Spring is a time for tidying up and decluttering, with the roots of spring cleaning to be found in ancient traditions and religious customs around the world. Cleaning our homes and sorting through our possessions can be a cathartic experience, as well as having practical benefits, and it occurred to me last week when on a retreat that spring cleaning the mind has much to recommend it too.

Just as sorting out our wardrobe helps to create space for new clothes, so tidying our mind allows us the space to embrace new thinking. Perhaps we’ve been holding onto thoughts and emotions that weigh us down, or struggling to shake off others which prevent us from moving forward? Making mental space is essential for our wellbeing as well as our productivity and clarity of thought. And in fact, one of my mentors, Hazel Peacock, once told me, “When we do this, we can achieve a wonderful feeling of living in an easy flow of choiceless choices and decisionless decision.” If I’m honest, I’m not sure I understood this back in 2014, but I wrote it down and today I know it to be true.

The problem of the overflowing cup

There is a famous story about Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master, who received a visit from a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea while the professor spoke at length about his knowledge and experience. While pouring tea into his visitor’s cup, he didn’t stop when it was full, but kept on pouring.

The professor watched the cup overflow until he could no longer restrain himself and exclaimed, “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Emptying your cup

There are many options available for spring cleaning the mind or ‘emptying the cup’. For some people a regular practice such as meditation works wonders. There are various popular apps (I particularly like Calm) which are designed to provide mental solace at the touch of a button, but there’s much to be said for diarising a regular time for focused thinking (or, rather, not thinking). Something as simple as going for a walk can help clear your head, and there’s plenty of evidence of the benefits of physical activity on the mind, such as the release of endorphins and increased neural growth.

But in my experience, it’s not so much about how you do it, but rather the wider benefits of spring cleaning the mind that really matter, for you as a leader, for your team and for your organisation.

Six benefits of spring cleaning the mind

  1. Clarity

Clearing out our mental clutter provides vital clarity. Our mind is like a snow globe: when there are too many thoughts whirling around, our vision is obscured. But when we sit quietly and let them settle, everything becomes clear. Being able to quieten our mind, even during times of stress, enables us to think and communicate our ideas with clarity.

  1. Perspective

When our mind is quiet, we are also able to reflect and gain perspective. Marie Kondo, the decluttering queen, advocates considering each object and deciding whether or not it brings you joy.  She believes that it’s in this moment of reflection when tidying our physical space that we can determine what to keep and what to discard.  And so it is with our thoughts and feelings: take a moment to consider which of them makes us happy and discard the rest. Reflect, gain perspective and only hold onto that which serves a positive purpose.

  1. Growth

This ability to dispel negativity doesn’t mean that we ignore problems though. Rather, it means having a positive attitude to dealing with difficult situations. By acknowledging our mistakes and seeking to learn from them, we can grow with confidence and optimism instead of getting bogged down in blame and recrimination.

  1. Listening

When we empty our minds, we become a vessel primed and ready to listen. Listening is a leadership superpower but it cannot be done effectively if the listener is preoccupied or distracted. Learning to embrace silence and just listen, without interruption, judgement or response, enables us to create a deep connection with the speaker and gives them the space to find their own answers.

  1. Innovation

When we as leaders flick the switch from ‘transmit’ to ‘receive’ in this way, it opens us up to new ideas. It invites innovation and provides the space and opportunity for creativity to flourish within a team or organisation.

  1. Burnout prevention

The ultimate destination of a leader beset by overwhelm is burnout. If we don’t take the opportunity to spring clean our minds, our psyche eventually becomes like the house of a hoarder: overflowing with so much stuff that it’s become a health hazard.

Keep on top of the housekeeping

Spring cleaning may traditionally be a once-a-year activity, but in leadership (as in life) it pays to keep on top of the housekeeping. My recent retreat was an excellent opportunity for a mental deep clean and certainly something I’d recommend, but I’d also advocate scheduling regular opportunities to flick a duster over your innermost thoughts.

Journaling, sessions with a mentor or just a lunchtime walk to breathe fresh air and calm your mind will help keep your headspace in tip top condition and ready to embrace new wisdom. As ever, if you need support, please get in touch.

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