How to Create a Minimalist Computer Experience

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.

A minimalist computer setup, as paradoxical as that may sound to some, lends itself to a more serene, focused creative environment in my experience.

I love a clean desktop, a friction-free interface, and simple tools that help me focus on what I really need to get done: to create, without distractions.

And when I gaze lovingly at my icon-less desktop, I sigh with contentment. I really love simplicity.

If this kind of minimalist experience appeals to you (and it won’t appeal to everyone), read on for my suggestions for creating this setup.

An Uncluttered Desktop
I don’t have any icons on my computer desktop — I’ve had the experience of having a thousand icons on the desktop and it really doesn’t compare to an uncluttered environment. Sure, it may be easy to just double-click on a frequently used app or document (although that’s not as fast as what I suggest under the “Interface” section below). But having to look at so many icons is visual stress and distraction, so I’ve banished this method of working.

Now, I have zero icons on the desktop and I usually choose a fairly minimalist (but beautiful) desktop pic to complete the experience. See my desktop in the pic above.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Put all icons on your desktop into a folder. You could put them into a “Temp” folder for sorting later, or create two folders and sort them quickly: “Working” and “Archives”. Working is for stuff you’re working on right now, and Archives is for everything else. More on filing structure below.
  2. On the Mac, remove the hard drive icon by selecting “Preferences” (Cmd-,) and under the “General” tab, deselect “Hard disks” under “Show these items on the Desktop”. On the PC, you can right-click on the desktop and under the “View” submenu, deselect “Show desktop icons”.
  3. On the Mac, set the Dock to auto-hide in the Dock preferences. I never use the Dock anymore (see the next section).
  4. Choose a serene desktop pic (or “wallpaper”). I like ones with a plain-colored background (such as white or black) and a nice minimalist picture on it. Or just a nice nature scene. Nothing too distracting.
  5. I also don’t like a lot of icons or apps in my menu bar, so I remove everything that isn’t necessary. Right now all I have is the clock and Spotlight. On the PC, I do the same thing – remove everything.

Simple Interface
If you’re still using the mouse to open programs and documents, you should seriously consider using the keyboard instead. It’s super fast and frictionless, which means you can get things done without having to dig through folders or scroll your cursor over your entire desktop or go the Start menu (on a PC) or down to the Dock (on a Mac).

On the Mac, use the free and awesome Quicksilver. On the PC, I like AutoHotKey or Launchy. The all work similarly: you can launch programs and documents with the keyboard, without having to use the mouse or dig through a lot of folders. Quicksilver is by far the best, as it can do so, so much more.

So you need to start writing — with a couple of keystrokes, your trusty writing program launches and you’re writing in seconds. You need to look something up or send an email? A few keystrokes away.

Keeping the interface simple like this, without a real need for the Finder or Windows interface, makes things much easier.

Simple Filing
You don’t have time to file, to sort all your stuff into a million little folders. You’re a busy person! You have bigger and better things to do! Right?

So stop filing. Set up only four folders in your Documents folder:

Search and Online Files
You don’t need to organize all your files into folders anymore because of magic called Search. On the Mac, Quicksilver and Spotlight cover this well. On the PC, I recommend Google Desktop. These programs index all your files — including the contents of the files — and put any file at your fingertips in seconds.

Seriously, I have been using this system for a few years and have never had trouble finding a single document.

Then again, my hard drive doesn’t have a lot of documents on it (mostly movies and music and pictures) because I keep most of my documents online. I use Google Docs and Spreadsheets, which means I never file anything. I just search and it’s there in half a second.

Keeping all my documents online — even most of my photos are online using Picasa — means they’re accessible from any computer, which is important to me as I switch between my iMac and Macbook Air frequently, and sometimes work from other computers. I don’t need to sync anything or carry around a USB drive.

I know some people will say, as they always do, that I’m a fool for giving all my data to a company (Google). What if the Internet crashes? What if Google folds? What if they do evil things with all of it?

All good points. I don’t see any of that happening soon, and I can always export it all if necessary. I’ve been using this system for three years without a single problem. In those three years, I would have had to do 17,000 syncs or transfers of files, and my hard drive would have crashed once or twice, losing valuable data if I don’t back up.

Your needs will differ from mine, but I recommend using the simplest programs for the work you need to do.

As a writer, I use TextEdit (on the Mac) or Wordpad (for the PC). I also love, love the program WriteRoom (Mac) or DarkRoom (PC) … it is so beautifully minimalist, and blocks out all distractions as I write.

For todo lists, I don’t like full-featured todo programs because they’re too complicated and invite too much fiddling and distractions. I use Gmail’s simple Task app or a simple text file on my desktop computer.

Keep your tools simple. It allows you to focus on what’s important: creating.

Read more about simple productivity, focus and getting great things done in my book, The Power of Less.