Tidy up ... your thinking

In December and January, The Simple Dollar is posting a daily series focusing on specific activities you can do right now to set the stage for a great 2011. Out with the old, in with the new.

Sammy Dallal / AP / File
Clutter that has built up in 12-year-old Elphey Israel's room lies piled against a wall in her Boulder, Colo. apartment, in this 2005 file photo. Last week, Trent wrote about clearing out the clutter in your closet. This week, try to clear out the clutter inside your head.

10. Do a mind sweep.

Hot on the heels of the ongoing discussion of Making It All Work, I’m going to suggest a good old fashioned “mind sweep” as a brilliant way to get your financial and personal house in order to finish out the year.

What’s a “Mind Sweep”?
Simply put, a “mind sweep” is a collection in one external place of all of the ongoing concerns in your life. All of the things you’re thinking about, trying to remember, or need to do that are cluttering up your mind are a bigger distraction than you think, and simply getting them out of your head can make a big difference.

Why is it such a big distraction?

For starters, think about how your mind works when you’re focused on a task. How often does a stray thought pop into your head? Something you need to do. An appointment you need to remember. Some fact that you’ve been thinking about lately. These little thoughts break your concentration, and that causes both the task at hand to take longer and the task at hand to get finished with a little less quality. Has your mind ever wandered to something else and suddenly you’re seeing the task in front of you descending into disaster (dinner, for instance)?

More importantly, doing this makes you into a more reliable person. You’re able to deal with the many personal and professional things people expect from you and you live up to that standard – and beyond. You produce quality work and don’t let people down.

One of my own examples of a “forgotten” thing, for example, tends to be bills, mostly because many of them are billed electronically and some of them don’t let me know that they’re due. Thus, it’s up to me to remember them.

Doing a Mind Sweep
So, how do you actually go about this?

I suggest having a good chunk of time set aside before even starting. This is a perfect activity for a winter weekend day where you don’t have much going on.

I would also suggest having some sort of tool upon which you can freely write. This might be a laptop or it might be a pad of paper and a pencil.

The first step is to simply sit down and do a complete brain dump. Just sit there and let your mind wander through everything in your life and write down everything that concerns you, that you’re trying to remember, that you’re working through. All of that stuff that pops up and distracts you needs to go down on paper (or into your text editor). Just keep going with it until you feel like there’s nothing else.

When you’re done with that (it usually takes me about an hour), go through your house and visit each room. See if anything else pops into your head as you look around. Check your email. Think about your job and the stuff you need to get done there. Go through your mail.

Get it all out of your head and onto paper. Don’t worry about order. Don’t worry about filtering anything. Don’t worry about duplicating stuff. Just get it all out.

Following Through
You’ll find that the list is tremendously long when you’re done. The next step, of course, is to start dealing with all of that stuff.

Go through every item on the list and ask yourself if you can do something that takes care of the problem in the next five minutes. You’ll be shocked how many of the things actually will disappear in this way.

If you can’t deal with it that quickly, figure out what needs to be done with it. You’re likely going to be placing stuff into several separate places. Here are the key ones I use.

Trash If I look at something and, after thinking about it clearly, realize it’s not really important (like old magazines, etc.), I trash it, no questions asked. If I’m never going to look at it again, why keep it?

Calendar If I have an appointment that needs to be kept on some certain date, I add it to my calendar and forget about it.

To-do list If it’s something bigger that needs to get done, I think about it for a bit, then try to transform it into something very clear that I can do without thinking too much about it. That item goes on my to-do list.

Projects If it’s something so big I won’t be able to get it done in one shot, I add it to my “projects” list. When I’m done dealing with all of this stuff and have it in the right places, I go through all of my projects and ask myself what the first concrete thing I can do to move this forward is, and I add that single thing to my to-do list.

Reference If it’s something I’ll need to have at some future date, I file it in my filing cabinet. Don’t worry if you don’t have a filing system – just start a central place for storing such documents.

When I’m done with all of this – and it all takes a good day and a half – I have a healthy to-do list, a project list, and, most importantly, a clear mind.

At this point, I find that when I sit down to work on something, I’m not nearly as distracted by stray thoughts as I once was. This enables me to get things done substantially faster than before because my concentration isn’t broken nearly as often. Thus, I can get through my to-do list substantially faster than before and make up that time “lost” on the brain dump very quickly. After that… it’s all a time profit.

Spend this weekend doing your own mind sweep. You’ll find it helps you in many ways, often unexpected ones.

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