De-cluttering seems to be the overarching theme of the 2010s. I’ve never Marie Kondo’d my closets (and certainly not my bookshelves), but I have attempted, many times, to de-clutter my life. Each time I’ve failed miserably, but I’ve managed to succeed in clearing out one area constantly full of clutter: my head.
Like you, I have a lot of thoughts and ideas. I’m regularly woken up in the middle of the night by the gentle yet persistent nudge of an idea. I’ll be sitting in a meeting at work jotting down things that come to mind before they disappear. There are days I’m fresh out of ideas (“brain drought”) and days I can’t shut the ideas up (“brain rush”).
How do you handle a brain drought — that sudden lack of new ideas that frustrates and blocks writers from their work all over the world? You de-clutter your brain. Maybe not in the exact same way you might clean out your closet, but I suppose if an idea doesn’t bring you joy, you could easily toss it away, if you wanted to.
Here are my recommended strategies for de-cluttering your mind. They’ve worked for me, and maybe they will be effective for you as well.
Do all those tiny tasks you’ve been putting off for some reason.
You know exactly which tasks I’m talking about. Texting your friend to ask about the date and time of an upcoming thing you’re going to. Finally making that dentist appointment. Vacuuming the stairs. I don’t know anything about your life or what sorts of “tiny tasks” might be standing in your way, but I can almost guarantee you have them. They’re those things you keep transferring from one day in your planner to the next. They gotta go — in other words, you have to do them. No more procrastinating!
Try this: Write down, one after the other, all the small, maybe tedious things you’ve been putting off. Example: I need to set the cleaning schedule on my robot vacuum otherwise I’m never going to remember to tell it to clean anything. I also need to order more dog food and locate my missing flip-flops. These are very small, seemingly not very important tasks. But I feel much more motivated to accomplish them now that I’ve written them down (and told you about them), and once I do them, I won’t have to waste brain space or “thought energy” constantly reminding myself these things need to be done.
The best part about quick chores? They give you plenty of time to think. And when you give yourself free space to think, guess what happens? The ideas come calling. But you can increase your chances of stumbling upon new ideas if your head isn’t already full of them.
Clear all your old ideas out.
You may not realize it, but there might be a massive amount of “old” ideas taking up valuable space in your brain. These are the ideas you grabbed, mulled over, stored, and sort of but not completely forgot about. You set them aside without ever really deciding what you wanted to do with them. It may be time to clean out your mind closet.
Some people call it an “idea dump.” When you have a bunch of old thoughts and ideas stored way up there in your head, this can sometimes make it more difficult to accept new ideas, almost as if you need to make room for more by clearing out what you haven’t used. I suppose it’s sort of like cleaning out your closet, not that I can speak to that practice as I haven’t touched mine since moving … two years ago … Anyway.
Try this: Sit down somewhere relatively quiet and distraction-free with a piece of paper and pen in front of you (not a screen). Just start jotting down any ideas that come to mind. They could be story ideas, ideas for projects you want to pursue, or just random thoughts. Some of these things will be ideas you’ve had and just haven’t touched. You may also discover some new ideas hiding amongst the old ones. Write those down, too.
Even if you’re not a pen and paper kind of person, physically writing your ideas out will effectively give your brain permission to forget them. Sometimes we hold onto ideas because we are desperate to remember them, and even if we do temporarily “misplace” them, they’re still in there taking up space. Now, with that list in front of you, you get to decide whether you give any of those ideas some attention, which ones you’re OK leaving alone, or if you’re just going to set the list aside and come back to it at a later date.
It’s up to you to decide how often you perform an idea dump. I used to do it every day, but that became a little much, so it’s now my Sunday evening ritual. To prepare my brain for the week ahead, I purge all my ideas and wake up Monday morning feeling ready to welcome new possibilities.
Give your brain some room to breathe.
Taking writing breaks is extremely important. As much as I advocate for “writing anyway” — writing when you’re tired, when you don’t feel like it, when you’d rather do something else — I also think it’s extremely beneficial to schedule your breaks. For example, you might write Monday through Thursday and take Friday through Sunday off completely — you do it every week; it becomes habit.
Why are writing breaks important, if not essential? Because your brain is in many ways like a machine. If you run it too hard for too long without allowing it to recharge, it stops being able to function normally. Have you ever tried to hold a conversation with someone at the end of a long work day and you give up trying to ask the same question after three tries because you just can’t put the words together right? That’s your brain begging for some rest.
But there are different kinds of “brain rest,” and you can use different types at different intervals. There’s the “sit on the couch and watch Netflix for four hours straight without moving” kind of rest — the recharge. There’s also the “do something creative without actually writing anything” kind — I call this the reset. Sometimes before I jump back into writing, I’ll sketch something, dance around, mess around on my piano keyboard for a few minutes. Creative activities ease your brain back into thinking mode and prepare you for the challenging task (writing) ahead.
Maybe these strategies will work for you. Maybe they won’t. Give them a try and let me know how it goes. And if you already have your own methods for de-cluttering your busy mind, I’d love to hear about them!
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.