Ask Unclutterer: Mental clutter

Reader Stefanie submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’m really good about things like keeping my email inbox almost empty and entering every little thing into my calendar or to-do list. I know exactly what I need to get done, but my problem is mental clutter. I’m a writer, so I’m always sending work out to various publications and presses. I’m also looking for a job right now, and I have applications out all over the place. I end up spending way too much time anxiously waiting to hear about work I’ve already done instead of producing something new. Do you have any tips about how to get out of this waiting loop?

Job hunting, dating, waiting for grade cards, negotiations — when you type these words onto a computer screen they look relatively harmless. However, the reality of these events can be stressful, filled with anxiety, and great causes of worry. When you become fixated on the outcomes of these events, your worries clutter up your ability to think or do much else the same way physical clutter can overwhelm your home and office.

If you’re like me, being told “don’t worry about it” just makes me want to give the stink eye to whomever said “don’t worry about it.” Obviously, if you could just turn off the anxiety by telling yourself not to worry about something, you would. So, you won’t hear that advice from me. Instead, I’ll offer up my strategies for handling mental clutter and you might find one or two will work for you.

Embrace the worry. Set a timer for an hour, and put your entire focus on worrying during that time. Imagine the worst case scenario and then write out how you would respond to each of these scenarios. You don’t get job X — How do you feel? What do you say to people who knew you applied for the job? What new jobs do you apply for? How will you change your budget? What would life be like if you had to move in with a friend/family member/your car? What is Plan B? I don’t know why it works, but focusing on the worst for an hour usually helps relieve the greatest amount of my anxiety. I typically find that I am prepared to handle all of the scenarios I imagined. Also, if the dark Cloud of Doom looming overhead reappears, I just remind myself of the solution I have planned and the fear subsides.

Gretchen Rubin, author of the blog The Happiness Project and a book by the same name, addressed fears she had about negative reviews of her book by writing, “Happiness Interview with an (Imaginary) Hostile Reader.” Her post is a perfect example of embracing the worry and it helped her to keep actual criticisms that came after her book’s release in perspective.

Do something else. Mental clutter has the power to immobilize, but that doesn’t mean you have to give in to its power. Acknowledge that you’re wasting time worrying about X, and do everything you can to do Y. When I get writer’s block, I’ll put on my running shoes and get in my exercise for the day. When I can’t sleep because anxious thoughts overwhelm my mind, I’ll get up and do chores or read light fiction or take the car to get gas or go grocery shopping (our store is open 24 hours). When I worked in a formal office and leaving wasn’t an option, I would fight these consuming thoughts by returning phone calls, refilling my co-worker’s coffee cups like I were a waitress in a diner, or temporarily relocating my work to a conference room (the change of scenery was often all it took). I learned how to knit when I was thinking about changing careers. I took up running when my mom was in a really bad car accident. I wrote my book when we were waiting to be matched for our adoption. Healthy diversions are fantastic ways to get out from under worry.

Talk to a professional. If either of the two strategies that I’ve mentioned aren’t enough to help you clear the mental clutter, pick up the phone and schedule an appointment with a mental health professional. When clutter is out of control in your physical space, you can turn to a professional organizer to help you get things in order — so why not turn to a professional to help you get rid of the mental clutter? Almost a decade ago, when I was considering changing careers, I met a few times with a therapist to sort through everything. I wanted the opinion and help of a neutral third party, and it worked great for me. Paying for four sessions with a therapist was worth the price of not worrying about my career-change decision for the rest of my life.

Thank you, Stefanie, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check out the comments for even more strategies for handling mental clutter.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

25 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Mental clutter”

  1. posted by Ronique Gibson on

    I agree with embracing the worry. In our society we spend so much time being told not to think about worry, don’t let worry get to you, and you worry too much! Let’s be honest, if you spend too much time focusing on not worrying.. in essence you’re worrying! So I say think about it, don’t give it power, and turn it into how the worry could lead to something better. This works for me everytime!

  2. posted by Dawn F on

    I wonder if starting off the day with 15 minutes of quiet meditation would be a good idea for Stefanie and maybe again in mid-afternoon – to start (and restart) things off with a calm, clear mind.

    I also love Erin’s thoughts regarding “healthy diversions” – doing something else to distract a worrying mind.

    TGIF everyone!

