Let’s get some stem-to-stern mental decluttering going, shall we? This is the first of several articles with specifics prompts to get you going.
You’ll want to have whatever tools you need (as recommended in one of the previous articles). You may always change and experiment with different tools as you go along, but you have to start with something. You can’t do this wrong so don’t worry about that.
Number one: Sit and think.
Many, many times on airplanes, especially when returning from a conference or a speaking engagement, I’ll simply sit on the plane with a pad of paper and begin doing a mind sweep. I need to stay still and let all those ideas and people and responsibilities that are flying around in my head start to get poured out onto paper. Whether or not what’s zipping around in my head is related to the conference or not, it doesn’t matter. I sit and think and start writing things down.
This can also happen sitting at your desk, in a doctor’s office, or while waiting for your daughter to finish track team practice.
The first way to get your sweep started (and an excellent way to maintain and uncluttered mind) is simply to sit and think. See what the heck comes to you — and start writing it on your index cards, paper, sticky notes, or other tool you’ve decided to use.
Number two: Walk around.
Start walking around your space and see what comes to mind. Walk around your office, your yard, your garage, your living room, your shed, or whatever spaces you inhabit. Walk around with your notecards or little pad of paper. See what you see. Notice what gets prompted as you walk around and as you’re doing so, make note of anything and everything.
One woman who was in one of my real-time classes on mind sweeping was participating from her home. During the walking around time, she put up a piece of chart paper in each room. This is a woman after my own heart because like me, she has pads of easel paper at her house!
Anyway, she hung up those big pieces of tablet paper in each room and wrote on and stuck Post-it® notes of all the things that she needed to do on those big pieces of paper. She told the rest of the workshop participants, “I’m leaving these things up. So every single thing I think of in my living room that needs to get done, whether it’s, I don’t know, fixing some blinds, getting a different pillow, anything like that, until it gets done, it’s staying up here. Anybody that comes to my house, they’re just going to see this is the crap I need to do.” I love that, which is why I am telling you that story. It’s an option for you — and so is walking around and writing down each item on a separate post-it note and NOT displaying those around your house.
Another person in one of my workshops told me that when she was a very young professor, she was also the mother of three young children, and she was — what a surprise — completely overwhelmed with all the things she needed to do and she felt like a failure. One day, she started writing all these little, bitty notes of what she needed to do and pinned them all on a giant quilt that she had hanging in her living room. Every once in a while, she would be able to go do one of those things. She said, “I felt like I was making progress, because I could see I was getting things done.” She said it helped her to feel like she wasn’t a failure.
I thought, “What a great story.”
If it’s time for you to stop reading this article and do a walk about, then please do. I’ll be ready with another idea as soon as you come back.
Number three: Spend some time with your planner system.
Your planner system could easily be in one binder — either the full letter-sized or the half-letter sized. Inside that planner system might be your calendar, your various to-do or project lists, as well as your contact pages, and notes section. I was certified to teach the Franklin Covey Planner System for many years and it’s a fabulous system works great. However, there are MANY other excellent paper-based systems! Find what works best for you.
You may be one of the people who never left a completely analog system or you may be one of the people who uses a hybrid system like I do. The point here is that whether you have a paper planner system or use a suite of digital tools for your planning system, one key part of your mind sweep is to consult this system. Go through the calendars, both upcoming and recently past. Look at your monthly, weekly, and daily calendars and see what gets jarred loose from your brain that you need to make note of.
Next, consult all the to-do lists that you already have compiled within your planner system, including Post-it® notes that might be stuck on pages or full lists under tabs or within particular to-do list apps. Make a pass through these and see if you get additional ideas for something else that is currently floating in your brain but doesn’t seem to be reflected in your planner system.
Also, good planner systems have notes sections. It could be you have meeting notes, notes about your children’s recent doctor appointments, notes about how you want your kitchen remodel to go, notes of things to tell your sister the next time you talk with her. And then there are the stray notes that you look at and wonder, ‘Hmmm…what did this mean?’
If you have other parts of your planning system that you need to consult, add that to the list so you remember to do that during your sweep.
Stop reading the article if you want to go on with a sweep at this point.
Number four: Consult your calendars. All of them.
I know I mentioned the calendar in your planner a few moments ago but now I want you do think even more broadly about calendars and the wonderful array of information that they hold — with many to-dos nestled in among the other information on a calendar. That’s what you’ll be tapping into for this part of the sweep.
Nearly everyone has multiple calendars today, whether that is a good idea or not. During your sweep, you could look at your family calendar if you happen to be at home, or if you have an online family calendar. You may have a school calendar for your children or a university calendar if you’re in school or work in higher ed.
