More mindful, less clutter

Have you ever been on a road trip, driving down a long stretch of highway, and suddenly become mindful of where you are and what you’re doing? You don’t know where the last few minutes went, but you are instantly aware that you had zoned out for awhile. You weren’t asleep; you just weren’t alert or present to the task at hand.

I’ve been on the Metro and had a similar experience. I’ve ridden past my stop because my mind was focused on something that had happened earlier or wasn’t focused on anything at all. I was absentminded because I wasn’t mindful of what I was currently doing.

When we operate on auto-pilot in our lives, we cease to be aware of what is happening right now. A man on the street will hand you a flier for a shoe sale, and you’ll put it into your pocket without thinking twice. Then, the flier clutters up your coat pocket for days, maybe weeks, because you don’t even remember it is there. Had you been mindful when you were on the street, you wouldn’t have taken the flier in the first place.

A significant amount of clutter in our homes could be eliminated simply by being more mindful in the present. Mindfulness helps you to make significantly fewer impulse buys, you throw out junk mail before bringing it into your house, and when you spot clutter already in your home you take care of it immediately (recycle it, trash it, put it in a donation box) instead of pushing it aside and letting it continue to bother you. I’ve also found that if I’m tired, I’m more likely to be absentminded. (There is a direct correlation between how many typos make it onto Unclutterer and how much sleep I had the night before I edited the article.) Keeping up energy levels helps a great deal with being mindful.

If you’re not in the practice of staying mindful, consider temporarily putting up post-it notes around your home or office that say “What are you doing right now?” A note on your computer monitor, one on your bathroom mirror, another near your mailbox, and another one on the door of your microwave are good places to start. A second idea might be setting a timer on your computer with a recorded voice saying “What are you doing?” to sound every 15 minutes. Also, keeping up your energy levels is a plus.

What do you do to help you stay mindful in the present? I’ve tried the post-it note idea and had decent success with that strategy. However, I found I needed to change the post-it note every few days (switch up my handwriting, change to a different color of paper, and move the location slightly) so that they continued to grab my attention.

35 Comments for “More mindful, less clutter”

  1. posted by Julia on

    One thing I used to do regularly – and need to do much more often now – was pause at the entrance of a room and simply look at it. What pile of c**p have I ignored long enough that I no longer see it unless I stop to look? What has “moved in” that obviously needs a place to live – but not where it is?

    If the lines of the room are clean I am more likely to be at peace. The more I hurry, the more clutter I leave behind, the more it tugs at my consciousness, leaving me uneasy or subliminally stressed.

  2. posted by TanyaZ on

    One thing that I hate is the whole “in the present” thing. I believe, there is are old words for it – focus and concentrate. Most of the time, we don’t need to concentrate, and being on autopilot is fine, and saves us mental energy, let’s our brain rest until we really do need to concentrate. However, if errors happen, then 1) you do need review your autopilot and make improvements (I automatically refuse any coupons and have a “no coupons” rule in the house) and 2) have a good trigger system and switches your brain back on when needed, so you don’t miss a stop.

    I also have two favorite quotes for “being present” – first is Octomom in interview saying how she is going to “be present with her children” – you know, not feed them, not develop them, not cloth them – be present. And the second from the movie trailer – “I was in the moment, and the moment told me to punch you in the face”. ‘Nuff said.

  3. posted by Obligatory Star Wars Quote on

    Obi-Wan: But Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future.

    Qui-Gon Jinn: But not at the expense of the moment.

  4. posted by Dawn F. on

    I wear a ring that has a cross on it and, for me, it is a constant reminder to be thankful for all of my blessings and to slow down and be happy with life. I never take the ring off so it’s like a traveling post-it note – reminding me to smile when I think about the gifts that I have in my life – my family, good health, caring friends, a job, etc., etc.

    I know not everybody believes in God, but maybe wearing a ring or a bracelet or a necklace will help inspire that person to remember whatever it is that is important to them – a little reminder to slow down, focus and smile!

  5. posted by Daniel on

    Living in the present is one thing I constantly try to improve on, but there is one point I disagree with:
    “Then, the flier clutters up your coat pocket for days, maybe weeks, because you donโ€™t even remember it is there.”

    In my opinion, the flier is not clutter at that moment: I am not aware of it, nobody else is aware of it (nobody is rifling my clothes, I hope). Therefore it is neither in the way physically nor, more important, mentally.

    Living in the present reduces clutter for one reason: I can focus on one thing, my surroundings. But that is not always necessary. For example when working scientifically to know the color of my table seldom improves my results, so living in the present would lead to me focussing on two things: That mathematical problem I was thinking about, and the ugly color of my table ๐Ÿ˜‰


  6. posted by Lindsey on

    Living mindfully, really figuring out how to inhabit the moments of my life, is the central task preoccupying me these days. I have so much regret for what I’ve already missed, being too focused on the past or the future. I’m determined not to miss any more. Thank you for these great and concrete suggestions, I will implement then now!

