Essentialism

Do you have too many responsibilities?  Is there never enough time for all that needs your attention?  Are you uncertain what you are trying to achieve?  Depending on your answers, you may want to consider picking up a copy of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.

Essentialism espouses the idea that you should eliminate the nonessentials in your life so that you have more time and energy to focus on what truly matters.  Rather than emphasize strategies to improve time management or productivity, essentialism argues that the key to increasing the productivity on key objectives is to eliminate everything else from the equation.

The impact of such an idea can most easily be seen in our jobs and businesses.  It can be easy to become occupied on multiple projects, business requests, or other related tasks that occupy the bulk of our time, all of which can cause us to neglect the truly vital aspects of our jobs or roles.  Rather than saying yes to every request or opportunity that comes along, you should rather take time to analyze which of those best align with your own goals and objectives, and then eliminate all others from the board. Unfortunately, the more success you obtain and the more you build a reputation as someone who can accomplish tasks, the more requests and opportunities will come to you.  It can be tempting to take these on, but you will ultimately spread yourself thin, causing you to not only contribute less than 100% on each of those tasks, but also causing you to neglect your own priorities.

Unfortunately, “letting go” is not always an easy thing to do, especially for high achievers.  Giving ourselves permission to stop trying to do everything, to stop trying to please everyone, is an idea that may honestly come across as bad advice when first heard.  But as McKeown and many other professional development coaches have argued, you have a responsibility to prioritize your own life, and that not doing so will allow others to prioritize your life for you, likely for the worse.

At its core, essentialism is about trade-offs.  While most individuals have the power to pursue most any objective, arguably no one has the power to pursue everything.  On this point, it is not enough to simply “push something to the back-burner” while you focus on other tasks.  Rather you must purposefully acknowledge that you are choosing to permanently say no to other opportunities so that you can focus on the ones that align with your personal goals and desires.  As painful as trade-offs can be, taking the time to strategically choose the objectives we want to pursue can significantly increase our chance of achieving those goals.  This can be especially true for businesses.  It may be tempting to “straddle” multiple marketing options or strategies, but this can potentially undermine your business’ abilities and market success.  Choose which options work best, and quickly discard the rest.

As decisions of this importance cannot often be made in only a few seconds, it can be tempting think that you do not have time to analyze your options and responsibilities.  But the truth is that you do not have time not to do so.  Choosing to not make these decisions will only leave you trapped in your current cycle, unable to experience real growth and success as you continue to waste time and energy on nonessentials.  To help speed up your analysis, McKeown suggests using the 90% Rule.  As you evaluate your options, think about the most important criterion for that decision and then give it a score between 0 and 100.  If the score isn’t at least a 90, then discard the option without a second thought.  This keeps you from wasting more time dwelling on options that, while potentially good, are ultimately not the best options for you to choose.  To take this practice a step further, “If the answer isn’t a definite yes, then it should be a no.”  For essentialism, there should be no gray area of thought.

A few additional thoughts from Essentialism:

  • What “bottlenecks” most hold up your time and energy each day?  By systematically identifying and removing those constraints you will significantly reduce your lag at completing your primary objectives.
  • Do the most important task of each day first thing in the morning, before anything else you do.
  • Be present in the now.
  • Multitasking is not the answer.
  • If you don’t set boundaries for what you will and will not tolerate, there will be no boundaries.
  • Humans have a natural bias to continue failed or unfruitful endeavors due to the amount of time and energy we have already invested in them.  Let these things go so that you can focus on what you need to focus on.

In the words of Lai-tzu, “To attain knowledge, add things every day.  To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”  Spend some time looking at the things in your life and determine which of those need to be let go.  As you make this skill a habit and routine, you will increase your productivity on the tasks that truly matter, while also reducing stress and enabling you to truly be present in each moment of your life.

Disclaimer: the author of this article received no financial compensation for the review of the book discussed herein.

Jeremiah Clark, M.A., is the co-owner of Appalachian Digital, a website development agency.  He is also a Lead Systems Analyst with the Cleveland Clinic.  You can contact Jeremiah at JeremiahSethClark@Outlook.com or connect with him on LinkedIn at Jeremiah Clark.