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Clearing Mental Clutter

My college softball coach used to tell us, “You cannot possibly think so much and focus so acutely all the time on one thing – you will burn out!” She would direct my teammates and me during practice and during games (practice like you play) to take a moment in between innings or even in between pitches to allow our focus to soften before keying in on the next play. If that meant taking a moment to joke around with a teammate, then it was highly encouraged! Our end of the bargain, of course, was to come back to the next play more focused than the play before. This helped to create a natural rhythm, and strong psychological foundation for us as competitors and individuals.

In reflecting on those years in the infield, I have discovered how important it is to relay that same principle to our daily activities. Grappling with a lengthy to-do list in the middle of a work week can challenge the minds ability to devote whole-hearted focus to one task at a time. Often when we try so hard to complete a task with such intense focus, we end up mentally straining ourselves such that we can actually become counterproductive. Recognizing when to take a mental break in order to air out that type of strain is not such an easy task. What we need is a simple tool or set of tools that allows for us to press the mental “reset button” so we can become productive individuals again.

One strategy that can help us mentally reset is to focus deliberately on a task that does not have an immediate end-goal, but rather allows the mind to circulate in a non-judgmental manner for a short, focused period of time.

Here is a list of some such strategies that can be useful.

1. Meditate!

If there is one thing in this list you choose to do, let it be this one. Sometimes it can be difficult to begin engaging in a novel activity, especially one as seemingly open-ended as meditation, without a bit of direction. My personal recommendation is to use Headspace, a great online tool for anyone looking to take 10 minutes out of their day to meditate with simple instructions – from a soothing British-man-voice, no less. All you need is a chair, ten minutes, and if you prefer guided direction, a computer or phone to use the Headspace app! Meditation can help us to draw our attention to the body’s natural rhythm, as well as bring awareness to thoughts as they come and go. Gaining a good rapport with our thoughts – or simply establishing a non-judgmental stance toward the thoughts that come up – can be tremendously helpful in training our brains to stay on task! Talk about clearing mental clutter…

 2. Play an instrument!

Though we are still in the dark about the evolutionary significance of music, what we know for sure is that the brain was born to be musical! If you are able to read or produce music yourself, try taking the 10 minutes to do just that (though I bet it will be hard to stop with just 10 minutes!). Keeping rhythm is hugely rewarding for our brains, which love predictability in musical phrases and rhythms, so what better way to scratch the musical itch than through music production of your own!

3. Draw!

Seriously, this is a good tool as well. If you do not feel comfortable with interpretive art production without direction, you are welcome to pick up an adult coloring book and choose your own coloring schemes! Go on Amazon or simply Google “adult coloring books”, and you can find an array of designs to color, which provides a great way of decompressing in the middle or end of an arduous workday.

4. Write in a journal!

The power of the written word must never be underestimated! Writing can be as directed or as freelance as you would like for it to be. Take a moment to sit down with a pen in hand and write for just 10-15 minutes a day. If you are having trouble with getting the first few words down, try to start with a few non-judgmental thoughts, perhaps simple observations from your day or week, and go from there.

Make sure to put pen to paper when you do this! Screens are discouraged here! Suzanne Asherson, an Occupational Therapist, wrote an article in the New York Times in which she explains how writing in cursive, which actively engages both sides of the brain, can actually help bolster language skills and working memory as well. So here is an opportunity to put to use that skill you learned in fifth grade that you never thought would come in handy!

Speaking candidly, there is no right answer here in terms of which method you choose to press the reset button. What matters is that it is something that engages you! The other important point to take home is that in order to truly get the biggest bank for your buck in the long-term, you must make your clutter-clearing activity a habit! In the book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about the habit loop, and how exposure to one simple cue can trigger a habit and a subsequent reward from that habit. Therefore, it is a good idea to consistently engage in your activity at the same time and in the same place everyday in order to establish a circadian cue and generate a strong habit loop. So… there you go! Have a gander!

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