Exhale Everything You Don't Need

Note from Andrew: I wrote this essay many months ago as a contribution to an ebook that has yet to come to fruition. It was originally titled Mind Over Desk. I like it and felt it was time to share. Enjoy.

The Breath

In yoga, we are taught the importance of breath. The breath is everything. It isn't yoga without breath.

The inhale nourishes us. It is cool, refreshing, and empowering. It fills us with strength and calm.

The exhale cleanses us. It releases pain, anxiety, and other threats to our inner peace.

Inhale, and exhale. It repeats endlessly throughout the practice.

"Inhale fully... Exhale everything you don't need."

It was in that moment—upon hearing my teacher's words with sweat pouring down my face and my muscles burning gloriously—that I recognized the breath as the perfect metaphor for minimalism.

"Exhale everything you don't need."

The Problem with Minimalism

The problem with minimalism is that it too often becomes its own insidious distraction.

It sounds paradoxical. What could be more productive than getting rid of distractions? Well, I appreciate an empty desk as much as the next guy, but when we spend more time devising minimal work environments than making great stuff, it's time to step back and reevaluate.

Distraction-free is lovely, but it should never prevent us from doing the work. You are not a writer if you can only write under certain conditions, i.e. only with an empty desk, and a black Pilot G-2 0.38mm, and a specific brand of notebook. Or, only with Microsoft Word, Byword, or BBEdit.

A writer writes—anytime, anywhere, with anything.

The truth is, your desk doesn't matter. Your pen doesn't matter. Your text editor doesn't matter. What matters is your work and the amazing things you create.

If you like a clean workspace, then do it. If you like piles of paper, then please, enjoy. If you like having a stapler on your desk at all times, go for it. These things are not what minimalism is about.

Well, then what IS minimalism about?

Go back to the breath.

Mental Minimalism

In yoga, the breath allows us to stay calm, even when we're uncomfortable. So it is with minimalism.

Minimalism is about the elimination of unnecessary things, yes. But more importantly, it is about the elimination of unnecessary thoughts.

What matters more than your ability to throw out clutter is your ability to let go of the needless intangibles. The emotions, fears, and thoughts that make your mind a cluttered and unproductive place.

I spend a lot of time pursuing inner peace. What's that mean? Inner peace is the ideal state of being. It's the goal. It's what everyone wants. Inner peace means being totally content, physically, mentally, emotionally. You have no worries. You have no wants, needs, or desires. You have no fears. True inner peace is a place of enlightenment.

Minimalism—or more precisely, mental minimalism—is the way there.

Eliminate Needless Thoughts

In the same way a clean desk may enable us to do great work, a clear mind allows us to live great lives. We become calmer, happier, and more productive. A mind free of unhealthy thoughts is a mind at peace.

But, eliminating needless thoughts is considerably more difficult than throwing out old coffee cups. To establish a free mind—and thus, our inner peace— we must first learn to let go.

  • Let go of the need to control. To achieve mental minimalism, you must understand one crucial fact: you have control over nothing and no one in this world. The only thing you can control is your mind and how it deals with what happens to you.

  • Let go of expectations. Expectations are attachments to outcomes, and they are a guaranteed way to disappointment. When something you believe turns out not to be true, the pain can be excruciating. Learn to manage your expectations, and you will be pleasantly surprised.

  • Let go of unnecessary relationships. Life is too short to waste on people who mean nothing to you. Always ask yourself, "What does this person contribute to my life?" If the answer is anything less than positive, let them go. It will free up more time for those who matter.

  • Let go of unnecessary things. Yes, the removal of needless objects is valuable, but only in its capacity to release pressures from your mind. The more things you have, the more things you need to store, fix, maintain, and keep track of. But, when something in your life is useful or beautiful, you will feel no guilt over its presence.

Exhale Everything You Don't Need

Implementing these principles is a lifelong endeavor. Only a truly enlightened individual can experience inner peace all the time. For the rest of us, inner peace comes in the form of brief, blissful moments when, for a few seconds, we are completely content with who we are.

