5 ways to think more clearly

Confident creative businesswoman looking at multi colored sticky notes

If you’re like most people, you spend a lot of time and mental energy juggling multiple roles and responsibilities. Employee (or employer)? Friend? Partner? Parent (and/or child)? Mentor? Head of the company baseball team? Community volunteer?

Each one of those roles and responsibilities comes with its own set of to-do lists, action items, people engagements, deadlines and deliverables. How do you keep track of all of this, let alone keep it all on track? And in the midst of this information and activity overload, how can you think more clearly? Here are the five strategies the experts (who are also trying to keep it all straight, by the way) recommend:

Monitor your multitasking.

Studies  show that instead of helping you be more productive, multitasking has the opposite effect. Not only do you lose productivity, but you may also be losing IQ points in the process. In addition, when it comes to thinking clearly, you’re creating so much mental clutter that it’s nearly impossible to gain the focused clarity your brain needs to do its job, for example, making a good decision, understanding a complex idea or organizing the steps in a complex project.

Clear out mental clutter.

Think of this as mental outsourcing. You want to find ways to delegate as many thinking/remembering tasks to someone (or in this case, something) else as you can. For example, create a checklist for those activities that involve a lot of specific steps. Once you’ve thought the process through, you’ll never have to worry again about missing a step. Or use a system that helps you get organized, such as that described in David Allen’s best-selling Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity  (Penguin Books, 2015), or one of the many personal productivity apps such as Wunderlist .

Not a tech person? Then try writing out a prioritized to-do list every Sunday afternoon for the coming week that notes what needs to be done when. Any sort of paper planner will work for this approach, as will simply keeping an open document on your computer or your smart device to jot down ideas and to-do items as you think of them. That way your Sunday afternoon planning session is just pulling together and prioritizing your notes. The goal always, however, is to get the information out of your brain and stashed somewhere else so you don’t have to try to remember it.

Substitute habits for unimportant decisions.

Figure out a healthy breakfast meal and eat it every weekday morning. Come up with 5-10 outfits that work and wear them to the office every week or two weeks. Commit to a habit of walking on your lunch hour Mondays and Thursdays, and keep a water bottle and pair of walking shoes at the office. That way you don’t have to debate whether you should work out on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Fridays. As University of Minnesota psychologist Dr. Kathleen D. Vohs and her co-authors reported in their article “Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-Control, ” having to decide among multiple choices too often over a given time period can result in decision fatigue, or an impaired ability to make thoughtful, smart decisions.

The goal is to create an environment that’s based on small, unimportant decisions you’ve already made and turned into habits so you can then focus on the big, consequential issues or decisions.

Substitute habits for unimportant decisions.

Similarly to creating habits, automating things you need to remember only occasionally means you don’t have to think about taking an action or remembering to take that action. For example, put all important birthdays (with advance reminders) in Outlook or your online calendar one time and you’ll never again have to try to remember whose birthday is in November and what card to send to whom in July. Put an annually recurring reminder in your calendar for April not to plant your garden until late May  (even though you’ve had two weeks of 60 degree days), and you’ll never have to remember it again. Set up automated alerts for refilling your meds or any other occasional but recurring activity. Every single item you can automate rather than try to remember is one less thing to clutter your thinking.

Try medication.

In “How Meditation Changes the Brain and Body ,” New York Times health writer Gretchen Reynolds cites a 2016 study connecting mindfulness meditation to positive changes within the brain that processed “stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm.” Among the many benefits of meditation is its ability to help you mentally “clear out the cobwebs.” By training you to let go of or disengage with the dozens of thoughts continually darting in and out of your consciousness, meditation can help calm your thinking and essentially reset your mental landscape to a place of greater clarity and focus. In other words, it can help prepare you to think more clearly. Bright On! Make one of these five strategies your goal for the next month and see how much clearer your thinking is a few weeks after it’s implemented.



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Author: Stephanie Sample

August 12, 2017