Simplifying can show us what’s important and lead us to what matters. Learning from the legacy of Donald Judd and path of Leo Babuata as artists and executives alike.

Photo: Untitled by Donald Judd

Doing less is a popular thought process in business at the moment. The idea of trying to reduce distraction and get down to the core of what you are trying to accomplish has taken root as the solution to a never-ending stream of email, meetings, social media updates and the detritus that comes along with it.

In art, this came to a head in mid 60’s. Artists like Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin and the other proponents of minimalist art put in tremendous work and detailed writings into doing less and saying much more with a lack of external appearance or apparent simplicity.

Photo: Robert Irwin at Pace Gallery

Photo:15 untitled works in concrete by Donald Judd. 1980-85, Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas.

The proponents of these ideas in the business world, Getting Things Done (GTD) with David Allen and in particular to this discussion Leo Babauta’s minimal lifestyle and goal setting model explore a similar process. In an elimination of “stuff” and a removal of distraction, they seek to get to the core of the working process: what are we trying to accomplish and how do we get there in today’s world?

The GTD model wants to erase most of the distraction by building systems that at the end of the day happen almost automatically. Getting to the system stage takes a tremendous amount of housecleaning. This part of the process (the “getting it all out of your head” part) and the consistent maintenance required is hard work. The challenge to make these changes while work piles up is one of the main contributors to those eager to get the benefits dropping out before they begin.

Leo Babauta’s “Zen to Done” system  had the GTD process with less to do and seemed to work for him for a limited time. But the honesty of his journey through this to the next stage is exceptional. At certain points he realized that after a while the system itself was too much of what he wanted to get away from and he went to a much cleaner, heavily Zen influenced “No Goals” style. That led to his “simply do” mindset that also was difficult for people to follow in a completely different way.

Leo Babauta

Despite it’s intense popularity and Babauta’s unintentional status as a zen priest of organization and life direction, the number of people able to adhere to that philosophy I suspect are few. A life approach that leads to not doing much other than the seemingly next best thing is counter intuitive for us. As a culture we love busy work. Without a step by step structure we waffle. Babauta’s greatest success is in showing us that the systems we accept as a part of business may not be necessary. How much of this structure we really need and where it came from is the exploration that is interesting. It is a work in progress and his greatest statement to this are his honest sharing of his archives, showing his thought process growing and changing over the years.

Artists like Judd or Robert Irwin came to similar mindset in art. By taking their work to a point where the artist’s hand in making it was almost or completely erased and the history of European art was obliterated from the work created, he succeeded in creating something fresh that was a sharp contrast to the Jackson Pollock’s of the time. It offered new approaches to beauty and what art was.

Donald Judd

Judd came to conclusions that are similar to what Leo is getting towards and what eventually was the end of minimalism as a relevant art form: that you can only reduce something so far. The minimal gesture is interesting in that the work required to get to the end of the process is tremendous and elegant. We can’t all be monks in the temple. And so for both Judd and Leo the working towards minimalism brings on the “my kid could do that” crowd to say “what’s the big deal?” They assume that the road leading to simplicity and less complication means less work and less beauty, when it really is the opposite.

The parallels in contemporary business are the standardization of LEED into architecture and the carbon footprint of business being a priority, not an afterthought. These strategic value systems to leave less evidence of the work being done are very complex and expensive gestures. It takes a lot of work to do less to the environment. Once the idea is introduced, it’s impossible to back away from.

The Minimalists success was in showing that pieces could exist in art without the human hand being shown and by bringing previously unexplored things like light and the industrial process into relevancy to the artists tool box. In this way, I think Leo’s quest of a lack of form in his life direction will gain in acceptance and become a part of the daily lives of our grandchildren in the same way Judd’s ideas are deeply ingrained in the modern interior design canon.

Photo: Bed by Donald Judd Foundation

In business and art, it is the searching of value and values that matters. It requires creativity and great exploration of yourself and your life to make it work. The legacy of Donald Judd and the searching of Leo Babuata are examples of that we can learn from as artists and executives alike.

More on Donald Judd and the minimalist movement are here. Browse through Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits archive to trace his journey here.