The modern world is more than happy to supply us with an endless amount of mental clutter. We fear, worry, stress, and agonize over a great many things, none of which are under our direct control.

What we can and must learn to control are our minds. By eliminating needless thoughts, we release our minds from toxic ideas that threaten our inner peace, just as the breath cleanses and nourishes the body.

What we seek is a minimalism of the mind. Just as there can be no creation on a desk buried under clutter, there can be no inner peace in a mind filled with anxieties.

Clear off the clutter, and you will find space. Let go of needless thoughts, and you will free your mind to discover who you are and what truly matters.

Thanks for reading! Want more? Grab the free QLE Manifesto. Perhaps follow me on Twitter. Need something? Email me.

Sitting on the Floor of an Empty Room

I'm spending a few days at my dad's house while he's away on business. I didn't bring very much with me: Mac. iDevices. Kindle. Toothbrush.

As I write this, I'm sitting on the floor of my old living room. I took my desk with me when I moved out.

There's something I love about sitting on the floor of an empty room. Just me, my computer, and a few other possessions. It has a romantic quality to it. I'm alone with only my thoughts.

But at the same time, I'm also in so much company. My thoughts are infinite, and even though they exist only in my head, they never abandon me. I'm not quite as alone as I thought.

Likewise, all that's in front of me is my MacBook Pro, but this 15" screen is a window into the vast expanses of the Internet. I can read about anything, learn about anything. I can listen to music. I can write. What more do I need?

Sitting here on the floor of an empty room reminds me that a lack of physical things does not equate to a lack of meaning. In fact, I'd argue that it augments my awareness, and subsequently, my ability to experience and create meaning. I'm not distracted by stuff, so my thoughts come through much clearer. It's quiet. My perception is heightened. I notice the air and the crickets chirping. I'm more aware of my emotions and why I might be experiencing them.

If I was surrounded and distracted by stuff, there would be no room for all that.

When we remove stuff, we create space, and we become better equipped to fill that space with meaning.

An empty room is, in some ways, the most hospitable.

Thanks for reading! Want more? Grab the free QLE Manifesto. Perhaps follow me on Twitter. Need something? Email me.

The ZenGeek Podcast #002: "Mind Over Desk"

Our landmark second episode:

Andrew and Jeffrey discuss the surprisingly complex topic of minimalism, including its place in technology, lifestyle design, and your head. They also touch on Moleskine explosions, the relevance of staplers, and the beauty that is Squarespace 6.

We're on a Thursday release schedule from now on, so please enjoy our first two episodes until then!

Because the ZenGeek Podcast is in its infancy, ratings and reviews on iTunes are ultra important. They help with visibility, which helps more people discover the show, which makes everyone's day better.

I'm really proud of this project, so I hope you'll give it a listen.

Listen, rate, and/or leave a review on iTunes.
Listen on our website.


Note: This is a review of Enough, the new book by Patrick Rhone. It’s available today from First Today Press.

I’ve been fascinated with minimalism for several years now, and it’s a concept that I strive to implement in many areas of my life. Minimalism is one of the precepts of Quarter-Life Enlightenment, and even when I don’t explicitly say so, its values influence much of my writing here.

One of the goals of minimalism is to “omit needless things”, which causes many people to withdraw in apprehension.

“Why would I want to live with less things?”

“Why would I want to own only two pairs of shoes?!”

“Why would I want a small house?”

Our society has instilled within us a belief that “bigger is better”, that more is a sign of success, and that a person’s worth is determined by the grandeur of his possessions.

Of course, this is not necessarily true, and minimalism — when properly understood — isn’t a source of fear or ridicule. It’s a source of freedom.

The goal of minimalism is not to eliminate everything; it’s to eliminate needless things.

The notion that a minimalist should be able to fit all of his possessions into a backpack is overwrought. It’s not about living with nothing; it’s about making sure every thing counts. It’s not even about living with less; it’s about living with enough.

