State of Zen: Eliminate Mental Clutter

Image credit: FunkyFocus on Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

Simplifying life on the material level is one thing. But there’s an entire digital and mental cosmos full of clutter as well. How do you declutter your mind? I discovered a system that helps me quiet my mind while keeping tabs on everything at the same time.

Getting Rid of Mental Clutter

A while ago I did a great purge. I went through my house and emptied all my cabinets and drawers until there was a big pile of junk sitting in the middle of my living room. I threw everything out everything that I wasn’t using anymore. This helped a lot to reduce stress, but I didn’t get rid of it entirely. My head was still buzzing with the things I needed to do and stuff I shouldn’t forget. How do you get rid of that while keeping the important things? Some people told me about David Allen’s Getting Things Done (affiliated link), while others claimed that the Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo was the way to go. I read up on both, and ended up using both at the same time.

Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done sounds like a time management method at first. But that’s not the focus of the method. Instead, GTD helps you clean up your life, get rid of clutter in order to reach a zen-like state of mind. And most importantly, it helps you to stay there. You will be more productive working from this mindset. The Pomodoro Technique on the other hand, focuses more directly on time management and getting more effective with the time you have by protecting your projects from interruptions. GTD helps you to free up more time, Pomodoro Technique helps you to be more effective with this new-found time. Here’s how I do it:

Step 1: Empty All Inboxes

I have two inboxes in my life where all my nondescript “stuff” goes until I decide what to do with it. There’s one sitting on a shelf that collects all snail mail and clutter.  The other inbox is a digital one: a notebook in Evernote called “@Inbox”, which is my default notebook. It contains important email, notes, scans, documents and pictures transferred from my iPhone with things I need to remember in an effort to go 100% paperless.

Every morning I start my day with collecting clutter and dropping it in the inbox. Then I sit down and take out every item and ask myself one question: “What is it?” There are only three possible answers, it’s either junk, it’s something I want to use for later reference, or it’s an actionable item that requires me to do something with it.

Step 2: What’s the Next Action?

For every actionable item, the follow-up questions are: “What is the next action?” and “Does this next action take more or less than 2 minutes?” If it’s less than 2 minutes, I’ll do it right away. If it’s longer than 2 minutes, I make a note in Evernote and tag it with the ‘Next Action’ tag. The Pomodoro Technique calls this ‘Next Action’ list an ‘Activity Sheet’. It has everything on it that needs to be done as soon as I can.

Next up I open Google Apps and if there’s any new mail I file it or add it to the ‘Next Action’ list. Then I move over to Google Calendar to see how much time I have for my projects that day and calculate my total amount of pomodoros for that day.

Step 3: Getting My Pomodoros In A Row

Knowing how much pomodoros I can spend, I go to my ‘Next Action’ list and start sorting out the most urgent projects, that take no more time than my available pomodoros. I move these to a separate list by tagging them ‘Today’ and remove the ‘Next Action’ Tag. I can always go in later this day to pick up new projects if I clear out the ‘Today’ list.  The list of notes tagged ‘Today’ is what the Pomodoro Technique calls a ‘To Do list’. Evernote allows you to turn any note into a reminder and set a day and time. Doing so will create a ‘Reminders’ section on top of your notes. Making a planning like this allows you to set an order. There is your prioritized to-do list right in front of you, with checkmark boxes that allow you to check off the item when you’re done with it.

Step 4: Setting Up For Action

I make a new note in my @Inbox folder that will be my ‘Record Sheet’ as used by the Pomodoro Technique. You can use an empty new note or duplicate from a template. I have a notebook called ‘Templates’ that has all kinds of pre-formatted notes for these kinds of occasions. The Record Sheet is used to track pomodoros: how many go in one project? Was I able to shield off my pomodoro or was I distracted or interrupted? When? Why? After completing all the previous steps, which takes about 15 minutes, I set up my desk for working, brew some coffee and take a deep breath.

Step 5: Get Productive

All systems are go now. I get started by setting a pomodoro and churn through my to-do list with notes tagged ‘Today’. I use the Focus Booster App instead of a kitchen timer. When a project is finished, I compare the estimated number of pomodoros with the real ones and see what distractions were there. At the end of the day, I file the note with the Record Sheet to my productivity notebook for evaluation purposes. This way I will learn to use my time in a more efficient way and get better at estimating how much time a certain type of project takes.

Conclusion

I was somewhat sceptic when I started working like this, in the beginning it felt like a weird complicated ritual at the beginning of my work day. Now I notice I am 20-30% more productive, my mind is clear, I’m not as distracted as I used to be, because I know everything is filed somewhere, so I can focus on the task at hand. It’s amazing!

In my next posts I probably will tell you more about Evernote. In the three months I’m using it, it has truly revolutionized my life. I can’t live without it anymore. If you want to learn more about Evernote right now, click this link for a free trial of the premium (paid) version. I also highly recommend reading Michael Hyatt’s blog posts about Evernote at www.michaelhyatt.com

I’m always open for thoughts and suggestions! Give a shout out in the combox if you have some productivity tips for all of us.