“As a client leaves my office, she accidentally scuffs the paint on the wall with her backpack. It happens; I’m not angry, but I like clean walls. I make a mental note to myself to have it fixed. Just as she leaves, the next client walks into my office, and we begin our session. We become so engaged in conversation that I don’t even notice the paint scuff again until he leaves and the next client enters. Before I know it, I’ve seen three more clients, and it’s 9:00 in the evening — too late to call the painter. As I close up shop for the day, I answer any outstanding emails and begin thinking about the clients I will be seeing tomorrow. I don’t think about the scuff on the wall again until the next morning.” – Jody Michael
Mental clutter is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. On the surface, it seems harmless. But left to percolate, it can be an extremely powerful obstacle that stands in the way of productivity and, more importantly, emotional well-being.
“Throughout the course of a day, we bombard ourselves with mental notes about everything from needing to fix a spot on the wall to a great idea for a new client pitch,” according to Jody Michael, CEO and founder of Jody Michael Associates.
“Numerous thoughts pop into our minds when we can’t attend to them — while we’re driving or listening to a presentation at work, for example — so we file them in our mental filing cabinet. That’s OK — as long as we manage the file cabinet.
“The problem is, most people get so busy or distracted, they just keep adding to the drawers until they overflow. Before they know it, they’re looking at offsite storage units.”
But that’s not the only challenge.
Danger Ahead: Emotional Volcanoes
All mental clutter is not created — or handled — equally. Thoughts that are emotionally charged are the ones that can become heaviest to carry.
“Negative thoughts have the capacity to profoundly influence moods and behavior,” Jody reminds clients engaged in any type of coaching with JMA. “It is particularly critical to examine and process these damaging thoughts in order to change nonproductive patterns. Left to fester, they can wreak havoc on our self-confidence, our relationships and our careers.”
Consider the case of Alex, who had been promoted to a management position at a software company. In his new role, Alex was responsible for delegating tasks and monitoring his team’s sales performance. Within the first two weeks of assuming his new position, one of the top sales reps on the team turned in her resignation, announcing her decision to go back to school to pursue a master’s degree in a different industry.
Alex’s rational mind told him that this team member’s decision was based on her own career goals — and had nothing to do with him. The two of them got along well, and Alex knew that she had been applying to various master’s programs months ago. Yet a nagging thought threatened to drag him down: “People close to me always leave me.”
He ignored it, and attended to business as usual. All was well. (At least Alex thought so.)
Six months later, another team member left. This time, Alex didn’t handle it very well. He launched a mental diatribe (“Nobody is loyal anymore,” “Other managers have long-tenured teams, but not me …” and, again, “People close to me always leave me”) that landed him in a funk.
Assuming that his leadership skills were lacking — and fearing for his future — Alex reached out for executive coaching services. We addressed his management style, self-confidence, work-life balance — and then, one day, Alex mentioned that his dad had walked out on the family when he was five years old. He didn’t want to discuss it — “That man is not part of my life,” Alex emphatically said.
The problem was, “that man” had, in fact, become a significant part of Alex’s life through an emotionally charged thought that Alex did not want to address. Instead, it became mental clutter. Once we had an honest conversation about this emotional scar — so deeply rooted in his childhood yet so deeply buried in his mind — Alex felt a huge sense of relief.
With the weight lifted and the emotional residue gone, Alex’s demeanor, confidence and performance improved. Within months, he was leading more powerfully and with greater impact.
5 Strategies to Manage Mental Clutter
Most of us feel confident managing a three-ring circus in our minds. But rarely are there only three rings competing for our mental focus.
When too many things are going on in our heads at one time — whether the thoughts are conscious or not — it can impact our lives in myriad ways.
The following strategies can help you clear — and avoid accumulating — mental clutter:
- Organize your physical space — Clutter can be metaphoric. When you invest in the time to organize your workspace, the dividends become immediately apparent. You will not only increase your ability to think clearly, but your productivity will noticeably improve as well.
- Find the right tools — In today’s technological world, the buffet of productivity tools seems almost unlimited. But what works for your colleague may not work for you; if you like white index cards to write yourself notes, use white index cards. Talking through your concerns with a trusted friend or a life coach helps many people achieve clarity, but listening to music alone in a room or taking a hike through the woods may be your panacea.
- Compile a list of tolerations — Many people break out the broom and recycle bins when the weather turns milder, but you can do the same for your mind. In Spring Cleaning of the Soul: A Strategic Process for Planning Your Career, Jody Michael describes how, more than 20 years ago, creating a list of “tolerations” helped define her career path — and her decision to found Jody Michael Associates.
- Do the “mental” work — Negative thoughts take more than time to process. They require courage, honesty and deep reflection. In addition to working with an executive, career or life coach, participating in our workshops will teach you how to change your thoughts, moods and behaviors so that you can respond to any situation with a renewed sense of control. If you are interested in learning more about our proven methodology, please contact us to find out when the next workshop will be offered. (Note: Workshops include two individual follow-up sessions with one of our trained, certified coaches.)
- Commit to remain present — One of the reasons people find vacations so relaxing is that their conscious minds get a break. Whether you’re relaxing on a lounge chair overlooking the ocean or hiking a treacherous trail through the mountains, your brain gets a respite from the day-to-day incoming thoughts clamoring for your attention. Vacations allow us to be truly present, but you can achieve the same mental freedom in your day-to-day life by committing to a mindfulness practice. In addition, the right productivity tools can provide you with an efficient “filing cabinet” for your thoughts, allowing you to focus on the present moment with confidence.
What strategies have you found effective in clearing the mental clutter?