Creating a minimalist workspace — from Zen Habits

We are delighted to have Leo Babauta of Zen Habits as a guest columnist today. Please give him a warm welcome and check out his awe-inspiring website afterward. We thank Leo for being a part of our month of sharing.

How minimalist is your workspace? An uncluttered workspace is a thing of beauty.

I write a lot about minimalism on Zen Habits, including guides to creating a minimalist home, minimalist housework, and beating clutter entropy.

On Unclutterer, my favorite feature is the Workspace of the Week, with its cool setups.

Today, I thought I’d share my pretty minimalist workspace, and share some thoughts on how to go about creating one of your own.

What’s a minimalist workspace?
That question will have different answers for each person. There can be no single definition. The ultimate minimalist workspace, I think, would be to have no desk or papers or computer or anything of the kind — just yourself. You’d think, and talk, and maybe sit on the floor.

Of course, that won’t work for most of us, so it’s more useful to look at our minimum requirements, and focus on creating a workspace that addresses these essentials and nothing more.

So the first step is for you to consider your requirements for working, and what’s essential to your workflow. If possible, streamline and simplify that workflow and those requirements. Then, once you’ve got that down to a minimum, see what the minimum setup would be for those essentials and your workflow. Eliminate everything unnecessary.

What are your requirements?
It’s interesting to note that what you think your requirements are might not be the minimum. They might just be what you’re used to doing.

Taking myself as an example: I used to work with tons of paper, files, sticky notes, and all the usual office tools (pens, pencils, notebooks, pads, stapler, hole puncher, whiteout, calendar, personal organizer, etc.). But then I realized that it’s possible to work without paper, and I’ve eliminated the need for all that stuff. In fact, as I’ve eliminated paper, I’ve eliminated the need for drawers.

Now, you might not have that luxury, and I’m not saying you need to go that extreme. Your needs may be different than mine — but the point is to see if it’s possible to change the way you work, so that you still get the essentials done, without all the same requirements. It’s worth some thought at least — and if you make changes, as I did, you might find that changing things in small increments is better. I didn’t do away with paper altogether. I did it in steps, eliminating different needs for paper one at a time.

My Minimalist Setup

Basically, I have an iMac and a table. No need for papers, files, drawers, other tools.

I work from home these days, and I do everything online. I do have a phone (elsewhere in my house, so it doesn’t disturb me) and a cell phone (also elsewhere), but I don’t have a PDA, an iPod, a printer (though my wife has ordered one for her needs), a scanner, a fax machine, or anything like that. I don’t print anything and I don’t use fax (an outdated technology).

On my computer, I mostly just use Firefox, as I do nearly everything online. I also use text programs for writing (TextEdit, WriteRoom mostly) and a couple other utilities such as CyberDuck for uploading files, Quicksilver for everything, and GIMP for photo editing.

All my organizing needs are taken care of on the computer: Address Book, Gmail, text files for to-do lists and errands and ideas and projects, Gcal for scheduling.

Tips for Creating Your Own Minimalist Workspace
You won’t need to have my setup, but once you’ve determined your minimum needs, here are some tips for making your workspace as minimalist as possible. Not all tips will work for you, so pick and choose which ones will work best for your workflow.

  1. Have one inbox. If paper is a part of your life, keep an inbox tray on top of your desk and make sure ALL papers, including phone messages and sticky notes, go into this tray. You might have to train your co-workers if they’re not already used to this. Don’t leave papers scattered all over your desk, unless you’re actually working on them at this moment. You might also have a “working file” folder for papers you’re working on but not at this moment, but put this working file in a drawer, so that it’s out of the way. Clear out your inbox each day — nothing should go back in there after you process them. It’s not a storage bin, but an inbox. Read more on clearing your inbox.
  2. Clear your desktop. Aside from your computer, your inbox tray, your phone, and maybe a nice photo of a loved one, there should be nothing on top of your desk. No papers (again, unless you’re working on them), no notes, no stapler or pens or other junk. Clear as much of it off as humanly possible. If you want to include a couple other essentials, you should, but be sure they absolutely must be there. Keep it as clear as possible, as a clear desk is a relaxing workspace.
  3. Get rid of knick-knacks. This goes with the above item, but many people don’t even think about all the little trinkets they have on top of their desk. They’re usually unnecessary. Toss ‘em!
  4. Clear the walls. Many people have all kinds of stuff posted on their walls. It creates visual clutter. Get them off your walls. If it’s a reference guide, put it on your computer and set up a hotkey so you can call the guide up with a keystroke when needed.
  5. Clear your computer desktop. Many people also have tons of icons on their computer desktop. It’s the same principle as a real desktop — clear it of everything unnecessary, so you can have a nice simple workspace. Keeping icons on your desktop is usually inefficient. It’s hard to find them among a jumble of files. If they’re necessary to open many times a day, file them away and use a hotkey to call them up. Quicksilver for Mac or Autohotkey for Windows are my favorite programs for this.
  6. Re-examine your paper needs. I started doing this a little over a year ago, and one by one, I realized I could eliminate my different needs for paper. I stopped printing stuff out to read (duh!) and just kept it on the computer. Yeah, that’s obvious. I also stopped keeping paper copies of files I had on the computer, as they just took up more space. Also fairly obvious, perhaps. I also asked people to stop faxing me stuff, and to email it instead. That should be obvious, but I think a lot of people ignore this step. I also asked people to stop sending me paper memos, and use email instead. Stop circulating documents by paper. I stopped bills and notices coming in by paper that I could get online. I stopped catalogs and newsletters coming in by mail. I still get some mail, but for the most part I toss it. You might not be able to eliminate paper, but you can probably reduce it.
  7. Eliminate unnecessary tools. Think about each tool you have in your desk, in your work area, and even in your office. Do you need a stapler and hole puncher? Do you need all those pens? Do you really need a fax machine? Or a scanner? You might not have control over all these types of tools, but if you do, eliminate the ones you don’t really need, maybe one at a time.
  8. Simplify your filing. As mentioned above, it’s unnecessary to keep paper copies of files you have on your computer or can access online. Back stuff up online if you’re worried about losing them. Having stuff digitally makes them searchable, which is much better than filing. Just archive, and search when necessary. If you do need paper files, keep them alphabetically and file immediately, so that you don’t have a huge “to be filed” pile. Once every few months, weed out unnecessary files.
  9. Go through each drawer. One drawer at a time, take out all the contents and eliminate everything you don’t need. It’s much nicer to use drawers if you can open them and see order. Have a designated spot for each item and make sure to put those items back in that spot immediately, every time.
  10. Use a minimalisk desk. As mentioned above, I just use a table, as I don’t need drawers. While you might not want to go to that extreme, you can find desks without too many drawers or contraptions or designs. Simple as possible is best.
  11. Clear the floor. There should be nothing on your floor but your desk and chair. No files, no boxes. Keep it clear!

112 Comments for “Creating a minimalist workspace — from Zen Habits”

  1. posted by Taylor on

    Great post, thanks for the info

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    [...] at Unclutterer, Leo of Zen Habits has written a guest post detailing how to create a minimalist workspace. He has a picture showing his current setup and while a part of me loves of the clutter free [...]

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    [...] “Reduce to the Max” ist da die Devise. So auch drüben beim Unclutterer. Er beschreibt hier den “Minimalist Workspace”. [via zen [...]

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    [...] won’t be Bored By. Why look at art when you can look at …mustard? * A Guide to Creating a Minimalist Workspace. The beautiful desk you’ll see may be hiding somewhere underneath all that junk you collect. * [...]

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