11 Ways to De-Clutter Your Mental Workspace

The research is clear, multitasking doesn’t work, yet we do it anyway. Parents worry about their children growing up in a buzzing, chirping, and otherwise media-interrupting world, but adults too are being swallowed up by distraction. In an attempt to get more done at once, we are becoming less productive. We are passively allowing our work and personal lives to be interrupted again and again with little to show for it. It’s time we put some real thought into how we manage the information flow in our lives. If you want to see better work habits in your children, you can start by taking care of your own. Here are some ways to clean up your mental clutter and improve your productivity.

1. Use the 30/15 rule during projects.

FocusWork on the project for 30 minutes, do anything else for 10 minutes. During the 30 minute portion, you work on the project AND NOTHING ELSE; no checking your phone, no email, no Facebook; even avoid restroom breaks. During the 10 minutes, take a short break, use the restroom, check your email (but don’t start anything that takes longer than 10 minutes), grab a snack, watch a funny video, return calls, check your bank account…anything, productive or not.

By now most people are aware that taking breaks is an essential part of productivity. Selective sustained attention – what we use to focus on a particular task or problem – is a weighty, complex, and energy-consuming set of functions. The longer you remain continually focused, the less effective your concentration becomes, leaving you prone to distraction. We think that by plowing through we can get more done, but really we are just working less efficiently. 10 minutes of rest and small tasks for every 30 minutes of work may sound excessive, but don’t mess with the ratio! Even 30 minutes of focused concentration levies a considerable tax on your brain. Give this method a try for a couple days and see what happens. Not only will you get more done, you’ll finish the day with a bit left in the tank. Now wouldn’t THAT be nice?!

2. Use the Do Not Disturb and Airplane Mode functions on your phone.

Do Not DisturbFor most phones, Do Not Disturb will simply silence any notifications or phone calls you receive. Texts might still show up on your screen, but they won’t chime or vibrate. This is a great way to get your phone to stay quiet when you are in work (or play) mode. For those of you who can’t help yourselves, Airplane Mode will completely remove your phone’s access to Wifi, cellular and Bluetooth connections, keeping notifications from appearing at all until you choose to reconnect. Even better, put the phone out of sight. Just seeing it is enough to trigger a cascade of mental associations ready to flood your consciousness with What-ifs and To-dos.

3. Write notes to yourself.

NotebookJust think how many times a day you are confronted with tasks and information. Rather than chase every lead that comes across your path, write yourself a note. If you’re able to add a task to your electronic To Do list or make a note on your smartphone without getting waylaid by your email, Facebook, text messages, etc., that could work too, but it’s probably less distracting to use a pad of paper or Post-it® note. This technique will help you limit the number of windows and tabs open on your computer, save you from forgetting things and allow you to stay with the present task.  This is especially handy when brainstorming and researching. Often, we like to mark important information by leaving the tab open and beginning a new thread. Try to limit that method by consolidating the important information by hand.

4. Check email twice daily and disable on-screen notifications.

EmailEmail is a handy communication device, but keep in mind its most effective use: MESSAGES…as in “leave a message and I’ll get back to you [later]”…but on the computer. For some, it may be important to include a couple of lines in your email signature to educate your colleagues, friends, etc. For example, “Please note: emails are reviewed twice daily. If this is an urgent communication, please call me at ___.” Depending on your job responsibilities, it might also help to screen your calls or send all calls to voicemail; you can then decide, at your convenience, whether and when to respond.

5. Take work naps.

By now you might be familiar with the emerging corporate trend of nap rooms filled with space-age beds. The workday nap is a growing trend for a good reason. Prolonged work stresses our concentration and productivity, even with a full-night’s sleep (7-8 hours for adults). Brief naps during the day have been proven to refresh and restore work functioning while supporting improved performance and mood. In short, a brief nap is value added to your day. 

Although it’s clear that some jobs just don’t give an opportunity for napping, it’s a more available option than most of us like to think, and you don’t need fancy nap rooms (or even corporate approval). You might have to get creative, but if you can find a way to build a nap into your day, you will love the results. 

