Drifting away from mental clutter

One of our Unclutterer readers on Twitter sent me a link to Paul Graham‘s recent article “The Top Idea in Your Mind.” In this article, Graham discusses clearing clutter from your mind so that you can let your meandering thoughts be filled with ideas that are the most important to you. From his article:

I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That’s the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they’re allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it. Which means it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.

He goes on to suggest how you might clear the clutter:

You can’t directly control where your thoughts drift. If you’re controlling them, they’re not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want [to] think about.

I fully agree with Graham — the more time you spend focusing on something, the more it will consume your thoughts. If you spend your time at work gossiping and getting caught up in office politics, your work and productivity will suffer because your thoughts will be on creating conflict not doing your job. If you spend your time at home upset because someone makes a mess, your positive thoughts of this person will eventually be overwhelmed by negative ones:

Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I’ve found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn’t deserve space in my head. I’m always delighted to find I’ve forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn’t been thinking about them. My wife thinks I’m more forgiving than she is, but my motives are purely selfish.

When you’re in the shower or mowing the lawn or drifting off to sleep each night or zoning out, what thoughts go through your mind? Are they thoughts focused on what really matters to you, or are they clutter? Check out Graham’s full article for more insights and suggestions for processing mental clutter.

11 Comments for “Drifting away from mental clutter”

  1. posted by Joe Zack on

    I’m a big Paul Graham fan myself, he also has an essay on “stuff” you might find interesting:


  2. posted by Courtney Carver on

    I think the correlation between uncluttered space and an uncluttered mind is really remarkable. Even if I have a lot on my mind, I am rarely overwhelmed anymore. By creating space in my home, I am able to better process ideas and information.

  3. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Joe Zack — That’s a great link. I hadn’t seen that article, thank you for sharing it. I really like the line: “beware of anything you find yourself describing as ‘perfectly good'”

    Amazingly true.

  4. posted by TMichelle on

    This article reminded me so much of Phillipians 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

    It pays to direct your mind to think on good things.

  5. posted by infmom on

    I can ordinarly multitask easily. But right now, I am finishing up a book manuscript that’s going to be sent to Lulu in two weeks and when I’m working on that or even thinking about that, it appears nothing else in the world exists. I forget all kinds of important things I need to do, and if anyone happens to ask me to do something it probably won’t get done because I will have forgotten about it seconds after I’ve said I’ll do it.

    I’ve tried writing things down, but then I get involved with the book again and forget to look at my list.

  6. posted by Jonathan on

    Wow! That is one of the best articles that I have read in a long time! Thank you so much for posting it!


  7. posted by AnnieR on

    I read Paul Graham’s full article plus his one on Stuff – thanks for the links.

    My partner finds he does his best thinking lying down! It’s a habit learned from Charles Darwin. Probably to do with lack of visual stimulation/distraction.

    We do cryptic crosswords together and I find it interesting how the brain works in background and we can almost always get more answers on the second, third and fourth look – all at different times of day.

    I find classical music can allow my thoughts to drift and find different spaces and directions, which can be useful.

    Long distance driving has also be helpful – physical moving being emulated by mental/psychological/emotional movement.

  8. posted by [email protected] on

    That is a great Paul Graham article – but I totally disagree with his idea that kids are less bothered by clutter because they are less perceptive.

    Kids notice far more details than adults do – you can prove that by taking a toddler on a walk. They are fascinated by things that we don’t even see or have seen so often that we ignore them entirely in our drive to get from here to there.

    Kids are bothered by clutter at the same unconscious level that adults are. (They just don’t have the conscious motivation and skills to tidy up faster than they make a mess – not so different from adults there either!) Maria Montessori discovered that they play and learn much more imaginatively and in a focused way when they have an educative and organised environment.

    Also, most adults tune out their own familiar clutter just like you might accuse a kid of: “Look at this room, it’s a mess!” Most of us are just as guilty in our offices or closets.

  9. posted by Antonia on

    Thanks for posting this, Erin. This bit really resonated with me: “Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it.” I too often dwell on negative situations in the past, and sometimes find it hard to forgive & forget. I like how Graham reframes forgiveness as selfish–funny, but true!

    Sometimes we have no idea what is most important to us because there’s so much clutter on top. By clearing away the clutter, we give our true desires space to grow.

  10. posted by Ben on

    His latest article, “The Acceleration of Addictiveness”, is an interesting point of view for unclutterers too.

  11. posted by Nonnahs Driskill on

    Your articles are fabulous. thank you.
    After listening to Dr Whybrow talk about how we are bombarded with stress all day long I was inspired to turn off my car stereo. OFF. And I am surprised everyday by how much thinking is going on while I’m driving.
    The other day I had to pull over twice to let myself cry (many of my dear friends have moved away, so I have a damn good reason to cry) tears that probably never would have seen the light of day if I weren’t purposefully trying to minimize the mental stimulants.

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