Declutter Your Attention

Peace of mind

Attention is the most precious thing we have. It’s the energy of conscious life expressing itself through us.

We notice, observe, sense, and learn through attention. We connect and interact with the world by paying attention.

This priceless gift and blessing comes with a great responsibility: making the most out of each moment we’re attending to life. And this is becoming more challenging as time goes by.

Our attention is the target of everything and everyone wanting something from us. And let’s not forget what we want, and expect, from ourselves.

With technology and global reach, we’re exposed to more messages that command our attention. Is it any wonder we feel so scattered and stressed out?

There are many productivity methods and hacks to help with distractions. Today we’re doing something different. We’ll use a visual approach that I hope can help with mental clutter.

Instead of viewing attention as a tool of consciousness, let’s think of it as a space—a mental room that our conscious awareness lives in. What does this room look like? How do we feel when we’re inside this room?

The attention room

This is an exercise in imagination that gets us to examine the contents of our attention space.

So let’s begin with the current state of the attention room.

Imagine you’re standing at the door of your attention room. When you open the door, what do you see?

Is there empty open space? What objects are in that space?

Are there files scattered all over for projects you’re working on, or have been meaning to work on?

How about tools? Any cleaning tools you’ve been meaning to use to clean your house? Do you have any musical instruments around? How big are they? How about books and magazines and learning/course material?

Do you have a computer in there and a browser with many tabs open? Is there a smart phone with an open Facebook app? Or a tablet with the Twitter app open? Is there a TV and a DVR?

Are there boxes of stuff you’ve been meaning to deal with?

What’s on the walls? Are there pictures of good and bad memories hanging on the walls?

Are there stereos or MP3 players blaring positive and negative thoughts and beliefs?

How many windows are in the room? Is there a window looking out to the future? Is it dark and gloomy outside? Or is bright? Does this window open up to space or to a brick limiting wall? Is the room well lit, or is it depressing?

How does it smell in there? Is it stuffy? Is it accumulating dust from the past? Or is there a flow of fresh air? Is it warm, cold, or pleasant inside?

You don’t have to write anything down. Just imagine it. How do you feel about the room? Do you feel you have a somewhat clear, and calming space? Or are the things mentioned above (and more) adding to your stress?

Going through the contents of the attention room

If attention is a room full of stuff, it’s time to examine the contents of the room and remove the clutter.

We can use the same process of sorting and eliminating physical possessions to go through the things that take up our attention space.

Let’s start with the easier stuff, like online surfing and social media, things we started but didn’t finish, or things we’d like to do. Then we can move to the more challenging stuff, like memories of the past, and anxieties about the future.

Take a few moments to think about all the things taking attention space. For each item that comes to mind, put it into one of the following lists (the equivalent of physical boxes). You’ll need to write these down.

  • Now: These are the things that are very important to you that you want to keep.

  • Later: These are the items that you’d like to work on, but not at the moment.

  • Throw out: This is useless clutter that doesn’t serve you, but drains your energy and adds to your stress.

  • Give away: Can you let someone else deal with an issue that’s lingering in your attention room?

  • Not sure: These are things you’re not sure about. Every item added to this list will have an expiry date. You can decide if it’s a month, or more. But once that date is here, and you haven’t dealt with it, it gets thrown out.

By the end of this process, you’ll keep three lists (now, later, and not sure) and let go of the rest. If you have any physical, or digital stuff, that’s part of an item, organize it in the same fashion.

Keeping only the important stuff

When we declutter a physical room, we remove everything other than what matters. Stuff we want to tackle later can be put on shelves in the back of a closet with clear labels. And things we’re not sure about can be boxed with a time stamp and kept in the basement.

In the attention room, we can organize the things we’re keeping and leave lots of empty space in between.

We only need a few things on the walls—perhaps pictures of our fondest memories that can be a source of motivation and joy.

We can let go of the painful past by making peace with it, and reflecting on the lessons we’ve learned. We can have a book of wisdom of lessons learned, and place it on a shelf that we can access when we need to. If an old unhelpful thought comes up, we can notice it, feel it, and then open a window, and let it out of the attention room.

We can open the window to the future and remove any blocks, clean the glass, and replace the darkness of anxiety with playful curiosity.

And instead of nagging thoughts, we can choose to have soothing music or words playing softly in the background, with lots of silence in between.

All the tasks and projects that we want to do, are organized and prioritized. Deferred items are neatly boxed and put away. Delegated items are out. And all clutter is removed.

It is not an easy process considering how much stuff we have in our attention room. But it’s a work in progress.

All we need to do is start with one tiny elimination, and then the next, till the room feels right. With time we’ll develop a routine of regular housekeeping and upkeep.

Our attention is too valuable to let unconscious thoughts and influences accumulate and occupy this mental space. Taking time to declutter our attention is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves and others.

An uncluttered attention has ample space for intentional focus, deeper connections, relaxation and reflection, and simply being and communing with life.