Ever feel like your head is a beehive of ideas and thoughts? Learn how to organize your thoughts with our 19 science-backed techniques.
What Are the Benefits of Organizing Your Thoughts?
Organizing your thoughts can:
- Help you manage cognitive load
- Provide clarity for making decisions
- Foster creativity
- Create an environment for innovative ideas
- Benefit mental health
- Improve communication
“You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this and you will find great strength.”—Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor
How to Organize Your Thoughts
Dr. Dan Siegel, a renowned clinical professor of psychiatry, believes that brain integration is at the core of well-being. This is the process of integrating the mind, body, and emotions and working to integrate the brain’s processing—instead of focusing only on left-brain and right-brain thinking.
Even though you have a natural propensity to be either more creative or logical, using your whole brain makes you emotionally and intellectually stronger. Check out our tips, and pick the ones that resonate the most with you, but keep an open mind and try some that stretch you. That will activate whole-brain thinking, which in turn will strengthen your brain.
Organize Complex Thoughts With These Tips
Organizing complex thoughts may take more time, but there’s no need to feel overwhelmed. Try these techniques to tackle and organize even the most complex concepts you’ve been pondering.
1. Use Mind Mapping to Make Sense of Complex Thoughts
Mind mapping is effective as a study tool, improving critical thinking skills, clarifying and organizing ideas, and increasing focus. Whether you’re making a mind map to build connections in a concept or simply trying to organize the facts and figures you need to recall, mind maps will help.
Some of our favorite tools for mind mapping are:
A robust mapping tool with templates and seemingly endless space to create complex maps and charts.
The free version of Miro allows you to work on 2 boards.
Image Source: Miro.com
If you’re looking for a mind mapping tool that is more design-focused, Canva has some lovely templates for simple mind maps.
The free version of Canva has a good selection of mind maps. Premium offers more versatility and options.
Image Source: Canva.com
2. Find the Connections Between Your Thoughts
Complex thoughts will always have connections to each other. It’s just a matter of paying attention to patterns and points of similarity.
You can use mind mapping to do this, but sometimes it takes work to build the initial connections at the start of processing complex thoughts. Instead, quickly write down everything you know about this complex idea.
Once you have your idea written down:
- Highlight words that are similar or the same.
- Underline words that convey an emotion or a feeling.
- Make a list of your highlighted words and then ask, “What do these have in common?”
- Make a list of your underlined words and then look for synonyms to reduce your list down to 1-2 main feelings or emotions.
- From here, you can always create a mind map or keep going by looking for how the words and concepts connect. Think about the bigger picture, and look for an overarching theme or focus.
Keep a notebook of these brainstorming sessions and periodically review your pages. Ask yourself:
- What are some of the recurring ideas or emotions?
- How do these connect to my past?
- How do these connect to my future?
When you do this, your brain will begin to process and notice the world differently. You may start to see patterns emerging all around you; record those patterns. It could be the start of a new entrepreneurial vision, a series of paintings, a concept for a new book, or even an innovative idea for your workplace.
Organize Your Thoughts With Writing
Writing is an excellent tool to help you organize your thoughts. You can jot down ideas quickly in unformed sentences or take the time to write slowly and deliberately. Use these different techniques to organize and clear your mind.
“(Writing) is forcing people to translate an experience into words. And what writing does is slow the process down. It allows you to think about it in a slower, more deliberate way.”—James Pennebaker
3. Create a Sticky Notes Wall to Organize Moving Pieces
Sticky notes are an excellent thought-organizing tool because they help your ideas become more tangible.
Instead of building a mountain of disorganized sticky notes all over your desk, set up a sticky notes wall so you can organize moving pieces and interact with your ideas.
