The Sunday Dispatches

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Mental minimalism (it’s a thing)

Most of the time when people think of “minimalism” they think of less stuff. Or tiny houses. Or 34.8 perfectly arranged items that all fit into a single backpack. Or, to a lesser extent, lots of tiny houses, each with their own backpacks filled with 34.8 perfectly arranged items.

But what if we applied minimalism to our mental space?

What if we decided to declutter thoughts that were no longer (or never) served us? What if we agreed not to add anything to our plates until something is removed? What if we achieved “inbox zero” for our brains?!? (Ok, I don’t even know what that one would actually mean, but it sounds cool, right?)

Paring life and thoughts down to only what’s essential means we’ve got to prioritize. Boundaries need to be set and tested. If you reply to emails late at night and on weekends, people you work with will expect you to be available at those times. Or if you never say no to friends who are constantly asking for your time/energy, those friends will always expect that of you. Because if we don’t set boundaries for ourselves, others will set them for us - and we may not like where they draw the line.

We can’t do everything. We can’t say yes to everything. We especially can’t have zero boundaries if we want to have the mental space needed to create things.

Mental minimalism requires focus on the present. Because focus only works if you’re focusing on one thing (it’s funny how many people tell me the number of things they’re “focused” on). The past and present have a tricky way of creeping into our thoughts, and if our thoughts now live in a tiny house with a meticulously organized backpack, there just isn’t room for many of them.

The past tells us things like our previous failures define us or that we aren’t the type of person that could ever do something we want to do. The future is equally awful at taking away our focus, by screaming at us that what we’re working on could fail, or that people will mock us, or that we have to say yes to something because it could be our big break, or that everything we’ve currently got might be taken from us (possibly involving a zombie apocalypse).

Don’t let those thoughts that don’t serve you into your tiny mental house! There’s no room, and they’ll make a mess of your carefully arranged backpack.

I like to think of my own mental minimalism as an MVP, which in this case, refers to: Minimum Viable Progress. I can’t make progress in life if I overextend myself. I can’t make progress if my thoughts are caught up in the past and present. And I also can’t make progress if my mind wants to own a task that’s too big and daunting to accomplish in a single step (like having “write a book” on my todo list).

Minimum Viable Progress means constantly taking one tiny step after another and not worrying about anything else. It’s whatever it is that I need to do, right now, to move forward in some way. Maybe it’s sending one email. Maybe it’s turning down a speaking or article request. Maybe it’s just writing the next sentence of this article. It’s the one small thing that can happen right now, if I focus on it and nothing else.

Our minds, like our houses, have a tendency of filling up the space available - simply because it’s there. Instead, why not fill that space with…space? That way there’s room to grow, focus on and own (both mentally and physically) only that which serves us.


This is something I wrote for my mailing list. If you dig it, sign up here to get emails like these auto-magically every Sunday.

Paul Jarvis

Invisible Office Hours season three is here! It's like these articles except in audio format with my good buddy Jason Zook.

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