Adopting Minimalist Principles at Work

For the past five months or so, I’ve learned more about minimalist living and decluttering through minimalist blogs and e-books. I’ve developed this interest partly because hanging on to a ton of material possessions from my past wasn’t adding value to my life, and indeed all those things were just causing more stress in my mind.  After cross-country moves from Virginia to California then California to Washington, the notion of hauling so much stuff around wasn’t that appealing. And yet, I continued to hold onto things “just in case” I needed them. Useless things like the giant boxes that used to hold electronics like televisions and computer monitors.  After prodding from my partner and after reading about minimalism, I’ve learned that I can let things go and everything will be just fine.

Since Spring, I’ve downsized my wardrobe, random keepsakes, my CD collection, old snail mail correspondence, videogames, and other miscellaneous junk that I was holding on to. Furthermore, I tried to adopt minimalist principles in how I deal with my home environment, in terms of keeping surfaces clear, tidying up instead of letting things sit around, and the like. It was liberating. I continue to downsize and declutter when I can and I try to keep things tidy because my environment really does affect my stress levels. It’s a continual process to get rid of things that I still have emotional ties to and to continue to try and keep things balanced in my flat’s physical environment, as is this whole minimalist process.

As part of my minimalist blog reading list, I had been reading Zen Habits by Leo Babauta. I’ve found this blog valuable in terms of understanding the minimalist lifestyle and how minimalism isn’t just downsizing your possessions and preventing more from coming in, but can apply to other parts of life. I’ve been interested in the Getting Things Done (GTD) work-life productivity system for some time, but it always struck me as way too complicated, overwhelming, and seemed to require a lot of micromanagement by the end user. Babauta has written several e-books, including Zen to Done (ZTD), a book about productivity that combines the most useful aspects of Getting Things Done and other popular productivity systems (like Stephen Covey’s 7  Habits) with the mandate of simplicity.

I’ve been trying to implement some of the productivity habits outlined in Zen to Done in the past several months at work. One of these habits is “single-tasking” (focusing only on one task, ignoring everything else, and just doing that task until it is done) rather than multi-tasking. This blog post about single-tasking by Chad Moore (which I originally read at Becoming Minimalist), who also works in the videogame industry, really spoke to me. Moore works over at Turbine, which is like ArenaNet, another company that develops massively-multiplayer online games and persistent worlds. I found the description of what the office environment is like at Turbine to have a lot of parallels to ArenaNet. For example, office geography putting people close to each other, having email and instant messenger on all day, the expectation to multi-task. It’s a challenging environment in which to single-task and to focus.

That long preface said, I’d like to talk about one habit I implemented from the ZTD system that I’ve been able to keep up at a reasonably good level for the past few months. I have a notebook at work in which I keep all my work-related notes, including my to-do list. Each day, I turn to a fresh page of my notebook and list my Most Important Things (MITs) that I want to accomplish that day. My MIT list is usually about three tasks long. In general, this list shouldn’t be super long. This is my priority list, not an exhaustive list of everything I need to do. Under that, I list my Batch Tasks. These tasks are less time-consuming and less important in priority than the MITs, but I would ideally like to get all of those done by the end of the work day, too. The Batch Tasks list tends to be longer. This process of looking at what I need to do each day is a good focusing exercise. It helps me prioritise my responsibilities and starts the day on the right foot.

The point of the MITs list is to focus you on what is  most important. When you do something on the MITs list, you’re supposed to focus your full attention on that task, to the exclusion of all else. On good days, I tend to put my headset on, put on some ambient music with no words, ignore email notifications, ignore instant messages, ignore social networks, and just focus on the task at hand. On less good days, there are interruptions that I allow to get through my bubble of focusing and sometimes my attention wanders, but my goal is to always focus on that one thing. By focusing fully on what is most important, it helps in not getting overwhelmed with just how much stuff you have to do that week.

If at all possible, I try to get all of my MITs completed before lunch. The book says to try to complete MITs “before noon” but for my own workflow, I’ve found “before lunch” to be more realistic and to match my office culture a bit more. Lunch at my office is usually around 13:00. Typically, I can complete two out of my three MITs before lunch. Because of various factors, like meetings (ad hoc or sccheduled), important work that comes up on an ad hoc basis, casual conversation with colleagues, or there just not being enough time in the day to fit everything, sometimes I don’t finish all my MITs. Sometimes there is one left at the end of the day, or on particularly busy days, there are two. I try not to take this as a failing, but a challenge to do better the next day. The next day when I list my tasks, that unfinished MIT from the previous day usually gets put on the priority list.  Checking off all my MITs for the day is awesome and feels great. Because my priority list only includes what are absolutely the most important things to do that day, the list tends to be short, which feels even better when all the high priority items are completed that day.

One aspect of this method of tasklisting that I have not implemented from the ZTD system is the idea of “Big Rocks” and creating a to-do list for the week. The idea is that you make a list of all the high priority items you need to do this week, with Batch Tasks. The high priority items for the week are the Big Rocks. A Big Rock usually becomes a bullet point in the Most Important Things list each day. At the end of the week, you review this master to-do list. The idea of identifying your Big Rocks is that you, again, center on what is most important for the week. I’m still working on forming the habit of keeping up my daily MITs/Batch Tasks list, which is why I haven’t added the Big Rocks dimension to my tasklisting. Babauta says to start slowly and add more as you feel comfortable, and this has helped me a lot in trying to form new good habits at work.

So far I have found the MITs/Batch Tasks tasklist method to be productive for me and how I work. It’s helped me focus, helped me be more productive, and helped in keeping my stress levels lower than what they were before because I do focus fully on what is important.