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SUE ALLISON | How to Organize Your Thoughts

If you haven’t thought it in a year, throw it out. Ditto if it is out of style, has holes in it, or doesn’t fit you. It may have never fit you in the first place, or you’ve outgrown it. Likewise, scrutinize thoughts that have, as a result of marketing and various media, crept in without your realizing it so that you might find yourself thinking thoughts you don’t really think.

Take the junk drawer, pull it out, empty it into a trash bag, and throw the entire contents away. Don’t even look at what you had put in there. That they are in your junk is all you need to go on.

Ditch anything you got on sale. There’s a reason it was on sale, and it wasn’t to save you money. Same goes for those so-called bargains you picked up at a secondhand store. What do you want secondhand thoughts for? Think of that.

Deep-six any memories that cause you dismay, regret, or reflect badly on you. A relationship that went sour. A job you hated. That remark you made. What a better life you would have had if you had taken the other fork—and what were you thinking to take the one you did? No matter how bad they make us feel, these thoughts keep coming back like a stick you thought you threw away, but there it is, back again. Get rid of the stick. Get rid of the dog. Whatever you do, do not give them away, do not donate them. If you don’t need your mistakes, does anybody else?

The diet you will go on next week, the exercise routine you will really commit to this time, the serious books you will read? Self-improvement schemes delude you into thinking they are positive thoughts, but they are not. They are negative thoughts. They are thoughts of things you think you should do but when you fail to do them they plague you with the overriding thought that you are flawed, which is cousin to the negative thought that got you thinking you should do these things in the first place. Thinking is very complicated. It is more complicated than we think.

Banish once and for all the idea that you need to be perfect, or that your children need to be perfect, or your husband or wife, or your mother or father or brother or sister or former best friend; or that your house needs to be perfect when what needs to be cleaned up is this thinking that you need to be perfect and everyone and everything around you needs to be perfect, which is not only unattainable but also an illusion and which is preventing the positive thinking which is the end result of a tidy mind. Not a small mind, mind, just a clear mind.

Don’t worry that you are removing so much you will be left with nothing to think. Throwing out old thoughts that are dragging you down only makes room for new thoughts! The main concern you should have is to resist letting what you discarded back in. Keep the thoughts that help you, the thoughts that make you feel good. Pretty simple, right?

Now that you’ve cleared out the detritus, you are ready to organize the thoughts you’ve kept. It is paralyzing to personal growth and happiness not only to have negative thoughts but also to have thoughts in the wrong places. Store thoughts—daydreams, movies, books, memories, money, the news, friends, family, vacations, lists, hobbies, pets, plans, work, appointments, children, ideas, opinions, regrets, meditations, musings, brainstorms, upcoming events, what have you—where you use them. Food and food-related thoughts, like what you’re going to make for dinner and what you need to get at the store and the need to start at a particular time so it will be done at a desired time, go in the kitchen. Work thoughts go in the office. If you have a work thought in the kitchen or when walking the dog (You have a dog? Well, okay, if you insist. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.) put it in the office immediately. Appointments go in your appointment book. What you need to do goes on your to-do list. Dream thoughts go in the bedroom, as do other bedroom-related thoughts. You get the picture.

Organizing is not a one-stop shop. It is an ongoing process but once you get the hang of it it will take care of itself. Think of it: How productive is it to be planning dinner when you are trying to wrap up a presentation that is due? Of course, you are only thinking about what to make for dinner to avoid thinking about work, but this is exactly the point of ordering your mind. It gets what you need to get done, done, and in the process eliminates the crushing negativity that you are a failure and always were. See above.

Once your thought-space is neatly arranged, all trim and ready to go, the challenge now is keeping it that way so you will be your best-thinking self at all times. There are two strategies to achieve this; the first is to be discriminating about your acquisitions. Apply the same rigorous standards to new thoughts as you did to the old. There’s no point in decluttering if you’re just going to acquire more clutter you’re only going to have to discard. Which is another reason to go through the cleanup. You don’t want to do that again.

Another way to control what goes in is to ask yourself: If you had to pay full price for this thought, would you buy it? Or if your know-it-all something-in-law gave it to you free, would you take it? If the answer is no, do not keep it. But if it is yes, if you like it, go ahead. You know just where to put it.


Sue Allison was a reporter for Life Magazine; her writing has also been published or is forthcoming in Best American Essays, Antioch Review, Harvard Review, New South, Streetlight Magazine, Threepenny Review, Fourth Genre, The Diagram, Isacoustic, River Teeth, and a Pushcart Prize collection. She holds a BA in English from McGill University and an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


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