Tools > Simplify


Our ability to focus will allow us to create in ways that perhaps we haven’t in years. It’ll allow us to slow down and find peace of mind. It’ll allow us to simplify and focus on less — on the essential things, the things that matter most.

And in doing so, we’ll learn to focus on smaller things. This will transform our relationship with the world. It’s not that “less is more”, but “less is better”. Focusing on smaller things will make us more effective. It’ll allow us to do less, and in doing so, have more free time for what’s important to us. It’ll force us to choose, and in doing so, stop the excesses that have led to our economic problems, individually and as a society.

Focus. Smaller things. Less. Simplicity. These are the concepts that we’ll talk about, and that will lead to good things in all parts of our lives.
1. Creating an uncluttered environment
2. Slowing down
3. Going with the flow
4. Effortless action
5. Three strategies for prioritizing tasks
6. Letting go of goals
7. Finding simplicity

1. Creating an uncluttered environment

“If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, then this is the best season of your life.”

– Wu-Men

Imagine you’re trying to create your masterpiece — a work that will change your life and perhaps make the world a better place in some small way.

You’re at your computer, making it happen, at a desk piled with clutter, surrounded by clutter on the floor and walls, in the middle of a noisy workplace, phones ringing. A notification pops up — you have a new email — so you open your email program to read it and respond. You get back to work but then another notification pops up — someone wants to chat with you, so you go on IM for a little bit. Then your Twitter client notifies you of some new replies, and you check those. Then you see some paperwork on your desk you need to file, so you start doing those.

But what happened to your masterpiece? It never gets done in a cluttered, scattered workspace like this.

Now imagine a different workspace: a clear desk, with only a couple of essential items on it. A clear computer desktop, with no icons to distract you. There’s nothing on the floor around you, and very little on the walls. You have some nice ambient music to block out surrounding noise (perhaps using headphones), and there are no notifications that pop up to interrupt you. All you have on your computer is one open program with one open window, ready to work on your masterpiece.

The difference is striking, and it illustrates the importance of an uncluttered workspace with few interruptions, when it comes to focusing.

This is true not only of an office workspace, but of anywhere you want to focus: at home, outside, at a coffeeshop where you want to do some work. The less clutter and distractions you have, the better you’ll be able to focus.

How to Get Started
It’s important to remember that you don’t need to create the perfect uncluttered environment right away. If you do it all in one go, you could spend hours or even all day working on this project, and then you’ll have gotten nothing done.
My suggestion is to work in small chunks. Just 10-15 minute improvements once or twice a day, and slowly you’ll be creating a wonderful environment. But you’ll see improvements immediately.

For example, you might do 10-15 minutes at a time, working in this order:
»    Clear your desk.
»    Turn off computer notifications.
»    Find soothing music and some headphones.
»    Clear your computer desktop.
»    Clear your floor.
»    Clear your walls.

And so on, improving one area at a time. Once you have things pretty clear, don’t worry about tweaking things too much. Creating the “perfect” environment can become just as much a time-waster and distraction as anything else.

You could also do all those things at once if you really want to, and have the time. I don’t recommend it, but I’ve done it myself in the past, so I understand this urge.

Let’s look at how to do all of the above things as simply as possible.

Start with your desk
We’re going to focus just on the top of your desk. You can sort through the drawers another time.

First, take a quick survey — what do you have on top of your desk? Papers, folders, binders? A computer, printer, fax machine, phone, stapler, file tray? Post-it notes, phone messages and other scraps of paper? Coffee cup, food, water bottle? Photos, mementos, trinkets, plaques? What else?

Now make a very short mental list: what on your desk is absolutely essential? Just pick 5 items, perhaps. Maybe something like this: computer, phone, water bottle, photo of loved one, inbox tray. Your list will probably be different.

Now take everything off the desk except those items. Put them on the floor. Wipe off your desk with a sponge or rag, so you have a nice clean desk, and arrange the few items you have left nicely. Isn’t that lovely?
If you have time, deal with the items you put on the floor now. If not, stack them somewhere out of the way and deal with them the next time you have 10-15 minutes.

Here’s what to do with them: pick up one item from the group, and make a quick decision: do you need it, or can you get rid of it or give it to someone else? If you need it, find a place for it that’s not on top of your desk — preferrably out of sight in a drawer. Always keep it there if you’re not using it at the moment.