  7. posted by *Pol on

    I like the idea!

    My clutter paralysis is all about things that “meant something” to me in the past or “could be useful” in the future. So being mindful would not only keep me from missing important NOW moments, but let go of things that are not relevant to my NOW life! After all— the life I want for my future has less unfinished business… so why do I keep it all around me now?

  8. posted by chacha1 on

    I don’t think “mindfulness” means “concentrate on one thing to the exclusion of everything else” OR “be aware of every single thing going on around you at all times.” I think mindfulness *as a concept* is more about continually checking in with yourself and your environment.

    It is possible to be fully engaged in a task and yet still to be aware of sounds or movement around us. It is possible to sit at one’s desk typing and yet be mindful of our posture. This is not the same as multi-tasking, in which we try to use the same part of our brain to do more than one thing at a time.

    Unfinished business – which may be represented by clutter – is something that impinges on our senses. It’s either visually right in front of us, or nibbling at the edges of our memory. Dealing with it gives us one less thing to drain our ability to be conscious and attentive toward the activities that require concentration.

    Our senses (the mind of our body) are constantly providing feedback to our brain. Being tuned in to that feedback – letting it work in the background, like an operating system on the computer – is a useful way to think of “mindfulness.”

  9. posted by Meghan on

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with zoning now and then. Especially on public transportation. I rely on it! Also, putting a bunch of pointless post it notes all over the place sounds like clutter if you ask me. I’d rather have a flier in my pocket than a post it note on my bathroom mirror asking me what I’m doing. Sorry to be negative, this one just doesn’t work for me!

  10. posted by Andrea on

    I take the fliers ,on purpose, because the person handing them out is being paid to do that. I figure they get enough rejection as it, particularly in NYC.

    Later I used them as scrap paper or recycle, which is better than littering.

  11. posted by Cathy on

    I’m with Andrea. Those folks have a job that SUCKS, and maybe it’s the only one they could get. I put the fliers in the shredder when I get home and they get used as animal bedding along with all the other pointless paper that seems to accumulate.

  12. posted by Rob on

    Maybe you were asleep while driving, and didn’t know. From wikipedia on microsleep:

    A microsleep is an episode of sleep which may last for a fraction of a second or up to thirty seconds . . . People who experience microsleeps usually remain unaware of them, instead believing themselves to have been awake the whole time or to have temporarily lost focus . . . One example is called “gap driving”: from the perspective of the driver, he drives a car, and then suddenly realizes that several seconds have passed by unnoticed. It is not obvious to the driver that he was asleep during those missing seconds, although this is in fact what happened.

  13. posted by Leslie on

    I set my watch to chime on the hour, and when I hear the sound, I come back to the present for that second or two.

  14. posted by WilliamB on

    I have a watch with a timer and three alarms; the alarms can be set for daily, weekdays or weekends. I’ve been experimenting with good times for my watch to get my attention. The current settings are:
    – 9 am weekdays: time to stop puttering at work (reading email, dealing with paperwork, etc) and focus on big tasks;
    – 3.45 pm weekdays: time to finish what must be finished today OR time to exercise; and
    – 9.30 pm daily: time to get ready for tomorrow and go to bed;
    – the timer is set to 15 min.

    This is a work in progress. So far the biggest problem is the temptation to turn off the alarm and forget about it.

    (The watch is a Timex Expedition.)

  15. posted by Stormbringer on

    Some Zen bloggers talk about being “in the moment”, which is another term that TanyaZ “likes”. Focus and concentrate, yes, but I think that being “in the moment” or “mindful” is a bit of a deeper dimension of focusing. I am trying to train myself to be mindful, especially when I am fatigued (another word for “tired”), and put the things that come out of my pockets where they belong and not leave a trail. Also, if I am doing something out of the routine, I will think clear words, or even say things like, “I am setting my keys in the cookie dish” or something. Focus!

  16. posted by The Countess of Nassau County on

    I never go anywhere without a pad and pencil, it helps keep my head clear.

    I also have all my housework scheduled in Outlook so when I wake up in the morning I know what my plans are and what I need to do. It keeps me from letting mundane tasks like emptying hampers and cleaning out the fridge be a distraction.

  17. posted by John A. on

    A couple of thoughts on “being in the moment” which
    TanyaZ’s’ comments made me think about…(and no offense made to TanyaZ; nor her orphaned coupons.)

