How a supermarket snowman helped me eliminate mental clutter

I’ve written about the benefits of a trusted system before. It can be anything you like, really: index cards in your pocket, project management software, a notepad, audio recorder, whatever. The crucial thing is that your brain knows: 1.) You’ll enter information into it reliably; 2.) You’ll check on it regularly, and 3.) Nothing entered into the system will get lost through the cracks. Some people use Getting Things Done, while some use a home-grown solution. When you trust your system in your bones, your brain will stop nagging you about what needs to be done.

That nagging happens to me when I carry around excessive “mental clutter.” As I’ve said before, I use David Allen’s definition of clutter (I’m paraphrasing here): Anything that isn’t where it’s supposed to be for all time. For example, sneakers lying under the coffee table are clutter until they’re placed in the shoe basket in the mudroom. Likewise, “Dentist appointment on the 14th at 9:00 AM” is clutter while it’s in my mind until I write it on a calendar that I know I’ll check.

Mental clutter is detrimental to me in several ways. When I my mind is cluttered I remember obligations when it’s impossible to do anything about them (“Finish William’s Pinewood Derby car” is useless to me while doing 60 mph on the highway), and the subsequent distraction causes me to miss other, more important things.

Now, about the snowman.

A year ago, I was in the checkout line with my then-4-year-old son. He clanked his Keds against the steel shopping cart as I moved bottled water, bagels, and potato chips onto the conveyor belt. While my hands worked I thought about which items would go into the freezer, which ones I’d cook right away, what we’d eat later that night….

“Daddy, look at the snowman.”


“Look at the snowman.”

“Honey, it’s summer time. There’s no snowman.”

“I see a snowman.”

“Ugh, honey…”

I looked up, my arms moving items from cart to belt, my eyes scanning the store. “Where’s your snowman, honey?”

“Right there.”

He pointed. I looked. I saw it.

A snowman. In the floral department, there was a balloon shaped like a snowman, about 18 inches tall.

I hadn’t noticed it. I never would have if he hadn’t pointed it out. What’s more, he was right. Why would there be a snowman balloon for sale in July? What an odd thing that I missed. What else had I missed? I wanted to know.

That’s when I vowed to notice what I was missing. The first step, I figured, was to identify how I was missing things. Once I found it, I could change it and then cease missing things. I began to monitor my habits. Initially I didn’t change them, I just observed. I was stunned at how frequently I invited distraction upon myself. Here’s what I was doing:

Waking up in the morning, and switching on the news. Dressing while barely glancing at my clothing. Heck, I was watching the news while barely glancing at the TV. Between buttons and sound bites, my eyes were scanning emails while my brain was running its own acrobatics. What will happen today? What will happen this weekend? I need to do laundry. Why are the kids moving so slowly, don’t they know it’s a school day?

There were constant distractions and a mentally consuming dialogue like this throughout the entire day.

Eventually, I realized something significant — I never did what I was doing. For example, when I got dressed in the morning, I didn’t get dressed. Instead, I spent that time filtering much incoming stimuli: The TV, email, my children’s progress toward getting ready for school and so on. My mind wasn’t on what was happening, which was selecting clothing, buttoning a shirt, tying a shoe, tightening a belt.

With the problem identified, I worked on eliminating it. In the morning, I turned off the TV and the computer and just got dressed. I even told myself, “I’m getting dressed.” It was nice! I kept doing it. I found that I appreciate that I have the motor skills required to dress myself. I found that I have nice clothes. I found that my backyard looks nice in the morning through the bedroom window, and I can look down on the berry patch and rhubarb plants. When I was done, I felt, well, happy.

I also realize that there’s so much good in the ordinary. Kurt Vonnegut expressed this more eloquently that I can:

“[When Kurt Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying an envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babies. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, I don’t know. The moral of the story is, we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, with the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.”

Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to do two things at once. Nor am I suggesting that we eschew productivity or fail to pack the kids’ lunches because it’s time to examine every detail of every moment. I still occasionally write and listen to music at the same time, or breeze through my Twitter stream like a humming bird, or review the day’s schedule in my head. But now I know that’s what I’m doing, if that makes sense. And I’m missing a lot less.

Including snowmen.

31 Comments for “How a supermarket snowman helped me eliminate mental clutter”

  1. posted by Scott Carlson on


    I’m reading now on this very concept. I was also suprised to learn that Goldie Hawn has a foundation for teaching children mindfulness .

  2. posted by Beverly on

    Loved the exerpt from Kurt Vonnegut. It was not until I retired that I learned to “fart around.” Wish I had learned to do that years ago . . . life might have been less of a burden to me. Now, I putz and I’m happy doing nothing!

  3. posted by Pat on

    Good post.

    Does this type of “farting around”, this enjoyment of life, actually lead to longevity? Think about people who live in rural or remote areas-many live longer than their “very productive, multi-tasking urban counterparts”. Something to think about…

  4. posted by Mardra on

    Lovely Post, this is always a good reminder. Present! Thanks for sharing it.

