The Zen of Tech: 12 Powerful Ways to Keep Your Online Life Simple and Peaceful

“Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.” – Alan Watts

By Leo Babauta

I’m a tiny bit geek, I admit. Not hugely so, but enough that I do everything on the computer and use technology to do everything from communication to tracking to publishing to writing to networking to finances and more.

And still, it’s important to me that I keep things minimalist and peaceful.

I think that’s the true challenge of technology: how to get the most out of it without letting it overwhelm us. How to keep things simple but powerful. How to master technology without letting it become our master (to paraphrase Stephen Covey).

I’ve had a number of readers ask me how I do this, and so today I thought I’d bring together some concept I’ve written about before.

A Word on My Setup
My setup won’t work for everyone, or even a majority of you. It’s simply what works for me, but I thought you might find it useful nonetheless.

First of all, almost everything I do is online. Now that I quit my day job (with the horror of its fax machine), I no longer keep paper files. I can access all of my information and documents online, so I can work from anywhere, from any computer. And there’s no longer any time spent on organizing, as I use Gmail’s philosophy of archiving instead of filing.

I use an iMac, first of all, just because it’s so beautiful and nice to use and aesthetically minimalist. I have an iMac on my desk (really, it’s just a table) and nothing else. No drawers for filing or papers. No desktop tower or fax machine or scanner or anything. I’ve ordered a printer, but that’s more for my wife.

Software I use include Gmail for email and IM, WordPress for blogging, Firefox for everything, Google Docs and Spreadsheets for all my document needs (although I do use TextEdit, WriteRoom, NeoOffice and a few others), Google Reader for feeds (yes, I’m a Google fanboy, but only because their programs do what I want the best). I favor Open Source software if possible.

Now on to the tips.

  1. Focus on the essential. It’s important to take some time to think about what’s essential to your tech work (and play). What do you really need? What gives you the most benefit for your time? What’s not so essential? What takes up a lot of time without making much of an impact? What gives you the most enjoyment? If you can identify the activities, sites and software that is most essential to you, you can eliminate or at least reduce the non-essential. And from then on, focus almost exclusively on what’s essential. This applies to your work tasks as well – what tasks are extremely essential? Focus on doing those each day.
  2. Do one thing at a time. I know. This is super hard when it comes to tech. Browser’s on, a dozen tabs open at once, switching between reading and email and work and IM and Twitter … we live in a multitasking world. But it doesn’t have to be this way. While there’s nothing wrong with having multiple tabs open, it can be very helpful to focus on one task at a time. Have 10 tabs open, but do one tab until you’re done, then close it and move on to the next, and so on. If you’re going to do IM, just do IM. If you’re going to do email, just do email. Sure, you can do more than that at once, but it adds to the stress of your day and decreases your effectiveness because of all the switching. Practice doing one thing at a time and you’ll find your work to be much more peaceful.
  3. Have periods of disconnectedness. While I do most of my work online, I find it extremely useful (and calming) to close my browser and just work offline for awhile. This post, for example, is being written in a text program, and when I’m done writing I’ll go and post it in WordPress. This really allows you to get much more done, because there’s no temptation to go check something just for a sec.
  4. Don’t live in your inbox. I’ve done this, and if you do it you know who you are. Email is everything to many people. It’s communication, it’s a task list, it’s where you do your work, it’s your organization system. But if you work from your inbox, you are constantly being interrupted by new messages. Get your task list out of your inbox. Do email only at pre-appointed times. Do your work with your email closed.
  5. Schedule your IM time. Same thing applies to IM. I’m not a huge fan of IM, especially if you have your IM program open all the time. That’s because it encourages people to interrupt you whenever they want, instead of you valuing your time. If IM is important to your work, then schedule IM meetings, or have certain times of the day when you’re available for IM and tell your colleagues and friends about it. And have it for a limited amount of time and then end it.
  6. Turn off notifications. Again, email and IM and other notifications encourage interruptions and multitasking. Instead, turn everything off so that you check your email when you choose, not when others decide to send you something.
  7. Set limits on what you do. For example, check email just twice a day. Write emails of only 5 sentences or less. Only check Twitter once a day. Only respond to 4 messages on your favorite forum. Or whatever works for you. Limits force you to choose the essential, instead of trying to do everything.
  8. Create a morning routine. I’m a fan of morning routines in general, and the same concepts apply to tech. The Morning Coffee extension for Firefox is a great way to set up your routine with a single click. It opens all your essential sites in tabs, so that you can work through this routine one thing at a time and be sure that everything is finished.
  9. Create a weekly routine. With Morning Coffee, you can also set up routines for different days of the week. This allows you to check a certain site or inbox once a week, for example, instead of every single day.
  10. Clear out your inbox. I’ve written about this before, but clearing out your inbox is a very calming thing. It also prevents the overwhelming feeling of having hundreds of emails in your inbox — some read and some not.
  11. Pare down your feeds. I used to have well over a hundred RSS feeds to read in a day. The need to go through them all, every day, was very stressful to me. So I eventually cut them down, one stage at a time, until I got down to 10 essential feeds. Now it takes just a few minutes each day to scan through my feeds, pick out a few articles I’d like to read, and mark the rest as read. Much simpler.
  12. Simplified filing. As I mentioned above, I use Gmail’s philosophy of archiving instead of filing. I used to be a compulsive filer, as I like things to be organized. I had folders and subfolders, and I’d spent a bit of time each day filing every single email. What an effort! Instead, I archive everything and just search for what I need (I don’t even use tags or labels anymore). It takes seconds to find something. Seriously, there has never been a time when I couldn’t find something through search. I do this not only with email but with all my documents (through Google Docs and Spreadsheets).

“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” – Shunryu Suzuki