I Didn’t Save The File

“What was the name of that documentary we watched about why fad diets don’t work?” I asked Angie, after hanging up the phone with our niece.

“You mean the one where they follow a bunch of people doing different diets?

“Umm…I don’t know,” I replied. “I just remember the part about how you should just eat healthy and skip the fads.”

“Yeah, I don’t know the name but I can probably find it on Netflix,” Angie said, reaching for the remote.

“You know,” I continued. “If I remembered things like my mom does, I’d be able to tell you the name of the film and the director and summarize all the different stories.”

“Yeah, but…” she countered. “Think of all the clutter that creates in your head.”

This was an actual conversation we had on Sunday night, but it’s not the first time we’ve had this kind of conversation.

I sometimes tease that I have a mind like a sieve. Stuff comes in and goes right back out. Except, that’s not exactly true. Some stuff stays around, like random statistics and song lyrics that I really don’t want to remember (Ice, Ice Baby…). Seriously though, it’s not that I can’t remember. I don’t have memory problems (and I know this from the multitude of things that I do everyday that require me to recall some sort of information) but I do have a habit of not remembering certain things.

This drives my mom nuts. “How do you not remember that yellow dress with the ruffles that you wore to the church picnic in the summer of 1984? I can see you in it right now!”

It used to drive me nuts too that I couldn’t remember. I used to think something was wrong with me. “Why can’t I remember what we had for dinner on the third Thursday of May? Why can’t I recall the main character’s name from that book I read in third grade? Why do I not know the exact date and time of my last eye exam??” 

I don’t know if there’s any science behind what I’m about to say but, when Angie mentioned clutter, a connection formed for me that I’d never thought of before. When I first embraced minimalism, like most of you, I started getting rid of stuff. I cleared out cabinets, closets, drawers, and even the glove compartment of my car. Why? Because I was trying to make room in my life for the things that really mattered…and only the things that really mattered.

If I think of my mind like a filing cabinet (or hard drive), it then makes perfect sense why I don’t remember things. I didn’t save the file. It was important while I was working on it but it wasn’t something I needed to keep for future records. For example, I read a lot of books. Some of them I can tell you all about. Most I cannot. They were probably good books and useful at the time, but they weren’t stories I needed to remember, so I chose not to save the file.

Similarly, things that are milestones for other people, may not be for me. My mom remembers my first day of kindergarten, the time I screamed bloody-murder at the doctor’s office because I didn’t want a shot, and that yellow dress at the church picnic because they were all meaningful (in different ways) to her life. For me, it was just another day in a childhood full of days just like it. And the things that were important to me back then, she doesn’t recall – like the first “newspaper” I typed on my typewriter and sold to her for a quarter. I know she doesn’t remember because I just had to dig that paper out of my memory box to prove its existence to her.

When we think about mental clutter, we often think about advertising, media, negative thoughts, fears, worries, and the stresses of work and home that infiltrate our thoughts and slow us down. But just like physical clutter, mental clutter isn’t limited to just the stuff we shouldn’t be carrying with us in the first place. Sometimes, good stuff creates clutter too.

Think about the hardest part of your minimalist journey. For me, it was going though all the gifts I’d saved over the years, all the cards, all the photos, all the report cards, all the 4-H awards, and all the special knick-knacks I had collected in 40 years of living. That memory box, the one where my first newspaper resides, that was the hardest thing I had to declutter. It’s been years now and I can honestly say, I have not yet missed any of those things that I said goodbye to (nor have I regretted saving any of the ones I saved).

Just like it’s okay not to carry every little piece of our lives around in a trunk, it’s okay not to carry them around in our minds either. I don’t recall what I had for breakfast last Tuesday. I don’t know who wrote the last book I read. I don’t even remember who shot J.R. or whether or not Mulder ever found the truth that was out there. But I do remember what’s important – to be present and to enjoy the moment.

Mental clutter – whatever form it takes – keeps us from doing that. My mom may recall every movie she’s ever watched, every conversation she’s ever had, and everything I’ve ever done (except sell her a newspaper) but she also doesn’t sleep well at night and often complains that she has a running to-do list going in her mind. That’s the very definition of a cluttered mind. I had that – before minimalism – and it’s not something I want to experience again. So how do we declutter our mental spaces?

Different things work for different people. For me, it’s usually writing. From a simple to-do list to this blog, I find it helpful to “download” my thoughts from time to time. Once they are written down, I no longer have to be responsible for remembering them. Getting enough rest, practicing mindfulness, limiting media, and single-tasking are also good habits for decluttering the mind. 

Do you suffer from a cluttered mind? What do you do to avoid or clear the mental clutter?