How to Harness the Power of Minimalism to Become More Productive
Do less and accomplish more by applying minimalist principles to your life.
For some, the term “minimalist lifestyle” brings to mind a scrawny monk wearing a tattered robe in a barren room with no WiFi.
However, minimalism is not about living in squalor, eschewing material goods and technology, going vegan, or backpacking the world. Rather than focusing on what you should get rid of, minimalism is about making room for things you value—and that includes experiences, tasks, and time. We think Einstein said it best: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.
As minimalism becomes increasingly trendy, there’s been plenty of seminars, workshops, Udemy courses, and blogs on how minimalism can help your home life and relationships. There’s less information out there, however, on navigating work, school, and productivity with this ideology. This blog is about to change that.
Though trending across the country – especially among millennials – minimalism is not a new way of thinking. The concept of “less is more” has been around for hundreds of years under different names in Chinese, Buddhist, and Stoic philosophies.
The greatest minds and influential leaders have embraced minimalism – from Socrates to Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs. These influencers and innovators were able to achieve exceptional things through applying minimalist values like focus and disdain of distraction.
It’s easy to confuse quality with quantity, convincing ourselves that cramming in a ton of tasks means we’re being productive. We end up investing our time in fast and easy activities to have a sense of accomplishment, rather than focusing on the more difficult but important pursuits.
By applying minimalist principles to your time commitments, goals, and activities, you can accomplish more by doing less. Instead of trying to force production by stuffing your schedule with menial tasks, minimalism helps you free up time to focus on the things that matter.
Don’t let less important things stop you from accomplishing your goals and keep you from living the life you could be living. Here’s how to use minimalist ideologies to boost your productivity:
1. Start with a clean workspace. Whether you’re a student, artist, or entrepreneur, you probably have a designated space in your home or office that serves as a dedicated workstation. Though there are some who argue that a messy desk is a sign of genius, a cluttered workspace could be costing you more time and focus that you realize.
A study from Princeton Neuroscience Institute found that too much visual stimulus from a workstation competes for our attention, leaving less mind power for focusing and transitioning between tasks. Meanwhile, Harvard research found that those with a neat workspace were able to perform a challenging task for 1.5 times longer than those in a messy environment.
How to declutter your desktop?
2. Trim down your to-do list. Here’s a fun fact: crossing off tasks from your to-do list releases a rush of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps regulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.
After the momentary pleasure of crossing small tasks off your list has passed, an ultra-long to-do list can make you feel guilty at the end of the day. Faced with a long list of tasks you still haven’t completed, it’s easy to become stressed and discouraged.
To harness the power of minimalism, attack your day’s to-do list with an eraser, delete button, whiteout, etc. Your to-do list should have a maximum of three tasks a day. In fact, some of the highest achievers limit themselves to one item daily.
3. Identify your most important tasks. Here’s another fun fact. For hundreds of years, the word “priority” only existed in the singular. It wasn’t until the past century that we came up with a plural version, believing we could and should handle multiple priorities, as author and leadership consultant Greg McKeown noted in his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.
To distinguish the Most Important Tasks (MITs) from the not-so-important ones, start by defining one goal or priority for the day. Ask yourself this question: will this activity move me towards this goal? If the answer is no, slash it from your list.
4. Do a “mind dump.” Are you having a tough time trimming your to-do list to three MITs? Or do you continue to carry around the other tasks in a nagging “mental” to-do list after getting rid of less important tasks from your physical list?
The mental to-do list can also be a barrier to productivity. It seems more daunting and difficult to quantify or organize. To rid your brain of a distracting mental to-do list, try starting each day with a “brain dump.” Dedicate 30 minutes to writing out all the other tasks you need to remember or any worries floating around your brain. After getting everything out on paper or in a Word Doc, put your list away and forget about it. Following the exercise, your mental to-do list should stop haunting you, making it easier to focus.
