Mental Minimalism: 4 Simple Ways to Declutter Your Mind

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Once upon a time, a student visited a wise master to learn about Zen. The master welcomed him and said, “Sure, let’s talk about this over some tea.” He poured the student a cup of tea and kept pouring until the cup was overflowing.

Not sure what to do, the student watched the spilling tea for a while. But eventually, he couldn’t take it anymore. “Stop! Quit pouring the tea. You’re wasting all of it.”

“Exactly,” the teacher said as he stopped and looked at the student, “You’re like this cup of tea. You’re already full. You have a predefined concept of Zen, so no matter what I tell you, it won’t fit into your mind. Go empty your cup and come back when it’s empty.”

How to Empty Your Cup

This is an age-old story, but obviously, the moral applies until this day. The cup represents our mind in the modern world. It’s already full, but we keep bombarding ourselves with distractions, advertisements, and clutter.

Our minds are constantly spilling over. That’s why we can’t focus. That’s why we experience brain fog. As a result, we need to declutter our minds from chaos and confusion. We need to empty the cup and replenish it with nourishing, fulfilling tea.

Replenish — that’s actually important to note. Because minimalism — whether physical, digital, or mental — isn’t about having less. It’s about being intentional with your life. It’s about choosing what matters most.

So, here are four simple ways to declutter (and replenish) your mind.

1. Walk and Talk

One of my favorite pastimes is to take long walks. No distractions. No obligations. Just me and the trail. This habit alone is deeply cleansing, but it got even more powerful when I discovered the walk and talk technique.

The idea is simple. Take a walk, and instead of listening to music or podcasts, observe your mind and record any thoughts by voice. It’s like vocal journaling.

The big advantage? Speaking is much faster than writing, resolving the impatience that sometimes comes with traditional journaling. But the effects are the same: You clearly state your thoughts instead of letting them ricochet through your skull like a hyperactive bouncy ball.

Here’s how I do it:

  • Carve out some undisturbed alone time.
  • Take a walk — preferably in nature. (Of course, you can also cozy up inside your home.) Then, observe your mind with child-like curiosity and see what blobs to the surface.
  • As soon as you notice an unresolved issue or engaging thought, start a voice recording. (Most phones have an integrated app for this. Look for “Voice Recorder” or “Voice Memos.”)
  • Speak whatever comes to mind. (Don’t worry if it feels weird at first, it’ll get easier.)

I can’t tell you how much headspace I’ve gained using this technique. It’s self-help in the most literal sense.

Will I ever wade through my recordings? I don’t know. But that’s not the point. The point is that you have an honest conversation with yourself, dig up the worries from the depth of your mind, and gain new perspectives.

2. Download Your Brain

This is an excellent tool for decluttering your mind when you’re short on time. I do this almost every day before bed — or when I feel so overwhelmed, I can’t think straight anymore.

All you need is a pen and a piece of paper. Make a quick list of everything that’s bouncing through your mind. It could be to-dos, things you’re anxious about, a mean remark someone made about you, or an upcoming event you feel nervous about.

Don’t hold back with your entries. Don’t edit. Don’t overthink it.

It’s a simple practice, but you’ll notice how the clutter from your brain downloads onto the paper. Now it’s there, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore. (Research shows that writing down to-dos before bed helps you fall asleep faster.) Return to your list when you feel refreshed, calm, and ready to tackle life.

I’ve also heard of people using this technique and then tearing the paper into pieces or burning it. It’s definitely worth a try if a negative emotion overwhelms you.

3. Ask the Right Questions

I’m an inherently anxious person. Whatever I do, there’s always the radio-like background buzz that something will go wrong. People won’t like me. There will be a problem. I will make a mistake…

By having these thoughts, I participate in the human lot. We’re plagued with negativity bias which makes us see negative things more than good ones. And since this burden follows us through all dimensions of time, we ask these questions:

  • What did I do wrong? (Past)
  • What am I doing wrong? (Present)
  • What if everything goes wrong? (Future)

Sure, it can be important to think like this. We can learn a lot from failure and caution. But studies show that we’re actually more likely to fail if we think about all the things that can go wrong. Not to mention, these negative thoughts take up a massive amount of mental energy.

So, here’s something that has helped me immensely. Whenever I find myself surrounded by negative thoughts, I remind myself that they’re literally the wrong questions. Instead, I ask myself:

  • What did I do right?
  • What am I doing right?
  • What if everything goes right?

Again, this is not about denying your failures. It’s about recognizing your wins. It’s about seeing the goodness of life.

4. Beware GIGO

So let’s say your mind is clear, and your cup is empty. Well, now what?

This is a crucial moment because many people, myself included, fall back into the same old bad habits. And they wonder why life is so hard again even though they invested all this work.

That’s a sign of GIGO. Here’s what I mean.

In computer science, the acronym GIGO stands for “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” When you program an app with complicated code, bugs and crashes are predestined. Bad input will inevitably result in bad output. That’s why the best programs avoid “garbage” by not accepting it in the first place.

Our brains are a bit more complicated than computers. But they function similarly. So take some time to reflect. What are the inputs you’re feeding to your mind? TikTok binges? Doomscrolling Instagram? Toxic conversations? If you don’t mindfully curate the influx to your brain, you might as well hire a monkey to build a website.

Embrace WIWO

On the other hand, there’s what I call WIWO (“Wisdom In, Wisdom Out”). That is, choosing inputs that make you grow and expand. But remember: sometimes no input is better than a forced one. Give your mind time and space to process wisdom.

WIWO isn’t a guarantee to become a sage. But it radically increases your chances to achieve mental clarity. And no, this doesn’t mean you have to banish all the joys from your life. It’s okay to binge Netflix occasionally, as long as you’re intentional about it.

It’s all about being the gatekeeper of your mind. Be aware that your cup has a limited size. Fill it mindfully. And remember that this is an ongoing process. You might have to empty and refill your cup multiple times until you feel good about the tea.

Mental minimalism is not always easy. But having a clear, clean mind is one of the most rewarding things in life.