I’ve done a lot of experimenting with minimalism recently. And one of the most exciting results has been a sharp increase in my productivity around work, especially the ability to focus and concentrate for longer stretches of time.
In this article, I’ll show how a key idea from the philosophy of minimalism called problem solving through subtraction is the best way to focus and be productive. Specifically, we’ll talk about two of the biggest sources of distraction and lost productivity and some tips for eliminating them.
Minimalism: Why Focusing on Less is the Best Way to Get More
If you’re not familiar with minimalism, here’s the basic idea: Stuff often distracts us from our values and what matters most in life.
Owning a big house with a huge yard, for example, requires a lot of money to maintain, which often means long hours at the office and less time at home with your family. Minimalism suggests that by intentionally removing appealing but ultimately unimportant stuff from our lives, we end up living more in accordance with our values.
The more general principle here is that there’s a certain class of problems that is often easier to solve through subtraction rather than addition. By deliberately removing excess physical stuff from our lives, we make it easier to move toward the things that really matter.
In the house example above, removing the overhead that comes along with owning a large home frees up time, energy, and other resources to be invested in more meaningful things and activities like spending quality time with your family.
This idea of problem solving through subtraction is based on the idea that it’s often easier to reach our goals by removing obstacles rather than simply pushing harder.
This concept can be applied directly to productivity and our ability to sustain focused effort for longer stretches of time.
How Digital Minimalism Improved My Productivity and Showed Me the Best Way to Focus and Get Things Done
My recent experiments with minimalism have shown me that the minimalist technique of problem solving through subtraction works especially well with productivity.
In January 2018, I did a month-long digital declutter experiment where I removed all optional digital technology from my life for 30 days—no tv, no podcasts, no reading the news or checking email outside of a few prescribed times, etc. I had so much success from this experiment that I decided to repeat it again but for 3X as long—this was my Summer of Digital Minimalism.
One of the most surprising findings of these experiments was that my productivity went through the roof. Mostly as a result of one little change…
During my hour of deep work writing first thing in the morning, I put my phone on airplane mode and placed in the drawer of my desk.
This was helpful not because I’m constantly bombarded by alerts and notifications (I’m not that popular :), but instead because the mere presence of my phone on my desk was distracting.
When I’m in the middle of writing and suddenly hit a stuck point, I get a little frustrated. Instinctively, my mind looks around for a way to reduce this uncomfortable emotion.
Almost instantaneously, it latches on to my phone and starts drooling over the millions of exciting little bits of information and entertainment the internet has to offer.
At this point, I’m experiencing a craving to check my phone (browse Hacker News, check Twitter, read new emails, etc). Sometimes I can successfully resist the craving, but often I give in.
Removing distractions is often the best way to focus.
What I’ve learned from my experiments with digital minimalism is the fairly obvious point that it’s easier to resist a distracting temptation if you eliminate the possibility for temptation in the first place. Hence, putting my phone in the drawer.
At first this was uncomfortable. I’d find myself nervously glancing around my desk looking for my phone every ten minutes or so while I was working.
But within a matter of days, I found that my ability to stay focused and work continuously increased dramatically.
Instead of working for 15 minutes, then taking a break, then working for twenty minutes and taking another break, I found that I quickly got to the point where it was relatively easy to work for an hour straight. As a result, both the quantity and quality of my work improved.
The lesson here is simple: While there’s a place for learning to better resist distraction, it’s ideal if you can remove that distraction in the first place.
After a lot of self-experimentation, as well as professional work with clients in therapy, I’ve found that there are two main sources of distraction from our work. And if we can design routines for eliminating them, many of our struggles to be more productive and get more done vanish.
1. Negative Self-Talk & Procrastination
No matter what our work, we all get stuck sometimes.
I often get stuck, for example, in my writing when I have two important points but can’t figure out a way to connect them. I’ve noticed that these transitions between logical points can be especially tough for me, and when I encounter them, my negative self-talk rears its ugly head:
- Maybe the whole idea for this article just isn’t any good…
- I can’t believe I keep struggling so much with these transitions. You’d think I’d have gotten better by now.
- This is pointless. I should just put down my next point and not worry about the transition.