Why it works:
- Gets you out of your office chair
- Ideas can be moved around or replaced
- Color code to visually cluster ideas
- Standing increases neurocognitive function
How to use it:
- Develop a work strategy or workflow
- Visualize moving pieces in a project
- Collect ideas and concepts that feel disconnected
- Track dates and information
4. Use Expressive Writing to Improve Mental Health and Improve Work Performance
Whether you’re organizing your thoughts around work or personal life, take time for expressive writing. In the 80s, James Pennebaker, a social psychologist, discovered an intriguing connection between confession and emotional release. He observed that people undergoing a lie detector test would be highly distressed until they confessed. This surprised researchers because criminals were relieved after confessions that ultimately could lead to their prosecution.
Taking this knowledge, he studied the general public and found that expressive writing–15 minutes of writing about trauma or another long-held secret, was incredibly therapeutic.
Subsequently, more research has backed his findings. This study found that writing about negative past experiences increased neural responses in learning activities. The Journal of Cognitive Psychology found that writing about work failures can lead to fewer future errors.
Pro Tip: James Pennebaker invented a fun technique called Finger Writing. One night, he was distressed about something but didn’t want to turn on the light to write about it. Instead, he sat up in bed and, with his finger, started writing in the air what was weighing heavily on his mind. After a few minutes, his mind was unburdened. He suggests doing this when you can’t write or are concerned that someone will find what you’ve written.
5. Do a Daily Mind Dump to Bring Clarity to Your Day
How you start the day sets you up for the rest of the day. A morning brain dump will help you clear your mind first thing. In your mind dump, write everything that comes to mind. Have 100 tasks that are weighing on you? Get it down on paper, and it will feel more manageable. Woke up with the memory of a lingering dream? Write that down too.
If your mind goes blank when you look at the page, use these prompts to get you going:
- This morning, I feel…
- I’m worried about…
- I’m wondering…
- Today I need to do…
- I would like to…
- I need…
You’re not writing a thoughtful essay here; the goal is to get everything out of your head onto paper. Sometimes, a mind dump can feel like you’ve tangibly laid down a heavy burden you’ve been carrying.
Pro Tip: After getting used to a mind dump, take it to the next level! As you write, pay attention to your breathing. Is your breathing shallow? Is it coming quickly? Consciously deepen your breathing so that your breath is slow and regular. As you exhale, make a pushing away motion with your hands and envision yourself laying down a burden.
6. Bullet Journal to Cluster Thoughts and Easily Track Ideas
If you need more time or desire to jump wholeheartedly into the weird and wonderful world of bullet journaling, don’t worry. You can bullet journal with nothing more than a ballpoint pen and a piece of paper.
The key here isn’t how you do it but what it accomplishes. Bullet journaling is perfect if:
- You have a hard time concentrating and can’t seem to manage and organize your thoughts
- Have so many ideas you forget half of them before you can write them down.
- You’re impatient and hate journaling.
- Anxiety or depression makes journaling feel impossible.
- You’re discouraged and can’t see the bigger picture.
- You want to track ideas in clusters over some time.
- You need to track complex concepts quickly.
- You need an excuse for your notebook and pen obsession.
Ryder Carroll, the creator of the Bullet Journal Technique, suggests starting by writing down the following:
- Things you need to do
- Things you want to do
- Things you should do
- Is this vital?
- Does it matter?
As you do this, you are eliminating tasks that are distractions.
Next, break the task or idea down into actionable steps. Instead of viewing something as a whole, look at the parts that it’s made up of.
Organize the tasks to be:
- Clearly defined
- Take less than a month to accomplish
Use Your Body to Organize Your Mind
The mind-body connection states that the health of the body and the mind are intricately connected. A growing number of studies have shown that methods like meditation and prayer can have a direct impact on your body. So as you work to organize your thoughts, remember that your mental state impacts your body and vice versa.
7. Connect to Your Environment and Clear Your Mind Outdoors
From Virginia Woolf to Henry David Thoreau, some of the greatest literary minds have found inspiration and clarity by spending large amounts of time outdoors. If you don’t have time for long rambling walks, start by adding a 15-minute walk to your day. If you do have access to nature, that’s best. Look for a city park if you don’t live in a naturally beautiful environment.
Make it a point to carve out this small amount of time to be outdoors without a task. No multitasking—just thinking, observing, and being present in the moment.