As you consult these calendars, what comes up? Are there tasks that pop in your head as you look at the calendar and see, “Oh, yeah…I agreed to be an assistant soccer coach this fall.” Then you start thinking, “Oh, I’ll probably need to do this and I wonder about that, and I need to find out about this.”
Look at the rest of this year’s calendar. You may look at the previous part of this year, because almost all of us have a few stray to-dos or commitments that have come in the last few months, or the last few days or weeks, that somehow didn’t make it into our regular to-do list.
If you have kids, look at their school calendars for the upcoming year. If you go to particular sporting events or you subscribe to opera series or other musical events in your city… or if you write grants, get your eyeballs on those grant calendars. They don’t always indicate when things are going to be due, but a lot of times you know from previous experience.
Work calendars often have a major impact on your calendar and it’s worth checking out as many of those different work-related calendars as possible (e.g., accreditation, funding, conference). Also, if you’re a faculty member or a student, definitely look at course syllabi. You may or may not think about course syllabi in the calendar category but they are — and would be worth going through to see what emerges when you look at them as far as things you need to do and be aware of. It’s never good to look at your syllabus the night before class (if you haven’t made note of any and all due dates and other project-related reminders) and see that something must be prepared for your 8:00 class tomorrow morning. This isn’t the kind of surprise most of us like.
If you are a person who maintains birthday or holiday calendars, take a look at those because in many instances, you will be prompted about something you want to consider or do or ask or take care of when you see a particular date coming up. And P.S. if you don’t have a holiday and birthday calendar, you might want to make a note on one of your notecards to create one (or not).
Calendars are an extremely rich source for you to do a mind sweep and can truthfully take a fair amount of time — but the return on your investment is worth it. Just be ready!
Number five: Project and to-do lists.
As with calendars, “projects and to-do lists” is a broad category and you are the only person who knows where all of your to-do lists and project lists are. Most people have some on their computer and some on paper and some in their phones. If you work with collaborators, the two or ten of you may use a cloud-based system like Basecamp or Trello or SmartSheet or Wrike or Asana. Or maybe you have some Google Docs with your doctoral students to keep up with various articles you’re writing. I don’t know what you have for tracking projects, but you know! Now is a fine time to go look around and gather what you find. At some point, if you have too many different systems, you may decide to organize around one or two trusted tools, but for now, take a look at what you have.
Usually, when I go in somebody’s office and I’m working directly with them in their space or we’re doing a virtual peaceful productivity day using Zoom, I will have them just start pulling post-its off the shelves above their desk or off the side of their file cabinet or anything like that, and begin to see what is prompted, “Oh. Well, yeah. That makes me think of this.” Each of these notes is likely to awaken something that comes to mind. That’s some of what you’re doing here. Looking at notes and lists and plans and noticing what comes to mind that may not be written anywhere else except in your brain.
Number six: People.
For now, you could list all the people that you know that you need to talk with to find out what plans, ideas, tasks, promises, and other commitments have been spoken but really never addressed because they aren’t in any kind of a system or they’ve never been formalized in any way. There are many ways to have these conversations — and some are easier than others (she says with a fair amount of understatement). But have them. Your mind is certainly cluttered up with some of what needs to be talked about.
So here’s your task. Start your sweep. Get out your tools. Start writing. You can set your timer and go for at least 30 minutes. Then take a break. Then go for another 30 minutes if you like.
When you’re sitting and thinking or sitting and going through calendars or walking around your house, see what comes up. You write one thing on each index card or each post-it note, or even each piece of paper. One thing. That’s because you want to be able to manipulate these items later. If you insist on making a list, it’s your sweep and I’ve tried to guide you away from a list but if you insist, that’s fine. We’ll talk about some ways you can manipulate it later. But you are much better off writing one thing per card, one thing per Post-it®, one thing per piece of paper.
I’ve had people ask whether to include tasks, like respond to email or do laundry, the ones that don’t just get done, but keep recurring? My answer is, “You can.” You don’t have to but you certainly can. I don’t think you need to write brush teeth since you do that every night at least and it’s so much of a routine that you aren’t going to forget but if it’s on your mind for some reason, then write it down.
Remember what I said in an earlier article (and I’ll remind you of it here):
Remember the rainbow. That’s our signal to each other that working on a mindsweep usually has an arc associated with it. An arc of anxiety. You may proceed a bit along this arc during this article (in fact, I would be surprised if you didn’t). But remember the rainbow. You’ll be fine. Feel free to make some notes about how you’re feeling and some of what’s happening for you as you work on this. That will be helpful, too.
Here I am the most recent day I was leading a mind sweep for about 50 people. I wore a rainbow shirt and rainbow necklace to symbolize the “arc” of how this process goes.