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Tidy Up Your Mind and Get Into the Zone

February 26, 2019


Marie Kondo for Your Mind


There’s growing evidence that a cluttered home or workplace is a stressful one. A recent DePaul University study found that physical clutter is linked with procrastination and, in turn, lower life satisfaction. Other research shows that clutter is associated with elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol.


Though the above research, and pop-culture hits like the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, examine physical clutter, I’ve got a strong hunch that psychological clutter may be even worse for your health and performance. The more you’ve got going on at any given time, the less energy and attention you’ll have available for each activity. This is problematic because deep engagement is a precursor to fulfillment and enjoyment—a Harvard study found that people are much happier when they are fully present for the activity that they are doing. A rushed or scattered mind is generally not a happy mind. Busyness may have become a modern badge of honor, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. 


Better than being chronically busy is to have a limited number of things that you care about and bring your all to them. A wonderful case study is the runner Eliud Kipchoge. As the best marathoner of all time, Kipchoge has countless opportunities to make media appearances and live the life of a celebrity. Yet he prefers a modest lifestyle with a singular focus on running. This, he’s said, makes him happy. “In life, the idea is to be happy,” Kipchoge says in the documentary Breaking2. “So I believe in calm, simple, low-profile life. You live simple, you train hard, and live an honest life. Then you are free.”


Decluttering your life doesn’t just improve happiness; it improves performance, too. Most high performers have a Marie-Kondo approach to their entire lives. As a mentor of mine likes to say: "You've got to a be a minimalist if you want to be a maximalist."


Decluttering your life may be effective, but that doesn’t make it easy, especially in a world characterized by hyperconnectivity and endless opportunities to do more. The good news is that a three-step process can help.


  1. List your core values or the three to five things that matter most to you. These are the guiding principles in your life.

  2. Take a rough inventory of how you spend your time and energy on an average day. If you can’t come up with an “average” day, just look back to the past week or two. What percentage of your time and energy is spent on activities that align with your core values? Which of the activities that do not align with your core values can you reasonably cut?

  3. For every new opportunity that comes your way, ask yourself: “If I say yes to this, to what am I saying no?” This is a powerful question. It makes trade-offs highly apparent and helps you avoid getting overwhelmed by the acute excitement of taking on something new.


Remember: More may be more. But that doesn’t mean more is better.


It's Easy to Compete When You're Winning - But Not When the Band Breaks


If you watch enough track races, you notice a curious phenomenon. An athlete is running along with the pack and then a gap forms, or maybe they get passed by a competitor or two. All of the sudden, they go from a strong, powerful stride to a flailing mess, slowing appreciatively. They go from looking good to their race being finished in no time.

When I was competing in college, we referred to it as the band breaking. We'd imagine that there was a rubber band stretching from you to the pack ahead of you. You could stretch the band a little bit, while still maintaining composure, but if you let it stretch too far, the band broke and your race was effectively over.

Why does this occur? It's not like fatigue overwhelms the body in an exact instant. Instead, it's because of goals and expectations. People put forth effort to accomplish their goal, and when it slips away, their effort often slips with it. They may have more in the tank, but the pain and work are no longer worth it. Once the band breaks, so does their inner drive. Regardless of whether it's in athletics, academics, or the workplaces, the "who cares, It's not going to matter, anyway," refrain is a common one.

But, if you've watched enough races, you also notice another breed of individuals, the athletes who keep competing when the band breaks. The ones who don't fully break, even when they are stretched 20-30-40 meters behind the pack. The ones who keep pushing even as their goal slips away. As 'winning' fades away, their resolution doesn't dampen. They continue to push forward, often catching those who break later in the race.

It's easy to compete when we are winning, or when our goal is within reach; it's much harder to do so when your goal is slipping away. Those who can muster the strength and courage to compete on their bad days, are the ones who will persevere and astonish when it is their day. They are grooving the habit of getting the best out of themselves, even on bad days. It was this exact habit that lead
Des Linden to a Boston Marathon win last Spring.


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