Pro Tip: Evening walks are incredible for clearing the head, while morning walks, just as the sun is rising, hold a magic quality to them and are excellent for gaining a fresh vision of your life.
8. Develop a Calming Body Ritual
Approach thought-organizing by first bringing your body into a calm state. This can be as simple as brewing a cup of coffee or tea and taking a couple of minutes to enjoy your hot drink before starting.
It immediately impacts your mind when your body is calm and even nourished or nurtured.
Try these rituals before you get started on a challenging task:
- Breathe. If you’re in a safe space, close your eyes and focus on breathing. Slowly inhale through your nose, hold for 3 seconds and gently exhale through your mouth. Do this 3 times.
- Drink. Make a hot drink and sit quietly with it for 3 minutes before starting anything. Watch the steam rising. Feel the heat of the cup on your hands. Focus on the flavors in your mouth. If you can’t help but think about the task ahead, start with a 30-second mind dump–write down whatever is plaguing your mind. Once you’ve cleared that information from your head, it may be easier to take the 3 minutes to sit quietly.
- Stretch. If your thoughts are plaguing you and you’ve been sitting hunched at your desk for hours, it’s time for a stretch. Stand with your feet spread to shoulder width and gently raise your hands toward the ceiling. Lift your body like you’re pushing on an invisible lid, lifting your heels off the floor. Exhale through your mouth as you lift upward. Come back to a normal standing position, gently roll your neck to the sides, and finish by lifting your face to the ceiling. If standing isn’t possible, you can also do these stretches sitting.
Want to learn more? Check out these 22 techniques for grounding yourself.
Organize Your Thoughts With Speaking
Verbalizing your thoughts can be a powerful tool to bring your ideas into order. These techniques can help you make sense of what you’re thinking and begin processing ideas and feelings in a new way.
9. You Have Permission to Talk to Yourself
Talking to yourself isn’t only for children and the elderly, and it’s certainly not an indication of mental instability. Instead, self-talk has been connected to increased concentration on tasks, improved visual processing, and even reduced anxiety.
But it can still feel uncomfortable talking to yourself!
To get comfortable doing this, try it out:
- At home, when no one else is around, talk out something you don’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone else.
- In the garage, the directions don’t make sense when you’re assembling something with 100 parts.
- In the car on your daily commute, practice what you’ll say at the morning meeting.
- In bed, before you get up in the morning, to process something you’re dreading.
Use self-talk to process, practice, reflect, and self-regulate.
10. Verbally Process With a Friend
While talking to yourself has proven benefits, there’s nothing like processing your thoughts with an understanding listener. There are over 148 studies that have shown the positive impact of developing social connections. Try processing with a friend if you’ve been mulling over a concept or need help to work out how to approach a big project.
When you go through the process of explaining the idea and the problem, your brain goes into problem-solving mode. The person listening may have a fresh perspective or just the right question to help you re-envision the issue.
Pro Tip: Choose someone sympathetic who won’t shoot down your partially formed ideas.
11. Put it in a Voice Note, So You Don’t Forget
If you’re anything like us, great ideas always come while:
- At the grocery store
- In the middle of an event
- While in bed
…All situations where writing something down is either inconvenient or impossible. But most of the time, even if you want to remember, you don’t.
Enter: the smartphone.
Use your voice app or dictate to your notes app to capture those easily lost sparks of genius.
Using voice notes doesn’t have to be relegated to random thoughts and ideas; you can use the app regularly to process and organize your thoughts. Voice notes are handy if you struggle with writing or the mere thought of journaling makes you want to gag.
Start with 3 minutes each day to process your thoughts in a voice note. Good times to do this are:
- First thing in the morning
- On your lunch break
- Before bed
If you enjoy it, increase your time and make voice notes throughout the day. As you do, you may become more self-aware, and your thoughts will naturally form patterns. Pay attention to those patterns; they usually indicate a personal need or passion and could help you discover your calling.