Patrick Rhone seeks to guide us to this sacred middle ground in his newest book, Enough. It’s absolutely wonderful.

On the surface, Enough is a series of short essays written in straightforward, thoughtful prose. But, each entry contains a wealth of wisdom that will challenge and inspire you. Patrick crafts a beautiful thread using the theme of Enough and weaves it through this memorable writing collection. With topics ranging from the practical to the metaphysical, Patrick’s friendly, mindful tone makes for charming company.

Rest assured, Enough is not the work of an evangelical minimalist. Patrick makes no demands of his readers. He simply offers an alternative perspective, revealing a way — to live, to think, to act — that you might not have known existed.

I read Enough in one sitting, including frequent breaks to highlight and take notes on my Kindle. These essays are decorated with pearls of wisdom, and I felt like I was bookmarking something on every page. Enough is short enough to read in an afternoon, but the ideas presented here will have you thinking for many hours afterward. I may decide to read just one essay a day on my second time through. While the length of Enough can be learned from a page number, the book’s depth is best realized with a comfortable chair, an open mind, and a few hours of solitude. It will comfort, inspire, and enlighten you.

Enough is a book I truly recommend. It speaks to me, my values, and those I seek to express here on QLE. I found myself nodding more and more with each essay, wishing I’d written it myself. My favorite is “Letters Left Unsent”, which you can read along with so much more starting right now.

Buy the book in paperback, ePub, and/or Kindle versions.

Read more from Patrick in his first book, Keeping It Straight, and on his excellent weblog, Minimal Mac.

It's Just Stuff

Shawn Blanc reminds us that it’s just stuff:

Instead, look at how he (or she) treats his family. What is his character like? Look at his relationships and his beliefs and how he spends his time. These things — the metaphysical, the intangible — they are the true extension of the soul.

Shutting Down Simple Desks

Pat Dryburgh is shutting down his porno site:

About 6 months into running Simple Desks I began realizing that what I was doing was running a porn site. No, not topless girls and chest-hairless guys romping around in a beach house-type porn. Just pointless, casual, look-at-this-empty-fucking-desk-you’ll-never-have porn.

Good for him. This coincides with my post about the problems with minimalism.

The Many Faces of Fiddling

Great article by Brett Kelly on the many faces of fiddling:

Always think, but resist the urge to think about it more than is required. Make a decision and execute on it. If the decision turns out to be the wrong one, then your gut now has a little more context for next time.

Brett offers his own response to this week’s Back to Work, but he also takes the concept of fiddling beyond the physical. Mental fiddling, or what Brett refers to as unproductive learning and over-thinking, is also something we need to be aware of. Really well put.

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.

A Couple of Things About Distractions

Stephen Hackett discussing minimalism and real work:

In reality, minimalism (or zen, or whatever) doesn’t have a fixed definition. It varies. It is about reducing friction just enough to work, then sitting down and doing the work.

Precisely. It’s not about removing everything, it’s about removing needless things.

Also, David Caolo on meditating with distractions:

I mention work because that’s were we get to apply this stuff. In fact, that’s the whole reason to meditate (for me, at least): to extend those moments of focus to real life. When you’re at your desk and emails come pouring in or the phone rings off the hook, remember the mountain. “Oh, there’s the phone. Oh, there’s email.” In and of themselves, they’re not bad. Or good. They’re just a phone and email.

Both of these posts are great supplemental pieces to this week’s episode of Back to Work, wherein Dan and Merlin discuss the meta-distractions of minimalism. Important stuff. More tomorrow.


Paul Graham on stuff:

Another way to resist acquiring stuff is to think of the overall cost of owning it. The purchase price is just the beginning. You’re going to have to think about that thing for years—perhaps for the rest of your life. Every thing you own takes energy away from you. Some give more than they take. Those are the only things worth having.

Lots of great passages in this one. Read the whole thing.

Via Shawn Blanc

Why We Rely On Clutter

Leo Babauta talks about the many reasons we rely upon our clutter:

A book isn’t just an object with words on it. A jewelry box isn’t just a container. Clothes aren’t just protection from the elements.

