Identifying non-physical clutter

Physical clutter is easy to identify in our lives because you can touch it, take a picture of it, and point to it during an argument with your roommate/co-worker/child/spouse.

“That thing, right there, should not be there!”

Other forms of clutter are more nebulous. If you are worried all the time, you can’t pack that anxiety up and sell it on Craigslist. If your schedule is overbooked, it’s difficult to know which of dozens of activities is the one too many.

To help identify the non-physical clutter in my life, I give myself a timeout. I’ll sit in a comfortable chair, holding a pencil and notebook, and close my eyes. I try to clear my head of all thoughts. Whatever thoughts slip in, I quickly open my eyes and write them down on the notebook paper. Then, I close my eyes again and try to clear my mind of all thoughts. After about 30 minutes, I’m usually able to settle down and enjoy a few moments of real silence.

When I get up from my timeout, I’ll look at the list and try to address everything on it as quickly as possible. Almost everything I write on the notebook paper is related to clutter in some way — I’ll pick up the phone and call a friend I’ve been worried about to see how she’s doing and if she needs anything, I’ll schedule 15 minutes to research information regarding a decision I need to make, or I’ll make a long-overdue appointment with my eye doctor. Even if I can’t solve the problem completely, doing at least something helps to relieve or reduce the clutter burden I’ve been carrying.

I’ve discovered that a monthly timeout helps me to keep the non-physical clutter from growing out of control in my life. If you haven’t tried it before, give the timeout a try and see what happens. Worst case scenario, you’ll fall asleep and conclude you are free of non-physical clutter.

17 Comments for “Identifying non-physical clutter”

  1. posted by Maria on

    I love the idea! I will try it!

  2. posted by Rick Lobrecht on

    Sounds like step 3 of the Weekly Review in Getting Things Done. – it’s a free downloadable template

  3. posted by [email protected] on

    Mental clutter is incredibly unhealthy. Someone very close to me has had years of it building and building, and this weekend had a stroke. Regardless of how many times I tried to remove the clutter from her mind by rationalising with her about her worries, it just wouldn’t clear. Dale Carnegie years ago wrote about how to stop worrying and start living, worrying and mental clutter drags us down and holds us back – it prevents life moving on. If you are worried about something ask yourself can I do anything about it? If you can, then do it straight away do not put it off. If you can’t do anything about it forget about it, if you can’t forget about it then gradually try not to give it thought – think about other things, alternatively think about it differently (try and spin it positively) but ideally just accept it. Acceptance is key to a lot of things in life.

  4. posted by Sue on


  5. posted by [email protected] on

    Sorry meant to add – I know there are many contributing factors to health problems (diet, genetics etc…) and anxiety/stress isn’t necessarily the reason for such things. I am not an expert on stress related illness or strokes, in my opinion this was a contributing factor in this instance.

  6. posted by Laura on

    I needed that this morning! Thank you.

  7. posted by Mimi on

    that reminds me of a quote from “eat. pray. love.”
    someone said, referring to thoughts that flutter in a head: “you can choose your thoughts as you can choose your clothes from your closet”.

    replace choose by unclutter and you got the message.

    … should i say that the person in the film also said, that you have to practice a lot to be able to do so?

    congratulations, erin! i wish i could unclutter my mind like you.

  8. posted by thesuburbanminimalist on

    Excellent post! And from watching some episodes of “Hoarders”, it seems like mental clutter and physical clutter are intertwined. Maybe physical clutter is sometimes a symptom of emotional distress? Although I do have some brilliant creative-type (also well-balanced) friends who keep very, very cluttered desks.

  9. posted by [email protected] on

    I so wish I could access ‘Hoarders'(I can’t get it as in UK) – as an ex-hoarder myself I love to see these people declutter their lives – I so know how amazing it is! Also agree physical clutter is attached to mental clutter – my issue was sentimental hoarding!
    My life changed when I read ‘Simplify your life Downsize and Destress’ by Naomi Saunders in March 2009. Amazing starter book for life simplification – it led me to Zen Habits, and ultimately to other blogs like Non Consumer and Unclutterer – I now blog myself – it’s come full circle.

  10. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    Having recently gone through a mental breakdown due to stress, anxiety and depression, I can definitely attest to the fact that the mental clutter can weigh as heavily as the physical clutter. Great tips for helping to clear it out!