  5. posted by Natalie on

    Great post! So true and good to learn to live each day with intention

  6. posted by Mara on

    I have an old cookbook written by a guy who used to cook for a Buddhist retreat… he talks a lot about this idea but uses the phrase, “when you wash the rice, wash the rice”. It’s exactly like what you say about concentrating on getting dressed: focus your mind on what you’re doing, and any act can become a meditation.

    While I find the concept interesting, it doesn’t work very well for me… I guess I’m actually kind of addicted to my mental clutter– I’m pretty creative, and have a very active inner world, so whenever I’m doing something “mindless” (like the dishes, or sorting laundry or whatever) instead of trying to clear my mind, I just let it go to where I’m writing a chapter of something, or designing or planning something new, whatever I’m excited about just then.

  7. posted by JayEff on

    I don’t have a dishwasher, and I used to hate doing dishes.

    While doing dishes, I was constantly wishing I was doing something else, thinking about how awful doing dishes was, and hating what I was doing. I could not wait to be done.

    One day, while doing dishes, I focused on doing the dishes. I felt the water on my hands, noted its temperature, felt the slipperiness of the suds and the weight of the plates, etc. Lo and behold, I actually enjoyed doing dishes. And I still do.

  8. posted by Gretchen Peacock on

    Great post. Thanks for reminding me. I get so wound up in planning my life that I forget to live it! Again, thanks.

  9. posted by Christina on

    Great post. The worst of it is not paying attention to the people around me. I’m too busy thinking about the 6 things I need to do.

  10. posted by Kathy @ SMART Living on

    Ha! Cute story about Snowmen and how we all selectively filter out much is going on around us. Unfortunately, like you say, we miss out on so much and don’t even know it. I also believe that much of what you wrote about is our “Addition to Busy-ness” which I wrote about in my own blog post if anyone is interested at: Of course, it is far too easy to forget how we need to slow down and look around us…so I really appreciate your sharing your story….And today I’m going to be looking for those snowmen around me! ~kg

  11. posted by Nathalie Brooke on

    When I was young, the motto in our form was: do what you do. A slight change on the usual French motto: do well what you do, which leads to perfectionism…

  12. posted by Janet on

    Wonderful! One of my favorite verbs in the English language is to “putter” – a more genteel word for farting around.

  13. posted by Kate on

    A wonderful post all around and particularly the Vonnegut quote! Janet, I’m with you, I love to “putter” and I love to use the word “putter” to describe it, as well.

    Just today someone I love posted an item on Facebook about how a woman’s mind is like having 2,500 tabs open on a browser all the time.

    I know it was meant to be funny, but I found that awful!! Sure, everyone multitasks occasionally, but I agree with the post here, write it down, schedule it, and close 2,499 of those tabs. Or at least 2,498.

  14. posted by Another Deb on

    Beautiful post. My brain is constantly spinning so much that I cannot stay focused on needed tasks.

    The best thing I ever fund for focusing was a job I once had in a microchip cleanroom. All the people were in pure white suits, only the eyes showing, not even mouths. You were required to walk deliberately slowly and not speak overly much due to particulates that could be stirred up. There was nothing but the white noise of the machines to hear. The industrial cabinetry and panels made most visuals very flat and dim. But for 12 hours each day inside my head were explosions of poems, rainbows and missives to write, paintings I wanted to paint…all mostly lost since we were not allowed any paper because of its lint. It was refreshing to just think the thoughts and let them evaporate, rather than feel obligated to record anything at all.

  15. posted by ChrisD on

    Great post, I think it also highights another issue which is whether we pay enough attention to kids. If an adult asked you to look at something you would look. When your child asked you to look you spent longer arguing with him than it would have taken to look. I remember my 6year old godson totally blanking out his 3 year old brother who wanted to tell him something, when he finally paid attention it took three seconds for his brother to tell him and run off. The 3 year old didn’t seem to mind being ignored, but an adult would have been pretty angry at such rude behaviour. Of course if a child interupts you you need to train them to take their turn and not take over the conversation, but I think maybe we overdo it.

  16. posted by April on

    It seemed to me that many of the recent Unclutterer posts were rehashing of old ideas. Made me go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Next.”

    But this post was beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  17. posted by Shalin on

    I’ve run into this issue before and I’ll also verbally describe/confirm “I am doing (laundry, dishes, nothing, etc.)” which does indeed help to bring things back into focus…

  18. posted by cindi on

    Excellent and thought-provoking blog post. It’s a matter of pride to some people that they are successful multli-taskers, and are busier than you and your next door neighbor combined. It certainly goes against our culture in this country and this time.Our corporate world creates programs to rehabilitate us called “Be present,” but it seems no one does it well, or even wants to try.

    Another great look at this concept of “knowing what you’re doing” was written by Shauna Niequist. She wrote an exceptional blog post titled “My Drug & My Defense,” a personal look into how she used busy-ness to make her feel numb and safe, the way you use a drug. She used busy-ness as a way of explaining all the things she dropped, didn’t do well, couldn’t pull together, as a defense. Read it here:

  19. posted by Denise on

    An excellent post, and a good reminder. Thank you!