- Notion: Get fancy with text, images, Kanban boards, and even a calendar integration. Available for iOS and Android
Image source: Notion
- Obsidian: Organize your thoughts with folders and subfolders. Even more magically, your Obsidian allows for cross-linking between notes. Not for the faint of heart, this app is incredibly complex, as long as you’re willing to invest the time at the start to get everything set up to your specifications. Available for iOS and Android.
Image Source: Obsidian
12. Verbalize Letting Go
You dread laying in bed at the end of a long day, plagued by endless thoughts. Reviewing the day. Analyzing everything you said. Everything your boss said. Picking apart your conversation with Jill from accounting. Then, inexplicably, replaying that day in high school when you tripped in front of half the school.
When it feels like your thoughts are controlling you, it can be helpful to verbalize letting go.
For example, “I feel anxious and vulnerable. I don’t need to analyze every word and facial expression of every person at work. I accomplished what I set out to do for the day. I let go of fearing rejection and criticism from my boss and coworkers.”
- Acknowledge your feelings
- Frame the truth
- Release the feelings
Regardless of the situation, if you find yourself replaying something repeatedly, be intentional about letting it go. As you train your brain to let go of unnecessary thoughts, you’ll have more room in your head and more energy to pay attention to important thoughts.
Organize Your Thoughts With Mind Exercises
13. Get Quiet and Give Your Thoughts Space
If you’re always trying to organize your thoughts, neatly tying them up and tucking them into organized drawers, it may be time to try something different.
While organizing your thoughts and keeping them under control can be healthy, sometimes you need to be quiet and let your thoughts have some space. Some thoughts may not fit into any labeled drawers in your mind. What do you do with those thoughts?
Take time in your day, or at least once a week, to be quiet and reflective. You can approach this as meditation or simply time that you set aside to be quiet.
It can be hard to sit with your thoughts, and it takes time to build up a tolerance to be in that quiet space. But it’s worth it.
14. Get Curious and Explore What Your Thoughts Are Telling You
This technique goes hand in hand with the above method! Once you can sit quietly with your thoughts, start being curious. What are your thoughts telling you? Is the persistent self-criticism telling you that you need more affirmation? Are dreams or hope bouncing around in your head, but you haven’t recognized them as dreams?
As you spend time with these thoughts, ask yourself what you need, what you hope for, and what you can learn. Remember, being curious here is different from absorbing the ideas as true. Instead, you’re taking a position of inquiry. Not acceptance or criticism. Simply curiosity.
15. Build a Healthy Environment for Deeper Thinking
Your brain needs as much care and exercise as your body does; try incorporating brain exercises into your weekly workout routine.
- Study a language. Even if you are busy, you can add 15 minutes a day, right? According to Cambridge.org, it can even reduce the chances of dementia. Completely worth it.
- Learn a musical instrument. Increase grey matter and boost your reaction time by playing a musical instrument.
- Practice drawing. Build new neuronal pathways and boost serotonin by drawing regularly. Myth buster: You don’t have to be “creative” to draw. Drawing is a skill that anyone can learn.
- Do math in your head. Stimulate the area of your brain that may help you better regulate emotions.
- Identify smells and flavors. Improve cognitive ability through smell training (consciously detecting smells in everyday life or smelling the same 4 scents—usually essential oils—for several months).
How To Organize Your Thoughts For Writing
Nope, that’s not a typo. We didn’t have this section already.
Not only can you organize your thoughts through writing, but you also need to know how to organize your writing! These tips will help you manage your thoughts before writing your following work report, college essay, or bestseller!
16. Use the Anti-Outline
If you like outlining, you can call this an outline. For the rest of us, we’ll call it an anti-outline. No need for roman numerals, no need for unpleasant flashbacks to high school English class.
Your first step is to quickly jot down everything you’re thinking about with this writing project.
- Guidelines from your client/boss/professor. Synthesize this in your own words to ensure you’re clear on what they are asking for.
- Information you need to cover. Think about what you are writing. Structure changes based on your writing, and it’s important to be clear before starting.