  3. posted by Brit on

    OK, so does anyone out there have suggestions about how you find — and afford — a therapist when you’re out of work and every dollar is precious?

  4. posted by Another Deb on

    I tend to worry about things I need to get done, like grading papers. Doing something else is procrastination, but I have learned to get away and rest my mind so I can go back to the task. I call it productive procrastination. The bathrooms would never get cleaned if it wasn’t for semester deadlines.

  5. posted by Another Deb on

    @ Brit,

    I believe there are therapists who work on a sliding scale based on income. Check the phone book for mental health agencies.

  6. posted by Chris on

    I keep a Waiting For list (David Allen’s’ GTD) for everything I’m waiting on. The list includes mail orders, call backs, test results from the doctor, etc. In your case you could include writing work submissions and job applications. I use Outlook for task management and for items on the Waiting For list I set the Start Date as the date of initiation and the Due Date as a reminder to follow up if I haven’t received an appropriate response.

    It’s a small thing but it’s made a big difference in my mental clutter. I don’t spend energy remembering when I initiated something or when to expect a response or delivery. It’s also made me more aware, when appropriate, to ask when I can expect a response and make note of it in the Due Date.

  7. posted by auntie on

    Excellent post!!

  8. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Brit — Many areas in the US have mental health clinics with free or reduced prices. Check your local government’s website, too. We have career counseling services for free in our county, I believe. If you went to college, your career placement office might also have counseling for alums.

  9. posted by Christine Simiriglia on

    This post is both helpful and timely as it is something I’m in the middle of addressing right now.

    Mental Clutter and anxiety are byproducts of the culture of overwhelm that we now live in. Therapy and sometimes medication can help with out of control anxiety, but there is also a cultural anxiety which affects many of us. There are ways to keep it at bay. I recently posted about this topic here: http://www.organize-more-stres.....-live.html

  10. posted by Loren on

    It probably depends on where you live and work, but I usually find that my commute is the best time to really have a ‘good worry’. It’s about a 20 minute drive to work, and about 30 going home. I turn off the radio, stop trying to drive so aggressively, and sort of mentally plan out every possible outcome I can think of. When I get home, sometimes I feel like I need a little more time, I take a walk. But usually by the time I’ve gotten the mail and fed the cat I feel much better.

  11. posted by Jessiejack on

    I totally agree with tip #! – I schedule an appointment to worry with an actual time Then during the day if I start to worry I say to myself “Hold on — you will worry about that at 8pm” Oddly enough that takes the pressure off since I know when I will think about the issue and I can put it aside til then. Sometimes I visualize putting the worry into a box so I can open it at the given time. This allows me to get through the day. Then at worry time, I think about it all for 10-15 minutes and put it away til tomorrow. This does not work for acute anxiety such as about someone’s health but more for things like – what if I fail,what will they say etc.

  12. posted by Kari on

    Another Deb, I do the same thing. I figure as long as somehting is getting done (and frequently I am thinking about grading criteria, or class prep while I am “procrastinating”) it works for me. And usually after a time out I find it easier to get back on task.

  13. posted by Marci on

    What a perfectly timed post! I just returned from a job interview for a position I desperately want. Was told they have a couple more interviews next week then make a decision the week after. Two weeks of worry ahead! It just helps to know that I am not the only one that has mental clutter from worry. I especially like the second suggestion, to do something else. I have an urge to clean my house (and I intend to act on that because it doesn’t happen that often!) I predict lots of uncluttering in the next couple of weeks for me. Thanks so much for this post!

  14. posted by saturncat on

    Years ago, I had a friend who told me that, whenever she had a lot of concerns on her mind, she would schedule a conference with herself. She would literally pick a day and time (generally an hour to an hour and a half) and then quickly write out the worries on which she wanted to concentrate (finances, love life, health concerns). When the time came she set up somewhere quiet (usually at her dining room table), made a pot of coffee, unplugged the phone (this was the 70s), and sat down with her agenda, a scratch pad, and discussed each issue out loud, brainstorming and voicing aloud why each worry was important, options to handle it, deadlines for doing so (if necessary), worst case scenarios and what to do if the bottom fell out. She also told me that an important factor in these personal conferences was to give voice to what naysayers or opponents (whom would be at the table if it were a business conference) would say, why something wouldn’t work, why a certain venture or idea was not viable, realistic outcomes, etc. All facets of a concern were examined. She told me she often surprised herself by coming up with off-the-wall alternatives to dealing with different situations, and sometimes realized that certain situations or plans weren’t worth the time and energy. The agenda helped keep her on track and she approached it with a business-like manner, no giving up and getting up until some resolutions were made.