5. Consider the Pareto Principle. Renowned Italian philosopher and economist Vilfredo Pareto once observed that 20 percent of the pea plants in his garden produced 80 percent of the healthy peas. It was this observation that led him to discover and describe the “Pareto Principle” or “80/20 Rule.” In simple terms, the principle says that in any event, 20 percent of the inputs or tasks are responsible for 80 percent of the outcome or results.
- 80 percent of the value in a project is achieved with the first 20 percent of effort.
- 80 percent of a company’s sales come from 20 percent of its products.
- 20 percent of employees contribute 80 percent of the company’s output.
- 80 percent of complaints come from 20 percent of a company’s customers.
While these aren’t rigid rules and the ratio won’t always be precisely 80/20, both in business and in life, a minority often generates a majority.
By applying the Pareto Principle to our own productivity, we can slash 80 percent of our activities that are unnecessary or don’t move us towards our mission. To determine which tasks to cut, analyze your daily activities and ask yourself questions such as:
- Which tasks are yielding the most results?
- What are the interruptions that cause most of my productivity problems?
- Who are the friends and family members that take up the majority of my time?
- Which tasks can I rid of?
- Which tasks can I automate?
Determine which tasks need to be delegated, automated, or eliminated. Through this method, you can free up 80 percent of your time while eliminating things hindering your productivity, goals, and happiness.
6. Learn to say “no.” As the saying goes, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” The adage shines a light on why it’s so important to learn to say “no” to tasks that don’t support your mission or add value to your life. A key element of leading a minimalist lifestyle and boosting productivity is knowing how to say “no” to unnecessary meetings, urgent requests that are not your responsibility, social obligations you’re dreading, and any other tasks that don’t add value to your life. If you aren’t able to say “no” to things, you may never have time or energy to focus on the things that are important to you. As a result, your productivity will suffer.
To say “no” effectively, say it politely but firmly without stalling or beating around the bush. One trick is to say “I don’t” instead of “I can’t.” In a study from Boston College and Houston University, psychologists found that “using the word ‘don’t’ serves as a self-affirmation of one’s personal willpower and control in the relevant self-regulatory goal pursuit, leading to a favorable influence on feelings of empowerment, as well as on actual behavior. On the other hand, saying ‘I can’t do X’ connotes an external focus on impediments.” Replacing “I can’t” with “I don’t” can put you in a position of power and leave less room for debate.
7. Stop multitasking. Regardless of how adept a multitasker you feel you are, humans have a very limited capacity for simultaneous thoughts. Our brains can trick us into feeling as though we can seamlessly transition between tasks, when in actuality, this drains valuable energy when we have to backtrack and refocus. While it may seem like multitasking enhances efficiency, studies have found the habit can reduce productivity by 40 percent.
Multitasking doesn’t only hinder productivity; it reduces your capacity for creativity by preventing extended concentration on performance.
To kick your multitasking habit, begin by allotting a portion of time to work on one task. Power off your phone and resolve not to check social media platforms, time-wasting websites, or even email. If you find yourself unable to resist temptation, power on the FocusMe app to block your access to distracting sites and applications for a pre-programmed period of time.
8. Take meaningful breaks. Resist the temptation to work through lunch or bring work home.
Research has shown that taking meaningful breaks not only helps tame stress, but enhances productivity. Without regular breaks, our mind’s ability to stay engaged falls dramatically.
Experts recommend walking deliberately away from your computer or desk every 60 to 90 minutes for three to five minutes to get water, find a snack, socialize, or stretch. User different spaces for different activities—don’t you dare eat lunch at your desk.
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated,” Confucius once quipped.
It’s just as true today as it was thousands of years ago. Simplify your life by removing everything that distracts and detracts to space for things that matter to you. When you apply this philosophy to your job, studies, art, or productivity, you put your goals centerstage while banishing stress and boosting efficiency.
Start small. Tackle one step at a time, from decluttering your workstation to slashing unnecessary tasks. As you eliminate stuff, stress, and time-sucks, you’ll find you have more time, energy, freedom, and purpose.
Ready to get started?