How to Start Decluttering: Mental Clutter

Mental clutter can be caused by distractions, notifications, commitments, multi-tasking, negativity, or decisions. Here are some of the techniques to help reduce mental clutter and manage stress.

This is the third in a series about decluttering. Clutter can be things, commitments, distractions, or toxic people – anything that doesn’t add value to our lives. In the first post, we talk about physical clutter. Then, we conquered decluttering pantries and fridges. In this post, we will tackle the subject of mental clutter.


Reducing stress was my primary goal when I embraced minimalism. I was on maternity leave with my second child. As someone who has taught stress management classes for many years, I was looking for a different way to cope. Rather than finding something more, I found that the key was in less: Simplify.

With now three young children, a husband, and a job that requires my mental attention every second, there are a lot of things competing for my attention. To  manage it all, I have to remove all distractions.

Photo by Levi Xu on Unsplash

What’s Distracting You?

As I write this, I am sitting on the couch in my living room. My oldest is showing me what he created in his video game world. At the same time, my middle child is screaming bloody murder because someone touched her blanket. The youngest keeps grabbing my notes and is tearing them all up.

My husband and I just realized the irony of how I can’t seem to write a post about mental clutter because of the distractions.

Turn Off Notifications

My husband and I each receive 3-4 notifications (text, email, automated voicemail message, and sometimes even paper flyer) every time my child’s school has an important event (for example a newsletter has been released or there’s another fundraiser at a fast food restaurant). Even worse, they don’t send the actual school flyer in the text or email, you have to then open that notification, click on a link, and go to a website. I don’t have time for that!

I keep the notifications from school on in case there is an actual emergency. What’s really sad is that I receive so many that I’ve become immune to and angered by the constant distractions that I don’t even read them anymore.

I did, however, turn off alerts for anything other than notices from my child’s school.

Read Emails Only Once

Before I started making these changes, like everyone else my inbox was always full. Then I realized that because I was receiving a pop-up notification every time I received an email, I was actually re-reading each email: first my eyes were drawn to it when it popped up on my screen and (because I was busy and not answering emails at the time) then again when I actually had time to read and respond to emails.

If there’s one thing I did that had the largest impact on reducing mental clutter, it was turning off email notifications. Now, I check my messages when there’s time to take action and immediately respond, archive, or delete.

I also decided to either remove myself from list serves or have emails from list serves sent directly to a separate folder.

Friends who ask how I keep my Inbox clean, that’s my secret. Turn off the notifications and only read them when you have time to respond.

Make Fewer Decisions

Decision fatigue is when the quality of our decision-making decreases after long periods of decision-making. Think of how many choices we make each day. From the moment we awake and decide whether to hit the snooze button or get out of bed to the end of the day and we decide when to go to bed. Removing any unnecessary decisions can help.

What to wear and what to eat each day are examples of two decisions many minimalists target to remove.

My husband is the one who does the cooking and the shopping. There is nothing more frustrating than when I am working late and doing my best to concentrate on what I need to do to get my butt out the door and he calls to ask what to make for dinner. I told him and my children that all decisions about food are deferred to him. I really don’t care what’s for dinner. This is a decision that I do not need distracting me from what’s important. I take the same things (an apple and trail mix) each day for lunch.

Reduce Time Commitments

You can always work more to make more money, but once time is gone you can never get it back. As someone who works with people who are at end of life, I am becoming increasingly aware of how precious time is.

We all know people who have FOMO (fear of missing out). On the weekends, they take their kids from sports activity to music lesson to a birthday party. I can understand their desire to get the most out of life. I have even tried adding more social engagements and activities. It’s exhausting! My idea of a good weekend is one in which we have only 1 social event per day scheduled. I want to spend quality time with my loved ones and not feel hurried from one thing to another. Rushing through life is what makes me feel like I’m missing out.

Carefully Choose Work Commitments

This past week I was asked to be a consultant on a large, multi-center grant. What an honor. It was not easy to say no, but I knew that this commitment was not consistent with my goals right now.

At work, I’ve stopped volunteering time to come in early, stay late, and work on weekends. With long-hours I had been working, I was starting to get burnt-out. More importantly, my husband and young kids really need me at this time in life. Now, I do my best to arrive on time and leave on time.

Each morning, time is set aside to get organized. This includes reading (and responding and deleting) email, listening to voicemail messages, and preparing for that day’s patients.

I get 30 minutes for lunch; taking more than that is considered “stealing” time from the hospital. Unless a patients does not show, this is my only break during the day. It is not a lot of time to eat, go to the bathroom, and take a walk to decompress (all of which are needs, not wants). I’ve made a firm commitment to myself to politely decline meetings over lunch. They are stealing my time.

I’ve set up my clinic so that the last hour of my day is for administrative time. This is necessary to not only complete my charting, but also because I work with trainees who need me to sign off on all their work. Being a preceptor can be a very rewarding yet time-consuming role. I don’t know how I’d ever leave on time if I didn’t block out the last hour of my work day.

Remove Visual Distractions

A colleague once pointed out that one reason people feel relaxed at hotels is because they are clean whereas most people’s homes are filled with cluttered countertops and piles of laundry.

As I started to look around at my physical clutter, I was amazed how much of a visual distraction it can be.

Looking back, when I was in school I had to clean my work area before I could study. It’s difficult to concentrate when you look to the right and say “oh yeah, I need to …” or you have an idea that you can’t get done because you have to stop to look for your pen under the pile of papers.

Removing physical clutter not only saves time finding things and makes cleaning easy, it also leads to fewer visual distractions and helps me feel at peace.


Multi-tasking is highly overrated. Research suggests that we are more productive when we focus on one thing at a time, rather than trying to multi-task.

Practice mindfulness of everyday activities. When I am at dinner with my family, I am mentally present with my family, not checking messages. When I am with a patient I am focused on that patient, not on anything else.

Practice Mindfulness

Formal mindfulness (for example, through meditation) can help to reduce mental clutter. Mindfulness meditation is a practice in being present in the moment.

Photo by Jared Rice

Final Thoughts

With so many competing demands for our attention, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. One of the largest benefits to me of minimalism is the emphasis on simplifying one’s life. I’ve been making efforts to remove anything that’s not what’s consistent with my values and goals. The rest, is just clutter.


How do you reduce mental clutter?


Related Posts

How to Start Decluttering: Physical Clutter

How to Start Decluttering: Pantry Clutter

3 thoughts on “How to Start Decluttering: Mental Clutter”

  1. Journaling is another important way of reducing mental clutter. When I’m worried about things or overthinking or feeling anxious, or even replaying things in my mind over and over again, journaling gets it all out. Good memories are saved, bad memories are examined and dealt with and learned from and sometimes eviscerated as being self-defeating. I can deal with harmful self-talk better when writing it down and talking back to it.

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