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.
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