On Minimalism: The Difference Between Focused and Busy

At Evernote, we love productivity, but we also care about maintaining balance in our lives. This month, we’re diving into how experts on minimalism stay productive without losing focus on what’s important.

In part one of this series, we discovered that there’s a difference between being busy and being happy. Between work, academics, family, and personal relationships, we don’t have much time left for ourselves. So what do we do about it? We’ve seen that minimalism is a viable solution to gaining more time in our day, so perhaps you’ve decluttered your home, knocked items off of your to-do list, and even begun to tackle your overflowing inboxes. But even after doing all these things and more, you might still feel overwhelmed and have a million and one things to do. Why? Having less stuff and fewer digital notifications is great, but that alone will not bring focus. And being focused is the key to success with minimalism.

To find out how to move from busy to focused, we sat down for a chat with Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists, an initiative to help people live more meaningful lives with less. Joshua told us how he discovered minimalism, what the difference is between focused and busy, and how to make certain the work you’re doing is meaningful. After our conversation, to say we’re inspired to make a positive change in how we approach productivity at Evernote would be an understatement.

Being busy and its pitfalls

Like many of us, Joshua grew up poor, experiencing all of the hardships that come with poverty. To improve his circumstances, one of the first things he did as an adult was snag a sales job and burn through 60–70 hour work weeks. All while climbing up the corporate ladder. Who could blame him? Sales jobs bring in good money, and that always makes a person appear to be successful. It didn’t take long for Joshua to become the Director of Operations of a big chain store where he was constantly promoted and given more responsibilities. He became busier and busier–so much so that being busy became a status symbol, a part of his identity. “For the longest time, I was producing volumes of supposed accomplishments, but I wasn’t productive in the creative or meaningful sense. I was ostensively getting things done, but I wasn’t REALLY getting things done,” he says. Sound familiar?

“I was ostensively getting things done, but I wasn’t REALLY getting things done.”

Getting and staying focused

You’ve probably heard about deep work a lot. It’s the state of being fully focused and diving into what we want to create, something most of us strive for, but rarely achieve. We just don’t have the time. Over the years, Joshua has mastered deep work and while he now gets fewer things done on a daily basis, those things hold more value because he doesn’t rush through them. What’s his secret to getting focused? Getting good at saying “no”. “The problem with saying yes to everything means you’re saying no to other important things. GTD should be redefined as: Are you getting the RIGHT things done?” he stresses.

Saying no and gaining power

If we’re being honest with ourselves, saying “no” is not a new idea. The real secret is learning how to say “no” well and doing it consistently. That’s not an easy thing to do, but once we master it, the power of “no” will be unleashed. By saying yes to everything that’s asked of us, “We’re letting other people dictate our day and this is where busyness begins to ape the form of productivity.” Joshua offers a two step solution for saying “no” effectively:

  1. Figure out and write down what your priorities and values are, even if you’re in a hectic environment. Ask yourself some tough questions like “Who is the person I want to become? Would my 40-year-old self approve of this?”
  2. Realize and understand this: “If you say yes to something, you’re saying no to everything else. If you want to say no to something, realize that allows you to say yes to something else.” This is the true power of saying no: freeing up time so you can say yes to the things that matter most to you.

“If you say yes to something, you’re saying no to everything else.”

Finding common values amongst co-workers

Developing these skills on your own is great, but the impact is small, especially at work. You can be extremely focused and efficient as an individual, but when the accomplishments of your entire team are measured, what matters is the group effort. When we asked Joshua how to get co-workers on board with a minimalist approach to getting things done, he offered a unique approach: create a common language and find similar values.

Begin by getting people familiar with the terminology and ask yourself questions like, “what’s some new language I can introduce in the workplace? What are some benefits that this can bring to others? What are the right questions I can ask my co-workers? What is my outcome?” Joshua suggests.

He adds that minimalism is about the intentional use of resources, and one of the biggest challenges to getting others on board with a new workflow is that you’re all sharing the same resources, but in different ways. You and your co-workers may have different paths and objectives, but ultimately, you can end up in the same place if you identify and pursue your similar values.

Questioning the meaning of your work

Most of us come into work every day either hating our jobs or wondering if the work we do is truly meaningful. If you feel this way, don’t quit your job in hopes of finding something you’re more passionate about right away. It’s easy to mistake excitement for passion, but the two are not the same. As Joshua says: “Being willing to put in the work and hours that match up with your values and getting to the other side of the mundane tasks–that’s where the real payoff is. Real passion lies on the other side of drudgery.”

Joshua may have made a drastic decision of quitting his job and selling his home to pursue a minimalist life, but this isn’t the route for everyone and that’s okay. So, before we make a drastic decision, Joshua urges us to get rid of all of the excess stuff in our personal lives and professional lives and really figure out where our values lie. And while this may not be a 100% joyous process, there’s a joyous end–we’ll know whether or not our work is meaningful because we’ll be agreeing to do only meaningful work.

Motivated to make a change? Watch the film Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things and follow The Minimalists on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for inspiration to live a more meaningful life with less.

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