focus: finding simplicity
‘Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.’ ~Antoine de Saint-Exupe
For years now I have been working on living a simpler life — in my personal, family and work life. It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done, in many ways:
- A simple life is less stressful, more sane, happier.
- Simpler living is less expensive, which helped me to get out of debt.
- I’m able to focus better when I work, leading to a more successful career than ever (by far).
- I free up time for my family, and for the things I love most.
- I’ve rid my life of things I didn’t like doing.
- I have fewer possessions, leading to a less cluttered home and workspace, which I love.
And those are just a few of the benefits. When it comes to finding focus, simplifying is a great place to start. When you simplify, you remove the extraneous and allow yourself to focus. You might say that simplifying is a necessary part of finding focus.
This is a short guide to finding simplicity.
Simplifying your life
What does a simplified life look like? There’s no one answer. While some might go to the extremes of living in a cabin in Alaska or on a tropical island, others find simplicity in a city while working a job with the hectic pace of a stockbroker. The key is to find what matters most to you, and to eliminate as much of the rest as possible.
A simpler life probably means fewer possessions. We allow ourselves to accumulate possessions through years of shopping, receiving gifts, and so on, until we’re overwhelmed by it all. We are strongly influenced by advertising to acquire things, but we don’t have a good system for getting rid of them. Freeing yourself of clutter leaves room for thinking, for focus.
A simpler life means fewer commitments. This is difficult, as commitments accumulate over the years just as much as possessions do, and the result is that we have no time in our lives for what really matters. Getting out of the commitments you already have is the painful part: it requires saying “no” to people, disappointing them in some way. In my experience, they’ll live, and life will go on. And when you’ve eliminated many of your commitments, you’ve freed up so much of your time for things you truly love.
A simpler life means less distractions, less busy-ness, less clutter … and more space for what matters most to you. You free up time for work you’re passionate about, people you love, hobbies that make you happy. Time for solitude, for thinking. And that’s a good thing.
Simplifying your work
Simplifying work is very similar to simplifying your life in general, but a bit more “productivity” oriented of course. Let’s start with this question: what does it mean to simplify your work?
It can mean a lot of things, including:
- Clearing the clutter of your workspace, to give you a distraction-free and more soothing space to find focus.
- Focusing less on busy-work and more on important work that has a high impact on your career and business.
- Working on fewer projects and tasks so you’re less busy, and more focused.
- Narrowing the scope of your work so you do less but do it better, offer less but offer better things.
- Eliminating streams of communication, news, distractions.
- Creating the work life you want, rather than one that is a reaction to requests and needs of others.
For me, that means waking in the morning and deciding on one thing that’s most important for me to work on. It means spending less time on email and other distractions, and more time on creating and important tasks. It means having a distraction-free workspace and time and room for thinking. It’s a work life that I love, and recommend to anyone.
A simplified work life can be difficult for a couple of reasons, though:
1. You have to learn to say “no” to others. By saying “yes” to every request from others, you allow all your time to be taken up by tasks that are important to others, not necessarily to you. Saying “no” means being tough, and valuing your time above all else. It can be uncomfortable to say “no” sometimes, but the result is more room for what’s important, and less busy-ness.
2. You should also try to learn to do less. This is difficult for most people, because we’re taught that doing more means we’re more productive, and if we look busy, people will think we’re productive and important. And yet, it’s not true. Being busy doesn’t mean a thing, other than we’re stressed out. We could be busy doing meaningless tasks. Doing important work is what true productivity is all about, and that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re ridiculously busy. Focus on fewer but higher-impact tasks.
How to get started
With all of this clutter in our lives to simplify, it can be overwhelming, daunting, to even get started. Don’t let that stop you — getting started is more important than doing everything at once, or starting in exactly the right place.
There are two things I’d recommend you do to get started — and you can choose which one to do first, as it doesn’t matter really where you start:
1. Pick your life’s short list. It’s crucial that you take a step back and figure out what’s most important to you. I suggest taking half a day off, or even just 30-60 minutes. Get outside and take a walk, or go to a coffee shop, and allow yourself to think. Big picture stuff: what do you love most? Every person’s list will be different — my list was: spending time with family, writing, reading and running. Pick just 4-5 things, even if there are lots of other things that also seem important. Now make a longer list: what else is in your life that’s not on the short list? Once you’ve done these things, you’re done with the Big Picture stuff — the next step is to start eliminating commitments that aren’t on the short list. Do the same for your work life — what’s most important, and what doesn’t make your short list of most important projects and goals?
2. Start clearing clutter in one spot. Physical clutter can be overwhelming, which is why you should just pick one small spot, and clear that. You can get to the rest later. It might be the top of your desk, or if that is super messy maybe just one spot on top of your desk. It might be a table-top or part of a counter or shelf in your home. It doesn’t matter what the spot is. Here’s how to start: first clear off that area and put everything into a pile to the side. Now sort through the pile quickly, making three smaller piles: stuff you use and love, stuff you can donate, and trash. Sort quickly and ruthlessly — everything should go in one of the three piles. Then throw the trash away, put the donate stuff in a box to be dropped off to a charity, and put the stuff you love and use neatly where it belongs. Everything should have a permanent home. Done! Slowly expand your decluttered zone.
How to systematically simplify
Once you’ve gotten started with the two things above, take this newly found momentum and keep it going. You don’t need to do it all at once — 20 minutes a day would do wonders. Small steps, one at a time.
Here’s what I’d do, in little chunks:
- Take 10 minutes a day to clear another small area of clutter. It could be another area on top of your desk or a table, it could be a drawer, a shelf, a counter, a small area of the floor, a wall that’s covered in papers in your office. Follow the sorting method above. Expand the decluttered zone daily.
- Take 10 minutes a day to simplify your commitments, what you do, and what comes in to your life. Just simplify one or two things a day. If you choose a commitment to eliminate, simply call or email someone, letting them know you can no longer serve on this committee or that board, or coach this team or play on that one, or work on this project or that. If you choose to simplify what you do, cross things off your to-do list that aren’t on your short list — sometimes that means emailing someone to let them know you can’t work on it because your plate is too full. If you choose what comes into your life, you might eliminate an email newsletter that you get daily (or all newsletters), you might pare down your blog reading list, or unsubscribe from a magazine, or stop using a social service or forum that doesn’t add value to your life.
In this way, one little chunk at a time, you’ll eventually clear a lot of the physical and mental clutter in your personal and work life, and things will get simpler over time.
Next chapter: a simple system for getting amazing things done