mnmlist: getting to minimal: all the info you need to track

The blog ‘a million monkeys typing’ (apparently defunct) has an interesting older post called Beginner’s Mind in which the author makes a list of all the information he needs to track.

Douglas takes a “beginner’s mind” approach and makes a list of every type of information he needs to keep track of, including but not limited to:

  • tasks
  • delegated tasks to follow up on
  • spending
  • appointments
  • projects
  • contact info
  • deadlines
  • daily news
  • logins/passwords
  • car loan info
  • errands

That’s not the entire list, but he was able to whittle it down to about a dozen things to track. And I think that’s less than most people, because he got it down to the essentials (for him). Realize, of course, that everyone’s needs are different, and what’s essential for one person isn’t essential for another. Still, it’s a useful exercise. Make a list of everything you need to track, and then figure out the simplest, most intuitive way to track them. Using the simplest tools.

As an exercise, here’s my list:

  • tasks
  • appointments
  • contacts
  • logins/passwords
  • health/fitness logs (eating clean, exercising)

It’s possible I’m missing a couple things. And this isn’t the most minimal list possible. But let me tell you how I’ve gotten it down this far, and then we’ll look at how I could get it to be even more minimal.

How I Whittled It Down

A couple of years ago, my list would have been much longer. For example, at one time I tracked all my spending, all my debt, every bill and when it was due. I don’t anymore. At one point I tracked all my eating, every calorie, and every calorie I burned through exercise. I also had a much more complicated productivity system (based on GTD), where I tracked not only tasks (“next actions”) but projects and someday/maybe items and delegated tasks and so on. At one point I had a list of goals and sub-goals and action items for each one. And more, but I won’t bore you with all the details.

Slowly, I’ve whittled down my needs:

  1. I’ve slowly changed my work to suit my needs. This has taken a couple of years, but it’s been a conscious effort to work for myself, on my own terms, and simplify what I do.
  2. As a result, I have fewer needs — I don’t need as many appointments, meetings, projects, and so on.
  3. I slowly got out of debt and then focused on saving, allowing me to worry less about finances. Now I pay some bills in advance, auto-pay others, and keep a small surplus in my checking account so I don’t need to worry about auto-pay and incidental living expenses.
  4. I’ve reduced my communication needs recently.
  5. I’ve stopped making so many appointments and having so many meetings.
  6. I’ve stopped worrying about goals. Which means I don’t need to track them or their action steps.
  7. I’ve gotten my eating and exercising habits to a point where I don’t need to be as obsessive. I’ve developed a relaxed attitude towards health, by enjoying my exercise and healthy foods. I now track things through my daytum, just for fun, and as a motivator.
  8. I’ve also given up on reading news or worrying about keeping up with blogs. I love reading blogs (not news) but I don’t feel the need to keep up with them. I just read for pleasure, with no pressure.

I’ll write about many of these things in later posts, as they deserve some focus of their own. The point is, this is possible, and you can rethink your needs as well, and change them over time.

It’s also important to note that most of these changes haven’t come because of my lifestyle, but my attitude: I worry less about goals, tracking calories, finances, and the like, and because I worry less, I track everything less.

How I Can Pare It Down Further

But I’m not as minimal as possible. Here’s what I can do, and will probably do, in the coming months, in order to reduce my need to track information:

  1. Adopt an in-the-moment task approach. I’ll write about this soon. Basically, it means I don’t keep track of goals, projects or even tasks. Just ask myself each morning: “What do I want to accomplish today?” Then each moment, work on what I’m most passionate about.
  2. Drop appointments almost entirely. Tell people to call/email me on the day, and we set a time. If I keep my days wide open, setting a time shouldn’t be hard. I mostly work like this already.
  3. Let tech track my contacts and passwords for me. I already mostly do this with Gmail — it automatically stores email addresses and I no longer worry about them. My phone mostly stores my phone contacts. I don’t use a password manager but might do that. While this doesn’t mean I will no longer need to store this info, it will mean I no longer need to worry about it.
  4. I don’t need to track exercise and clean eating at this point. But I feel better doing it, for now. Maybe in a couple months I’ll be in a place where it’s unnecessary.

Of course, none of these solutions will work for everyone. I list them here to show how it’s possible to change your attitude and your needs so keeping track of info becomes pretty minimal.