How do you keep your mind on one thing? By getting it off everything. For the multi-tasker, the answer is mental minimalism. It clears the mind and helps you to focus on the priorities at hand.
The pressure to perform and to outperform has created the false belief that multitasking is the solution.
How we admire those human Duracell bunnies, who can type an email while arranging a dinner date on WhatsApp and talking on the landline. The question is whether they really are more productive than the person who calmly gets things done, one after the other.
So what does this have to do with minimalism and this blog’s tagline “retire early?” I believe that multitasking is no more than a mental rat race and an unproductive practice. I will argue that you can achieve your goals, including your financial and early retirement goals, with a clear mind and a focused approach, instead of trying to do multiple things at once.
Multi-tasking VS task switching
There is plentiful evidence in the public domain, thanks to recent neuroscience research, that tells us we cannot really perform more than one task simultaneously.
“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller, quoted in an NPR article.
What we perceive as multi-tasking, is actually just switching between tasks. The more tasks we are juggling, and the more diverse these tasks are, the longer the brain takes to re-focus Although such a re-focus is only a fraction of a second, they add up to a lot of time wasted, and a lot of mistakes creeping in.
“Multi-tasking is the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time”
Long to-do lists
One reason for attempting to multi-task is having long to-do lists. You have a list at work, one at home and maybe even one at the sports club.
Glancing over a long list is enough to trigger a feeling of anxiety. It could even make you feel despondent, a response to the thought that there is simply not enough time in a day to get everything done.
As a reaction to these thoughts and feelings, a vicious cycle may manifest itself: long to-do list, anxiety, multi-tasking, becoming despondent, multi-tasking…
This is where my argument starts. I believe that you can end the vicious cycle by doing two things:
- Create mental space
- Prioritise the to-do list
Create mental space
Minimalism starts externally. It starts with material possessions and progresses towards a mental process. From de-cluttering your living space, you progress to de-cluttering your mind, giving you the opportunity to focus on what is important.
To visualise the clearing of the mind, imagine a workbench in a crafts studio. Unless you are well-disciplined, that workbench can become cluttered with tools and crafts, in no time at all. To the point that there is simply no space for a new project.
As you start to clear the bench, it becomes an open and inviting space. It fills you with energy to start the next project.
Your mind is no different. You have to de-clutter your mind until it has a clear or open space where you can “place” the task on which you want to focus.
The opposite of multi-tasking is laser focusing on one task. By clearing your mind, you will enable your own laser focus.
We all relish variety, so your single-task focus need not continue until it is completed, nor does it have to keep going for a full day. It just means you create space for one single task, at any given time.
When you want to focus on something else, first pack away your thoughts on the current task, thereby creating a clear space in which you can “place” the new task.
That is the start of mental minimalism.
Now that you have a strategy for your mental space, you need one for the to-do list.
I do not agree with the notion of making the list shorter. Fact is if there are 20 things to do, there are 20 things to do!
The secret lies in prioritising. Simple as that.
I keep my Travel Hippi to-do list on Excel. I do not use a fancy app that will require even more of my time to maintain, just a simple spreadsheet with a list of things to do. Apart from the benefits of keeping things simple, I use Excel for the following reasons:
- The first column shows the number of tasks on the list
- The next column contains the tasks
- Cells can be dragged and dropped, so prioritising is quick and easy
- Rows can be inserted or deleted at a click
- If you want more functionality, you are spoilt for choice
“Technology is just a tool. In deciding what is best for you, better you be in charge” – Travel Hippi
Now that you have listed your tasks, you can take the time to sort the priority. The methodology or thinking around setting priorities is a matter for another post. For now, just prioritise the tasks according to your judgement.
In an ideal world, you would work and focus on the number one priority, and nothing else, until it is completed. In practice that does not work, so you would probably work on two or three tasks during the day.
The secret is to focus fully, and on one task only, at any given time.
If it requires closing your office door, switching off your mobile or closing your email, then so be it. A laser focus beats multi-tasking every time.
Become your minds gatekeeper
Now that you have de-cluttered your mind, you need a gatekeeper.
Would you allow others to clutter the workbench that you have just cleared? I would hope not! So why would you allow unwelcome thoughts after you have cleared your mind?
By limiting the incoming clutter, you ease the task of keeping a clear mind.
De-cluttering the mind is the start of mental minimalism. Appointing yourself as gatekeeper is mental minimalism in action.
Sleep over it
Every once in a while, you will come across a difficult decision that you must make. When the answer is not apparent and you need time to figure it out, it has the potential to clog the mind. To clutter that clear mental space.
When you are indecisive, do not let the thought hang around. Instead, file it in your subconscious and sleep over it. The answer will reveal itself in good time.
Synchronise your physical and mental space
Where an uncluttered physical space will give you freedom of movement, an uncluttered mind will give you more control over your thoughts. This will help you to live in the now and avoid feelings of anxiety.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are” – Steve Jobs
I would love to have your thoughts on mental minimalism. What have you done to clear your mind and to focus on something?
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