Each of these inanimate objects means so much more to us.

We put our emotions into them. We rely upon these objects to fulfill needs in us.

They are our crutches.

Minimalism/Buddhism/attachment/fear 101.

Minimalist Protest

Leo Babauta on minimalist protest:

The minimalist might protest simply by not buying corporate products. Don’t eat at corporate restaurants, or buy corporate coffee, or buy corporate clothes. Don’t have logos on everything you own. Don’t watch corporate entertainment — make your own! Find non-corporate ways to spend time with people. Find non-corporate ways to celebrate Christmas. Find non-corporate music to listen to, or create your own.

It’s possible. We still have our humanity. We can still breathe, but first we must create some breathing room.

A Saying No System

David Sparks in a post about his No Journal:

Moreover, I have no doubt that some of the projects I was truly passionate about ended up substantially less awesome because of my inability to say no to other things. Put simply, saying yes too often means that you will, necessarily, be mailing it in on everything.


Another benefit of saying no is that it reminds me how special those things are that make the cut. Whether it is writing an article, giving a killer presentation, or just taking a walk with my wife, those are items that I’ve chosen to do because they are so special. It makes mindfulness easy.

David takes saying “no” to a whole new level by implementing an actual system. It may sound a bit extreme, but the importance of saying no cannot be understated. If you said yes to everything, you wouldn’t have time for anything. The rejection of things that add no real value to your life is a cornerstone of minimalism: do what makes you happy, and eliminate the rest.

The Atomic Powerpoint

Seth Godin explains the atomic method of creating a Powerpoint presentation:

The typical person speaks 10 or 12 sentences a minute.

The atomic method requires you to create a slide for each sentence. For a five minute talk, that’s 50 slides.

Each slide must have either a single word, a single image or a single idea.

Make all 50 slides. Force yourself to break each concept into the smallest possible atom. If it’s not worthy of a slide, don’t say it.

Really cool, and it eliminates the need for slides full of bullet points. The audience’s attention should be on you, not the slides.

Unplggd: Distraction-Free Desktop

Cerentha Harris has a great idea for creating a distraction-free desktop:

It’s all too easy to get distracted from work on the computer. But there’s a simple technique to help regain focus: create a new User account, one specifically designed for getting work done. That means creating a desktop stripped of extraneous bookmarks, applications, music and movie files, plug-ins, extensions…unless they’re designed for task management or your work related projects. Think of this desktop as your work persona. Creating a dedicated account for work related tasks is like having a work outfit compared to the comfy-cozy sweatpants of leisurely online time.

I keep my desktop pretty distraction-free at all times, but this is an awesome strategy, and one that I would recommend to my non-minimalist friends. Check the full post for step-by-step instructions.

Via Minimal Mac

On Caffeine & Alcohol

The other day, a friend asked me how my fondness for simplicity and minimalism affects my stance on things like caffeine and alcohol. Good question.

I don’t partake in either. Obviously, the two substances aren’t synonymous, but my reasons for abstaining apply to both.

  1. Consumption. A central focus of minimalism is to break free from the bonds of our material-oriented, advertising-driven society. Minimalism is built on the concepts of less and enough. The goal is to stop consuming things you don’t need. This includes making unnecessary purchases and eating unhealthy foods just because a television commercial says you should. Consuming less frees you to do other things. Consuming less also helps you save money, and I would hate to make a habit of spending $4 at Starbucks every day or however many dollars at the liquor store every weekend. Water satiates all of my liquid-consuming needs, and it’s free.

  2. Dependence. I never want to be in a situation where I need caffeine or alcohol to function properly. I never want to be one of those people who is “useless until I’ve had my coffee”. I don’t want to have to have a drink to become the life of the party, if I was actually interested in being that person. Dependence is limiting. By not needing these things, I become a little more free, and my life is a little bit simpler.

