A simple approach to reducing mental clutter

Mar 19, 2021

In life after loss, our brains are traumatized and shaken to the core. There is so much to try to understand, decisions to make and details to sort out. Our brains will have us believe that we must decide on everything immediately, which causes overwhelm and results in deciding on nothing.

Why did this happen?

Do I have enough money?

Why him and not some serial killer?

How do I fix the sink?

Can I survive this?

Do I want to survive without him?

Why him and not me?

Am I safe here without him?

Do I stay here or sell?

Our brains pose thousands of questions a day. While it feels like drowning in a sea of unknown, it is actually our primitive brains doing their job. There was a time in which fast decision making meant the difference between safety and danger, between surviving or not. Those people with brains that were most nimble survived to reproduce. Those of us who are alive today are the recipients of well-honed primitive brains that are adept at keeping us safe.

Although we have primitive brains functioning in protect-us-at-all-cost mode, we no longer live in a primitive world. We can appreciate our brains for doing their job, and then remember that we should not believe everything we think.

An important way to be “on to” our brains is to ask ourselves whether we really need to decide immediately. After many months of drowning in the many unknowns, I created three file folders in my brain. One was labeled, “I’ll never understand in this life.” Another was, “I need to figure this out eventually, but not immediately.” And the third was, “I need to figure this out soon.”

From that point on, any unknown that my brain insisted that I solve was filed in the appropriate folder.

It was a great relief for me to use the “I’ll never understand in this life” folder. I used it often. Much less frequently did I expend my limited mental energy attempting to understand why this happened. I could redirect that energy and brainpower elsewhere.

Filing unknowns into the “I need to figure this out eventually, but not immediately,” category took a great deal of pressure off. It reduced the sense of urgency that my brain was offering me. I’ll get to it. Just not right now. And that’s perfectly okay.

Then I could direct my focus to the “I need to figure this out soon,” category. I was able to tackle one thing at a time, ask for the help I needed, and eventually cross things off my list.

I learned that our brains will typically offer us two solutions: A or B. Black or white. Right or wrong. This makes sense when we consider our primitive brains’ desire to quickly categorize the world into safety or danger.

The truth is that there are very likely a myriad of possible answers. Our growth happens when we learn to challenge the one that seems the most true.

To summarize, when your brain presents an unknown that needs to be understood immediately, ask yourself:

  1. Is this really urgent (or even possible) to understand? File it in the appropriate folder.
  2. If you need to figure it out soon, ask yourself if there are really only two options? Brainstorm all possibilities. Make a list of 10 or more options.
  3. Am I willing to be wrong about the option that seems the most correct? What if the opposite were true?

Don’t stay in decision fatigue. List your reasons and be sure you like your reasons. Decide and then have your own back. You’ve got this.

If mental clutter has you stuck in a state of overwhelm, I’ve curated the best tools to get you decluttered and unstuck. My private coaching program called Life Reconstructed can help you find your way forward, on your terms. If you’re ready to invest in yourself and take bigger strides toward a life you love, simply apply here and we’ll see if it’s a fit.  


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