How to Increase Productivity by Reducing Mental Clutter

A recent study found that we check our smartphones up to 86 times per day, and for some of us, every six minutes.

The Center for Creative Leadership conducted a study in 2014 and found that checking our devices that frequently increases our workweek to about 72 hours. In other words, we are also distracting ourselves with non-essential activities.

In fact, the habits we have formed around technology are costing us income and time. Techno-distractions add a high number of unproductive hours to our schedules. Technology does, in fact, improve efficiency; but it’s also is the root cause for lower productivity.

Let’s not just blame technology. Many aspects of life, and our own thinking patterns, can clutter our minds with things that make it harder to concentrate: family and personal obligations, work demands, business travel, etc.

So, what is mental clutter? It is anything that gets in the way of a clear and focused thought process.

Have you ever noticed that when you get overwhelmed or over-stimulated that you can’t think straight? This occurs because our body starts to produce more adrenalin and cortisol-the hormones and neurotransmitters that our body releases to cope with stress.

As a business professional, you might notice that when you have “too much on your mind” your ability to think straight, strategize, or problem-solve is diminished. I’ve heard my clients say, “My head gets cloudy.”  As the body releases stress hormones, our amygdala, or our reptilian/instinctive brain, takes over. We default to basic responses, such as fight, flight, freeze or appease. That’s why we often procrastinate (freeze) when we’re overwhelmed by a big project. It’s why we stop responding to email (flight) when we have too many demands on our time.

There are ways around this. Being aware of when your brain gets highjacked by stress hormones is a natural place to start.  Mental clutter can cause high levels of stress, disorganization and confusion about what to do next. When mental clutter causes increased stress, there are a few ways to decrease the overstimulation.


1) Physical

Take care of your health.  Exercise, sleep and good eating habits release more of the feel-good hormones into your body, such as dopamine and serotonin. These hormones will help improve your focus and thinking.


2) Old Stories

We are the stories we tell ourselves. Usually we tell ourselves negative things, such as how we messed something up or how horrible we are. Judith Glaser, a cultural anthropologist, refers to this as our movies. We are great storytellers and so we can create epic movies about how we just don’t measure up.

The good news is that you can work on telling yourself a new and positive story. Or you can toss the negative movie in the trash. Doing so will free up your brain to focus on what is important, positive and relevant. You will live in the moment rather than in the past or in the future.


3) Discipline

We all have obligations with email, social media and business. It takes discipline to focus on one thing

at a time. In fact, our brains operate much better when we don’t try and multitask. Focusing on your email in blocks of time will free you up to focus on a larger project later. Being disciplined to only check your social media at certain times, will help you maintain focus and ultimately relieve stress.


4) One Step at a Time

I also recommend that you make a list of what is cluttering your mind each day or week. Then work on one of those items at a time. Think of your mind as if it were your desk. If your desk is too cluttered, tidy one part of the desk every day until it is clean and organized. This will alleviate self-inflicted stress and help you to develop new habits and behaviors.

Developing self-awareness about your habits and behaviors takes time, so give yourself the time you need to work on it. This exercise is not about being hard on yourself; it’s an opportunity to see how you can grow and change and ultimately find some mental freedom.


If you’d like to learn more about reducing stress and mental clutter, I encourage you to read my book Own Your Time, which can be purchased on Amazon.


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