Overwhelm: Clearing Brain Clutter


Better time management doesn’t always solve the feeling of overwhelm. In fact, it may compound it. You just may have a case of “brain clutter.” Like your over stuffed drawers and closets.

When you are feeling stressed, stuck or unproductive, often your first instinct is look externally for a better system to establish order:

  • A better system to manage time
  • A better system to manage projects
  • A better system to manage life

Often the systems fail, but before you blame the system, first check to see if you have excessive mental friction or brain clutter.

As Brigid Schulte explains in her book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, “Getting a handle on overwhelm was not just about creating more space and order on my calendar and in my office, but doing the same in my mind.”

Eliminating mental friction will create space and order in your mind. Typical causes of mental friction and clutter include:

  1. Ambivalence, indecision and self-doubt
  2. Tolerations
  3. Unfinished projects
  4. Trying to mentally remember something
  5. Random mental clutter


Steps to Unclutter Your Brain

Ambivalence and Indecision

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researcher Frenk van Harreveld discovered that “When ambivalence is high, choice is unpleasant because of the uncertainty about the consequences of the choice.”

All of that unpleasantness leads to procrastination. The simplest way to reduce ambivalence is to be very clear about what’s most important to you, and narrow it down to just a few priorities at any given time. We can not successfully achieve everything at once anyway. When you aren’t constantly caught up between competing priorities, you have greater focus and more energy to take action.

In my work as a coach, this issues arises all the time with most everyone. We clarify what is most important now and then create priorities. And what I see – sometimes immediately – is a sense of relief, renewed energy, and resolve. They have a plan, they know what they are going to do, and they go do it. Overwhelm is lifted and the results are rewarding for them.

If you have multiple roles in your life, your priorities can shift throughout the day. You can break your day down and decide your priorities for specific periods of time which will increase focus, efficiency and productivity. For example, choose one high-priority focus for your first hour of work when you have the most energy, alert and less distractions, followed by 30 minutes of another priority, such as knocking things off your to-do list, or handling email.

When you’re clear about your priorities, you reduce the number of decisions or ruminations in favor of directed activities and processes. Making decisions in advance like this helps alleviate decision fatigue, reduces rumination and procrastination.

For example, when you know that you want to exercise each day, make a plan so that you don’t have to use precious decision-making capabilities to decide when, how, and where you’re going to do it.

Where are you getting stuck or stalled that causes you stress and overwhelm? I’d love to hear from you – contact me.


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