How is your current state of mind at work? Are you focusing on a project, or distracted by your cluttered workspace and endless to-do list? Are you feeling relaxed or stressed?
Unfortunately, the bulk of us fall in the latter.
Stress at work is a real problem. According to a 2017 American Psychological Association report, 75 percent of adults reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress at work, while nearly half said their stress levels were keeping them up at night.
Technology is meant to streamline our workflow and increase productivity. However, it can be those same work tools – laptops and phones – that cause significant stress and distractions. Work emails and chat notifications come in at all hours, irrespective of where you are and what you’re doing. Personal time has become professional time. The lines are blurred. Eighty percent of workers say they feel stress at work, and nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress, according to the American Institute of Stress.
With these staggering numbers, what can we do? First, let’s take a look at how stress and anxiety affect our bodies.
How does your body react to stress?
When we feel stressed and anxious, the nervous system tells our bodies to release stress hormones including cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline. These produce physiological changes to help us cope with the threat or danger we perceive around us, and we enter into “fight-or-flight” mode.
Stress also negatively impacts our sleep and weakens our immune systems. Cortisol released in our bodies suppress the immune system and inflammatory pathways, making us more sensitive to infections and chronic inflammatory ailments. Our ability to fight off an illness becomes weakened.
Author of Hardwiring Happiness and TED Talk speaker, Dr. Rick Hanson, says cortisol can change the physical structure of your brain.
“Cortisol goes into the brain and stimulates the alarm center, the Amygdala. And kills neurons in the hippocampus which, besides doing visual/spatial memory, also calms down the amygdala and calms down stress altogether. So, this mental experience of stress, especially if it’s chronic and severe, gradually changes the structure of the brain. So we become aggressively more sensitive to stress. The mind can change the brain can change the mind.”
Take that in for a moment; the more stress we experience on a daily basis, the more likely our brain structure changes physically, making us even more susceptible to stress. This vicious cycle leaves us feeling trapped, and worse, in a state of chronic stress.
What does this all have to do with minimalism and how can it help lower stress?
What is minimalism?
“Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important – so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.” – The Minimalists
By embracing minimalism, you have fewer things to manage and maintain, and therefore, spend less time on things that don’t actually matter. Cleaning the house, doing the laundry, organizing your folders, washing the dishes all take-up time. But when you streamline your priorities and the time you set aside to do them, you effectively free up extra time mentally and physically.
Minimalism can help you declutter your life of excess, fear, guilt, worry, stress, and consumerism. It is primarily about reducing and simplifying and finding meaning in your life.
Can minimalism lower stress?
Now, is minimalism just a fad for trendy, bearded men with cool Scandinavian furniture and their limited wardrobe consisting of five black shirts and two pairs of jeans? No, it’s more than that. Science has its back.
Princeton University studied the effects of clutter in our daily lives – at home and at work. From their report “Interactions of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Human Visual Cortex,” researchers said:
Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.
Simply put, when your environment is cluttered, the disorder makes your brain multitask and work overtime. The melange of chaos around you leaves you distracted and unable to process information as well as you would in an uncluttered, tranquil and organized environment.
The Princeton University researchers used fMRI to map the brain’s responses when interacting with organized and disorganized stimuli and to monitor task performance. The conclusions were clear – if you want to focus undividedly on a task, then removing clutter is essential. The study found those who purged unwanted items from their home and workspace – were less irritable, less distracted, more productive, and were able to process information at a better rate.
Meanwhile, another study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that people who sleep in a cluttered room or hoarders have problems making decisions and executive function. This can affect their daily productivity as so much time is spent organizing, sorting or dealing with the chaos, which could otherwise be spent working productively.
Seven tips on how minimalism can help lower work stress
1. Declutter your workspace
First things first, let’s give your creative work zone a make-over. Set a timer for 15 minutes and get to it. Remove all your items from your desk and start sorting. Everything that is not essential to your current work project, discard or store them where they belong. Try not to overthink the process. Keep only the necessary items – your computer, notebook or pen. Do this at least once a week or whenever you start noticing a reemergence of clutter.
Now it’s time to apply minimalism to your workflow:
2. Set priorities
Focus on one task at a time. Whether you’re finishing a work report or writing a novel – do just that, and put aside any non-essential work tasks that don’t support your primary focus. You may have to postpone a lunch date or decline meeting a friend for drinks after work.
You need the disciple to learn what to say no to. Consequently, you can now invest everything you have into completing the few things you’ve prioritized and do them well. This doesn’t mean you become a hermit as a minimalist and watch your life pass you by. Quite the opposite. Now you can focus on your main priority and tackle the smaller things later once you’ve achieved your goal.
3. Use constraints
Ernest Hemmingway made his literary mark with his simple, clear and unadorned prose. He was a remarkable writer, but more importantly, Hemingway knew what not to say. We can apply these same constraints to our daily lives.
Limit your purchases, downsize your closet to a capsule wardrobe, choose only to follow Twitter accounts you really read and that add value to your life. Make small, mindful decisions daily that will set a wave of decluttering into motion.
4. Cut out distractions
Have you ever opened a web browser to research a topic real quick, and before you knew it, a whole two hours have passed by while you sunk into a Reddit vortex? Unfortunately, the same tools that you use for work are littered with distractions.
Instead, time-block out 30 minutes in the morning to check and respond to emails and social media messages. Repeat in the afternoon. By not compulsively reading every tweet, email or message, you can focus on one task at a time. Feeling productive and being productive are two entirely different things.
5. Stay digitally organized and clutter free
With minimalism, you’ll immediately notice that there is less clutter around you, fewer distractions, less cleaning, and organizing. The same applies to your electronic files. Create folders and files that suit your daily workflow.
If you repeat a lot of the same tasks, make templates and duplicate the same pathway for your process. This keeps you organized and saves you time. Don’t forget about any orphaned files sitting on your desktop – store those away daily. Empty your trash can too – that whoosh sound effect is quite a rewarding feeling.
6. Focus on the essentials
Whether you’re brainstorming a new concept or putting together a case study for your company’s executives – focus on getting all your ideas out first. There’s no need to start editing and fine-tuning your work just yet. You may decide half-way through that you want to go in a different direction and all that time you spent sprucing your work, will be wasted. Above all, focus on creating and doing the work. Then later, you can add all the extra elements that take it to the next level.
7. Use minimalistic tools for work
Select daily tools that fit your clutter-free minimalist lifestyle. Do you need a messaging tool with dozens of customizable options? Are all those color options really necessary? Probably not. The added visual clutter goes against your hard work of eliminating the hodgepodge of chaos that once surrounded you.
Brief is a sleek and simple to use productivity app for personal and professional effectiveness. Its clean and elegant dashboard keeps you focused throughout your day, without the noise and distractions. Keeping your communications, to do lists and files in one place saves precious time and concentration.
Minimalism really is more than just a trendy fad. Science has proven its effectiveness and power to reduce stress and anxiety at work and at home. Don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself for a week and see what happens. It’s up to you to take positive actions to manage your work and personal stress. Take hold of your clutter, before it takes hold of you.