If you don’t need it, give it to someone else or recycle/trash it. Work through all your items quickly — it should only take 10-15 minutes to do this. If you have a bunch of files/papers that need to be sorted or filed, worry about those later. Put them in a to-be-filed drawer, and file them when you get your next 10-15 minute chunk.

From now on, you’ll only have things on top of the desk that you’re going to use at this moment. If you’re not using the stapler, put it away. If you’re not working on that file, file it. You could have a “working folder” and put files/papers in there that you’re going to use later, but file that in a drawer, out of sight.

Turn off notifications
This is an easy step, and should only take a few minutes. You want to turn off any notifications that might interrupt you.

Email: Go to the preferences of your email program, and turn off notifications. If you have a separate program installed that notifies you of things, turn it off.

IM: Same thing with Instant Messaging/chat ... turn off notifications. Only sign in when you’re available to chat — when you want to focus, sign out, and don’t have any notifications that will interrupt you.

Calendar: I’d recommend you shut off your calendar notifications as well, unless there’s something you absolutely can’t miss and you need the notification to remember. If something is that important, you will probably remember anyway, though.

Twitter (or other social networks): If you have a program for Twitter or any other social networks, turn it off and shut off notifications.

Mobile device: Shut off your cell phone or mobile device, if possible, when you want to truly focus. At the very least, go to the preferences of any notifications you have (email, IM, etc.) on the device and shut them off.

Phones: uplug your phone or put it on Do Not Disturb mode (or whatever it’s called) when you’re ready to focus.

You might have other notifications not listed here. When they pop up or make a noise, find out how to disable them. Now you can work with fewer interruptions.

Find soothing music and some headphones
Don’t spend too much time on this one. If you already have music in iTunes (or whatever music program you use) or on a CD, use that. Don’t spend a lot of time on the Internet researching the most relaxing music and downloading a lot of songs.
Peaceful music is great because it puts you in the right mood to focus, and it blocks out other sounds.

I’d recommend using headphones — it doesn’t matter what kind — to further block out distractions. It also means coworkers are less likely to interrupt you if they see the headphones on.

Clear your computer desktop
A clear desktop is not only great for your physical desk — it’s great for your computer as well. Icons scattered all over a computer desktop are distracting. Instead, clear everything and be left with peace and focus.

Here’s how to do it:
1. Install a launcher program. Mac users should try either Launchbar or Quicksilver. Windows users might try Launchy or AutoHotKey (for power users). Once set up, the launcher program is activated with a keystroke combination (Command-spacebar in my case), and then you start typing the program or name of the folder or file you want to open. Usually the correct name will be automatically completed within a few keystrokes, and you press the “Return” key to activate it. It’s much faster than finding the right icon on your desktop, and then double-clicking it, especially if the desktop is covered by a bunch of applications and windows.

2.    Delete all application shortcuts. Many people have shortcuts all over their desktops for commonly used applications/programs. You don’t need them anymore, now that you have the launcher program. Delete them all.

3.    Put all folders/files into your Documents (or My Documents) folder. Don’t worry too much about sorting them — the launcher program can find them much faster, or you could use the search function of your computer to quickly find anything you’re looking for.

4. Hide everything else. On the PC, right-click on the desktop, go to the “view” menu, and unselect “show desktop icons”. On the Mac, in the Finder, go to File -> Preferences, under General, and unselect all the items under “Show these items on the Desktop”. Now all your icons should be gone from the desktop.

Isn’t it beautiful?

Clear your floor
If you have a cluttered floor surrounding your workspace, this could take awhile, so do it in chunks. No need to do everything at once.

Some people have stacks of files and papers around them. If this is you, slowly start to go through them, one file/paper at a time: do you need it? If so, file it. If not, recycle it or forward to the right person.

What else is on your floor? Quickly make decisions: do you absolutely need it? If not, get rid of it. If you do, find a place in a drawer, out of sight and not on the floor. This might mean making room in drawers by getting rid of stuff.

Again, this could take a little longer, so do it in chunks.

Clear your walls
Many people have calendars, pictures, memos, motivational posters, reminders, schedules, and more, hanging on their walls near their desk. Those are visual distractions and make it a little more difficult to focus. Clearing your walls, except perhaps for a nice photo or piece of art, is a good idea for creating the perfect environment for focusing.

