What Is Mental Clutter and How Can You Reduce It?

What is mental clutter? Photo of a young woman with long brown hair hunched over her laptop, cradling her head in her hands and looking very worried.
Mental clutter is the constant, low-level stress that comes from having too much on our plates. It can affect our thoughts, our feelings, and our ability to live our best lives.

Last Updated on 17/10/2022

If you’re always feeling like you can’t keep up, or as if your to-do list is constantly running through your head, it might be time to declutter your mind. Mental clutter is the constant, low-level stress that comes from having too much on our plates. It can affect our thoughts, our feelings, and our ability to live our best lives. The good news is that there are things we can do to declutter our minds and reduce the noise affecting our thoughts and peace of mind. In this blog post, we’ll answer the question of “what is mental clutter,” and explore steps you can take to declutter your thoughts.

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What Is Mental Clutter?

What is mental clutter? It puts you in overdrive, saps your energy and can bog you down. Simply put, mental clutter is the excess thoughts and ideas that crowd your mind and prevent you from thinking clearly or focusing on your tasks at hand. This overwhelming feeling of having too much on your mind can include things like worry, stress, anxiety, negative thinking, and any other types of intrusive or unwanted thoughts. Plus, it can come from different sources, including social media, work, family, and personal relationships. The science around mental clutter is still emerging, but we know that it can have a negative impact on our thoughts, feelings, and lives.

A lot of us go through life feeling bogged down, unable to think clearly, and generally feeling stressed. Oftentimes, we chalk this up to busyness or “the grind,” and write it off as part of life. Indeed, some mental clutter is triggered by external stressors or life transitions. However, a lot of mental clutter is self-created. Luckily, it’s also self-remediable.

Examples of Mental Clutter

  • Hanging on to old ideas, bad habits, or outgrown dreams which no longer correlate to your life today.
  • Allowing yourself to get sucked into an overwhelming overload of information on every corner, in endless dates, meetings, and appointments.
  • Submitting to a perpetual fear of missing out (“fomo”) or not being able to keep up with everything.
  • Procrastinating and constantly putting off decisions.
  • Speaking poorly to yourself in your own head, repeating negative thoughts, perhaps without even realising it.
  • Clinging to bad habits that can lead to addictions to alcohol, drugs, social media, sex, gambling, binge eating or overspending.
  • Holding other people to your expectations, which they cannot fulfill.

Mental clutter can have a significant impact on one’s overall well-being and quality of life, as it can make it difficult to focus and be productive, enjoy leisure activities, or even get a good night’s sleep. If left unchecked, mental clutter can lead to even more serious problems like depression, anxiety disorders, or the aforementioned addictions.

What’s on Your Mind?

For some people, mental clutter can be so debilitating that it interferes with their ability to live a normal, productive life. There are a number of factors that can contribute to mental clutter. One of the most common is simply having too much to do, all the time.

When you have a never-ending to-do list, it can be hard to focus on anything else. This can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed out. Another common cause of mental clutter is rumination. This is when you can’t stop thinking about something that is bothering you.

When it comes to living lighter and more intentionally, there is more to minimalism than just eliminating physical clutter. Now that we’ve answered “what is mental clutter,” you can reduce it by taking a few proactive steps to identify your own sources of mental clutter, setting limits, focusing on solutions, and getting a little bit creative.

Understand Your Values

What’s important to you? How do you determine what’s most important to you?

Your values are the things that you believe are meaningful in life. They guide your actions and decisions, and help you live a life meaningful to you. There are different ways to determine what your values are. One is to think about what is most essential to you in life. What do you want to achieve? To stand for? What do you want to be known for in your circle of family, friends and colleagues?

Another way to determine your personal values is to think about what you believe in. What do you believe is right or wrong? Who do you admire, and why? What are you grateful for?

Answering questions like this is a great way to not only determine how you want to spend your time, but also who you want to spend it with. And who you want to spend your mental energy and thoughts on.

I’m a firm believer in the power of writing. It is through writing that we learn, and internalise new thoughts and ideas. You don’t need be mindful of grammar or syntax or punctuation, just let your thoughts flow onto paper for a few minutes. You can destroy it all immediately afterward, or you can keep a proper journal. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the cahier ruled journals from Moleskin. They’re slim, lightweight, come in a pack of three and have a pocket at the back where I can keep additional mementos.

Moleskine Classic Notebook
Moleskine Classic Notebook
9.7/10
Moleskin Cahiers Pack of 3
Moleskin Cahiers Pack of 3
9.5/10
Gratitude Journal
Gratitude Journal
9.1/10

Writing is a highly creative practice in of itself, and creative thinking helps you think outside of the constraints of your mental clutter. Try it out!

Break Things Down

To really start reducing your mental clutter, you need to identify its sources. What are the things that are constantly weighing on your mind? Is it a looming deadline at work? A fight with a friend? A messy house? Once you’ve identified the sources of your mental clutter, you can start to deal with them. For example, if you’re worried about an upcoming deadline, break your task down into smaller chunks and timebox each of the sub-tasks.

