The Power of the Bare Minimum

Simple tools

The daily checklist is perhaps the most basic tool for minimalist productivity. I have been using it in some form for the last couple of years with varying degrees of results.

But for 2013 I want to take a more systematic approach to it, built around the following principles:

1) Building a list strictly limited to a maximum of 5-7 tasks conducive to building a positive habit, and most importantly,

2) the tasks I choose to include in the list are not only conducive to significant, positive change in the most important areas of my life but also,

3) there is a synergy among them so that doing one task somehow creates momentum that facilitates doing any other of the tasks in the list.

In other words, as simple as it is, building a good daily checklist is an art that requires a bit of careful musing in order to get it right.

So here’s how my own daily check list currently looks like, and the reasons why a chose each one of its habit-building tasks:

1. Stick to a gluten-free diet. I have already been gluten-free a couple of times during the last couple of years, and I have permanently and considerably reduced my gluten intake over that period; but the truth is I have always failed to stick to a totally gluten-free diet, even though it is perhaps the dietary habit that has had the most dramatic and positive impact on the way I feel. So that’s it: 2013 is the year when gluten will be forever off my diet, period.

2. Run or swim every day for at least 20 minutes, but not more than 45 minutes. Despite being a fairly active person, I have for the last couple of years focused on strength training and limited my aerobic activity to a few minutes per week of interval training at the gym. And although this has been good enough for my overall health and fitness, some time towards the end of last year I started going out running at an ecological reserve nearby home and realized how different the impact was on my mental state. I had almost forgotten how refreshing and energizing it is to sweat it all out outdoors, breathing fresh air and taking in the sun. The impact on my mental clarity was incomparable to anything I could obtain from the gym, from my capacity to concentrate to the boost in my overall mood, to a subtle zen-like feeling that accompanies me for the rest of the day.

This last aspect is crucial. Running, swimming or any other exercise that involves repetitive individual effort, specially when performed outdoors, in as close contact with nature as possible, is very similar to a moving-meditation exercise. And meditation is, of course, not only the mother of all habit-forming habits, but also the fundamental source of peace of mind, spiritual enlightenment, and all that other stuff that sounds much more esoteric than it really is. (I will eventually go back to a formal meditation practice later on this year, starting slowly at about 10 minutes a day. But not until all the habits in this list are fairly ingrained in my daily rutine.)

3. One heavy-weight workout per week. I will be following Arthur Jones’ general recommendations for one-set-to-failure from the Colorado Experiment, but with lower frequency and at least 3 minutes of rest between exercises, as recommended by Tim Ferriss. I will not be paying attention to concrete results in muscle-gain or fat-loss, at least for the first couple of months; this would require cleaning up my diet beyond eliminating gluten, which I don’t want to do just yet; my priority for the moment is simply to re-introduce and ingrain the strength training habit in my weekly routine.

4. Free-write 750 words every single day. This is the simplest way I can come up with of introducing a minimum of what Rosanne Bane calls “process” in her book Around the Writer’s Block: a daily habit of creative play that gets our creative juices flowing and lessens our resistance to get our writing done. I will aim for 750 words every day, but will be flexible enough to substitute it at times with other forms of creative play such as listening to music (listening fully and getting lost in it) for thirty minutes, taking pictures, or daydreaming.

5. 15 minutes of structured writing every day. Another tip by Rosanne Bane’s book: set a humble goal of structured writing for 15 minutes, and sooner rather than later you will be writing effortlessly for much longer than that. Writing seems to be one of those things for which getting started is more than half the battle. I have been using this technique for about 8 weeks now and it seems to be working, so I will stick to it and see what happens.

6. Keep my dinners light. “Light” here means simply to keep portions small more than anything else. I already eat well-ballanced, nutrient-dense meals by default, so no point in introducing much change in those departments yet.


The synergy among these tasks is straightforward. Among the numerous well-established health benefits that a gluten-free diet has, is a much better digestion, which immediately translates into a much clearer mind for work in general, and particularly for intellectual, information-processing work (such as writing). A gluten-free diet also enhances nutrient absorption, which contributes towards higher energy levels for work and exercise.

Having a light dinner allows for much better sleep, which besides being healthy per se, has an impact on writing and overall work productivity, and again, on physical energy levels, which boost strength and endurance during outdoors exercise and gym workouts. Outdoors running or swimming, because of its quasi-meditative nature, has a big impact on our capacity for mindfulness, which enhances mental and physical performance. Finally, writing also reinforces our capacity for mindfulness.

The power of the bare minimum

The daily checklist is meant to contain the bare minimum of daily tasks necesary to make consistent progress in the most important areas of our lives through the gradual introduction of positive habits in our behavior. It’s not the end of the world if one cannot perform all of them in a single day, specially a particularly busy one; in my view it is much more important that at least one of these tasks gets done every day, specially during horrendously unproductive ones in all other respects. We all have some of those days. But knowing that we have made a minimum of significant progress in specially meaningful areas of our lives, allows us to trust ourselves that we will eventually get the truly important stuff done.


Note: Besides the daily checklist, I still use a personally adapted version of GTD to manage the progress of all the other business and personal projects I might be involved with at any point in time. It has evolved considerably since I last wrote about it, so a follow-up post is coming soon.


Photo by justin.z


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