If you’ve done the steps above, this one should be easy. Take everything down except for a couple of essential pieces or pleasing photos/artwork. Either get rid of things you don’t need, or find an out-of-sight spot for things you do need.

2. Slowing down 

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

– Gandhi

The world most of us live in is hectic, fast-paced, fractured, hurried.

What’s more, most of us are conditioned to think this is the way life should be.

Life should be lived at break-neck speed, we believe. We risk our lives in cars and we break the speed limit, rushing from one place to another. We do one thing after another, multi-tasking and switching between tasks as fast as we can blink.
All in the name of productivity, of having more, of appearing busy, to ourselves and to others.

But life doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, I’d argue that it’s counterproductive.

If our goal is to create, to produce amazing things, to go for quality over quantity, then rushing is not the most effective way to work. Slowing down and focusing is always more effective.

Rushing produces errors. It’s distracting to flit from one thing to the next, with our attention never on one thing long enough to give it any thought or create anything of worth. Hurrying produces too much noise to be able to find the quiet the mind needs for true creativity and profound thinking.

So yes, moving quickly will get more done. But it won’t get the right things done.

Benefits of Slowing Down
There are lots of reasons to slow down, but I’ll list just a few to give you an idea of why it’s important:
1. Better focus. When you slow down, you can focus better. It’s hard to focus if you’re moving to fast.
2. Deeper focus. Rushing produces shallowness, because you never have time to dig beneath the surface. Slow down and dive into deeper waters.
3. Better appreciation. You can really appreciate what you have, what you’re doing, who you’re with, when you take the time to slow down and really pay attention.
4. Enjoyment. When you appreciate things, you enjoy them more. Slowing down allows you to enjoy life to the fullest.
5. Less stress. Rushing produces anxiety and higher stress levels. Slowing down is calmer, relaxing, peaceful.

A Change of Mindset
The most important step is a realization that life is better when you move at a slower, more relaxed pace, instead of hurrying and rushing and trying to cram too much into every day. Instead, get the most out of every moment.

Is a book better if you speed read it, or if you take your time and get lost in it?
Is a song better if you skim through it, or if you take the time to really listen?
Is food better if you cram it down your throat, or if you savor every bite and really appreciate the flavor?
Is your work better if you’re trying to do 10 things at once, or if you really pour yourself into one important task?
Is your time spent with a friend or loved one better if you have a rushed meeting interrupted by your emails and text messages, or if you can relax and really focus on the person?

Life as a whole is better if you go slowly, and take the time to savor it, appreciate every moment. That’s the simplest reason to slow down.

And so, you’ll need to change your mindset (if you’ve been stuck in a rushed mindset until now). To do this, make the simple admission that life is better when savored, that work is better with focus. Then make the commitment to give that a try, to take some of the steps below.

But I Can’t Change!
There will be some among you who will admit that it would be nice to slow down, but you just can’t do it ... your job won’t allow it, or you’ll lose income if you don’t do as many projects, or living in the city makes it too difficult to go slowly. It’s a nice ideal if you’re living on a tropical island, or out in the country, or if you have a job that allows control of your schedule ... but it’s not realistic for your life.

I say bullshit.

Take responsibility for your life. If your job forces you to rush, take control of it. Make changes in what you do, in how you work. Work with your boss to make changes if necessary. And if really necessary, you can eventually change jobs. You are responsible for your life.

If you live in a city where everyone rushes, realize that you don’t have to be like everyone else. You can be different. You can walk instead of driving in rush hour traffic. You can have fewer meetings. You can work on fewer but more important things. You can be on your iPhone or Blackberry less, and be disconnected sometimes. Your environment doesn’t control your life — you do.

I’m not going to tell you how to take responsibility for your life, but once you make the decision, the how will become apparent over time.

Tips for a Slower-Paced Life
I can’t give you a step-by-step guide to moving slower, but here are some things to consider and perhaps adopt, if they work for your life. Some things might require you to make major changes, but they can be done over time.

1.  Do less. Cut back on your projects, on your task list, on how much you try to do each day. Focus not on quantity but quality. Pick 2-3 important things — or even just one important thing — and work on those first. Save smaller, routine tasks for later in the day, but give yourself time to focus.

2. Have fewer meetings. Meetings are usually a big waste of time. And they eat into your day, forcing you to squeeze the things you really need to do into small windows, and making you rush. Try to have blocks of time with no interruptions, so you don’t have to rush from one meeting to another.