  11. posted by ecuadoriana on

    This is a brilliant idea, Erin! It’s sort of like a pro active meditation, if I am correct to say that.

    Meditating is clearing one’s mind of ALL thoughts, which most of us (westerners) have a hard time achieving. Your suggestion to clear your mind of all thoughts & then to only QUICKLY address those that DO creep in by quickly jotting them down (but NOT writing a novel about them & get bogged down!), and then move on to clearing the mind…. is the perfect solution for people like me!

    I try to clear my mind but the nagging thoughts creep in & then I battle to get back on track of clearing my mind & then I get stressed out that I can’t! (Counter productive to the purpose!) Your solution allows me to forgive myself for creeping (and sometimes creepy!) thoughts by letting them briefly in, but not allowing them to take over because they are now written on a piece of paper on my lap & don’t need to be in my head any longer! I can add them to the TOP of my “To Do” list & then get them done right away, out of the way, & most importantly- out of my head!

    I make “To Do” lists, like everyone else, but then, rather than just cross the items off & leave it at that, I transcribe them onto another list (actually a journal type book) that I call my “Taa Daa!” list. It gives me a boost of self esteem to see all that I HAVE accomplished in my LIFE (I have years of these journals!). So the list isn’t really “Cleaned the house- Taa Diddly Daa”, but more like “I keep a clean, safe, comfortable, and loving home for my family and friends- “Taa Daa!”. (Much nicer to look at than simply: “Scrubbed that yucky stuff, of questionable origin, off the base of the toilet- Taa Freakin’ Daa.”. LOL!)

    And yes, EVERY time after I do a house cleaning, or grocery shopping trip, or repair something- whatever is on my “To Do” list that day- I transcribe it into the Taa Daa!” book! So I have MANY reminders about my successes, even if it’s still: “I keep my possessions in good repair, today I fixed the book case. I can wield a mean hammer- Taa Daa!”

    I also add things to my “Taa Daa!” list like “Successfully finished film project and made incredible life long friends in the process- Taa Daa!.” (True story.)

    Now, when I apply your meditation idea to my life I think I will finish off the exercise with mental pats on the back for all the things I have done!

    Thanks for such an inspiring post, Erin! You really sparked my day!!! Love it!

  12. posted by Maggie on

    My doc actually diagnosed me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which means I needlessly worry about ridiculous things (which can sometimes lead to panic attacks if I don’t manage the anxiety in some way). So getting rid of mental clutter is a big issue. However, she (and my therapist she recommended) have agreed that the root cause is likely my current job. I’m working on uncluttering THAT and hopefully the anxiety and health problems that come with it will wane over time.

  13. posted by Ida on

    I suffer from this when I’m out sick, on vacation or occasionally on a Sunday nite. I obsess on what is waiting for me at my desk, will my boss “take it out on me” etc. One night after being out sick for several days I couldn’t fall asleep till 3am.
    I am trying to “train my brain” to shut up and not worry. To look back on the other times when I’ve returned after an absence and nothing big happened.

    My insecurities are my worst enemies.

  14. posted by lola meyer on

    Excellent post!So true that we need to clear out mental clutter too. I noticed my life improved dramatically when I cleared out the physical clutter, and it took another leap forward when I removed some mental clutter…got rid of a few ‘poisonous relationships’. I understand the saying, “free as a bird” now. Keep up your great work Erin!

  15. posted by HelofaMess on

    @[email protected] I couldn’t agree more. A relative of mine (who now lurks about here) had more mental clutter than they could cope with – end of an abusive marriage, moving back in with mum without dealing with the issues from the marriage, death of the mother, having to totally unclutter the mothers stuff and their own to move and downsize, no furniture for 6 months as the new stuff took ages to arrive, the house (which looked perfect on the outside) needed a lot of repairs which swallowed savings, death of a beloved family pet. All happened (apart from the end of the marriage) over the space of about a year. Result? Depression and breakdown. I don’t know what could have prevented this but I suspect that removing the mental clutter would have seriously helped.

  16. posted by DayOldNews on

    Genius idea. I make lists all the time, but never thought to actually give myself a set time where I meditate on my to do list, so to speak. Purging everything on my mind on to a paper list would help alog.

  17. posted by Cheftometrist on

    This sounds like a great technique! I’m realizing that it’s much better to take the time to address nagging tasks (and thoughts) than to try to ignore them.

    P.S. And I’m glad to hear that it prompted you to go to the eye doctor. 🙂

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