When we think of minimalism, we often think of stuff. There’s Marie Kondo’s best-selling book-turned-Netflix series, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, urging us to rid ourselves of possessions and leave only the few that bring us the most joy. There’s even an entire movement of home ownership, where tiny houses promise to save us from the burdens of too many household bills, freeing us to live the lives we were meant to live.
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But what does minimalism have to do with our writing careers? Shouldn’t we try to be everywhere (Facebook and Instagram and LinkedIn and Twitter) and do everything (speak at conferences and the local library, network with editors at that big conference across the country, and always hit our daily word count)? Isn’t career-building all about saying yes more than no?
Maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. For those of us who feel like we’re running out of time to do all the things – create our work and market it – we might be missing out on the very reason we started writing in the first place: Because we actually enjoy the process of our craft.
Here are three ideas for bringing minimalism into our writing practice from accomplished (and yes, best-selling) authors who are really not doing it all.
1. Deepen your existing relationships in favor of mindless growth.
In Paul Jarvis’ new book, Company of One, he argues that staying small and nimble can actually make your work more enjoyable and profitable – all while increasing the chances that you will be able to sustain a successful writing career throughout your life. A “company of one” doesn’t mean that you should never hire anyone to help you with your writing business; instead, it’s more of a mindset that questions growth for growth’s sake. Deepen your existing relationships in favor of mindless growth.
As writers, we juggle a lot: deadlines with freelance clients or our publisher, our author platform, communication with our readers, and strategic thinking and goal setting for landing new clients and work. And for many of us, this isn’t even our primary source of income – yet.
But in our search for that new client, clip, or follower, are we letting go of something else? Or someone else? “Too often businesses forget about their current audience,” Paul Jarvis writes. “Make sure you’re listening to, communicating with, and helping the people who are already paying attention to you” – like, for example, your current clients or readership.
When you build a business that is focused on “better, not bigger,” it can take time to build the kinds of relationships that last for the long haul. And to Jarvis, a successful business is built on this foundation – the network of relationships that a writer nurtures over time. Instead of focusing on growing his mailing list to an unwieldy number, Jarvis takes a few hours each week to individually reply to each email he receives from his weekly newsletter. There’s a threshold where he could no longer provide this kind of service or access, and he’s found that sweet spot. Instead of scaling up, says Jarvis, “you can focus on building something that, in effect, is too small to fail.”
2. Slow down. Really.
Jocelyn K. Glei (author of the book Unsubscribe and creator of the podcast Hurry Slowly) encourages writers and artists to exercise their attention like a muscle. She believes in acknowledging our very real human bodies that we all live in and teaches how meditation and exercise are crucial to recalibrating a harried creative practice.Slow down. Really.
It feels counter-intuitive: If we’re racing through our day, agreeing to take on every project that comes our way in the name of career-building, how can we hit the pause button for something as seemingly trivial as…reflection? But to Glei, this is the missing key to productivity. Only by building in the time “to unpack the causal relationship between what you did and what the outcome was,” as she explains in an article on her website, can you begin to make the room to tackle those projects that truly matter.
Jocelyn suggests taking 15 minutes each day to jot down a few thoughts on how you actually fared with your important commitments (whether that’s writing your novel, breaking into that dream publication, or researching agents, for example). Note, too, where you couldn’t make it work because of interruptions or other commitments. At the end of the week, take a few minutes to look at the big picture. Jocelyn encourages us to ask ourselves: “What were your biggest productivity drags, and what strategies could you use to minimize them in the future?”
3. Rethink your relationship with technology.
The concept of “digital minimalism,” also the title of Cal Newport’s new book, is about reconnecting with the pleasures of the physical world and prioritizing stretches of uninterrupted time for more meaningful pursuits, such as curling up with a good book. Between life and family obligations and personal commitments, it can feel as though there are too few minutes in the day for such luxuries. But Newport argues that this lack of time is only our perception, and it’s largely due to mindless device use.
He suggests performing a 30-day digital declutter of all non-essential technologies. This isn’t a break or a detox. Instead, it’s a transformation in our relationship with technology itself. Newport shares examples of people who participated in a digital declutter and how many of them reported an increase in face-to-face interactions, found time for hobbies that they hadn’t participated in since childhood, and even managed to read several books over the course of the month.
As writers, reading is an essential, integral part of our writing practice. Sure, there are exceptions to this blanket rule: Some writers choose not to read certain authors or genres while immersed in a writing project, for fear they may subsume another’s voice, for example. But for the most part, we can’t advance or become better at our craft without interacting with other great (or, yes, even poorly written) texts. For those of us who can’t find the time or space to read through the towering pile of books on our nightstand, it might be worth rethinking the time we actually spend scrolling our newsfeed or keeping up with social media. By reclaiming this time, we may find that there actually are enough hours to engage meaningfully with our craft.
While each of these writers offers different approaches for minimalism, there is a singular thread that connects each of their philosophies on approaching life and work: We must first understand and define what it is that we value and what we are trying to achieve. Then we must protect our time around this at all costs. When it comes to approaching our writing careers for the long haul, it’s the very practice of cultivating less and better that will bring us the opportunity for so much more. “Minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things,” writes Newport. “What worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good.”
—Rebecca Pitts is a freelance writer in the Hudson Valley. She covers a variety of nonfiction beats for both children and grown-ups. (Website: rebeccaapitts.com)