Self-talk like this isn’t necessarily distracting itself; what’s really distracting and gets in the way of my work is the emotion it produces.
Negative self-talk, especially chronic negative self-talk tends to lead to a lot of negative emotions, especially shame and guilt. And it’s this negative emotionality that is usually distracting.
Because we feel badly emotionally, our impulse is to make that emotion go away. Often the best way to do that is to “numb-out” with some distractions: eating, browsing social media, chatting with a co-worker, etc.
In fact, negative self-talk and the emotion it produces is often one of the biggest causes of procrastination.
Correcting negative self-talk involves becoming aware that it’s happening in the first place and then choosing a more helpful alternative that doesn’t distract so much from our work.
A good technique to neutralize negative self-talk and the negative emotions it results in is a technique called Cognitive Restructuring.
That sounds fancy and complicated but really it just means identifying an unrealistically negative piece of self-talk and rephrasing it to be more accurate. For example:
- Maybe the whole idea for this article just isn’t any good… → Just because I’m having trouble with this transition doesn’t necessarily mean anything about the quality of the article as a whole.
- I can’t believe I keep struggling so much with these transitions. You’d think I’d have gotten better by now. → Each article I write contains new ideas, so making the connections between them is always going to be a new process.
- This is pointless. I should just put down my next point and not worry about the transition. → I’m stuck right now, but in the past I almost always resolve my stuck points eventually. If I’m patient, it’s likely to happen again this time.
Want to learn more about negative self-talk and how to work through it? Check out this article:
2. Personal Technology
One of the primary reasons we look for distractions when we work is because our work is difficult and often uncomfortable. And personal technology offers a cheap, convenient, and pleasurable escape from the difficulties of work.
If you think about it, doing any kind of meaningful work on a consistent basis requires tolerating a lot of discomfort—emotionally, intellectually, and physically.
Think about the worry and doubt that goes along with meeting a new, high-profile client for the first time. Or the agitation and frustration of wading through hundreds of unopened emails after vacation.
Today’s personal technology, especially the smartphone, is devastating to our productivity because it offers such an easy way out of that discomfort. We always have our smartphone at hand to check ESPN or Twitter anytime we feel discouraged, afraid, or disappointed.
And even though this feels good superficially, it has two big downsides that far outweigh the temporary benefits of distraction:
In the short term, it fragments our work. What should take us an hour to finish if we worked straight through ends up taking two because we get distracted by the relief of checking our tech.
But there’s a more important long-term consequence: All this immediate access to personal technology diminishes our capacity to tolerate the discomforts of hard work.
The ability to tolerate frustrations and fears, doubts and insecurities, even fidgetiness or lethargy is like a muscle and will atrophy and weaken if we don’t use it. Constant access to the quick relief of checking our smartphones has the long-term effect of weakening the mental muscle that allows us to feel badly and work anyway.
But, if we intentionally remove these digital distractions while we work, we force ourselves to exercise and re-build this muscle, to practice doing what we know we should do even if it’s hard. This is the heart of discipline, which itself is essential to doing our best work.
I believe the best way to take serious steps to remove technological distractions is to do some form of digital declutter experiment.
Once you get a feel experientially for what it’s like to not be constantly stimulated and bombarded by our tech, it makes it hard to go back.
To get an idea for what this might look like, you can read this account of my own 30-day digital declutter experiment.
If you’re not ready to commit to something on that scale, I recommend picking a specific hour of work each day where you completely eliminate as much access to personal technology as possible and try this for a couple weeks. Put your phone away and turn it on airplane mode, sign out of your email client, shut down your internet browser, etc.
Because we’ve all become increasingly habituated to a constant stream stimulation from our personal technology, it’s important to “remember” what it felt like to not be inundated by all that stimulation.
The philosophy of minimalism suggests a counterintuitive strategy for focusing longer and better on our work: problem-solving through subtraction. Rather than trying harder to focus and concentrate, the more effective tactic for getting our work done efficiently is to remove distractions.
Two of the most pernicious forms of distraction are negative self-talk and the procrastination it leads to and personal technology. By learning to identify and work through these challenges it’s possible to make surprisingly large gains to our productivity and work life.