Emptying your brain for more focus and energy

Martijn Ruitenburg

We all recognize it: a brain that is constantly ‘on’. It costs you a lot of energy and getting down to business with good focus is often not possible. In this blog I will take you through the first step to an empty brain: bundle your tasks and thoughts in one place!

My own full head

A few months ago, we got the keys to our new house. Great, a new step! There were still a few things to be done to the house, including a total renovation of the attic.

Because of my two left hands, the work had to be done by someone else. However, I could not avoid managing all the workmen who had to work in the coming period, in the right order.

Whoever is familiar with this situation knows: there is an almost inexhaustible list of things, large and small, that you have to remember and that cross your mind at every turn. I've just been preparing for a workshop, and the thought that I still have to get two more packs of laminate bothers me....

The rush of busyness versus the peace of effective work

Even for many people who are not moving or renovating, it's a recognizable experience: your brain is full of all kinds of things. At work you have various projects and tasks that are running simultaneously, colleagues who are still waiting for an answer and often there are also private reminders that demand attention.

The striking thing is: just when you don't want to think about it, these things pop into your head. No matter how much you want to concentrate on the task at hand, you can hardly do it, because your full brain demands all your attention.

Some say they love this. After all, there is always something to do, you never have to be bored. And, if there is actually a task waiting for you that is less fun, then you can pick up another task without any problems and without feeling guilty.

This entlistungsfreude (2) works brilliantly in the short term and provides a wonderful rush. In the long term, however, these people overlook something: a full head not only gets in the way of efficient and productive work, it also costs you tons of energy (1,2).

The culprit of all this is what is called attention residue (3). When you're busy with multiple tasks, the thought processes associated with those tasks and projects run in the background. Going through those processes clutters your attention capacity and we simply have a limited amount that we can utilize.

This means that there is less space for the task at hand or, for example, for observing what is happening around you. Driving home with a brain full of thoughts has its risks....

Make one list of brainstorms

Secretly, we all know this, and you obviously do too. After all, what's the first thing most people do when they notice they're getting a full head? Right, they make a to-do list. By heart and on paper. It's a very efficient strategy, referred to as ‘cognitive distribution’ (2). 

Emptying your brain simply leaves more room for the task at hand.  This is partly because the part of your brain that you need to remember all your tasks is competing with the part of your brain that you need to do your work. 

That battle is also fought with the part of your brain that helps you manage your emotions. That too will become a lot harder with a full head.

Emptying your brain

So: every reason to start by creating one place where you can get everything out of your head and thus ensure an empty head.

Avoid creating multiple places where you write those things down. If you use notes from your phone, your mail and your notepad, then you'll have to go back and remember where you wrote everything down afterwards. Chances are you're not sure if you didn't forget something.

Make sure you have one place or system where you can put all your actions and other ideas. Because you are sure that everything is there, it saves a lot of stress and anxiety.1

Good luck!

Good luck with this first step! On to an empty head with peace in your body and full focus to get to work productively.


Allen, D. (2015) Getting things done

Tigchelaar, M. & de Bos, O. (2019). Focus aan/uit.

Van der Stigchel, S. (2016). Zo werkt aandacht.

Martijn Ruitenburg is a sports and performance psychologist and one of the owners of Focus like a Pro. He works with professionals in business and sports on a daily basis to improve focus.