In the fundamentals of Less Doing when I talk about Organization I say that in my system it is simply a matter of setting appropriate limits. That limit becomes your benchmark for how the rest of your productivity system is working. Using the limit as your goal and working to do whatever you need to in order for that to happen is an excellent exercise. What would you have to do in order to:

  • Never have more than 10 emails in your inbox?
  • Read a book every week?
  • Travel the world and run your life with nothing more than your iPhone?
  • Have a 30 page binder that holds all the paper in your life?
  • Spend $100 on food every month?

The list goes on and on because there are literally hundreds of examples like this. This is NOT the same as setting a goal and working backwards to figure out what steps you need to get there. This is about setting (possibly unreasonable) restrictions on yourself to force you to become more streamlined, and thus more efficient and mobile. In the end less is more.

I’ll give you a really concrete one. A couple of years ago I had a closet in my house full of old electronic junk. In all honesty it was probably all garbage but I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of any of it. Even worse, every time I’d get a new gadget or upgrade a computer, more stuff would go in the closet. In this day and age nobody needs 30 of those 6 foot long telephone cords that come with new phones. So I decided to do something drastic, I got a medium-sized box (about 2 feet by 1 foot by 1 foot) and decided this would be the limit of my electronic debris. Now what would it take for me to make that happen. I donated a bunch of it to a charity that uses circuit boards and related items for arts and crafts projects. I dumped a bunch of stuff off at an e-waste recycling day. I downloaded digital copies of any paper manuals. And finally I was left with just enough stuff to put in the box. Furthermore, going forward, any time I want to put something new in the box, I have to take 2 things out. Since I did this little “cleansing” experiment, I have added two items to the box, and thus removed four.

For a great example of effectively using limits, see how Graham Hill of LifeEdited created a fully functional home in just 450 square feet.

I started to realize I could apply this to other things in my life and business. Email was a big one as it is for many people. I thought, as I looked at my hundred plus message inbox, if I never had more than 10 emails at a time. What would it take to accomplish this? Make sure to check out my article on Mashable about Dealing with Email Overload for a great start. I needed a better filing system; rather than have hundreds of folders I have one, the optional folder, and everything that is not essential is automatically filtered into that folder. I have autoresponders setup, my virtual assistant deals with certain things, and I got into the practice of answering emails quickly and moving on.

I only use the bookmarks bar in Chrome which holds about 12 saved URLs. I used to have hundreds with folders and sub folders. There were tons of dead links and things I never looked at anymore. If I ever want to add a new bookmark, I either have to think really hard about whether or not I need it or about the one I need to delete to make room for it. In fact, I try to keep as much as possible web-based as it is. If I come across a cool program that requires I download and install it, I’ll look for a web-based alternative or I will figure out another way to accomplish the functionality of that program that doesn’t require an installation. Seem extreme? As a result I have two programs installed on my Mac, Chrome and Dropbox. I am able to accomplish everything I need in life and business via web-based applications whether it’s Google Docs for document creation and management or SignNow for getting contracts signed. It also means that if my computer were to blow up for some reason, I could literally be up and running on a complete stranger’s computer in a matter of seconds without any disturbance to my flow. In this case, the limit is that everything I do must be web based, then I find the systems and setups that fit that guideline.

Over the years I accumulated a lot of paper. Just as I explain in the fundamental on Creating an External Brain, I want people to overuse and overshare when it comes to note and record keeping, you never know when something will be useful. I used to do that with paper and as a result had three filing cabinets, each one six feet wide with double drawers. We are talking about thousands of pieces of paper, hundreds of business cards, and even full-sized architectural plans. I decided that a single file folder that could hold about thirty pieces of paper was acceptable to me. It was quite an undertaking but after scanning hundreds of pieces of paper including seven years of taxes, digitizing business cards and putting them in my contacts, and getting the architectural plans shrunk and scanned into pdfs, I finally shredded and recycled a very satisfying mountain of paper and have never looked back.

Here’s a big one, it was one thing not to install things on my computer but once I became almost completely cloud based I realized I could take things a step further. What if I could run my whole life from my iPad. That day I put my laptop away and started figuring out what apps I would need in order to function. I need FTP access, VPN service, the ability to edit pdfs, the ability to look at CAD files for architectural drawings, Skype, etc…all of it could be accomplished by apps and if not I could email my assistant and have her do it. For the next six months I never opened my laptop again. The only hiccup came with typing but after temporarily using bluetooth to pair my Mac keyboard with the iPad and seeing how well it worked, I got a portable keyboard…problem solved. Of course, the job of trimming the fat is never done. Two months ago I wanted to see if I could do it with just my iPhone. It wasn’t as challenging as I thought and I have now gone on two five-day trips with no laptop, no iPad, and without needing to use a hotel or friends computer. I can operate my business and my life, with full function, using nothing more than my iPhone and THAT means that I am COMPLETELY mobile.

What limits can you set in order to be more effective, and what would you have to add, learn, eliminate, or arrange to make that happen?