3. Practice disconnecting. Have times when you turn off your devices and your email notifications and whatnot. Time with no phone calls, when you’re just creating, or when you’re just spending time with someone, or just reading a book, or just taking a walk, or just eating mindfully. You can even disconnect for (gasp!) an entire day, and you won’t be hurt. I promise.

4. Give yourself time to get ready and get there. If you’re constantly rushing to appointments or other places you have to be, it’s because you don’t allot enough time in your schedule for preparing and for traveling. Pad your schedule to allow time for this stuff. If you think it only takes you 10 minutes to get ready for work or a date, perhaps give yourself 30-45 minutes so you don’t have to shave in a rush or put on makeup in the car. If you think you can get there in 10 minutes, perhaps give yourself 2-3 times that amount so you can go at a leisurely pace and maybe even get there early.

5.    Practice being comfortable with sitting, doing nothing. One thing I’ve noticed is that when people have to wait, they become impatient or uncomfortable. They want their mobile device or at least a magazine, because standing and waiting is either a waste of time or something they’re not used to doing without feeling self- conscious. Instead, try just sitting there, looking around, soaking in your surroundings. Try standing in line and just watching and listening to people around you. It takes practice, but after awhile, you’ll do it with a smile.

6. Realize that if it doesn’t get done, that’s OK. There’s always tomorrow. And yes, I know that’s a frustrating attitude for some of you who don’t like laziness or procrastination or living without firm deadlines, but it’s also reality. The world likely won’t end if you don’t get that task done today. Your boss might get mad, but the company won’t collapse and life will inevitably go on. And the things that need to get done will.

7.    Start to eliminate the unnecessary. When you do the important things with focus, without rush, there will be things that get pushed back, that don’t get done. And you need to ask yourself: how necessary are these things? What would happen if I stopped doing them? How can I eliminate them, delegate them, automate them?

8. Practice mindfulness. Simply learn to live in the present, rather than thinking so much about the future or the past. When you eat, fully appreciate your food. When you’re with someone, be with them fully. When you’re walking, appreciate your surroundings, no matter where you are.

9.    Slowly eliminate commitments. We’re overcommitted, which is why we’re rushing around so much. I don’t just mean with work — projects and meetings and the like. Parents have tons of things to do with and for their kids, and we overcommit our kids as well. Many of us have busy social lives, or civic commitments, or are coaching or playing on sports teams. We have classes and groups and hobbies. But in trying to cram so much into our lives, we’re actually deteriorating the quality of those lives. Slowly eliminate commitments — pick 4-5 essential ones, and realize that the rest, while nice or important, just don’t fit right now. Politely inform people, over time, that you don’t have time to stick to those commitments.

Try these things out. Life is better when unrushed. And given the fleeting nature of this life, why waste even a moment by rushing through it?

3: Going with the flow

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let
reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

– Lao-Tzu
No matter how much structure we create in our lives, no matter how many good habits we build, there will always be things that we cannot control — and if we let them, these things can be a huge source of anger, frustration and stress.
The simple solution: learn to go with the flow.

For example, let’s say you’ve created the perfect peaceful morning routine. You’ve structured your mornings so that you do things that bring you calm and happiness. And then a water pipe bursts in your bathroom and you spend a stressful morning trying to clean up the mess and get the pipe fixed.

You get angry. You are disappointed, because you didn’t get to do your morning routine. You are stressed from all these changes to what you’re used to. It ruins your day because you are frustrated for the rest of the day.

Not the best way to handle things, is it? And yet if we are honest, most of us have problems like this, with things that disrupt how we like things, with people who change what we are used to, with life when it doesn’t go the way we want it to go.
Go with the flow.

What is going with the flow? It’s rolling with the punches. It’s accepting change without getting angry or frustrated. It’s taking what life gives you, rather than trying to mold life to be exactly as you want it to be.

And what does this have to do with focusing? It’s a reality that no matter how much we try to control our environment, so that we may focus on what’s important, there will be interruptions and distractions. Our environment will constantly change, and we cannot completely control it.

And so, we must learn to accept this reality, and find focus within a changing environment. Here’s how.

