On the Priorities of Minimalism

On this week’s episode of Back to Work, Dan and Merlin discussed the meta-distractions of minimalism. I highly recommend listening to the episode because many great points are made. I talk about minimalism semi-frequently on this website, and the word “simplicity” is in the tagline, so I thought it best to offer my thoughts.

The concern Merlin has about minimalism is that “The removal of distractions can quickly become its own distraction.” That sounds paradoxical since removing distractions seems like a productive use of one’s time, and indeed it can be, but it’s also easy to go overboard. If we get to a point where we don’t get any work done because we’re too busy creating minimal work environments, then minimalism — or rather, the pursuit of minimalism — becomes counterproductive. It becomes another excuse for procrastination.

I’m pretty sure Merlin doesn’t consider minimalism itself to be a bad thing. As he said on Back to Work, we in the Apple community enjoy a certain aesthetic that is founded on simplicity and elegance. That’s great, but it also shouldn’t become a requirement if we are to get work done. Convincing ourselves that we can’t write if there are things on our desk is not a productive mindset to have. Dan advised against becoming attached and clinging to minimalism, just as we should avoid becoming attached to material things.

As Merlin says, if you’re getting distracted, then maybe you just don’t care enough about the thing you’re being distracted from. I think that’s profound. For example, people always complain about being distracted when trying to write a paper for school because they probably don’t really care about what they’re writing about. On the other hand, if you love playing video games, you will find the time to do it.

Or, as Merlin is fond of saying:

No one needs to set an alarm to masturbate.

I advocate minimalism because I think it has many benefits and can be applied on several levels. The physical level might be that of the minimalist workspace, which I enjoy because it makes me feel calm rather than stressed. If there are things piling up on my desk, it usually means there are things that require my attention. The more things that require my attention at once, the more anxiety I feel. That’s not how everybody works; it’s just how I work. If piles of paper and clutter give you comfort and help you do your work, then I encourage you to maintain that environment for yourself. Do what works for you.

Minimalism on a metaphysical level is even more important. Minimalism advocates the removal of needless things. Not every thing, just needless things. That might be things on your desk, but it also might be people in your life or thoughts in your head. If they don’t contribute something positive to your life, I say remove them. That way, you can dedicate more of yourself to the things you actually care about.

I avoid preaching minimalism as the only solution to things, but I also think it’s worth considering not just for productivity reasons, but also for inner peace reasons. I could post something every day about how you should put that stapler you use once a week in a drawer somewhere, but in reality, that stapler isn’t that big of a deal. Doing the work is the big deal, and whether it’s with a messy desk or a clean desk is up to you. It’s the minimalist mind — one free of needless thoughts and perspectives — that I strive for.