If you're anything like me at the moment, your mind is crowded with "what ifs" and worries, and it's really messing with your ability to get stuff done (and get to sleep). That's natural enough in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic. When you're fighting to secure your health and your livelihood, it's also inconvenient.  

When troubled times demand you think clearly about the best course for your business and your family, you can't afford to be distracted by a swarm of half-formed anxieties. How do you get rid of them? If you have 20 minutes and a pen, philosopher Alain de Botton has a suggestion to clear your mind (hat tip to the consistently excellent Raptitude blog). 

20 minutes to a more tranquil mind

De Botton calls his method "philosophical meditation," which sounds seriously off-putting, but the method itself actually just boils down to mopping up the soup of regrets, worries, and anxieties that crowd your brain with a series of simple questions. 

These thoughts "take their revenge out on us for not giving them the attention they deserve. They wake us up in the middle of the night demanding to be heard or they give us twitches, and perhaps one day illnesses," De Botton explains. "They deserve to be unpacked and sorted out."

To do that, simply clear 20 minutes in your schedule, find a pen and paper, and sit down and answer the following three questions. No need for complete sentences or much thought at all. Just jot down whatever half-formed ideas pop into your head: 

  • What am I currently upset about? 

  • What am I currently anxious about? 

  • What am I currently curious or excited about? 

What comes spilling out of your brain isn't likely to make much sense. These are just the first clues to what's mucking up your brain. To unravel the mystery further, De Botton suggests follow-on questions for each category of mental clutter. A complete list is available here, but for example, to get more clarity on upsetting incidents you might ask: "What good part of yourself feels in danger?" or "What are you afraid might happen if this were to continue?"

For anxiety, ask, "How would the person you'd like to be ideally deal with this situation?" or for your latest excitement, "This exciting thing holds a clue to what is missing in my life; what might be missing?"

Will this process offer you every answer you seek in life? Certainly not. That's not the point. What you should get out of this brain dump isn't answers but clarity on what questions are bothering you. With these issues out of your head and on paper, your brain will be tranquil enough to finally focus on finding a way forward (or getting to bed).