What Happened When I Tried To Declutter My Brain

Designer Leslie Smolan spends a week discovering “the magic of clear thinking.”

What Happened When I Tried To Declutter My Brain
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

As a designer whose goal in life is to make information easy to ingest, I am acutely aware of the burden of having too much information. So when I heard Manoush Zomorodi, host of the tech show Note to Self on WNYC, announce that she was tackling this very topic, I decided I was in.


Infomagical” is an audience engagement and podcast series that looks at the consequences of FOMO (fear of missing out) and information overload on our brains. It’s designed to help people “find focus and discover the magic of clear thinking.”

Amid the deluge of information coming at me each day, I’m constantly struggling to decide what’s important and what to ignore. A number of daily blogs help me stay in touch with what’s happening in design and the world at large. I am reminded by Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Pinterest that I have friends with common interests. I get daily alerts about the stock market. But I often wonder, am I getting too much information? Too little? And what do I do with it all?

Flickr user Alexander Lyubavin

I attended the taping of the pilot episode at the Green Space in NYC and signed up to receive one text message a day with a challenge exercise to help me think about what I was consuming and why. First, I had to pick a goal for my magical adventure. Did I want to be more creative? More knowledgeable? More up to date on the news? More in touch with family and friends? More in tune with myself ? I decided my family and friends had gotten the short stick lately, so I would focus my energies there.

Day 1: Magical Focus
My challenge today was no multi-tasking. I had to work on one thing at a time, and give each task my full focus.

I started the day by driving from Beaufort to Charleston, South Carolina, for a meeting. Being away from my desk gave me a huge leg up on my goal of “single-tasking.” I asked Siri on my iPhone for directions, and without further adieu or angst about getting lost, I was on my way. My sister-in-law joined me as co-pilot and we spent the next two hours talking about balancing family and career, new developments at our companies, and the challenges of running a business. While updating her about bringing in new leadership at Carbone Smolan Agency, the design agency I cofounded, I realized I was 100% comfortable with my excellent team running the day-to-day. The process of vocalizing my thoughts was a huge shift from sitting at my computer. Was this why Steve Jobs would walk and talk his business issues out? By physically isolating myself, I was able to avoid information overload and be in touch with my thoughts and feelings. I got to be 100% focused. And of course, that was the point of today’s exercise.

Day 2: Magical Organization
The challenge today was called “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up My Phone.” With the goal of less being more, I was introduced to the mastery of Marie Kondo, a Japanese author who pioneered the art of decluttering and finding joy in organization.


It was clear Marie and I were kindred souls. We both use color to sort our worlds, whether designing large communication systems (me), or whittling down your wardrobe (Marie). After reading a few tutorials, I deleted all the apps I didn’t use and even organized them by color just for fun. I felt lighter already! Clearly, mastering the digital tools made them easier to use, so they didn’t impede my thinking but accelerated it.

How tidying up related to family and friends was the harder challenge today. But I did spend time walking and talking with a good friend who had been both a client and a colleague. As we toured a local churchyard, I was struck by the permanence of the headstones, some of which had been standing for more than 100 years. They paid tribute to people and events centuries ago, yet the sentiments carved into stone still resonated with me after all these years. Would any of us remember the significance of events now that we’d entrusted our memories to bits and bytes? Would our digital icons last as long? In a way, the challenge we all face is one of editing. We need to keep track of what’s most important and delete the rest, so that the essential ingredients of our lives are preserved.

Flickr user Markus Spiske

Day 3: Magical Reduction
Today I had to avoid a trend or thing everyone’s talking about that doesn’t fit into my goal.

That was easy. I have no idea what happened in the real world today. And I didn’t feel like I’d missed out! What continued to energize me were my personal connections, knowing others cared about me and showed an interest in me, and discovering what we could learn from each other.

Day 4: Magical Connection
My instruction this morning was to make sure that I had “good” conversations. What was a “good” conversation? One that wasn’t rehearsed. This challenge reinforced my experience of the previous few days, but now I understood why. A good conversation takes seven minutes to get into a mind-meld. It’s in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say. I realized I was guilty of using technology to compose the “perfect” text or email, afraid to reveal myself.

Conversation is the back and forth of information, not knowing exactly where it will lead. So I launched into my challenge at lunch, where I purposefully had a “seven-minute” conversation with a local interior designer. I was curious about her clients (many downsizing and selling off second and third homes to retire in South Carolina) and her daughter, who had been interested in being a graphic designer, but had taken a teaching job in the local school system.


What did I learn? One, that a local developer had zoned each lot as a circle, creating a natural buffer for each property that prevented building up to the lot line. The result was architecture more in scale with the land and some bold design solutions. Two, that being in command of the content (lesson plans for 750 kids) was not enough. You needed to have the command and respect of the students for them to actually learn. (Same for clients!)

This might be considered just more “information” to store, but by hearing it in a personal context, I know I’ll be more likely to remember this and use it, as opposed to information from an online blog. It also reinforced the idea that making a real connection is about being interested, rather than being interesting.

Flickr user Alexander Lyubavin

Day 5: Magical Life
For the final day of my Infomagical challenge, I needed to apply whatever I’ve learned about myself and think about how to carry this magical thinking forward. This challenge was a reminder to create a priority, not prioritize. If I do a bit of everything, I’m going to make small amounts of progress on many fronts. But if I have one clear priority, I can decide how to make hard trade-offs.

What is my one priority? What will my tombstone read? For Steve Jobs, who I’d thought of several times this week, it was “focus and simplicity.” Mine, not surprisingly, is “design inspires and organizes.” But my technology mantra is a bit different. As the podcast said, “Technology makes a great servant, but a poor master.” Research shows we’re shifting every 45 seconds when we work online. No wonder all this information creates stress. Every time I switched tasks or switched topics, I lost focus. The “aha” bulb went off in my head. The way I had consumed information this week showed me a better way—single-tasking, mastering technology before using it, tuning out, and tuning in to deep conversations.


My own note to self? It’s important to stay human amid all the technology. The physical world is a place of substance and beauty, and it’s important to use all of my senses—sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell to create longer-lasting, more meaningful memories. Personal connections are key to combat information overload, because those connections create memories that are stickier. Now my neurological RAM has more space for the next challenge, whether that’s being more creative, more knowledgeable, or more in touch with myself. Funny, I’d picked one goal for my Infomagical week and ended up multi-tasking after all.