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074: How Minimalism Made Me a More Productive Writer

My first foray into minimalism started when I read Walden many years ago. It swept me into Henry David Thoreau’s off-the-grid living and minimalist ideology.

Next came Tim Ferriss in the 4-Hour Work Week when he quoted William of Occam, who said, ” It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer.”

Then I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up back in 2017 on a whim. I knew nothing about Marie Kondo or what she did. I had the book in my Audible account somehow and listened to it.

Then all the pieces came together this year when I read Atomic Habits by James Clear. When he talked about how environment was one key to ensuring successful habits stick, it all fell into place. That’s when I looked at all the stuff on my desk and in my desk, on my computer, and in my phone and wondered if these things were, as David Allan says in his book Getting Things Done, taking up precious psychic RAM by getting free space in my mental hard drive.

Since doing these eight things I’m about to mention to you, I have felt my energy go up, my drive and focus increase, my productivity heightens, my ability to start and finish tasks more rapidly improved, and this has been since the end of January.

Deleted Unnecessary Software. I opened my storage setting on my MacBook and one-by-one, got rid of all the software I was no longer using him — even one’s I paid for. One that comes to mind that we all use as writers is Office 365. If left unchecked, it can hog gobs of RAM. I deleted everything but Word. I use that almost daily. I reasoned that I can always download Apple Keynote if I need to make presentations and since I like it better than PowerPoint, and as for Excel, I can use Google Sheets when I need to open the occasional spreadsheet. I use Airtable for that work anyway, as it’s a better database.

Minimalism creates a clean computer filing system

Screenshot of my filing system

Organized, Optimized, and Decluttered Digital Files. I worked on my filing system and decided to one-by-one restructure each folder, labeling the contents by type and function. As tedious as it was, it has been the biggest source of joy in everything I’ve done. Here is an example. One of my clients is an online publication, and so what I did was create subfolders under his main folder for each month of the year (e.g., 01 |January 2021; 02 | February 2021; all the way to 12 | December 2021. Inside those folders would be sub-folders with all the departments within the publication (e.g., Conditions, Treatments, Wellness, Technology, etc.). Inside those subfolders would another set of subfolders for a Creative Brief, Art, Draft, HTML, Sourcing. I did this for every client and my business files. Each meticulously organized. Then I got a subscription to iDrive. iDrive is an online file storage system. It’s not like a working/collaborative cloud storage like Dropbox, but more a cloud-based external hard drive. I backed up my entire hard drive over many hours. Back on my computer (within my Dropbox), I deleted all the files I haven’t used or would not be using again and those I hadn’t used in months. This whittled my drive down to fewer than 10 folders. I set iDrive to automatically update three days a week — on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday — and now every time I finish a project, I send it to iDrive and delete it from my computer to keep the clutter from mounting. If you’re interested in iDrive, they’re running a 95% off promotion. You can get 5 TB of $3.95 for the entire year (it’s normally $55).

Made a One Notebook, One Sketchbook, One Book, One Magazine, and One of Each Type of Writing Utensil Rule. With my computer now a productivity machine, I limited the amount of space other objects could have on my desk. Those things were journals, sketchbooks, books, magazines, and writing utensils. This was a hard one because I can justify having multiple journals, lots of pens, and books I’m “reading.” When I got honest with myself, I knew I could whittle these down to the basics and call it a day, and so I did. I have one main writing journal for my morning pages; my business notebook for jotting down ideas, thoughts, and meeting notes; my copy of The Artist’s Way; important business papers that need addressing this month (if I file those, I’ll forget!), the latest Quill magazine, and one Micron sketching pen, a highlighter, a pencil, and a blue and black pen. When I need more, I can visit the supply closet.

Had a Shred Party. I realized I had papers everywhere. So, I used my camera on my iPhone and shot the important stuff into Evernote. I kept vitally important papers (i.e., vital records, business paperwork, and tax documents) in folders, but everything else got shredded. All said and done, I had two grocery-store-sized brown paper bags full of shredded papers. It’s something I now do every day the mail comes. I decide to file it, shoot it, or shred it. And with magazines, after you read them, recycle them. If there is content that resonates with you, find the article online and clip it into Evernote.

Got Rid of Cord Clutter. How many iPhone charging cables do you need? How many Kindle charging cables do you need? How many Android charging cables do you need? You only have one desk, so one of each necessary cable. Rather than stick them in your desk drawer, you can put them in your supply closet to use as spares when the others lose their ability to charge devices. I was swimming in small and medium-sized device cables. I now have one for my wireless headset and one for my iPhone (and AirPods).

Inbox Zero. Email inflow can be a nightmare. Ever stare 1,200 messages down in your inbox before? About nine months ago, I discovered an email handler called Spark. Spark allows me to snooze an email, pin messages, and arrange my inbox using preset categories. I’ve seen the bottom of my inbox more since using this than I ever have. I read and delete, and if something is important, I can file it, or if it’s actionable, but not today, I can snooze it and tell it when you come back into my inbox, and then it disappears! This handler costs nothing but has been worth everything. Pair it with a subscription to Unroll.me and your inbox will be as clean as a whistle.

Organized Everything in Trello. Over the years I’ve gotten frustrated with how CRMs are not creative people and small business friendly, so I revisited Trello after a several-year hiatus, and I’m glad I did. Trello allows me to store all my work and to-dos in the interface and I can link all my files into it, so projects stay together. It allows you to link Evernote notes, Google Drive products, links, etc. This move caused me to get rid of my large desk notebook that I used to house my written to-do list. Now it’s all digital.

I Continue to Write in Scrivener as My Main Vehicle. I’ll be the first to tell you that as a writer and journalist, I hate having an endless trail of Word documents. Scrivener allows me to do all my writing and import all my research into the same interface. So, when I have a transcript of an interview, I use spilt screen mode and write in the left pane and read from the right. It’s been how I have done for the past two years. Most people use Scrivener for novels and books, I which do, but I discovered that for writing stories and content, it’s a brilliant tool for keeping all your writing in one place without the mess Word documents in a folder.

Bonus: This is more of a productivity hack than minimalism, but order everything online. Amazon is fast (one-and two-day shipping), Door Dash is convenient, and many grocery stores will deliver your food for free when you reach a certain price threshold. I promise you, I save hours doing these things. A normal two-hour grocery store excursion is now 20 minutes of online ordering and 10 minutes of putting it away. This leaves me more time for work, exercise, and family. Think of time you can reclaim by outsourcing those tasks to a front porch delivery.

So that’s it. This has been how I’ve gained back my time, energy, and focus. I’m far more productive, organized, and efficient a writer now than I have been in some time. If any of this was helpful, let me know in the comments below. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast for more tips and interviews.

What are some ways minimalism has made you a more productive writer?