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On minimizing
Tags: [minimalism]
Published: 25 Oct 2017 17:25

I’ve been sentimental about everything my whole life. I keep a lot of things, have a lot of lists, and have a few “collections”.

In the last few years I’ve been trying to sell or give away things in order to minimize what I’m focusing on. This has included donating old computers, which was painful for someone sentimental like me. It also includes a few cases where I donated some books after I finished them, and in a rare few cases without finishing them (!).

I also have been throwing out a few things that I had been holding on to for years. Things I had meant to do something with but never got around to. The effect is doubled: not only did I get rid of some things physical, I also shed the commitments around / to those things.

This is important because it reduces the cognitive load associated with those things. All lists create cognitive weight, and many things count as being a list. Reducing the number of things that your brain has to keep track of (and remind you of) reduces cognitive weight:

When we have something on our minds that is important—especially a To Do item—we’re afraid we’ll forget it, so our brain rehearses it, tossing it around and around in circles in something that cognitive psychologists actually refer to as the rehearsal loop.

from The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin

In other words, your brain holds on to things it thinks you will forget, and constantly reminds you of them.

Some easy wins: reduce or remove all bookmarks, unread emails, unread RSS items, and un-listened-to podcasts. Quickly triage these and be ruthless. Anything that your brain thinks it needs to remind you about counts. I think the effect is magnified if the list presents visually somehow, like a literal pile of books.

I think about minimizing more abstractly now: not only do I want to minimize things, I want to minimize commitments, projects, and (more generally) any list now. The aim is to reduce cognitive load, and to have a smaller circle of focus.