Last year, I saw the documentary film, The Minimalists. It’s a film that tells the story of two best friends, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus who had become trapped in the corporate rat-race desperately seeking happiness but instead feeling more and more overwhelmed, stressed and unhappy despite having very successful executive jobs. Joshua and Ryan gave up successful careers to live a more minimalist lifestyle and learn to find happiness, calm and richness in having less. The film shares their story as they travel around the U.S promoting their book, Minimalism. Joshua and Ryan’s story got me thinking about my own life and how, like most of my peers, it felt I was competing to own more, to have the latest and best phone, tablet and laptop. To buy more new clothes every season—whether I needed them or not— and to always be trying out the latest productivity, notes and calendar apps, never quite feeling satisfied with any of them. As I discovered more about minimalism, I found myself looking at the way I managed my life and how I got my work done. I discovered that this obsession with having more had translated itself into the number of apps, subscriptions and tools I had. I had two computers, two iPads, three to-do list managers, four notes apps, three cloud drive services and for some reason, I was using Apple’s Pages, Keynote and Numbers as well as Google Docs and Sheets and Microsoft’s Word, PowerPoint and Excel! Why? When I analyzed this, the only explanation I could come up with was “because I can have all these things”, which is a ridiculous reason for having so much stuff. So, I began to reduce. I got rid of my desktop computer and started using only my laptop. I gave away one of my iPads and I went through all my apps and subscriptions and reduced them all down to the barest minimum. What happened next surprised me: My overall productivity exploded! I found myself being able to make decisions faster. There was a lot less procrastination and I had much more clarity. I begin each day with more clarity, focus and intention. It was hard to believe that having so much stuff had caused such a drag on my overall productivity but it had. Here are 7 ways I have learned reducing stuff and embracing a more minimalist approach to productivity can improve your productivity and time management.
1. Having less means decision making becomes much faster.
With only one writing app, when you need to write a report, prepare a presentation or any kind of document you know immediately which app to use. There’s no need to think about which app might be better or which app you would like to write with this time. There is no choice. You have a report to write? You open up your writing app. For me, being completely in the Apple eco-system, I chose Apple’s Pages. For you, you may want to choose Microsoft Word or Google Docs. The important thing is you choose one and stick to it. In terms of my day to day productivity, it was having so many apps, and consequently so many choices, I could easily find myself wasting thirty or forty minutes trying to decide how I was going to write something, or whether I should use PowerPoint or Keynote for my next presentation. Often, I found myself beginning in one app, changing my mind and restarting in another app later. All this was such a waste of time. Switching to only allowing myself one app for each area of my work enabled me to focus more on the work and less on the tools.
2. Having less means you have fewer places to store things.
In my coaching practice, I often come across people who struggle to develop a file storage system. When analyzed, the problem is often caused not by the system they use but by the number of storage places they have. We have Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud and OneDrive and it is so tempting to store things in the place we currently favor. As our favourite places change regularly, we end up with files all over the place making it much harder to find our stuff when we need it. I know a lot of time is wasted just searching for files. Before we fully embraced the digital world, we used filing cabinets. Filing cabinets were great because there was very little variation or choice. Almost all filing systems used the same system—an alpha-numeric organization system. Files were organized by the letter they began with. People also applied this to their personal papers. It was not uncommon to find a filing cabinet in a person’s home organised by letters. Banking documents were under “B”, insurance documents were stored under “I” and your car’s documentation were stored under “C”. It was simple, minimalist and we never had trouble finding anything as long as you put things away in their right place after we had used them. You can save yourself a lot of time by just allowing yourself one storage place. Pick one and put all your files in there. Adopting a simple alpha-numeric folder system inside your cloud storage will help you find your documents and files whenever you need them.
3. Having less gives you more focus.
When you begin the day with thirty to fifty things on your to-do list, it’s very hard to focus on anything. There is just too much going on. When you add that to the interruptions and distractions you will face each day, it becomes increasingly hard to focus on anything. Humans are natural hunter-gatherers. We hunt for new stuff and new responsibilities. We gather all these things and responsibilities around us as if they were desired spoils of war. The trouble with gathering all these things around us is they distract us from what is important. When you let go of these things you give yourself greater clarity. You have less to focus on and so what is left you can give much greater focus to. I once had a language student who loved being involved in everything. If there was a new committee in her company, she had to be on it. If HR asked for volunteers to be involved in a new initiative, she would volunteer. She was on so many committees and involved in so many initiatives her work suffered and so did her health. To stay on top of everything, she was working until ten or eleven PM every day. She had no time to eat properly and so she was always grabbing fast food. Her weight ballooned and in the end, she burnt herself out, being forced to take a six-month break and ultimately lost her job and many of her relationships. When you reduce your commitments, your remaining commitments benefit from the increased focus you can give them. The quality of your work improves, the pleasure you get from your work increases and you reduce your stress and overwhelm.