1.    Realize that you can’t control everything. I think we all know this at some level, but the way we think and act and feel many times contradicts this basic truth. We don’t control the universe, and yet we seem to wish we could. All the wishful thinking won’t make it so. You can’t even control everything within your own little sphere of influence — you can influence things, but many things are simply out of your control. In the example above, you can control your morning routine, but there will be things that happen from time to time (someone’s sick, accident happens, phone call comes at 5 a.m. that disrupts things, etc.) that will make you break your routine. First step is realizing that these things will happen. Not might happen, but will. There are things that we cannot control that will affect every aspect of our lives, and we must must must accept that, or we will constantly be frustrated. Meditate on this for awhile.

2. Become aware. You can’t change things in your head if you’re not aware of them. You have to become an observer of your thoughts, a self-examiner. Be aware that you’re becoming upset, so that you can do something about it. It helps to keep tally marks in a little notebook for a week — every time you get upset, put a little tally. That’s all — just keep tally. And soon, because of that little act, you will become more aware of your anger and frustration.

3. Breathe. When you feel yourself getting angry or frustrated, take a deep breath. Take a few. This is an important step that allows you to calm down and do the rest of the things below. Practice this by itself and you’ll have come a long way already.

4. Get perspective. If you get angry over something happening — your car breaks down, your kids ruin something you’re working on — take a deep breath, and take a step back. Let your mind’s eye zoom away, until you’re far away above your life. Then whatever happened doesn’t seem so important. A week from now, a year from now, this little incident won’t matter a single whit. No one will care, not even you. So why get upset about it? Just let it go, and soon it won’t be a big deal.

5.    Practice. It’s important to realize that, just like when you learn any skill, you probably won’t be good at this at first. Who is good when they are first learning to write, or read, or drive? No one I know. Skills come with practice. So when you first learn to go with the flow, you will mess up. You will stumble and fall. That’s OK — it’s part of the process. Just keep practicing, and you’ll get the hang of it.

6. Laugh. It helps to see things as funny, rather than frustrating. Car broke down in the middle of traffic and I have no cell phone or spare tire? Laugh at my own incompetence. Laugh at the absurdity of the situation. That requires a certain amount of detachment — you can laugh at the situation if you’re above it, but not within it. And that detachment is a good thing. If you can learn to laugh at things, you’ve come a long way. Try laughing even if you don’t think it’s funny — it will most likely become funny.

7.    Realize that you can’t control others. This is one of the biggest challenges. We get frustrated with other people, because they don’t act the way we want them to act. Maybe it’s our kids, maybe it’s our spouse or significant other, maybe it’s our coworker or boss, maybe it’s our mom or best friend. But we have to realize that they are acting according to their personality, according to what they feel is right, and they are not going to do what we want all of the time. And we have to accept that. Accept that we can’t control them, accept them for who they are, accept the things they do. It’s not easy, but again, it takes practice.

8. Accept change and imperfection. When we get things the way we like them, we usually don’t want them to change. But they will change. It’s a fact of life. We cannot keep things the way we want them to be ... instead, it’s better to learn to accept things as they are. Accept that the world is constantly changing, and we are a part of that change. Also, instead of wanting things to be “perfect” (and what is perfect anyway?), we should accept that they will never be perfect, and we must accept good instead.

9. Enjoy life as a flow of change, chaos and beauty. Remember when I asked what “perfect” is, in the paragraph above? It’s actually a very interesting question. Does perfect mean the ideal life and world that we have in our heads? Do we have an ideal that we try to make the world conform to? Because that will likely never happen. Instead, try seeing the world as perfect the way it is. It’s messy, chaotic, painful, sad, dirty ... and completely perfect. The world is beautiful, just as it is. Life is not something static, but a flow of change, never staying the same, always getting messier and more chaotic, always beautiful. There is beauty in everything around us, if we look at it as perfect.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

– Lao Tzu

4: Effortless action

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

– Lao Tzu
There’s a concept in Taoism, “wei wu wei”, which is often translated as “action without action” or “effortless doing”. I prefer to think of it more in the sense of “action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort”.

This is an important concept, because effortless action is a way to not only achieve focus in a world of chaos, but to be effective without stress, to respond to any situation with economy of effort and action, and to pursue our passions while beating procrastination.

Think for a moment of times when you’ve struggled to work, and instead procrastinated by heading for your distractions — email, social networks, blog reading, games, whatever your flavor might be.

This struggle is often a losing battle for most people. They fight against it, but only win occassionally.

Effortless action is an easier way to find focus and beat procrastination.