If the thought of decluttering your cellar freaks you out because you know what awaits you down there, stop that thought. Zoom back out in your mind’s eye so you can see the whole picture. Now zoom into one tiny corner or category down there that you can do in 30 to 60 minutes. Sort out the toolbox, perhaps. Or throw away all the empty boxes from your old stereo system. Write down that mini task you just focused on. And then in your mind, pan over to another area or thing you can tackle in an equally short amount of time. Add that to your list. Keep doing this, and you’ll wind up with a to-do list that is manageable. One that is full of little mini projects you can accomplish successively.

Doesn’t that feel much better already?

Get In the Habit of Saying No

A good principle of mental decluttering is this: be fearless when it comes to saying no. To get there, you’ve got to practice saying no.

Start saying no to mindless social media scrolling which diverts you from more meaningful activities. You’ve also got to start saying no to worries and concern for the future, which sap your energy. Worries over things that quite likely will never happen.

Worrying about what others think of you also leads to anxiety and overthinking. Start saying no to people who keep you from your pursuit of meaning and joy. And lastly, start saying no to activities that don’t particularly interest you, or which leave you feeling drained.

Say Goodbye to Your Doubts

All humans engage in self-talk. How do you talk to yourself, in your own head? How many negative thoughts run through your brain on a regular basis?

You alone have total control over your attitude. Focusing on negative thoughts forms your outlook and affects your attitude. Think about how frequently you say negative things to yourself. How often do you catch yourself saying “if only I…” or “I can’t…” in your head? That’s self-doubt nagging at you, and it contributes significantly to mental clutter. It can also hold you back in life.

If you’re plagued by self-doubt, there are some steps you can take to banish it. First, get to know your triggers. What circumstances or thoughts make you start doubting yourself? Once you’re aware of your triggers, you can start to counter them with positive self-talk. For example, if you start doubting your ability to do a good job on a project, remind yourself of all the times you’ve successfully completed similar tasks. Taking a step back like this and reframing your doubts can help you overcome them.

I find it helpful to use a time travel technique myself. When I’m having self-doubts, I imagine myself in a future situation in which I’ve successfully overcome whatever it is I’m currently facing. You can practice this simply by thought, or through meditation, or simply by writing down your future vision and reading it multiple times a day so that you internalise it.

It’s also important to build a support network of people who believe in you and will quasi help you silence your inner critic. Finally, practice mindfulness and self-compassion. Focus on the present moment, your own journey, and treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Don’t forget to celebrate your unique successes, either.

Practice Letting Go

There’s a clear connection between physical and mental clutter, which I’ve broached in other articles before such as What Is Clutter and Does Decluttering Help Depression and Reduce Anxiety? Getting rid of stuff that’s weighing you down is beneficial to your mental well-being because you’re making a concrete decision about something, taking action, and thus moving it out of your head as “done.” You also simply feel better in your space at home when it’s tidy.

In addition to decluttering though, letting go of things also means letting go of your expectations and judgements of others, letting go of people who are bad for you, and focusing on the present. Living in a past you can never change will not get you to where you want to be. Nor will worrying about a future you don’t know how will pan out.

Let those thoughts go when you catch yourself thinking them. Bring your thoughts back to now. Focus on today, and where you want to be in the immediate future. Of course, it’s good to have long-term goals to work towards, too. They should not be eating you up at night with worry though.

Be Selective

Much like keeping clutter at bay in your home, you can keep mental clutter at bay, too, by being selective about what you let into your head. Staying out of other people’s dramas and office politics can be very helpful, to name two examples. Dialing back your consumption of social media and online news always makes great sense as well.

You also owe it to yourself to be picky about who you spend your time with, and who you let into your life. Being selective doesn’t mean being snobby. What it does mean, is not spending time with a heavy drinker if you are trying to change your own drinking habits. It means not changing your entire weekend schedule around to help your mother, when all she ever does is verbally abuse you and complain about you. It means leaving someone who treats you badly, lies to you, or physically harms you.

There are better things out there for you, better people who will actually appreciate you, and better things you can spend your time on. There is a learning curve to becoming selective, but setting boundaries is a great way to start. You can’t really change other people, but you can change yourself by expressing your needs, wants, and saying when you find something disagreeable or unacceptable.

Focus on Solutions

Worries clutter your head, but focusing on solutions can nip them in the bud. When you do so, you train your brain to think creatively and devise new ideas. This can help you overcome challenges more effectively, and reduce stress in your life. It also puts you back in the control seat.

Worrying about things that you can’t control is a waste of energy, so redirect it into solutions instead. Living more intentionally, being mindful of the way you talk to yourself, and learning to let things go can all help reduce mental clutter so you can live your life without the constant of overwhelm. It’s worth it.

White woman in her late twenties or early thirties, sitting sideways on a couch with her head resting against her hand. Caption reads identify and reduce your mental clutter.
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