Leo Babauta – USA

A simplicity manifesto in the Age of Distraction: Part 12

Creating an uncluttered environment

If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,

then this is the best season of your life.”


Wumen Huikai (1183 -1260) is a Song period Chán master most famous as the compiler of and commentator on the 48-koan collection The Gateless Gate. Wumen was at that time the head monk of Longxiang monastery

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 coffee shop 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 — preferably 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 -Facebook(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: unplug 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 a while, 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.

To be continued

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