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10 Steps to a Zen-like Working Environment

10 Steps to a Zen-like Working Environment
Zen Garden

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” — Hans Hoffman

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” — Henry David Thoreau

For today’s knowledge workers, every distraction is a drain on productivity and sanity. Every ringing phone, instant message, flashing email reminder, pile of papers, cluttered sticky notes and phone messages and knick knacks and memo posted on the wall — each of these things slows you down, wastes your time and energy, and stresses you out.

To achieve calm, and simple productivity, create a Zen-like working environment.

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Imagine for a minute that your desk is completely clear, except your computer monitor, keyboard and mouse, your inbox and phone, and perhaps a framed photo of a loved one. Imagine the walls around you are free of visual clutter, except for a photo or painting or two of a serene nature scene.

You are able to focus, you can crank out your tasks, and you can lower your level of stress.

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It’s not hard. Here’s how:

  • Clear papers. Take all the papers on your desk, and around your desk, and put them in your inbox. If they don’t fit, just put them in a single pile. Now go through that pile, one document at a time. Don’t put any document back on the pile — deal with it immediately, and then move on to the next document, until you’ve cleared the pile (this may take several sessions for some people). With each document, your choices are to 1) Trash; 2) Delegate; 3) File immediately, 4) Do it immediately; or 5) Put the action on your to-do list and the document in an “action” folder.
  • Clear clutter. Now clear as much of the other stuff on your desk as possible. And it’s all possible. Knick knacks, post-its and phone messages (those should go in the inbox to be processed), most of your framed photos, folders, etc.
  • Clear gear. You don’t need your office gear to be in sight. Put your pens, stapler, paper clips, digital camera, and any other assorted gear in a drawer, organized neatly. While you’re at it, clear out your drawers and only put in the essential stuff. It’s easier to keep organized that way.
  • Clear the walls. Clear every scrap of paper and most of the artwork from your walls. You don’t want your surroundings to be too busy. Put one or two pieces of simple art on each wall.
  • Have an inbox. Have one inbox on your desk, and have all incoming documents, notes, phone messages and other papers be put into this inbox. Process it to empty at least once a day, using the steps above. From here on out, don’t let any other papers clutter your desk except the one thing you’re working on.
  • Simplify your computer. Clear your desktop of icons — it’s an inefficient way to launch documents or programs and organize yourself, and they’re just visual clutter. Clear everything from your menubar too, if possible. On your desktop, use a simple and serene picture as the background, and only have the document open that you’re currently working on. Turn off all email and IM notifications, and only do email at 2-3 set times a day. You don’t need all the interruptions.
  • Simple filing system. Use a simple alphabetical filing system with plain manila folders. Have plenty of labels and empty folders on hand, so you have nothing stopping you from creating a new file quickly and filing a document. Don’t let your filing pile up.
  • Edit, edit, edit. Once you’ve cleared the clutter, there’s usually still stuff you can clear away. Edit your surroundings. For each item in view, ask yourself, “Does this really need to be in view?” In most cases, the answer is no. Find a way to get it out of sight, or get rid of it. When you’ve gone through this process, do it again — you can usually still find ways to get something out of sight.
  • Simple furniture. Go for the simplest furniture possible, a plain floor covering (solid-color wall-to-wall carpeting or undecorated hard-surface floors), bare windows or simple window coverings such as blinds, plain shelves and lamps if necessary.
  • Simple decorations. Skip the bric-a-brac, and only have one or two simple decorations, such as a few flowers in a vase or a Zen garden.

Have suggestions for creating a Zen-like working environment? Let us know in the comments.

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More by this author

Leo Babauta

Founder of Zen Habits and expert in habits building and goals achieving.

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Last Updated on November 18, 2020

15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

It’s okay, you can finally admit it. It’s been two months since you’ve seen the inside of the gym. Getting sick, family crisis, overtime at work and school papers that needed to get finished all kept you for exercising. Now, the question is: how do you start again?
Once you have an exercise habit, it becomes automatic. You just go to the gym, there is no force involved. But after a month, two months or possibly a year off, it can be hard to get started again. Here are some tips to climb back on that treadmill after you’ve fallen off.

