Clearing Up Mental Space For What Matters: The Mindsweep Exercise

This exercise is one of my favorites. I first read about it in David Allens' book Getting Things Done. A great read on the art of productivity.

The goal of this exercise is to de-clutter the mind.

Currently, your mind is in a state of constant clutter with a bunch of incomplete obligations you hold both consciously & subconsciously. By obligations, I mean any current and future projects, tasks, or unfinished "to do's" circling your mind. 

All these obligations take up space. Space that's important for:

  1. Focusing on current projects.
  2. Thinking freely & creatively.
  3. Enjoying the present moment.

The clutter is inevitable and accumulates with each new experience, but we allow it to build up too much. It over-accumulates and becomes a burden. It negatively affects our focus which causes us to lose capacity for what's important. Every time we complete an open obligation, three more sprout up in its place, creating the hamster wheel effect of being busy but never making tangible moves. This pattern is overwhelming and causes unnecessary stress. It removes any feelings of progressing toward a goal because all progression is met with greater additions. Procrastination ensues.   

It affects our productivity and creativity immensely. 

The solution is an exercise in clearing all of your obligations by writing them out onto a piece of paper. It's a simple process and may seem inadequate, but it's far from it.

Imagine your brain as a computer with a certain amount of RAM (Memory that's easily retrievable because it's always RUNNING in the background). When a computer's RAM is full, its performance diminishes. You've likely experienced the frustration of a computer that's slowed significantly from this very issue.  

You're not always aware of it, but your minds' RAM is getting eaten up by all these to do's, works in progress, should do's, must do's, and every other open obligation. Just like a computer, your brain's performance declines.

The physical act of writing these open obligations down on paper extracts them from your working RAM. It lets your mind release them, allowing it to free up space for everything you do NOW.

Imagine removing tiny obligations from your mind with tweezers and setting them in front of you. You'd then be able to store them physically without taking up precious mental working power. My favorite part of this exercise is noticing the 'weight' of these open-ended obligations lifted from your mind immediately. A weight you didn't even realize you were so burdened with in the first place, but it feels great.

Over the longer term, you'll experience an increase in your brain's capacity to think about and ability to focus on current projects. It's simple but handy, and you don't have to often. Think of this exercise as a juice cleanse for the mind. It's unnecessary to do every week, but it has great benefits if done every quarterly or semi-annually! 

Now, let's talk about how we're going to do this. Read the guidelines below first, and the exercise will come after. 

A note before we get started - write this exercise out a notebook that accompanies you regularly. A random notebook/piece of paper works fine, but it's nice to have the list close by for quick reviews. 


Pre-Game Guidelines

  1. VOMIT THIS OUT! Don't filter what you write or think. Categorizing and organizing is for later. Just vomit out as many "obligations" you can think up.
  2. Don't do this all in one sitting. It's most effective if you do most of the "vomiting" now but come back later (1-2 times) to extract more. Often we won't clear everything out the first run-through. It's good to give our brain time to find whatever's hiding in the background before finishing.
  3. Use the guide (link below) to see some trigger words that can help you recall all the current tasks you have stored. If it works properly, there will be a lot more than you think.
  4. Once you've completed the exercise, the creator, David Allen suggests applying a 2-minute rule which means anything that can be completed in 2 minutes or less, complete it and wipe it from the list. 

The Exercise

Empty every ongoing and future obligation you can think of out onto a piece of paper. This includes responsibilities, projects, goals, tasks, to-do items, etc. Do a large portion of this right now and re-visit it later in the day to empty what's left. Use the guide to help you find everything hiding in the corners of your mind.

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