  20. posted by [email protected] on

    I love this post! I am so busy these days that I tend to do things without really paying attention to what I’m doing. Then I can’t actually remember having done it or what I did. I hate that. It makes me feel like I’m losing my mind. Anyway, I’m making some changes and as a result, I’ve been doing a few things more mindfully and I LOVE it! I feel more engaged and more accurate and I find I enjoy what I’m doing.

  21. posted by JoDi on

    “I never did what I was doing.”

    Amen to that. I feel the same way, but I’ve found it hard to change it. I often experience what Patty described above – doing something and then not remembering it because I wasn’t even paying attention. I’m going to try to spend more time focusing on what I’m doing at that moment and see if it helps. Thanks 🙂

  22. posted by Jenny on

    LOVE this post!!! Thank you!

  23. posted by Kat on

    Strengthsfinder 2.0 told me that I a “Futurist” – one of my strengths, but also one of my greatest weaknesses. I am very rarely present, but more often planning something new.

    I have found that reminding myself to feel my feet is most helpful – a variation on “be where you are”. When I remember to remember my feet I certainly feel more grounded! 🙂

  24. posted by JC on

    DD has been in therapy and/or hospitalized treatment for 12 years now, since age 5, for extensive trauma from her first home life. For several years her therapists have been trying to get her to practice “mindfulness” or being fully present to combat her flashbacks etc. There was an interesting article recenlty in Scientific American Mind about the positive results of a happier healthier life as a result of being mindful. I try to notice the small things around me and have seen many things that have brought a smile, a question, or instilled a desire to learn more that I would have missed otherwise. I have also noticed that although my life concerns don’t cease, they are less intense when I am not constantly ruminating upon them.

  25. posted by Jules on

    I love this post!

  26. posted by mary on

    this theme keeps popping up for me this week. I was just watching a TED video where the speaker describes his studies into how mind-wandering actually makes people less happy and how we’re happier when we’re in-the-moment, even if it’s doing something unpleasant.

  27. posted by Heather on

    Most days, reading Unclutterer is an aspect of my mindlessness; half-way through a message, I’ll either delete it, because in one way or another, we’ve “been there,” or I’ll sense that the entry is truly unusual, has a fresh point of view, or has immediate usefulness. Whereupon, I move it to a mail folder affectionately labeled “MESS” — and then move on! After reading 1/2 of the way through!

    So this message has caught me right on the nose. At 70, I am more and more symptomatic for mindlessness. I’ve even had to revive my ages-old “journal of this-and-that” to sharpen my presence on this earth, and I’ve had to set up Google calendar alerts to keep myself — and my cluttered mind — from missing appointments that would otherwise get smothered by the clutter.

    Thanks for bringing me up short.

    And to Mara, I believe, who writes in her head while barging through tasks: my former writer husband did the dishes this way every night. But we both understood that in those moments, he had set aside the time to do that, and the racks full of washed dishes were just a bonus for us all.

  28. posted by Gina on

    A wise person once said,

    “Your focus determines your reality.”

    Most people may be surprised that it was a character in Star Wars, but I’ve often found that such pop culture tidbits stick better in my mind.

  29. posted by EngineerMom on

    According to my mom, when I was a kid, I was one of those “stop and smell the roses” types. I kind of lost that as I progressed through high school and college. I would occasionally find a moment to retreat into nature, but the majority of my time was filled with multi-tasking.

    I wasn’t very happy. No matter what I was doing, I was almost always thinking about something else, past or present.

    My biggest teachers for living in the moment have been my kids. They are also great teachers for pausing to enjoy what’s going on around us! I’m a lot happier now, for many reasons, but a major one is taking time to do one thing at a time and enjoy what’s going on instead of comparing to the past or thinking about what this will look like in the future.

  30. posted by epistememe on

    Actually I am gong to be a bit of a contrarian here and say that I really enjoy thinking about things that are almost completely unrelated to what I might be doing at the moment. I will give a couple of examples to illustrate. When riding my bike for exercise, either at home in Colorado or at my vacation Casa in Cozumel I usually put on a good podcast on science or philosophy and focus almost exclusively on the lecture or podcast I am listening to. The scenery of the ride is extremely familiar having ridden the routs 100’s of times that I go on “automatic” during the ride. I feel I am using my time productively by gleaning new insights from the lectures and focussing on them and ignoring mostly the passing scenery and experience of the ride. I am riding mostly for fitness as this is a road ride and requires little attention unlike a mtn bike ride on a trail.

  31. posted by epistememe on

    I think we mentally attend to thoughts that seem the most pressing to us. This is an involuntary response and natural. Focussing on the “common” everyday minutia may seem like a more direct experiencing of life but it also may be a waist of limited mental resources. I choose to focus my limited resources on the most important issues I want to explore and not on the mundane. To each their own.

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