  1. Don’t Break the Habit – The easiest way to keep things going is simply not to stop. Avoid long breaks in exercising or rebuilding the habit will take some effort. This may be advice a little too late for some people. But if you have an exercise habit going, don’t drop it at the first sign of trouble.
  2. Reward Showing Up – Woody Allen once said that, “Half of life is showing up.” I’d argue that 90% of making a habit is just making the effort to get there. You can worry about your weight, amount of laps you run or the amount you can bench press later.
  3. Commit for Thirty Days – Make a commitment to go every day (even just for 20 minutes) for one month. This will solidify the exercise habit. By making a commitment you also take pressure off yourself in the first weeks back of deciding whether to go.
  4. Make it Fun – If you don’t enjoy yourself at the gym, it is going to be hard to keep it a habit. There are thousands of ways you can move your body and exercise, so don’t give up if you’ve decided lifting weights or doing crunches isn’t for you. Many large fitness centers will offer a range of programs that can suit your tastes.
  5. Schedule During Quiet Hours – Don’t put exercise time in a place where it will easily be pushed aside by something more important. Right after work or first thing in the morning are often good places to put it. Lunch-hour workouts might be too easy to skip if work demands start mounting.
  6. Get a Buddy – Grab a friend to join you. Having a social aspect to exercising can boost your commitment to the exercise habit.
  7. X Your Calendar – One person I know has the habit of drawing a red “X” through any day on the calendar he goes to the gym. The benefit of this is it quickly shows how long it has been since you’ve gone to the gym. Keeping a steady amount of X’s on your calendar is an easy way to motivate yourself.
  8. Enjoyment Before Effort – After you finish any work out, ask yourself what parts you enjoyed and what parts you did not. As a rule, the enjoyable aspects of your workout will get done and the rest will be avoided. By focusing on how you can make workouts more enjoyable, you can make sure you want to keep going to the gym.
  9. Create a Ritual – Your workout routine should become so ingrained that it becomes a ritual. This means that the time of day, place or cue automatically starts you towards grabbing your bag and heading out. If your workout times are completely random, it will be harder to benefit from the momentum of a ritual.
  10. Stress Relief – What do you do when your stressed? Chances are it isn’t running. But exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, releasing endorphin which will improve your mood. The next time you feel stressed or tired, try doing an exercise you enjoy. When stress relief is linked to exercise, it is easy to regain the habit even after a leave of absence.
  11. Measure Fitness – Weight isn’t always the best number to track. Increase in muscle can offset decreases in fat so the scale doesn’t change even if your body is. But fitness improvements are a great way to stay motivated. Recording simple numbers such as the number of push-ups, sit-ups or speed you can run can help you see that the exercise is making you stronger and faster.
  12. Habits First, Equipment Later – Fancy equipment doesn’t create a habit for exercise. Despite this, some people still believe that buying a thousand dollar machine will make up for their inactivity. It won’t. Start building the exercise habit first, only afterwards should you worry about having a personal gym.
  13. Isolate Your Weakness – If falling off the exercise wagon is a common occurrence for you, find out why. Do you not enjoy exercising? Is it a lack of time? Is it feeling self-conscious at the gym? Is it a lack of fitness know-how? As soon as you can isolate your weakness, you can make steps to improve the situation.
  14. Start Small – Trying to run fifteen miles your first workout isn’t a good way to build a habit. Work below your capacity for the first few weeks to build the habit. Otherwise you might scare yourself off after a brutal workout.
  15. Go for Yourself, Not to Impress – Going to the gym with the only goal of looking great is like starting a business with only the goal to make money. The effort can’t justify the results. But if you go to the gym to push yourself, gain energy and have a good time, then you can keep going even when results are slow.

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