Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

On Keeping It Simple

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 insights on: Disconnecting, Workspace Design

Jocelyn K. Glei

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A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with understanding how work gives our lives meaning. She has authored three books about work, creativity, and business, including the Amazon bestsellers Manage Your Day-to-Day and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.
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