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The Minimalists

Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus write about living a meaningful life with less stuff for 4 million readers. As featured on: ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, TODAY, NPR, TIME, Forbes, The Atlantic, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and National Post. They live in Missoula, Montana.

Decluttering Mental Clutter

Those voices inside your head won’t be quiet: all you can hear is your boss telling you to have those reports complete by Friday, or your daughter reminding you there’s soccer practice this Saturday, or a parent’s voice telling you they need your help cleaning the house this weekend.

Most of us have somewhere to be each day, not to mention the everyday fire drills we get put through at work or at home. It can feel very overwhelming, and our minds can get noisy. Some of us even have echoes of voices from experiences from the past.

How do you deal with all that mental clutter?

Mental clutter is something I’ve worked on my entire life. I used to feel like, no matter what, I constantly had some sort of mental clutter—I always had something going on in my mind. If it wasn’t something new causing that anxious, chaotic feeling, it was something from the past creeping back into the present to haunt me. Some days were worse than others, but it was there every day.

And then, after fixing several other parts of my life, I was able to cut down on the mental clutter:

Health. Your mind and your body aren’t standing in separate corners of the room: it’s much easier for a physically unhealthy person to experience a poor mental state. The brain is a delicate organ and we must treat it right. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Daniel G. Amen. I was impressed with Amen’s in-depth explanation of the ties between the human brain and the human body.

I notice I feel more anxious when I have an empty stomach, have not exercised in a few days, eat junk food, and don’t get enough sleep. I discovered once I changed these things, the mental clutter began clearing away.

Improving my health was an important first step.

Circumstances. If you’re like me—the old me—then you’re saying to yourself you can’t change your circumstances. And with that attitude, we’re right.

Once I decided I’d had enough of the mental clutter, though, I had no choice but to change my circumstances—I had no choice but to remove myself from circumstances that added to the problem.

I stopped associating with certain people, changed my spending habits, downsized my possessions. I started with myself, and, in time, changed my circumstances.

Over time things change, and instead of letting them change on their own, or letting things change me, I decided to change myself.

Some of those changes were difficult.

I stopped associating with a few folks who encouraged bad habits, and the world didn’t stop spinning.

I was laid off from my six-figure career, and I didn’t die.

I set new expectations with friends and family, and they supported me.

My circumstances are completely different now from what they were a short while ago, and I’m infinitely happier. Don’t take this the wrong way: I’m not suggesting everyone needs to quit their job or take dire actions, but please understand your problems likely aren’t as bad as you think.

Don’t be fooled by anyone: you are in control of your circumstances; you are in control of you.

Past troubles. This was one of my biggest issues: my haunting past. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve let people down, and I’ve made dumb decisions. I’ve been extremely hard on myself, unnecessarily hard, neurotic about the mistakes and bad decisions I’ve made.

I’d often fall asleep replaying my whole day in my head, searching every interaction and conversation for mistakes so I could improve myself.

Now every time I feel anxiety caused from some past experience, I ask myself a few different questions:

Is that situation relevant now?
Was that situation even that serious?
Am I blowing it out of proportion?
Was that situation in my control?
Does what that person, family member, or friend said actually have validity, or are they just acting out?

These questions helped me discern the things that mattered and didn’t matter, so I could stop being so hard on myself. I also had to learn what things were in and out of my control. If something was out of my control, I accepted it so I could focus on the things I could control—the things I could change.

What makes you tick? To find out what made me tick, I drew a vertical line down a piece of paper. I labeled the left side “Bad Days” and the right side “Good Days.” For each scenario, “Good Day” or “Bad Day,” I thought of the foods I ate, people I saw, places I visited, etc. I couldn’t remember every detail, but it gave me a few places to start.

To get better, I knew I needed to identify the problems, and then find the appropriate tools to combat them. Those tools can be different for everyone, but don’t expect to fight the voice in your head on your own.

Read this essay and 150 others in our new book, Essential.