    “Being in the moment” isn’t about doing something, it is about doing nothing. When you have a clean house, office, car, bills etc…it clears you mind and allows you to truly enjoy the wonderful world which God (Yahweh, Allah, Sean Penn,etc.) has put before you. I have found that my most peaceful and positive moments come from the times when I don’t have to worry about the minutia of life before/beside me. It is those amazing times in which I can take note of the simple, natural wonders surrounding me…the vein of a leaf, the cloud formations…anything. In my humble opinion, that is what “being in the moment” is all about. It is almost like yoga, you suspend all distractions and just feel and experience that which extends itself to you at that very “moment”.

    my humble thoughts….John

  18. posted by John @ on

    Now that I’m thinking about it, I have a flier upstairs that I’m going to go through away right now! Thanks for the advice! We do tend to go on auto-pilot without thinking about the implications.

  19. posted by Michael Arnoldus on

    What if the actual search for mindfulness and being in the now is the thing that takes us away from the present moment. How many people searching for “the now” is actually spending most of their time feeling frustrated about not being enough “in the now”.

    It’s not about doing. It’s not about not doing. It’s not about searching for some particular technique or experience.

    If you let go of al this – what’s left?

  20. posted by Lisa Byrne on

    I no longer buy magazines. I’ve eliminated catalogs and junk mail. Use only paperless billing. Turned off the television. Canceled newspaper & newsletter subscriptions. Ended club memberships. Paying off the last credit card. I’ve stopped looking for and collecting “things”. Instead of picking up/sorting paper or driving all over town I spend time at home with my family or visit friends!

  21. posted by Claycat on

    Actually, the ideas of being mindful and living in the present knocked me over when I started paying attention. I had spent so much time either in the past or the future that I needed the 2×4 of mindfulness of the present! I was always wishing for what had been and wishing for what could be instead of doing what I could in the present to improve my situation.

    I am finally there, in the present, after years! I am selling items on eBay, something I had put off for months. In doing that, I discovered ACEOs, something I should have noticed long ago but did not. I’ve been putting off my art for some time in the future. However, I’m a fairly decent artist, and my eyes are not getting any younger. So, I am encouraged to start making and selling ACEOs on eBay. I am a fourth of the way to my new goals, because of my decision to live in and be mindful of the present.

    I know people scoff at the idea of being mindful in the present, but it has probably salvaged the rest of my life. It was the wake-up call I needed.

  22. posted by Lilliane P on

    “What if the actual search for mindfulness and being in the now is the thing that takes us away from the present moment. How many people searching for โ€œthe nowโ€ is actually spending most of their time feeling frustrated about not being enough โ€œin the nowโ€.” (Michael’s post)

    There’s an old Buddhist saying about the fish in the lake searching for water.

  23. posted by The curious yogi on

    When I’m eating a sandwich and am thinking about doing laundry or calling someone I tell my self, “Eat the sandwich, eat the sandwich. Taste the tomato, savour the cheese, taste the mayo, smell the mustard, look at the bread…”
    As yogi Eric Schiffmann likes to say “Enjoy what you’re doing while you’re doing it.” It works for me every time.
    About the micro-sleeps, those sound like mini-strokes. I’m not a doctor or anything but I’ve heard that sometimes before one experiences a major stroke, he or she will experience many minor strokes. Anyone else know more about this?

  24. posted by TanyaZ on

    That’s what I find so puzzling (and annoying, to an anlytical person) about this whole in the moment thing – everybody has their own defintion, and often they directly contradict. Some say that “being in the moment” is about not thinking about future or past, savoring the moment. Some think it is about, rouhgly put, being tuned in, not forgetting stuff. So, I was “in the moment” yesterday morning, and I put together a great outfit. I was so “in the moment”, I did not realize until I entered my office that I left my work computer at home. Should I have been worried about not forgetting stuff, or should I have been “in the moment” savoring my morning routine?

    That’s why I think the whole concept is amiss. There are efficient routines that help us get through the day. For example, as loopy and autopiloted as I am before 10 am, I have not forgot my work ID even once in the last 5 years – that’s why I know I can work out a routing for not forgetting anything. And then there is the whole concentration/focusing on one task thing. Not being distracted and not multitasking. And then there is the enjoying and not worrying part. I am really good at the later, that’s why I am so forgetfull ๐Ÿ˜‰ Those are three different things.

    So, basically, I think it is a poorly thought out “in the moment” fad. In the present today, in the past tomorrow. It does attract its fair share of outright crazies, though (see the octomom quote), which makes it even more annoying.

  25. posted by Tom on

    it looks like you feel the urge to undermine the concept of mindfulness. Did you forget to take your computer with you? Well, an obvious answer is at hand – your mind wandered off when you should have been concentrating on preparation for work. To me it seems as if you are trying to implement all kinds of routines and autopilots, which is OK, as long as you are enjoying and present with what you are doing. The downside of autopilot routines is that they tend to trigger daydreaming. With daydreaming, an autopilot is only partially effective. Therefore I think that you weren’t present 100% that morning you forgot your PC, you just put a label “being present” on what it was not. Being present creates a lot more space and you are automatically doing what you should be.

