Updated: Jul 14, 2019
Do you often feel like you’re mentally all over the place? Do you feel like you’re juggling your thoughts, struggling to keep track of them? Do you get forget things or get easily distracted? If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you could benefit from getting your mind in order.
Organising your mind is one of the most effective things you can do to reduce overwhelm, increasing your happiness and ability to get things done.
Life nowadays is incredibly fast-paced. Sometimes we have so much to do that we feel paralysed and cannot even get stuck into the first thing on the list. And even if we do, we may end up flitting between tasks, not really focusing on any one in particular, and performing all of less well than we’d like. Even if we do manage to stick to one task, sometimes we are then distracted by the voice in the back of our minds reminding us of all the other things we need to do. Each of these common obstructions to progress can be improved if we improve our mental organisation.
The good news is, it's actually pretty simple.
What tips can you use to improve your organisation skills?
Rule number one, remember that you can’t actually multitask, even if you think you can!
An important insight from neuroscience is that the brain actually doesn't multitask: it shifts rapidly between tasks. Flitting from one thing to another and back again means we are not able to focus attention on any one thing, and dividing our attention makes us less efficient.
Multitasking also releases the stress hormone (cortisol) into the brain, which gives us brain fog. This is part of the reason that when we’re multitasking we think we’re getting things done, even if we’re really not - the brain fog makes us less able to accurately assess progress. So the advice from neuroscience is to set out all the tasks you need to do and do them one at a time.
Rule number two, clear out your mind clutter:
The number of things that your brain can keep track of at any one time is limited to about four. So if you’re multitasking, or you're trying to focus on one task but you still have that nagging voice in the back of your mind, reminding you to go to the shop later or book an appointment at the hairdresser, all these other things are competing for the same precious neural resources that you are trying to apply to the task at hand.
Experts recommend that to be effective you declutter your mind, and focus on only one thing at a time. One way to do this is to externalise your thoughts. This allows you to stop thinking about any extraneous thoughts and actually focus. So at intervals throughout your day, stop and write out all your mental clutter.
Rule number three, take it further and re-organise your clutter into an action plan:
Experts recommend that you make a physical to-do list, either in a book or on a set of cards with one card per item. Using cards is good for a couple of reasons: for one, each item being on a separate card means that you can reorganise the order of your list as priorities change; for another, having a purpose-specific object, like a stack of cards (and very much unlike your computer), that is only associated with writing your to-do list, conditions your brain to get into an organisational mindset whenever you interact with that object.
Final rule, minimise your side-quests:
How much time do you spend looking for your keys in the morning? Or going back and forth between the rooms in your house collecting the things you need for work? Or leaving and then circling back to the house because you forgot a file on the coffee table? These tasks are a waste of your time, and distract you from the meaningful tasks that actual progress you towards your goals.
We can minimise these ‘side-quests’ by being more mindful and doing things with intention and routine: if you always mindfully place your keys on the hall table when you come home, they will always be there where you expect in the morning; if you mindfully only do your work in one place in your house, you will always know that there is only one place to look when you pack your files for work, and so on.
Getting organised can be as simple as following these four rules:
1. Do one thing at a time
2. Clear out your mind clutter
3. Write it all out in a list
4. Be mindful in the present so you don't get lost on side quests in the future!