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On Keeping It Simple

You can't have productivity without simplicity. Tips on reducing brain clutter so you can focus on the work that really matters.

In his great book The Laws of Simplicity, designer and educator John Maeda writes, “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.” With a million different bits and bytes coming at us every day, simplicity isn’t just a design imperative any longer, it’s a productivity imperative – if not a sanity imperative.

Anything that we can do to reduce our distractions and dial down the background noise is going to help us produce better work. So in the spirit of simplification, three perspectives on how to reduce “brain clutter” and streamline your workflow:

1. Simplicity of Access: centralize your essential materials.

If your work materials are scattered all over the place, it’s difficult to be productive. Instead of solving problems, you spend your time trying to remember where things are, or on transferring them to where they should be. Rather than finishing the blog post you need to publish, you’re trying to figure out if it’s on your laptop at home, or your desktop at the office. Rather than executing on your action steps from last week’s meeting, you’re trying to remember where you wrote them down.

If this type of scenario sounds familiar, it’s time to centralize. I personally use the cloud for most things: Gmail for all my email, GoogleDocs for text documents and spreadsheets, and Dropbox for storing files. I’m constantly working between home, the office, and other random locations, so it makes remembering where everything is a no-brainer. For my task list, I use a notepad, because a key part of remembering what I have to do is physically writing it down.
Of course, how to centralize depends on your specific needs, so your solution may be completely different than mine.  For instance, Levenger’s Steve Leveen can’t store all of his organizational tools in the proverbial cloud, so he keeps a supply drawer – with identical materials – in both of his work locations.

If your work materials are scattered all over the place, it’s difficult to be productive.

2. Simplicity of Space: give yourself a blank slate for creation.

As we all know, creatives are distractible creatures – and a messy desk doesn’t help. Erin Doland of Unclutterer paraphrases a recent study published by the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute in which science confirms what we’ve always suspected:

When your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus. The clutter also limits your brain’s ability to process information. Clutter makes you distracted and unable to process information as well as you do in an uncluttered, organized, and serene environment.

In short, there’s a reason why yoga studios don’t look like your grandmother’s attic: It ain’t zen. If you want to increase your efficiency, you need to reduce distractions. Consider removing everything from your desktop that isn’t absolutely essential to the work you do every day. If that isn’t possible, try to find a quiet retreat elsewhere – whether it’s a conference room, an empty work table, or a nook at your local coffeeshop.

There’s a reason why yoga studios don’t look like your grandmother’s attic: It ain’t zen.

3. Simplicity of Tools: explore your ideas with pen and paper.

We’ve become so accustomed to using advanced tools that we sometimes forget how efficient we can be with a pen and paper. Yet, in the early stages of developing an idea, quickly sketching out your thoughts on paper is often the best approach. As designer Mike Rohde writes, “Sketching provides a unique space that can help you think differently, generate a variety of ideas quickly, explore alternatives with less risk, and encourage constructive discussions.”

While complex programs are great for creating finished products, they’re not necessarily the quickest way to figure out the broad strokes of a solution. So ask yourself: Are you pushing around pixels in Photoshop, when you could be sketching? Are you fiddling around needlessly with PowerPoint effects, when you could just storyboard your talk on index cards?

If there’s a simpler way, challenge yourself to try it. It just might be faster.

How Do You Simplify?

What have you done to simplify your workflow that’s worked well?

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (26)
  • Thomas Baart

    I agree with everything in the article, but would like to point out something important. Centralizing the places you access your data is a great idea in general, but it’s also essential to still continue to make backups. Depending on your work environment, it’s also a good idea to make the data you work with available off-line.

    I use Dropbox synced to two computers, and I make daily backups, and an offsite backup every two weeks. I feel this is a really great solution, as long as you can sync the computers often enough (my work is divided between a desktop and a laptop).

    Another tip for long time computer users: if you like to try out new software very often (I know I do), it might be a good idea to periodically review the software you use often, and the software you don’t use at all. The same thing applies to services. I found that the applications I often use overlapped (sometimes by quite a lot) in functionality, and it could prove beneficial to discontinue the use of an application in favour of another one. This has the benefit of decluttering your hard disk, your mind, and might provide a better opportunity to get to learn the application of choice in a better, more efficient way.

  • Binita

    Simplicity is something that is hard to achieve for many of us. We live in complex and cluttered environments and we are fed with so much information continually. The Buddhist and Zen teachings know what they are talking about.

    I am rebelling from complexity and trying to slow things down and spend longer developing my ideas in a different way. I was so inspired I actually built a website for creatives to do this! This came about through a desire for simplicity and decluttering the computer worktop while making it a design that was more book like as books are something creative people always get off on. 

    I do feel though that people can mostly see past some clutter and focus when they really need to. It depends how anxious one gets about clutter doesn’t it! 

    What we always need to do is make sure we are working at our best. Thomas your advice below is really useful too! 

  • Dan Peck

    Why not try and get a ‘DigitalSilence Lite’ into your day – 3 hours without emails/internet/mobile – #getstuffdone room in your day without distractions to get stuff done and feel a sense of achievment. Love your job, Love your family.

