A rulling landscape of scrub, with mountains in the distance and a stream flowing over rapids in the foreground

Clearing out the mental clutter (without going on a four-day hike)

I recently returned from a four-day hiking trip. Hiking is an activity I don’t undertake often – it usually takes a year or so for the memory of the aches and pains, poor sleep, and lack of refrigerated food to wear off to the point where I start yearning for the positive aspects of a long hike.

Besides the beautiful scenery, one of the elements that keeps bringing me back is the amazing sense of mental clarity hiking produces in me.

Just me, my feet, and the landscape

As someone who struggles constantly with focus, I’ve never experienced anything quite like the single-minded state I enter three hours into a five-hour walk across rough, ever-changing terrain, where a misstep could lead to a rolled ankle or a bad fall; the weight of my pack a constant companion, the closest internet connection a day’s trek back the way I came, and nothing to do but keep walking until I reach my destination.

The plans and worries of daily life melt away, distant and irrelevant to my current situation. Thoughts free-associate, snatches of music come and go, but nothing sticks – nothing feels important enough to snag my focus away from the landscape around me, the path ahead, and putting one foot in front of the other.

And then the hike ended, and life came crashing in on me.

…and everything else

The day after I got home was supposed to be one of rest and recovery. Instead, it became a day of paralysis.

Even though I had nothing – nothing! – I planned to get done that day, I hadn’t been awake for long before my brain started coming up with Things I Should Think About.

Hmm, I need a blog post to put up tomorrow – do I have something ready to go or do I want to write something new?

Wow, my inbox has become a total mess while I was away – I’d better get on to that before it gets much worse.

Huh, the Ditmar nominations have opened and I’m eligible for the first time. Better let people know if I want to have even a chance at nomination. And I should let people know that Mother of Invention is nominated for an Aurealis award, along with a bunch of other awesome writer/artist people.

Oh wow, my cousin’s due soon, I really need to work harder on these baby clothes I’m knitting.

Mustn’t forget we’ll need to find a new home soon. I’ll just open some real estate websites…

This is my personal useless superpower: given a moment of downtime, my brain weasels can and will generate an endlessly cascading list of things I really should be doing.

Which is how, less than 24 hours since I was immersed in the zen-like focus of walking, I found myself yanked in so many mental directions that I ceased to function entirely.

I spent a chunk of the day sitting on the couch – not resting and relaxing, but staring at emails I couldn’t concentrate enough to deal with, tapping out a few disjointed paragraphs of blog post before losing the thread entirely, knitting a row or two only to put it down again because I have too much to do to just be knitting.

Eventually, inevitably, I devolved into simply sitting there feeling miserable: urgently restless yet doing nothing, my brain buzzing as uselessly as a fat cicada caught in a spider’s web – stretched out on so many taut threads of things I need to take care of that it couldn’t actually move in any direction at all.

Clearing my head

Fortunately, I have a secret weapon against this particular manifestation of brain weasels, even if it usually takes a day of sitting around feeling spaced out and awful before I figure out I need to deploy it.

That weapon is: dun dun dunnnn! Making a list.

Not a to-do list. I have strong negative feelings about to-do lists, for reasons I shall cover another time. I call this list, Things that are hanging over me right now.

On this list, I put every single thing my brain weasels have been telling me I need to think about right now, urgent, do not forget!!

  • Organise a blog post.
  • Clean up my inbox.
  • Figure out how Ditmar nominations work and then post to social media about them.
  • Find a new rental.
  • Etc, etc, etc.

I know, I know, it sure looks like a to-do list. But here’s the difference: once I’ve written it all down, I put the list away and I Do Not Look At It.

Because the purpose of the list is not to keep track of things to do. The purpose of the list is to clear out my head.

Outwitting the weasels

Taken individually, each of the things pulling at my brain might seem important and immediately relevant (or at least, that’s what the weasels tell me), but at the end of the day 95-100% of them won’t actually cause the end of the world if they don’t get taken care of right this second. Some of them – cleaning out my inbox, figuring out the Ditmars – don’t actually need to be done at all.

Sure, it would be satisfying to reach Inbox Zero, and I’ll be a bit sad if the nominations come out and I didn’t make at least some effort towards being included in them. But in the long run, neither of these things is going to have a huge impact on the course of my life if I just don’t do them.

Meanwhile, the weasels’ insistence that I have to keep track of all of them or else? It stops me from actually achieving anything.

By writing all these things down, I give my brain explicit permission to stop worrying about them. It’s OK. You don’t need to hold on to that anymore. It won’t be forgotten – see? It’s on a list!

It’s all a trick, of course – I’m not actually going to look at the list again. But it’s a trick that gives me brain the excuse it needs to rebuff those particular weasels.

Finding clarity

That evening, after my day of paralysis, I sat down and wrote out a list of everything that was pulling at me. And once it was done,I put it away, took a deep breath, and felt my brain restarting.

Oh hey, that’s right, I wanted to think about a blog post for tomorrow. OK then – let’s do that.

It isn’t the same level of clarity I find with two days of mountain paths between me and my thoughts. But it’ll do.

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