Clearing up the mental clutter |

Clearing up the mental clutter

Evan Zislis
Life. Simplified.
Staff Photo |

I recently saw a woman standing in line at a department store wearing a T-shirt sadly affirming, “I can’t brain today. I have the dumb.” I can relate, but at the time, I couldn’t decide if I was amused or offended. I’m sure I’ve learned somewhere that it’s impolite to make assumptions about a person solely on the basis of the captions on her clothes. But then it occurred to me that this shirt resonated with her enough to broadcast her ill-fated condition openly, as much an admission of guilt as a plea for understanding.

From time to time I work with clients who say they can’t think straight, and they often ask if I can help clear their mental clutter. I’m no intellectual gymnast, but there is a concept I frequently use to help people develop some measure of cerebral clarity. The 80:20 rule has been around a long, long time. I use it regularly to help clients differentiate the important stuff from the clutter. I stress that the word stuff can be taken in the literal sense, or as a metaphor for other things, in this case, thoughts in the mind.

I explain the 80:20 rule in the following way. We only love about 20 percent of our [stuff]. Fill in the blank. About 80 percent of our stuff we do not love. We use the stuff we love about 80 percent of the time. Everything else hardly sees the light of day. Because we only love about 20 percent of our stuff, about 80 percent of our space is preoccupied storing everything else. Simplifying our stuff is not as much about how we organize what we have, as it is about loving what we keep. The key here is to minimize the unnecessary while maximizing the essential.

When it comes to cognitive clarity, the 80:20 rule works wonders for your brain. Most of us walk around with any number of unruly bits of information cluttering up our mind. Some items are neatly organized and properly stored for convenient retrieval. Fortunately for most of us, the important stuff is autonomic (breathing, digestion, moving around, homeostasis, etc.). Then there are items that are pretty handy for instant recall, like our name and how to put pants on. Add a shopping list and key details from a conversation with your boss, and it’s no wonder we forget where we’re going or the names of our children.

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Dumping the minutia of details out of our brain and into strategic systems designed for effective storage and rapid retrieval helps disentangle the thinking part of our brain for, well, thinking. Creative problem solving and attention to detail dramatically improve with two things: practice and clutter-free capacity for thought. Start accumulating too much clutter, and we clog our brain’s ability to effectively focus and process what is right in front of us. Even really smart people need to get creative about data retention in order to keep sharp.

There is no truly effective multi-tasking, there is only doing multiple things simultaneously with marginal to mediocre results. We live in an age constantly bombarding us with useless distraction. Removing some of that content out of our brain gives us the mental bandwidth to help focus, stay present and think clearly.

For example, I’ve had the theme song from Disney’s blockbuster Frozen, “Let it Go,” stuck in my head night and day for the last six weeks and I’ve been utterly useless. Prancing around the house in my pajamas, flailing my arms about, building imaginary ice castles to the self-affirming lyrics can muddy my mental waters. I’ve spent my days in public places, desperately resisting the urge to wildly spin, whilst belting out, “Here I stand, in the light of day! Let the storm rage on … The cold never bothered me anyway.”

Yea, so that effects my clarity. If you catch me on a day like that, I may not brain. I may have the dumb.

— Evan Zislis is founder and principal consultant of, delivering hands-on organizational solutions for households, businesses, nonprofits, students, and life transitions. For more information about simplifying your stuff and organizing your life, call 366.2532 or email

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