From the moment we first open our eyes in the morning to the moment we go to bed, we’re confronted with a barrage of decisions. Which outfit should I wear? What should I make for dinner? What’s the fastest route to take to work today? Our minds are often full of a continuous stream of tasks, and it takes a toll on our mental well-being. With so much information coming from different sources—from news to social media outlets to our own family in the background—our brains can feel completely overwhelmed.
In other words, the brain is in overload as “an information-processing system,” writes Lifehack writer, Rebecca Bologna. She adds: “As you sit down to work in front of your computer, you may find yourself too overwhelmed to focus. Your head is stuck and you are mentally paralyzed.”
The truth is, our mind isn’t at its best or at its most creative when it’s being held under the weight of thousands of tasks and projects. I’d like to share some advice for clearing your mind and freeing up space—both physically and mentally—to allow your creative ideas to start flowing.
Practice regular brain dumps
First, try something called a “brain dump” the first hour of your day. This exercise, which only requires 10 minutes, can help you empty your mind of negative thoughts and streamline your focus on what matters most.
It works like this: Take a few minutes to write down on paper everything that’s weighing you down, letting your mind flow freely onto the page. Fast Company contributor, Stephanie Vozza, says, “If you think keeping everything you need to know neatly packed away in your head is a smart way to run your life, you’re probably hurting your productivity and stifling your creativity.”
In my own experiences, I’ve heard from colleagues who insist on storing everything in their heads. But as I like to remind them, keeping these ongoing mental lists leaves little room for the spark of new ideas to flourish.
Another benefit of jotting things down is that you can review what needs to be done in the moment and take steps toward resolving them right away rather than perpetually procrastinating.
Try embracing passivity
The word “passive” gets a bad rap. But I’m not referring to becoming a conformist who lacks initiative. What I am advocating for, however, is embracing quiet reflection and moments of doing absolutely nothing. In other words, when you disconnect from distractions, you give space for your mind to create new pathways.
“We tend to generate redundant ideas when we don’t take regular breaks,” writes Thomas Oppong for Inc. “If you’re hesitant to break away because you feel that you’re on a roll, be mindful that it might be a false impression,” he explains. “Your brain needs downtime to remain industrious and generate better ideas.”
Surround yourself with nature
Albert Einstein once said that if we look deep into nature, then we’ll understand everything better. While I am no genius physicist, I can say that nature has been a healing and restorative balm in my own life.
I’m fortunate enough to count on a beautiful garden in my home, full of lush trees and blossoming flowers. On days when my mind is overloaded with tasks, I’ll sit outside and simply take in the beauty of the scenery. Some of my most creative ideas have come from engaging with nature—either through leisurely walks in the park, or picking olives in my hometown in my native Turkey. I’ve found there’s no better antidote for a cluttered mind.
In fact, it’s been proven that spending time in nature relieves attention fatigue and increases our creativity. “If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover,” says researcher David Strayer of the University of Utah in Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine. “And that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.”
Honor your passions
Consider this scenario: When you lay awake at night going over your next day’s to-do list, how often are you including things that make you come alive?
It’s more likely that you’re thinking of emails to respond to, unfinished home repairs, childcare responsibilities, and a million other reminders. All of these obligations are important, but those flashes of creativity, the ones that come to you spontaneously in those quiet hours, are therefore pushed to the back of your mind.
Earlier this year, I wrote about why doing too much is killing our passion. And I believe the same is true for a mind weighed down by endless tasks. According to Psychology Today contributor Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, Ph.D., creativity runs on passion: “Individuals passionate for their work—whether they are scientists, poets, entrepreneurs, operations managers, or something else—are able to use the energy afforded by their passion as a motivator of their work.”
Honoring your passion, then, can help you tap into your emotions and boost your creative genius, but only if you allow yourself the space to pay attention. When you open your eyes first thing in the morning, rather than rehearse your multitude of to-dos, remember to reflect on the ideas that enliven you, the ones that fill your cup with meaning. Those are the ones that should be at the top of your list.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, an online form-builder.