From limiting the use of streaming and social media apps to including work they truly enjoy in the daily list, people are trying to declutter their professional and personal lives and find a better way of living after the experience of the pandemic
When business slowed down last year, Shagun Singh had enough time to re-evaluate her priorities at work. “The first two lockdown months gave me time to get creative and reinvent. That’s when I introduced styling and design consulting, something I truly enjoy, to our existing business (home maintenance services)," says the Gurugram-based co-founder of Homework by AM Services 24x7. By prioritizing what she really enjoyed doing, Singh, 42, embraced minimalism in her professional life, something that reflects how covid-19 is making more people rethink the way they lead their lives.
For many, minimalism conjures up images of clutter-free, bare spaces and hermitic lifestyles, but the philosophy is more expansive, as Joshua Becker, author of The More Of Less: Finding The Life You Want Under Everything You Own and other books on minimalism, describes. “At its core, being a minimalist means intentionally promoting the things we most value and removing everything that distracts us from it," he says.
In other words, minimalism can be interpreted widely, from reducing screen time to creating a customized to-do list, with the aim being to promote our priorities. The approach might seem unrealistic in today’s workplace, where corporate culture prioritizes speed, quantity and endless productivity, but it can actually help us become more efficient, less overwhelmed, and simplify our work life, creating space for what we enjoy, professionally and personally, without quitting our job and retreating to the mountains, an unviable option for many.
Let’s start with decluttering
The most obvious aspect of minimalism is decluttering our spaces of meaningless possessions. This does not, however, translate to a desolate workspace, but one that provides inspiration, comfort and focus, without distractions. And let’s not forget, workspaces extend to our electronic devices as well.
While explaining digital clutter, clinical psychologist Prerna Kohli says, “Today, laptops, mobile phones and other electronic devices have become an extension of us. There are people who never delete a single email, even if it is 15 years old, and are ready to subscribe for additional paid storage. This is data hoarding."
While social media, emails and newsletters can be useful in today’s hyper-connected world, where working from home is the norm, it is important to cut off before they become pointless distractions. Since last year, Surbhi Bhalla, a nutrition professional in Delhi, for instance, has been switching off all her electronic devices by 10pm and restricting her news consumption to 30 minutes a day.
“I deleted all social media applications on my phone and put a timer on other apps to keep their use to 20 minutes a day," says the 35-year-old. Constant digital consumption has increased tremendously during the past year, prompting many, like Bhalla, to curb their screen time, even switching off their phones if work allows it. “Being online all the time is exhausting. I switch off at 5:30pm and do not reply to emails until the next morning." says Hyderabad’s Debbie Paul, 47, who works with an international development agency. “I don’t subscribe to any digital streaming services, restrict social media usage and spent time reading more, particularly for work, to advance my professional knowledge."
Lists can be helpful in making work less overwhelming. But minimalism is about quality, not quantity, with the aim not to bloat schedules with a never-ending stream of tasks. Some prefer focusing on a few key tasks each day, while others like a more flexible approach.
“Making lists makes my workday seem more manageable rather than an amorphous glob, and gives me an idea of time required per task," says Janya Sachdev, 32, a clinical microbiologist at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). She has an interesting approach to scheduling work. “I try to fit tasks in based on their duration rather than being rigid about the order. If I have shorter intervals of 10-15 minutes that aren’t enough for a big task, I use these slots to finish off small things, like labelling and arranging my material or tasks, which I’ve scheduled for later or the next day," she explains.
Sachdev finds this flexibility helpful, freeing up time on her schedule that would not be possible if she followed the list chronologically.
Lists are not for everyone. But sticking to a routine is helpful, building in time for priorities. “I made a vision board and wrote down what is important for me," says Bhalla, who structures her daily routine around these priorities. “My health is first, followed by work, relationships, financial management and leisure activities."
Though focus and structure are important when it comes to minimalism, it is equally vital to have unstructured time, for ideas and solutions often remain elusive in forced thinking. In Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang describes how a relaxed mind activates what is called the “default mode network", a state which allows for connections that are unexplored in structured thought. Research shows creative or physical activities like walking or cycling often help with this process, resulting in a relaxed mind and innovative ideas and solutions to complex problems.
For Aarati Pillai, 35, who works at a non-profit in Delhi, working from home has cut out all the noise and mental clutter of working in an office. “I miss conversations in the office and group brainstorming sessions, but I have learnt that listening and taking time to think before responding helps," she says.
When working on creative or difficult tasks, Pillai prefers listening to music to relax her mind. Singh, on the other hand, knits. “Because I’m focused on the stitches, my mind gets relaxed and I can think clearly. I almost always end up having a better solution to a problem," explains Singh.
It’s okay, say no
We have wired ourselves to multitask and overload our schedules. There is an urge to respond immediately or demand instant replies. Minimalism promotes deliberation and thoughtful action. “This last year made me realize to take time to think before I offer a solution. Email and contracts continue, but we don’t get hassled with clients pressuring us to send them overnight." says Singh.
Saying no is uncomfortable initially, but it definitely helps. “Colleagues usually socialize during coffee or lunch breaks. But there are days when I need some quiet time to recharge, preferring to eat alone. Initially I felt bad, but after explaining my reasons to colleagues, they understood. Some of them even started doing the same thing," laughs Sachdev.
The pandemic has shown us how little we actually need to survive, says clinical psychologist Kohli. “The wise among us have taken this as an opportunity to shed that which doesn’t add value to our lives."