    That said, I actually have a couple conferences scheduled with myself during the upcoming week. I’ve wound up with way too much clutter, material and mental, each feeding and feeding off of each other, and as ruminating about it at 3:00 a.m. ain’t doin’ me no good, it’s time to get business-like about it.

  15. posted by AMD @ Make Do, Live Well on

    I believe the best way to respond to a problem is to DO something about it. If you’re worried about hearing back about a job, spend that anxious energy seeking out and applying for another one. If you’re panicked about a project that’s due in two days, WORK ON IT!

    But I really admire the advice about talking to a professional. Some worry-inducing issues can be too debilitating to respond to effectively through action. Talking to someone who is trained to listen to your concerns and work out solutions for dealing with them can be invaluable!

  16. posted by Adventure-Some Matthew on

    I’m another who is a productive procrastinator. There’s never so much work getting done around the house as when I have a school assignment coming up. 😀

  17. posted by Barbara Tako|ClutterClearingChoices on

    Sometimes something as short and simple as three deep mindful breaths can help, especially if you don’t want to or aren’t able to take the time to meditate. Inhale slowly, hold it a moment, and breathe out slowly and completely three times.

  18. posted by Juana on

    As a chronic worrier, I am always being told to “calm down” and to “stop fretting about every pissy little thing.” But I read once that worrying is actually a form of praying, but without believing in a higher power. I agree that it’s okay to embrace the worry, because it ain’t necessarily a bad thing

  19. posted by Sue on

    When I am feeling swamped (like this last week), I make a Master List and write Every.Single.Thing on a to-do list. That mind-swirling sense of out-of-control panic that can paralyze me, can be eased by really seeing what needs to be done.

    Step 2 is to see who I might be able to delegate some things to, or what can be put off without serious damage, or what is a 5 minute job to be done right now.

  20. posted by earl veale on

    I just finished reading “The Worry Cure” by Robert L. Leahy.
    I found the book to have a consistent approach for addressing worry, and one of the steps was embracing the emotions associated with your worry. There were several other steps listed which will provide me with practical steps in dealing with current and future ‘worry’.

    Here is a link to the book on Google Books.
    If you choose to look at it, I hope it will benefit you too.

  21. posted by Cheryl Paris on

    Hello Stefanie,

    I understand that it is difficult not to worry…as one has so many rather a million things to be done. Best would be to allow some relaxation and meditation time and assign priority to each task with designated time frame. Unless you assign priority it will be difficult to get all the things done in respective time frame.


  22. posted by Miss Margaret Picky on

    Lots of good advice here.

    You may also find physical exercise a good way to help reduce the stress. For me, long brisk walks concentrate mental activity as well as physical activity. When you are walking, running, swimming, or doing some other similar non-competitive activity, your mind has an opportunity to think about what is disturbing you in a more helpful manner.

    What you want to do is think about how this problem is affecting you and what you can do about it, rather than just stewing in the worry, so you will have to remind yourself of your intended mental focus.

    Another suggestion is to wear a rubber band around your wrist and when you find yourself worrying, pop it to snap yourself out of the unproductive thoughts.

    Silly, yes, but it can help break a cycle of unproductive mental chatter.

  23. posted by mydivabydesign on

    I am beginning to get a handle on my clutter. It built up over the eight years that I owned a childcare business. I noticed that when I feel bad it begins to build up again. I will keep at it though!

  24. posted by Elee on

    I don’t know if Stefanie is just worried, or worried she’ll forget something, but in a recent extensive job search, I used Bento (Mac database) to keep track of postings, applications, interviews, etc. It was super helpful and I’m still using it for freelance jobs/clients now. It comes with an iPhone app, too!

    I’m the kind of person who always needs to have stuff written down or documented somewhere. Even if I don’t refer back to it again anytime soon, I relax knowing that I can find it again (I think this is where one of those scanners would come in super handy).

  25. posted by 3 Steps for Dealing with Subliminal Clutter | elegant simple life on

    […] don’t underestimate the value of seeking help from a mental health professional. As Erin of suggests, When clutter is out of control in your physical space, you can turn to a professional […]

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