’d watch as people pulled meticulously folded garments out of their backpacks to see if they fit properly in drawer organizers. When the Netflix series came out, the obsession hit peak levels.

I fully understand the wish to lighten one’s load, to spend less energy on stuff and more energy on experiences and life and people. The concept of clean, uncluttered spaces appeals to most of us. If our environment is calm, perhaps our heart and mind will feel the same. The problem is, geography and environment can only moderate our insides to a point.

At a time when competition for our attention is constant, it makes sense to me that the glimmer of hope provided by a “fail-proof” de-cluttering strategy is sweeping the nation. It appeals to our sensibilities. Removing extraneous objects, focusing on joy and gratitude, and walking away with a physical space that feels less busy are all things that we can do. We fill bags for donation and drop them off. We rearrange our display shelves and leave large gaps on our walls and in our closets that demonstrate what we’ve accomplished. It all feels great.

It’s much harder to do the work of tidying up our minds and hearts. The clutter that lives there, in the intrapsychic world, is much more difficult to sort. Certainly, negative self-talk and painful memories do not bring us joy, and we can’t, in good faith, express gratitude to our obsessive worry and tireless rumination. There’s no container large enough for our persistent hypervigilance or our certainty that there’s an email, podcast, episode, Slack thread, or text we have missed, and no charitable donation center to bring these things to.

I often say that there is no longer a distinction between our “real lives” and our “digital lives.” Given that we spend the bulk of the day amassing experiences in digital domains, that the investment impacts our physiological, emotional, and relational well-being, and that the constant activity permeates every part of our being, I believe that a tidying-up movement for our real and digital lives is in order.

I can just imagine what this might look like as a comedic sketch. A tiny, energetic, sparkly being enters the subject on an inhale, soaring in through the nostril and arriving at the center of the internal body to say, in her pixie, yet soothing, voice, “Let’s express gratitude for this bag of skin that carries you around. No, really. Let’s do it. Breathe in and out, saying ‘thank you’ to your body.”

Flitting up toward the brain, her voice would instruct, “Now let’s take everything from every region of this organ and pile it up in the middle to be sorted. With each memory or thought you come across, touch it, hold it, ask yourself if it brings you joy. If it does, find a home for it. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.”

In the sketch, the pile would be filled with old failed tests, heartbreaks, big wins, big fears, and persistent worries. The subject, inspired by the dulcet tones and cheerful encouragement, would hold each item, bidding the weighty farewell with gratitude and organizing the remaining items with precision and care. If only this were doable.

Instead, the constant, loud, competitive clutter in our hearts and minds drives us forward (or plunges us backward), largely out of our conscious awareness. An email reminds us of a task we’ve forgotten, so we dive in only to be interrupted, a few seconds later, by a text pointing our attention to a different task that feels equally as important. In the midst of our multitasking, we catch sight of a notification about a breaking story and click on the link.

While skimming the story, we are notified that a package has been delivered, and while walking to retrieve it, we are reminded that the other package we expected yesterday never came. We follow the links to track that package, arrive back at our desk, open the padded envelope we’ve just received, and have no idea where this whole train of action began. This expression of our cluttered internal worlds happens over and over every day and is fed by our constant connection to our devices and the digitally overstuffed offerings they provide.

In a recent poll, Common Sense Media found that 50 percent of adolescents feel addicted to their devices. Twenty-seven percent of parents feel the same. Even for those who may not identify with the feeling of dependence that addiction assumes, the average American is spending 10 plus hours a day with screens. This kind of engagement with the ever-expanding access to data, ideas, and experiences online is bound to create clutter—much of it unnecessary, and some of it downright harmful.

In order to be healthy, we need the ability to be both stimulated and soothed. We need to be able to be productive, and then to let rest restore us. We need to be able to both do and be. I feel that we are seriously neglecting the soothing, resting, and being parts of these balancing forces. It’s time that we challenge the notions that an overactive mind is the best mind and that always being busy is the highest valued way of being in the world.

It’s time that we learn to step away from devices, at least some of the time, in order to practice boredom tolerance, which is related to higher levels of creativity; focus on one thing at a time, which improves depth of performance; and hone the ability to delay gratification, which can make us more satisfied. It’s time to take the impact of mental and emotional clutter seriously and to devise plans for cleaning it out.

Source: Unsplash

To that end, why not take some time today to do a quick brain dump, setting a timer for 10 minutes and writing everything that comes to mind. Imagine the writing of the thoughts as literally placing them out of your mind and freeing space there. Once the timer buzzes, crumple or tear the paper, and turn your attention to a mind free of clutter and distraction.

Imagine breathing spaciousness into your body and exhaling clutter and stress. Enjoy this feeling, however fleeting, and return to it often. Decluttering takes time and practice, and both can reward you with a much more calm sense of being.

More from Doreen Dodgen-Magee, Psy.D.
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