How Minimalism Fosters Productivity
Less choice. Less tools. Less Friction. Less Urgency.
What environment do you produce your best work? Do you like to be surrounded by books, hanging artwork, and sentimental items? Or do you prefer an empty space with nothing but the tools of your trade?
Contrary to conventional minimalism, I work best when I’m surrounded by clutter of my own making. Minimalist desk setups are beautiful to look at, but my favourite articles have come when stacks of books, papers, and pens developed a fortress around my laptop. The blend of words from my literary idols and my own thoughts scribbled haphazardly on various sheets of paper on my desk defines, in large part, my creative process. I need abundance in order to think.
But, where minimalism has stepped into my workflow, is when I need to battle the resistance. In the words of Steven Pressfield, “Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.”
The first step to battling resistance is to figure yourself out. Are you a morning person or a night owl? Do you find working in a busy coffee shop cathartic or a horrible idea? How do you organize your list of tasks and their correlated deadlines?
How you do anything is how you do everything and so, it’s important to take a moment and reflect on how you approach your work. That’s almost as important as the work itself.
1. Less Choice
“The numerous choices you have around yourself are often superficial; they don’t matter.
I can’t always control the amount of work that I have, especially since I don’t fully work for myself. I can, however, focus on what is within my control, which are two overarching things: my (internal) mindset and my (external) lifestyle.
I have a simple wardrobe. I have a few go-to meals. I buy the same groceries. I order my usual soy cappuccino at coffee shops. I even stick to the same things at my favourite restaurants. I don’t want or need very much, and in turn I don’t waste my limited energy thinking about all the new and exciting things I might enjoy.
The paradox of choice is that we find all this freedom paralyzing. Just choose something already! Part of why I embrace eating vegan the majority of time is not because my partner is vegan but that it just makes my decision easier. When I eat at a vegan restaurant, it takes me a solid five-minutes of humming and hawing before I manage to make my selection. And there have been times where I’ve ordered and then changed my mind and had to flag down the server. It’s ridiculous, yet the fear of missing out on something better manages to exhaust me.
Our bodies are capable of telling us when we’re physically exhausted, but often symptoms of mental strain go unnoticed. There’s been several recorded experiments where participants would be able to resist one temptation but succumb to another. What psychologists determined is that it’s not really about willpower, but instead how much mental energy you have stored. Once your mental energy has been depleted for the day, you’re done.
When you’re mentally exhausted, you’re more prone to impulsive spending, lashing out at your spouse, and devouring the bag of chips sitting in your snack drawer.
I’m very aware of this and, as a minimalist, my goal is to devote as little of my mental energy as possible on what matters least and use it all on what matters most. For me, that’s the work that i do for my clients, my loved ones, and myself.
2. Less Tools
“Keep it simple, and focus on what you have to do right now, not on playing with your system or your tools.” — Leo Babauta
Are you on Slack or Telegram to communicate? Do you use Scrivener, Microsoft Word, or Pages? How do you feel about Bear compares to Evernote? Are you Team Android or Team Apple? Do you bullet journal, use a gratitude journal, or reflect using a basic Moleskin?
Figuring out what the best ‘hack’ or ‘tool’ is a waste of time. It distracts us from the most important thing: the work.
You don’t need the latest software, laptop, or phone in order to get shit done. One of my favourite authors has written at least four of his best-selling books on the same desktop computer. I respect that.
The problem when you start to achieve some success is that you begin to contemplate on whether you should level up the tools of the trade. Should I upgrade to the Macbook Pro? I mean, I use it every day. It’s an investment. And sure, it is. But just like a fancier laptop won’t make you work harder, using new messaging software won’t make you a better communicator.
3. Less Friction
“I used to reach for my phone every few minutes no matter where I was — even at the urinal. Even when the phone wasn’t with me I would reach for it. I was programmed to do so. I call this the Twitch.” — Joshua Fields Millburn
Question: How can you work when your phone keeps lighting up with notifications?
Answer: You can’t.
Instead of trying to fight the distractions, delete your email and all social media apps off your phone. If you can’t stop yourself from mindlessly scrolling through Twitter and Instagram, make it harder for yourself.
Airplane Mode when you’re working. Work in 25 minute stints with intervals of 5 minute breaks. Schedule the time that you must focus all your efforts on your work. Schedule the time you’re allowed to check social media. Whatever that looks like for you is irrelevant, just don’t mix the two.
For me, I do all my creative work as soon as I wake up, write all my legal submissions in the morning, and leave the afternoon for mundane administrative tasks. Unless I have a mediation or a hearing the next day, I stop working after dinner. Even if inspiration strikes me, I refrain from opening Google Documents (where I write all my articles) and scribble the idea on an index card or in my Notes App on my iPhone.
Forcing yourself to destress is an essential element to your productivity, not a disadvantage. You are not a machine.
4. Less Urgency
“It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.” — Greg McKeown
In between practicing law and writing on the side, I have to balance a ridiculous amount of competing deadlines. Not all of them are of equal importance (or carry an equal consequence if missed) and some are even self-imposed, but these deadlines are always set for a reason.
Instead of writing a to-do list every morning and losing my mind when I’m unable to cross everything off by the day’s end, I make a weekly to-do list. If it doesn’t get done today? No sweat, I’ll tackle it tomorrow or the day after that.
Everyone runs around like a chicken with its head cut off, when in reality there are few things that must be done right now. And coming from a lawyer, that’s saying something.
The problem isn’t the deadline, it’s you. Nothing comes with stress or frustration, but rather that’s what we often bring to the work set out for us.
Take a few moments to put things in perspective.
Your work may be difficult, but you can adopt a simple mindset towards it.
Haste adds complication and mistakes.
5. Less Priorities
“Getting rich doesn’t mean you will receive a special bonus and your days will become 25 hours long instead of 24.” — Fumio Sasaki
What’s your goal for this year? And next year? And five years from now? Before you allow work to consume your life, you need to figure out your why.
The worst thing that can happen is to work 60–80 hour weeks for years just to end up somewhere that you never wanted to be in the first place.
I don’t consider my goals particularly ambitious. I don’t want to be the next best singer, painter, and actress in the Greater Toronto Area. I just want to help others share their stories, and earn a reasonable living doing so.
I’m not naive that I think I can single-handedly change the world, but I’m confident I can make a positive impact.
I want to prove that it’s possible to, “make it,” without having to sell out.
You Can’t Do Everything, But You Can Do a Few Things Well
“Time is what we want most but what we use worst.”
— William Penn
Productivity is no longer about busyness, volume of work, or short-term profits. It’s about strategically dedicating our intellect and attention to tasks that move the needle the most: unfettered attention, pragmatic goals, and good old-fashioned hard work.