How to Reduce Mental Clutter That’s Keeping You Stuck

Do these statements sound all-too familiar?

I’m too old for that. I’ve never been good at that. I don’t have the time. I just can’t do it.

They may sound all-too familiar because these kinds of sentences run through your mind any time you want to try something new, any time you have a goal, any time you want to make a change.

Any time, there’s an inkling of “I’d like to try that,” a similar soul-crushing thought pops up, and stomps on your desire before it ever takes flight.

You think you’re simply being rational or realistic. You’re just being sensible and pragmatic—like any responsible, reasonable adult.

But really, you’re keeping yourself stuck. But really, you’re silencing yourself. And there’s no good reason to do that.

The above are examples of limiting beliefs, “beliefs that we hold about ourselves and our circumstances,” according to Natalia van Rikxoort, MSW, ACC, a social worker, therapeutic arts facilitator and life coach who specializes in ADHD and family coaching. And they might be the most common type of mental clutter.

Van Rikxoort likened mental clutter to material clutter: “Just like material clutter, when mental clutter gets in the way, we are unable to navigate around obstacles and identify a clear path toward those things we wish to achieve.”

In other words, mental clutter stops us from pursuing our goals, because we tell ourselves, in all sorts of ways, that they’re clearly impossible.

Another common example of mental clutter is shoulds, said van Rikxoort. I should be more successful by now. I should be more productive. I should know how to do that.

“The problem is, by saying we should or shouldn’t do something, we are basically telling ourselves that we are failing to meet some standard that is usually self-imposed,” she said. And there’s nothing motivating or inspiring about that.

We feel defeated before we ever even start.

A third type of mental clutter is jam-packed schedules and extraneous tasks. This is when our minds are crammed with thoughts about our endless responsibilities and demands—responsibilities and demands which we’ve piled onto our already too noisy, too busy to-do lists. We feel like an overstuffed closet. One more box or item, and the whole thing will come crashing down—and out.

So what can you do about all this clutter?

Below, van Rikxoort shared five powerful, simple and totally doable suggestions.

Question your beliefs. Your beliefs don’t speak to some ultimate, significant truth. Which means that it’s critical to question them—and to do so from a curious and compassionate place. (Try not to judge or criticize yourself.)

As van Rikxoort said, “Is it really true that you don’t have time to devote to a hobby, or are you focusing too much of your time and energy on less meaningful activities? Are you really too old to go back to college, or are there plenty of real-world examples of people who have reinvented themselves later in life?”

Identify the first feasible step. And it’s totally fine if that step is tiny. Teeny tiny. Van Rikxoort shared this example: You’d like to start your own business, but you keep telling yourself that you don’t have the money. Sure, maybe you don’t have extra finances right now. But it doesn’t cost anything to research how others in similar fields started their businesses.

In other words, “Take some time to think about what you can do to make progress toward your goal, no matter how small the step may seem,” van Rikxoort said.

It doesn’t matter how fast or slow our progress is, when we work on our goals, they become more meaningful, she said. And you might uncover options you didn’t even know were available to you, she said. That is, maybe you don’t need much money after all to start your dream business.

Shift those shoulds. Van Rikxoort suggested changing “should” to “want” or “would like.” For instance, “I should know how to do that” turns into “I want to know how to do that,” or “I’d like to know how to do that.”

After making the switch, double-check with yourself that this is actually something you’d like. Do you really want to learn how to do that? Does it genuinely interest you?

If the answer is yes, then use that phrasing from now on. “By making this small change, you are shifting your focus from failure to action,” van Rikxoort said. “Rather than moving away from what you don’t want, you’ll be in a position to take steps toward what you do.” 

Know your values and yourself well. It’s very easy to let meaningless or less meaningful activities, tasks and commitments creep into your life when you’re confused or unsure about what’s essential to you. Which is why van Rikxoort has her clients complete various inventories about their needs and values.

She suggested readers think about what you need to feel fulfilled (e.g., I need to feel productive, I need to be creative). To identify your values, she said, think about what you enjoy doing, and what is important to you. “For example, if you enjoy taking trips with your kids, then one of your values might be family connection.”

Knowing this information makes it much easier to filter out distractions and to say no. Van Rikxoort shared these additional examples: Once a week you skip making a home-cooked meal and get takeout so you can enjoy a fun movie night with your family. During the week, you get up 30 minutes earlier to work on your writing.

Change beliefs that don’t serve you. Adjusting your beliefs isn’t about adopting some blind optimism, van Rikxoort said. Rather, it’s about shifting your perspective: “Instead of saying, ‘I’ll never be any good at this,’ ask yourself, ‘What can I do to get better?’”

The key is to make challenges or bumps into opportunities, she said. “When you feel stuck, ask yourself: “What are my options? What can I do differently? What resources are available to me? What’s the next step?”

“The best way to combat mental clutter is to become more mindful of what we are telling ourselves and where we are spending our precious time and energy,” van Rikxoort said. And make yourself and your goals a priority, she said. Which also means considering the wide array of possibilities that are absolutely and realistically available to you.

And that’s a fact.

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