    At least that’s how I understand it and how it works for me.

    If you disagree with me, at least please consider the following: If you feel you need to figure the whole thing out – just stop fighting with it. It will open a vast amount of space. It’s a great way to start being mindful. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  27. posted by TanyaZ on

    Tom, of course, I did everything wrong. I should not have been in the dressing up moment when I was getting ready, I should have been in “what else did I forget, what else did I forget” moment, right? No doubt, I would have rememebered about the computer if I were in “what else did I forget” nervous freak state of mind the whole morning. Just highlighting that the “present” solution is not that different from what people usually do, and it is not generally called being “in the moment” ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I am not fighting with it. I am exactly following your advice – this whoel “in the moment” thing is clutter, it is not for me, and my life is better without it.

  28. posted by Thebe on

    I have to agree that the “in the moment” thing does not always apply. I consider zoning out while taking public transit a survival technique here in San Francisco, as long as I don’t miss my stop. And I don’t see anything wrong with thinking about laundry or a phone call while eating a sandwich. Sometimes a slice of tomato is just a slice of tomato and trying to do everything “mindfully” sounds exhausting.

  29. posted by Michael Arnoldus on

    The problem with the entire “in the moment” thing, is we discuss it as a concept – and as TanyaZ has pointed out, for the analytical mind this concept doesn’t make very much sense. To begin with, who in the whole wide world is not living in the now?

    If I should try to make some sense of the _concept_ of “living in the now” or “being in the moment” it would be a reminder of the realization that the neither the future nor the past “exist” in a certain sense. The past is something we remember and this exist due to (and with the influence of) our memory and the future haven’t happened yet. Our analytic mind (well, mine at least) has a tendency to produce thoughts that’s primarily about the past or the future and these thoughts can in some sense take us away from the place we’re actually living – now. When that happens we might miss what’s really going on in our life, because the mind is constantly “taking us away” with thoughts. Often these thoughts are stressful but sometimes they’re nice – daydreaming etc. No matter if they’re stressful or nice these thoughts tend to remove us from simply experiencing what’s happening right now.

    A problem with the concept of being “in the moment” is of course that “in the moment” points to a direct experience of what’s going on without interference of the analytical mind in the form of thoughts – and a concept is something that exist in the analytical mind. And it isn’t really fair to ask the analytical mind to grasp life without the analytical mind ๐Ÿ™‚

    Hence the Zen expression “fingers pointing at the moon”. Words and concepts are not the “the real thing”, but simply pointers to the real thing. Like fingers pointing at the moon isn’t actually the moon.

  30. posted by TanyaZ on

    Let me add that while you may want to be “in the present”, to be effective, you still must think about the future to actually be effective. I did not forget the computer because I was not “being present”, I was in the present alright! I forgot it because I was not thinking about the near future – what the heck I am going to work on once I arrive to work. Thus a conflict – you can’t make the best decisions in the present without thinking about consequencies of your present decisions in the future, and to understand the consequencies of your present deicisions, you must review you past to find cause-effect patterns. Therefore, you must think about the past, present, and the future to make a good decision and be effective. So, that’s why I don’t think very highly about the whole “in the present/moment/now” thing.

  31. posted by Michael Arnoldus on

    Dear Tanya – for I assume that is your name.

    I may have sounded like wanted to persuade you to like or think highly of the whole “present/moment/now” thing. I have no such intention. Actually what it has taught me (and that is not in the slightest an attempt to tell you anything about you) is that we all do what we need to do. Thinking about the future, the past, the now as each of chose to do. And conceptual discussions like these often end up in exchanges about defending each of our worldviews and that really isn’t very interesting. For me there’s no connection about “being in the moment” and forgetting computers – or not.

    And thinking has – as you perfectly correctly point out – a lot of indispensable qualities without which we wouldn’t be able to survive.

    So I bow to survival, to thinking (past, present and future) thoughts and being the most effective you can be.

    The absolute best wishes to you ๐Ÿ™‚


  32. posted by TanyaZ on

    Michael, actually, I did not think you wanted to persuade me to think highly of the “in the moment” concept. I was trying to build on your thinking of the concept by using an example. Also, as you correctly pointed out, this discussion only strengthened my opinion by validating my concerns about unresolved conflics of the concept. I am not sure if this is boring, but I had fun going over my initial reaction (something’s amiss) and teasing out what exactly was turning me off.

    Best wishes to you too!

  33. posted by Michael Arnoldus on


    Not boring. Great fun. Let’s do this again someday ๐Ÿ˜‰

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