Be like water
An appropriate mental image is that of water, which seems naturally effortless in its action. It isn’t necessarily still, nor is it passive, but it flows naturally around obstacles and always gets to where it’s going.

This is effortless action. It uses gravity and the natural contours of its landscape, instead of forcing things. Water can never be anything but effortless, and yet it is quietly powerful.

Be like water. Flow, respond to the landscape, move around obstacles, and be graceful in your movement.

Position yourself effortlessly within the moment
In “The Civility Solution”, academic P.M. Forni writes:

“We must learn to position ourselves effortlessly within each moment, rather than stumbling through time. We can either escape from the moment or stay with it as it unfolds and do something good with it.”

And this is exactly right. Are you trying to escape the moment, fleeing from it and struggling against it? Or are you inhabiting the moment effortlessly?

One way to do this is to stop yourself when you find yourself struggling, and just pause. Be present, sensing your breath, and then everything around you. See the situation with some objectivity, instead of fleeing from it blindly. Carefully consider your options — all of them. And then respond to the situation mindfully and with the appropriate response — not an overreaction.

In this way, you respond flexibly, appropriately, and effortlessly.

Steps for effortless action
There is no step-by-step guide to learning effortless action, but here are some things you might try:
1. Act because of passion. Not because you “should”, but because you’re excited to do so. It will feel as if you’re going downhill, because it’s what you want to do.

2. When you’re going uphill, change course. Whenever you find yourself dreading something, procrastinating, forcing yourself and hating it, stop and ask yourself why. There must be a reason — you’ll never sustain any action for long if you hate doing it. Change course to something you’re more excited about, and things will get easier. You may end up getting to the same destination, but you’ll do it with a different course and things will flow more naturally.

3. Don’t try to control what you can’t control. When we try to control others, or obsessively control our surroundings, we are trying to control things that aren’t in our control. This will inevitably end up in failure, frustration, and conflict with others. Instead, accept that we can’t control these things, and flow around the obstacles with a minimum of effort.

4. Be in the moment. Be aware of the full situation, accept the situation, and respond appropriately.

5.    See the possibilities. When we have our minds set, and our vision set, on one destination, we are often blind to other possibilities. We’ll miss opportunities this way. Instead, see all the possible paths and pick the one that will work best for you. That doesn’t mean to become indecisive because there are so many choices — to be paralyzed by choice — but instead to learn to move effortlessly among all the possible paths instead of being stuck on one path. This gets easier with practice, as you learn to trust your intuition.

6. Be flexible. When we are rigid, we will often break. Be like water, flowing around obstacles rather than trying to push them out of your way.

7. Find the pressure points. Sometimes, if you find the right spot, achieving something takes very little effort. Hitting a baseball with the sweet spot of the bat will cause it to go much further with less effort. Finding these spots of maximum effectiveness and minimum effort takes mindful effort, which is why effortless action isn’t mindless action.

8. Do less and less, with less and less effort.Effortless action isn’t something that is achieved overnight. In fact, if you try too hard to achieve it, you’ve defeated yourself already. Instead, when you find yourself in a whirlwind of activity, and pushing hard, slow down, relax, and do less. Eliminate some of your motions so that you’re moving with economy. Push less, and flow more. Slowly learn to do less, and then do less, finding ways of doing that require little action but lots of effectiveness. Learn to let things unfold naturally instead of pushing them to happen. Let people learn on their own instead of controlling them. Set things up so they happen without you having to steer everything. Slowly learn to use less effort, and then less than that.

9.    Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy. Another famous quote by Lao Tzu, it’s timeless and wise. If you can manage the easy, small things now, you’ll save yourself the time and effort of having to do the difficult things later. This allows for more effortless action — you work less to achieve the same results.

5: Three strategies for prioritizing tasks 

“If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.”

– unknown
One of the biggest problems people have when trying to find focus is having too many tasks competing for their time. It can be tough to prioritize.

Let’s break this problem into three smaller problems:
1. too many tasks
2. tough to prioritize
3. tasks compete for your time
And with that, let’s discuss three strategies for dealing with these smaller

1. Reduce your tasks
If you have too many tasks, the solution is to simplify your task list. Take 10 minutes to list everything you need to do — now just pick the 3-5 most important tasks. All the small tasks will go on a “do later” list, and you’re not going to worry about them now.

