How to Stay Focused When Your Mind Feels Cluttered

We all know what it feels like to have too many mental tabs open — but with some creative strategies, it’s entirely possible to stay productive and efficient.

J_art/ Getty Images
J_art/ Getty Images

Between the stress of getting back into a routine after the holiday season and the rise of COVID anxiety being felt around the world, it’s not out of the ordinary for your mind to feel cluttered right now. We all know what it feels like to have too many mental tabs open — and when it happens, staying focused on what we need to get done can feel impossible. And yet, with some small, simple focus-harnessing strategies, it’s entirely possible to stay productive and efficient, even with so much going on around us. 

We asked our Thrive community to share with us the small strategies that help them stay focused when their mind feels cluttered. Which of these tips will you try?

Identify your priorities for the day

“The thing that helps me to stay focused is to decide in the morning what the most important tasks are for the day and write them down. This stops me from feeling overwhelmed and having a cluttered brain before I start. I also limit distractions as much as possible, reduce time on social media and take regular reset breaks by moving around, getting outside for some fresh air or just noticing nature from the window for a few minutes. Usually when I sit back down, I am more focused.”

—Sharon Kennewell, holistic health and wellness coach, Lincolnshire, U.K.

Declutter your physical space 

“I find it much easier to stay focused when there are no distractions around me. When my life gets stressful, I invest some time in decluttering my home: I give away things I no longer need, sell books I’m not planning to re-read, and cancel subscriptions I’m no longer using. Doing this gives me physical and mental headspace to then focus on what’s important.”

—Bianca Riemer, leadership coach, London, U.K.

Create a daily “wish list”

“Without a doubt, getting back to a routine after the holidays can be challenging. I try to stay organized and focused by writing a ‘wish list’ every morning. Before I even open my email, I write down what I want to complete by the end of that day. I love framing this as a ‘wish list’ instead of a to-do list because if for whatever reason, I don’t get to check all the items off my list, I don’t feel the pressure, guilt, or burden associated with it.”

—Geraldine Orentas, copywriter, FL

Try the Pomodoro technique 

“I find the Pomodoro technique works for me, where I set timers to designate blocks of time for work and time for breaks. I often find it gets me into such a state of flow, and I don’t actually want to stop what I’m doing when my buzzer goes off after 25 minutes.”

—Sophie Neilan, personal development coach, Gloucestershire, U.K.

Implement the “rule of 3”

“To help myself focus, I stick to my rule of 3. Every morning I write out 3 things I’m grateful for, 3 things that have to (not want to or would be nice to) get done today, and I make sure that I’m only scheduled for 3 or fewer meetings a day! Our brains aren’t meant to work like crazy with all the competing demands, and this helps me stay focused, productive, and thankful!”

—Lisa Pezik, business strategist, Ontario Canada

Pause what you’re doing and take a walk

“When the to-do list grows unmanageable, when the answer to a complex problem keeps sinking into the mud, or when I’m feeling scattered, I get up from my desk and take a walk. Moving my legs gets my heart pumping. My skin wakes up to cool air in the canyon where I live. I listen for birds, the chatter of squirrels, the sibilance of cars, the roar of leaf blowers. My eyes focus on objects that are yards, pitches, ridges, or leagues away. And when I get back to my desk, I’ve arrived with a different mind.”

—Jim Humes, creative strategy, Mill Valley, CA

Think of something you’re grateful for

“When the stress response begins to set in and feelings of anxiety surface, I immediately direct my consciousness to all of the gifts that exist in the present moment and express gratitude for them. There are so many wonders on the earth that help sustain our everyday lives, and far too often, we take these gifts for granted until they are lost. I always remember that the greatest gift in life is the human experience. We have the opportunity to learn, grow, and evolve here on earth from all of the challenges we have as individuals and as a species.”

—James Petrossi, president of PTNL, Austin, TX

Close out your unused browsers 

“I minimize distractions by switching off all notifications and closing unnecessary windows on my computer for the required duration of the task at hand. Cal Newport speaks of this in his book Deep Work and I am a strong advocate for doing one thing at a time, for ultimate focus and attention. Multitasking creates more noise and chaos in our heads and debilitates focus and concentration.”

—Candice Tomlinson, coach and hypnotherapist, Sydney, Australia

Pick one thing to accomplish immediately

“To regain focus, I ask myself, ‘What is the one thing I most want to get done right now?’ And usually, it’s ‘ship some work.’ Because I’ve already identified that what I care about most is adding to my body of work (either make a film, a video, or a painting). So, when I’m feeling scattered and overwhelmed, I ask myself what step I can take today to get closer to finishing and shipping a finished film, video, or painting.”

—Courtney Daniels, filmmaker, Sherman Oaks, CA

Create a handwritten to-do list

“I make a hand-written to-do list. The handwritten part is important because it forces me to slow down and really think through many things. I get extremely specific, putting everything from the smallest things like ‘take off nail polish’ to big picture items such as ‘yearly budget.’ I use a fresh page in my notebook and group tasks together according to their genre: work, home, groceries, or dreams. I start with something really easy and after I cross off a couple items I usually have more energy to tackle some of the bigger projects.”

—Henna Garrison, mindset coach, Sicily, Italy 

Take a moment to reflect

“When my mind feels cluttered, I take a moment to assess my current stress meter and ask myself 3 questions: where is this stress coming from? How can I reduce it? and is it as intense as I am making it? Taking a few minutes to think about those questions always reduces my anxiety connected to the stress, and slowly it resolves itself.”

—Jessica Williams, career consultant, Fairfield, CA

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