  • jkglei

    Thomas: I totally agree on backups & tweaking your software setup every so often. We did a piece fairly recently with some tips on how to create a backup system:

  • Tiffany Monhollon

    Great tips here. I was so inspired I cleaned my desk first thing this morning! The bigger challenge here to me is the issue of cluttered mental space and digital assets. Since content curation is a big part of my job, I am constantly tab browsing and multitasking, and that digital clutter certainly can be a distraction. Any tips in this area?

  • Naxicsol

    very nice article, it has been helpful and i am surely going to make a few changes to make sure that simplicity is key

  • James Weible

    My greatest challenge seems to be simplifying my space. It seems to me that I could spend the majority of my time trying to maintain order. Any suggestions / practical tips for not allowing things to get so cluttered so quickly would be helpful.

  • Donald Johns

    My Simple List

    Notes: Evernote
    To-Do: Wunderlist
    Task Management: Action Method

  • amor

    Great post, a great reminder. Though I am always wondering about my  own case. Time and time again I tell myself that I thrive in “organized chaos”. I know where my things are, but they are scattered. Will try a simplifying experiment and see where I work my utmost best.

  • Hello

    Thank you for this post.

  • princeofwine

    A great post.  I have always struggled with trying to find things.  I have tried many systems. I seem to get excited then after a few weeks I revert to being scattered. My latest system is livescribe pen and notebook with backup through evernote.  So far it has worked the longest. Part of the problem I have is that even when you are content with your current system of organization you are always trying new systems and apps so the very act of trying a system becomes a distraction!

  • Deskthoughts On...

    To get or see things simplified, I follow two rules: “write it down” and “keep it structured”.

    Writing down clarifies thoughts. Something appearing as an image of ultimate mess may reveal quite simple, or at least understandable when you put it on a sheet of paper. It gets your mind free and allow to see things from a new perspective (see the post in my blog about it: http://deskthoughts.wordpress…..

    Presenting things in a structured way reveals where the point or the problem is, or at least what it consists of. It works similar way to writing down. Both work for me perfectly.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Excellent article!

    My goal is to choose the way of simplicity but like many others, I have to battle the urge to feel like I’ll “miss out” on something. Here are some of the ways that I simplify with the least amount of emotional resistance, I:

    -Unsubscribe to lists for articles I typically don’t read or events I typically can’t attend.
    -When I hesitate to unsubscribe, I move them into a “To Read” folder so they’re out of sight.
    -Direct notifications to my inbox so that I don’t need to check any separate blogs or forums.
    -Choose not to constantly upgrade or switch tools.
    -Turn all of my daily routines into simple checklists.

     To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Saunders

  • Parin Patel

    Great Tips!

    Especially like #3: “Simplicity of Tool: explore your ideas with pen and paper.”

    Advanced tools and tech are great, but sometimes they’re too restrictive, and when your imagination and creativity are flowing, it’s hard to keep pace when you’re on the computer/tablet.

    Using a pen and paper, on the other hand, there really aren’t any limits. I can sketch, highlight, circle, star, underline, make side notes, fold, etc.! Plus, I find it so much more effective writing things down. 

    Like the saying goes: “KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

  • dissertation writing uk

    Cool thing! thanks for notice.

  • venece

    Excellent and simple (pun intended), easy to follow article. This is actually something I’m working on right now. Clarity of space definitely makes for clarity of mind which in turn makes for clearly thought out and effective ideas. Thanks so much!

  • David

    big fan of #1. if you’re going to build a chair, you’d have the wood, hammer, nails, measuring tape, and all that good stuff handy so that you can focus on the building of the chair. same can be said for other creative arts. one drawback of having some of the “tools” online, though, is those urges to surf or facebook instead of create.

  • gary leavelle

    Touch it once, especially email.
    Only one choice>>
    Act on it, Delegate it, Trash it, File it

  • Stingray1772

    my rules an tools 😉

  • caleb "magick" kinchlow

    Being a multimedia producer, I organize by working with multiple screens. Ipad for email, laptop for uploading files, desktop(with two screens) for video editing and of course pen and pad to jot ideas down quickly. All of these sit around me , on their screens ready to go. To someone walking in to my office, I may look like some sort of mad hacker but to the trained eye I am just be productive.

  • Blake203

    I do my best to remove anything that is not absolutely essential for me to work

  • Skidmore11

    it’s in the complicated that we miss the simplicity-P. Rawat

  • Chuck

    Not far from mine:

    Notes: evernote
    Most Important Tasks for the day: Google docs
    Secondary todo list: wunderlist

  • Trish Barnes

    I use a different notebook for each project. It’s taken a little getting used to, but it’s working for me. The notebooks develop their own ‘aesthetic authority’ in my space, and their bound spines contain a comforting weight. This containment allows me to address my projects as whole-but-discrete units. I’m enjoying using them.

  • Louise Powers

    1 – I definitely like the use of gmail & dropbox for cloud efficiency.
    2 – I’d love to have an organized space to create – work in progress.
    3 – I find it impossible to use paper efficiently except for short term very rough sketches that will be quickly turned into a Photoshop or PowerPoint file. For written documents, I do all my corrections on a printed copy, then go back into the file. Before I did this, I’d get distracted with silly things like formatting, plus my proofreading ability was not as good digitally.

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