A good way to deal with the smaller, routine tasks that must be done (check email, pay bills, fill out paperwork, and so on) is to schedule a block of time later in the day to deal with them — perhaps the last 30 minutes of your day, or something like that. Early in the day, focus on the important tasks.

2. Choose the task that excites you
Now that you’ve simplified your task list, look at the 3-5 tasks left and pick one task. Just one.
How do you pick? Choose the task that most excites you, that feels compelling, that you’re most passionate about.
If you’re dreading the task, put it aside for now, and pick something more interesting.
If you have several tasks you’re excited about, you might also consider which task will have the biggest effect on your life. What will make the biggest impact?

3. Single-task
Now that you’ve chosen one task, put the others aside for now and just focus on that one task.
Clear away all distractions, including your mobile device and the Internet. Just have the application open that you need to work on that task.
Now get to work. Throw yourself into it, and do it for at least 10 minutes. After that, you can take a break, but try to immerse yourself for at least 10 minutes.

And have fun doing it.

6: Letting go of goals

“By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The
world is beyond the winning.”

– Lao Tzu

One of the unshakable tenets of success and productivity literature is that you need to have goals in order to be successful.
And from this tenet comes all sorts of other beliefs:
I know this, because I’ve believed it and lived it and written about it, for a long time.

Until recently.

Until recently, I’d always set goals for myself — short-term and long-term ones, with action lists. I’ve made progress on each one, and accomplished a lot of goals. And from this traditional viewpoint, I’ve been successful. So no argument there: goals work, and you can be successful using goals.

But are they the only way?

More recently I’ve moved away from goals, broken free of the shackles of goals. I’ve liberated myself because goals are not ideal, in my way of thinking:

»    They are artificial — you aren’t working because you love it, you’re working because you’ve set goals.
»    They’re constraining — what if you want to work on something not in line with your goals? Shouldn’t we have that freedom?
»    They put pressure on us to achieve, to get certain things done. Pressure is stressful, and not always in a good way.
»    When we fail (and we always do), it’s discouraging.
»    We’re always thinking about the future (goals) instead of the present. I prefer to live in the present.

But most of all, here’s the thing with goals: you’re never satisfied. Goals are a way of saying, “When I’ve accomplished this goal (or all these goals), I will be happy then. I’m not happy now, because I haven’t achieved my goals.” This is never said out loud, but it’s what goals really mean. The problem is, when we achieve the goals, we don’t achieve happiness. We set new goals, strive for something new.

And while many people will say that striving for something new is a good thing, that we should always be striving, unfortunately it means we’re never satisfied. We never find contentment. I think that’s unfortunate — we should learn how to be content now, with what we have. It’s what minimalism is all about, really.

And if my philosophy is to be happy now, with enough, with the present, then how are goals consistent with this? It’s something I’ve tried to reconcile over the last few years, with some success.

So if we are content now, and we abandon goals, does that mean we do nothing? Sit around or sleep all day?

Not at all. I certainly don’t do that. We should do what makes us happy, follow our passions, do things that make us excited. For me and many people, that’s creating, building new things, expressing ourselves, making something useful or new or beautiful or inspiring.

So here’s what I do, instead of setting and achieving goals:
»    I do what excites me. Each day. I wake up, and work on things that I’m passionate about, create things that I love creating.
»    I don’t worry about where I’ll be (professionally) in a year or even six months, but where I am right now.
»    I don’t make plans, because they’re an illusion — you never know what will happen in a year or even six months. You can try to control what happens, but you’ll lose. Things always come up, sometimes good and sometimes bad, that will disrupt plans. Instead, I’ve learned to go with the flow, to not worry about things that disrupt plans but worry about what to do right now. This allows me to take advantage of opportunities that come up that I could never have planned for, to work on things I couldn’t have known about, to make decisions about what’s best right now, not what I planned a few months ago.
»    I don’t force things, but do what comes naturally.
»    And I focus on the present, on being happy now.

This has taken me time — letting go of goals is a scary and uncomfortable thing, but if you let them go gradually, it’s not that hard. I’ve slowly adapted the way I work, and learned to work in the moment, and go with the flow of the world that surrounds me (online and off).

It’s a beautiful way of working. And not incidentally, I’ve accomplished even more this way, without making that a goal. It’s a natural byproduct of doing what you love.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

– Lao Tzu

7: 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:

1.    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.

2.    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.

This article is from Leo Babauta, creator of the popular blog Zen Habits.
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