  3. Health. This post isn’t meant to be a self-righteous indictment of people who enjoy caffeinated or alcoholic beverages. If it was, I’d have no friends. Clearly, there are appropriate ways to enjoy these things, i.e. in moderation. Several health-related websites I follow actually advocate caffeine for its purported health benefits, and you can find plenty of articles discussing the benefits of a glass of red wine with dinner. For my part, I certainly do enjoy a cup of tea once or twice a week. Alcohol, on the other hand, is poisonous to the human body, but I can understand how some people enjoy its effects, taste, or other properties. Being healthy in today’s society is challenging enough, though, and I’d rather avoid the added difficulty altogether.

  4. Personal. Coffee smells delicious, but most of that stuff is disgusting. I make no apologies for this position. As for alcohol, I’ve just never seen the point, for all the above reasons. I’m not a party-goer, so I don’t need the boost in social skills. I can’t speak for taste, but most of it doesn’t smell good. The concept of being drunk holds no appeal to me because I can’t possibly fathom how you would want to voluntarily give up control of the one thing you actually have control over, which is your mind. Plus, my dad’s been a recovering alcoholic for many, many years, and since I’m a lot like him, I feel its best to follow his example and avoid any alcoholism in my family’s history entirely.

I think that sums it up. Again, these are just my opinions, and I encourage you to do what works for you.

Coincidentally, Ev Bogue just posted about why he untethered from alcohol. It’s a good read.

Simplicity, Clutter, Compassion, & Love

Patrick Rhone on dealing with not-so-minimal loved ones:

All I’m saying here is that our goal of uncluttered simplicity is likely just as strange and wrong and foreign to those who are the opposite as they are to us. Compassion and acceptance are required on both sides.

Clutter Can Kill Creativity and Innovation

Jonathan Fields, writing for Unclutterer:

Over the years, I’ve noticed a strong connection between the state of my physical space and my ability to do high-level creative work. When my space is in disarray, my thoughts are generally also in disarray. I can still function, I can come up with ideas, write decent-enough content and solve-problems. But, I always know that I’m not operating anywhere near my true potential.

Clean is calm.

Via Minimal Mac

Eliminate Unnecessary People

John Lilly:

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got, back when I was 23 and newly out of school, is this: look around and figure out who you want to be on your team. Figure out the people around you that you want to work with for the rest of your life. Figure out the people who are smart & awesome, who share your values, who get things done — and maybe most important, who you like to be with and who you want to help win. And treat them right, always. Look for ways to help, to work together, to learn. Because in 20 years you’ll all be in amazing places doing amazing things.

A central tenet of minimalism is eliminating unnecessary things. You can apply this principle to virtually anything, including relationships. It may sound cold, but there’s simply no reason to waste time and energy maintaining a relationship that contributes nothing of value to your day.

Of course, some relationships are unavoidable, so it’s also possible that you might need to minimize a relationship to only its essential aspects. My roommate freshman year, for example, was absolutely nothing like me and had little to offer besides copious amounts of alcohol and chicks, bro, chicks. I’m sure he had similar feelings about me. Requesting to switch rooms was probably an option, but rather than go through all that hassle, we opted to peacefully coexist instead. We didn’t have to hang out all the time just because the university decided to pair us up; we just had to sleep in the same room and not kill each other. When the year ended, we went our separate ways, save for the occasional, “Hey man, how’s it going?” in the cafeteria line.

Now obviously, human relationships are enormously complex, and I don’t mean to undermine them. But it’s important to remember that, even though this is the Age of Facebook, you don’t have to be friends with everybody. It’s alright to let someone go when your relationship has run its course. It’s not about being a cold-hearted jerk, it’s about accepting the fact that not everyone needs or even deserves a place on your team. There’s no need to feel guilty about it because you’re freeing yourself to focus on those who matter most.

Different personalities have different needs, and some may enjoy the challenge of keeping up 500 friendships. In that case, by all means do what makes you happy. For me, though, relationships are one of the foremost examples of quality beating quantity every time.

Via MG Siegler

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