Check out this post to learn about How to Nap for the Biggest Brain Benefits

6. Tabless Thursdays

Credit goes to James Hamblin at The Atlantic for this one. Limit yourself to just one tab on your browser at a time for that day; it’s  a simple way to consciously do one thing at a time. Single-tasking: It’s the new multitasking! Not ready to go full throttle with single-tasking? Do the next best thing: keep social media and personal email tabs in a separate browser window from your work. When it’s time to take a break, they’ll be there waiting for you.

7. Meditation, A little dab’ll do ya!

MeditationMeditation 2We all know meditation is good for us; we just don’t necessarily want to do it. It can be difficult, boring or just seem too New Age. You don’t have to go all out with this  suggestion either. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Virginia Commonwealth University recently observed that even brief meditations – 25 minutes a day – significantly buffer psychological stress. If 25 minutes sounds too long, do 10 minutes; do 3 minutes even! It’s not like there’s a cutoff. There are plenty of guided meditations available on iTunes, Audible, CD and other media. I’d recommend starting with Tara Brach’s Mindfulness Meditation: Nine Guided Practices to Awaken Presence and Open Your HeartYou can find some brief meditation exercises on YouTube. If you are under a lot of stress and need to calm your nerves, progressive muscle relaxation (second video below) is an excellent choice. If you find it hard to build in time for healthy practices like brief meditation and naps, remember that you are likely to recover that time and then some with a clearer mind.

 8. Use a Planner.


Look, as a psychologist, part of my job is helping people bring to fruition what they already know. This item, arguably the most important of them all, you already know. Perhaps occasionally you pick up a planner at the store and try to keep up with it. You may even get fancy and develop a color-coding system or commit to looking at the planner over breakfast every morning. Yet, somehow, your enthusiasm fades and you find yourself relying on the same old methods: mental notes, Post-it® notes, writing on your hand. Don’t beat yourself up; it’s not from lack of effort. If a planner doesn’t work for you, you should consider incorporating a task system…

9. Develop a task/reminder system.

If you cannot (or will not) go to your planner, then your planner must come to you. Try using an electronic calendar with alerts. Pay attention to the difference between an appointment (a set amount of time) and a task (something that must be done, maybe at a certain time), and set alerts where applicable. I set multiple alerts (1 week/day/hour before) when I am worried I might forget something. 

10. Don’t tell me, email me.

Have you ever avoided leaving your office because you might encounter a colleague eager to catch up with you about that thing you’re working on together? Like a deer at an open stream, you pad gingerly toward the water cooler, fill your bottle, then dart back into your office at the first sound of colleagues around the corner. No doubt some of the best collaborative work comes from casual chatting in the open, but these interactions also produce mental clutter. One way to reduce this hazard is to direct people to your email. Any time someone makes a request of you (e.g., “could you send me that attachment,” “let me know your availability,” etc.), ask that they send you an email so that you can reply. Make a self-deprecating crack at your memory if you have to, just don’t commit to making mental notes for ANYONE unless it is absolutely necessary. If you must take a mental note, then run (don’t walk) to your pen and pad (you know, the one from Number 3?).

11. Tune out distractions with white noise or music without vocals.


White noise comes in all sorts: rain, waterfalls, wind, and that plain old electronic hissing static sound. This type of stimulus helps neutralize your auditory surroundings, giving you some mental detachment from distracting sounds. It can take a bit of adjustment, but you’ll find that the sound recedes quickly to the background and really does help with concentration. If you must listen to music, select tracks that don’t have singing. Our brains are wired to process words, and we don’t always have full control over what information gets interpreted. Think of times when you have been in conversation with one person, but heard someone mention your name nearby. It was distracting, right?

There’s no single way to stop multitasking, and the 11 suggestions listed here won’t solve all your problems either. Slowing down, doing one task at a time: these things take thoughtful devotion. Don’t judge yourself when you fail to do them. It might be helpful to try just a couple of “declutter” suggestions each week and determine which ones work best for you.

As you master your mental clutter, give some thought to the challenges that multitasking poses to our children. If you’re a parent, a teacher, a coach, or other professional who works with children, you’re no doubt aware of the many stimuli constantly competing for your child’s attention. Keep a lookout at kingsburytransforms.org for suggestions on how to get your kids to multitask less.

Image Credits (in order of appearance): Sebastian Wiertz (Cover Photo), Michael DalesAndrea D’IppolitoMarco ArmentMarie-Chantale TurgeonHartwig HKDKaroly CzifraShehan Peruma, and Agustin Rafael Reyes

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