- Your main point. What do you want people to walk away with? This will shift as you start researching and writing, but knowing what you want to say will provide direction and flow for the writing process. You can also decide how you are going to communicate your point. Are you encouraging, exhorting, informing, or entertaining your audience?
- Any brilliant ideas. If you already have a riveting opening line or possess random facts about your chosen topic, write those down. Your brain will need space for new information, and it’s easier to focus on that if you’ve emptied your thoughts first. Take it from us; if you don’t write it down while it’s in your head, you may forget it.
17. Start Researching and Draft the Key Points
Now that you have your basic information, it’s time to do some research.
If this is a work analysis, your research should include more than just internal data. Do a competitor analysis and a general Google search to understand current trends.
For other writing, check for scholarly journals that have research on your topic, and review what others have already written.
- Look for common themes
- Look for pain points (a common problem or obstacle that people are facing)
- Look for missing pieces in what people are saying
As you research, draft any key points that begin to emerge.
Pro Tip: If you can’t find research to back up a point, check reputable sources already written on your topic. Look for hyperlinks or a reference section at the bottom of the article for the research they’ve cited. This might take you to something other than what you need initially, but it could give you ideas on what words to use for your search. When it comes to effective research, you want to jump into the rabbit hole. It’s hard to find a unique angle if you limit your research to the top results and your first ideas about a topic.
18. Deep Dive Into the Missing Pieces You’ve Identified
Now that you’ve organized all the main pieces, it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty and write! Flesh out your key points and look for any holes in your writing. Do you need more research to back up a point? Have you gone in a different direction than you intended?
If so, try not to break your flow to make more research—highlight or note where you have gaps so you can fill them in later. If your writing flow slows or you find yourself at a standstill, that’s the time to dive back into researching.
Most importantly, this is the stage that requires flexibility. Be willing to follow the writing where it takes you.
19. Sleep On It
If your writing deadline allows for it, give it a night (or two!) to sleep on. The bigger the project, the more space you should take before you send in your final edit. Writers sometimes have difficulty stepping back to see their writing with clear eyes, so give yourself some time away from the writing project.
We’ve also found this can help if you are at the deep dive stage but are still deciding to write. Give yourself a couple of days to think over what you plan to write before sitting at your desk.
Books on Organizing Your Thoughts
- The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin
- Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess: 5 Simple, Scientifically Proven Steps to Reduce Anxiety, Stress, and Toxic Thinking by Dr. Caroline Leaf
How to Organize Your Thoughts FAQ
Organizing your thoughts helps you to have a clear mind to accomplish your tasks. If your mind is a chaotic jumble of thoughts, ideas, and to-dos, it’s tough to accomplish anything. Plus, things will likely get overlooked, or you’ll miss deadlines.
You may struggle to organize your thoughts simply because it’s not a habit. Your brain likes to be in a state of chaos. Over time, as you regularly organize your thoughts, you will retrain your brain to come into order and be less out of control.
The benefits of organizing your thoughts before you begin to speak are: communicating with fluency, being more charismatic, getting your point across, and less need to use filler words. This is especially beneficial in work situations as you will appear more competent.
To organize your thoughts when talking, take a 3-second pause and use that time to quickly think of the main point of what you want to say. As you talk, organize your thoughts by focusing on what you are saying and how you can link each idea to the next one. If you find your thoughts racing or muddled, take a calm breath and pause.
Key Takeaways to Organize Your Thoughts:
- Use different techniques to organize your thinking. This will strengthen the connections in your brain.
- Connect thoughts by writing them down, mapping them out, and making voice notes.
- Use apps, digital tools, and sticky notes to trace your ideas.
- Keeping a visual record of your thoughts will give you insight into yourself and help you find new connections and concepts.
- Organizing your thoughts includes taking care of your body. Try verbally processing, connecting to your environment, and spending time being quiet.
- Develop a curiosity mindset to change how you think and see the world.
Now that you have a handle on organizing your thoughts learn our 9 Effective Ways to Clear Your Mind.