That’s all right, though: it has been firmly established that we all have a blind spot for the environments we spend most of our time in, be it at home or at work. There are good reasons for this, the most important one being that we are used to seeing things a certain way. Anything not quite right fades into the background of our perception and is just taken at face value. In other words: leave something in the wrong place for long enough and your mind will think that it really is in the right place.
What else is wrong with that image you conjure up? You have been focusing on physical clutter! While clutter is generally considered being an object or collection thereof, the most insidious clutter comes in a non-corporeal form. Unfortunately, there are many different types of this non-corporeal clutter, too. Here are some of them, but the list is certainly not complete!
It’s unlikely that your life depends on reading every single bit of information in every magazine, newsletter and newsfeed you are subscribed to. You’ll find that what you think of as ‘browsing’ is nothing but a huge chunk of time spent reading things that have no bearing whatsoever on your own life. Much of what you read will, however, affect your perception of the world around you, particularly the bits that you are not really connected to.
For example: you read a news item about someone being attacked with a knife in a different part of the country. You may be shocked by the story and react to it emotionally, maybe even get angry. But if you consider the story properly, this item is completely irrelevant to your personal experience, isn’t it? It only heightens your general level of anxiety for no good reason.
If you look closely, most ‘news’ items (especially the online ones that can only be described as click bait) are reading fodder and – at worst – articles to influence you in some way or another. Maybe the point here is that we all need to regularly check in with ourselves if how we consume ‘news’ is beneficial to our mental balance and if we cannot change the way we interact with news outlets. This could take the form of limiting your intake of news (stick to a small selection of outlets), or to be very conscious about WHAT it is we are reading (ask yourself “do I really need to read this?” or “is this really relevant to me personally?” after the first paragraph and then move on…).
During your next lunch break, take a moment and look around: you’ll probably find that most people (including yourself?) are looking at their mobile phones, tablets or laptops all around you. Social media are everywhere. Be it facebook, twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest or Tumblr, once you get sucked in, time flies. It’s hard to let go of something that is perceived as entertaining. It’s also the latest tool to influence the masses without them realising it.
The real question is a different one, though: are you sticking with it because it is delivering information, or is it addictive behaviour (read up on addiction here)? I believe that it’s because of the dopamine kick for getting a like, comment, follow, retweet or reply to anything that is going on. And like with any addiction, the reward gradually becomes less potent and needs reinforcing with more. Add to this that you are developing a habit of holding your phone in your hand, reacting to each ping, ring and plonk coming from the device (see conditioning and the Pavlovian response) and you’ll see how you start to rely on this kind of input.
If only the ‘information’ you take in where relevant! When you last browsed through your facebook feed, some of what you saw may have held your interest for a moment, but was it really relevant or important? As established with news outlets above, much of what is delivered is not information, but irrelevant data. Think of most of it as white noise that keeps the brain busy, but also running in circles.
YouTube is an outlet that has an additional trick up its sleeve: not only does it contain endless reams of vaguely entertaining videos, but it also eats up your time without you really noticing. I bet that most of you have looked at the clock one day and found that not only it was 3:30 in the morning, but that you had spent several hours of precious time watching completely irrelevant and (be honest) not all that funny or interesting videos! This could be regarded, once more, as borderline addictive behaviour. YouTube is by no means the only proponent of this combination of entertainment, time-sucking and mind-numbing social media, it just is the most common one.
Don’t forget other image driven outlets like Pinterest or Instagram, though. So far we have only considered the passive consumption of online content, but how much time are you spending on producing content yourself? A proper image for Instagram takes a lot of time because you’ll have to make sure an imperfect image won’t make some of your followers leave or lead to negative comments. That’s yet another bottomless pit of time loss and grounds for internal worrying that goes by completely unnoticed.
Beyond social media
Quite apart from what (social) media are pumping into our minds, don’t forget that your brain is a complex organ and perfectly capable to produce its own kind of internal clutter. If you are a worrier, you’ll know the kind of damage comes from worrying overly. If you are a bit of a neat freak, you understand how upsetting it can be when things are not quite right. If you are organisationally challenged, you’ll be aware of the mental turmoil you experience when you wonder if you have forgotten something.
All these are examples of your brain creating clutter for itself, and there are many more. Most of them fall into the realm of psychology, of course, but it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for such things. I won’t claim you can heal these and similar issues on your own, but being aware of some of the clutter fog it creates in your mind can be helpful to exert some control over the anxiety they cause.
Staying on top
The most dangerous thing about this kind of clutter is simply that our sub-conscious lets it slip through without putting up any resistance. Physical clutter – at some point – ends up being so much in the way that we cannot but address the issue or develop mental illnesses if we don’t, but non-corporeal clutter is the kind of clutter that affects us while we are unable to even see it building up. It takes a conscious effort to make yourself aware of what is really going on.
Therefore, I urge you to take a step back (dare I say: regularly?) and review how exactly you interact with mental clutter, if you somewhere things have started to slip through and unnecessary clutter has accumulated. Make sure to close the loopholes you have left for clutter to slip in at that time. That could take the form of a time limit to engaging with (social) media, finding ways to stop internal anxiety build-up, being more aware of time-traps and unproductive habits developing. At the same time, be kind with yourself: there is no reason to punish yourself for being unable to prevent mental clutter. The only thing you can do is keeping an eye out and stay vigilant.
I guarantee you’ll save time in the long term, and you’ll be happier without all the stuff, ideas and habits you don’t exactly need and that brings you down.
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Hi, my name is Tilo Flache. My current mission: help my clients declutter mind and space.
This blog contains pointers for your journey towards a happier living experience.