4. Having less means you are committed to less.
A lot of the reasons why we struggle to get our work done is because we are overcommitting ourselves. Just looking at a person’s calendar often shows a schedule full of meetings and appointments. While it may feel good to always be interacting with other people, it also means you are not doing your work. The problem here is you are not doing your work, you are building up a backlog. That backlog needs dealing with and that is usually after your regular working hours. I know it can be very hard to decline invitations to be involved in meetings, we naturally want to be ‘in the know.’ But if you want to get full control of your time and be more productive, you need to decline invitations to meetings and appointments if they do not meet your needs and wants. Getting your work done, so you can spend more time doing the things you want to do with the people you want to do them with is your priority. Every time you accept another invitation or meeting, you are preventing yourself from doing this. Once you free yourself from your desire to be involved in everything, you free yourself up to be able to do the things you want to do. You spend less time in your workplace and more time in places you want to be without being over-committed.
5. Having less improves the quality of the work you do.
There is a favorite quote of mine from Tony Robbins:
“Where your focus goes your energy flows.”
I love this quote because as I have reduced my commitments each day, I have found I have much more energy for the work I am doing. That increased energy has helped me improve the quality of my work. When you are trying to do too many things each day, you are not able to give each piece of work your full focus and energy. That leads to increased mistakes, poor quality work and ultimately means you have to spend valuable time correcting and redoing the work. Diluting your focus like this does not help you in your career, it prevents you from doing outstanding work. At best you will manage average work. If you want to progress in your career, you need to be working at the outstanding spectrum, not the average spectrum. To do that, you need to be focused and energized on the important parts of your work and not allow yourself to dilute that focus and energy. Being more minimalist with your time and commitments, you give yourself much more focus and energy.
6. Having less means a lot less clutter.
When you sit down at your desk to begin a session of work and you first have to remove papers, files and other stuff, you are wasting time. Being surrounded by stuff is also very distracting. This is why when you see motivating pictures of a person or people at work, they have beautiful clean desks, they are smiling and the sun is shining. When you see a picture of a person stressed out, overworked and overwhelmed, their desks are cluttered and it is dark. If you want an instant boost to your productivity, clear all the stuff away from your desk and just have your computer and maybe a cup of coffee. You will surprise yourself with how this small act of minimalism immediately boosts your productivity. You also find yourself being much more focused on the work you are doing.
7. Having less means you have fewer decisions to make.
Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and many others discovered the secret art of wearing the same clothes every day. Why? It turns out when you reduce the number of decisions you need to make each day, you make better and more calculated decisions. This means not having to decide what to wear each day is one less decision you need to make. This can also go for what food to eat, what jewellery to wear and what apps to use. When you use the same thing to do the same work, you no longer have to waste time and cognitive energy trying to decide what to use. Having to make all these decisions day after day is stressful. You may not always be aware of it, but when you have less to decide, you have more energy and focus to do the things you want to do. Where possible, try to create routines. For me, I start the week by writing my weekly blog post. I record my YouTube videos every Friday afternoon and I prepare my podcast scripts on a Tuesday morning. These tasks are scheduled in my calendar as recurring events. I do not need to try and decide when I will do them. Those decisions are already made. Having fewer decisions to make each week, gives you more time and energy to focus on what you have identified as being important. It also helps you to build the right kind of routines so you make huge progress in your work.
Minimalism might have been a buzzword for the twenty-teens, but minimalism has been around for hundreds of years. The ancient Greek philosophers swore by living a minimalist life, the philosophy of Stoicism is built around a more minimalist, meaningful life and much of the eastern spiritual teaching, such as Buddhism and Taoism teach living a more purposeful minimalist life. If you want to feel more relaxed and live a more purposeful life, perhaps adopting a few of these minimalist practices will serve you as well in the future as it has served so many in the past.