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Why Essentialism is Essential
& Why I Tattoo-ed The Concept onto My Arm
“The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials”
— Lin Yutang
Essentialism has been such a powerful concept for me that I even decided to get my first ever tattoo based on it’s central tenet:
To only focus on one goal — the essential — in life. To ignore everything else.
It’s visible. On my arm. Reflected back at me in the mirror daily, to regularly trigger a question:
“Will this activity have the highest contribution towards my goal?”
Essentialism has had such a profound effect on because of the outcomes it has set the groundwork for in my life since reading the book 4 years ago:
Allowing me to work remotely & follow my passion of traveling
To learn new skills, such as fluent Portuguese & professional-level programming
To develop mindfulness skills, such as meditation & journaling
To establish my own bootstrapped, profitable business
What is Essentialism?
“What would happen if we could figure out the one thing you could do that would make the highest contribution?”
Less is more.
This is the central tenet of Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism.
A contrived, cliched concept, some may think.
Yet his arguments for following this mantra are pretty convincing:
That, only by boiling one’s activity down to only those activities that bring you closer to your goal in life, will you achieve those goals.
That distraction — serving a turn here & another over there — will lead to a busy, but ultimately unfruitful, life.
That the word ‘priority’, by its very definition, refers to the singular, to the very first thing.
“What if society stopped telling us to buy more stuff and instead allowed us to create more space to breathe and think? What if society encouraged us to reject what has been accurately described as doing things we detest, to buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like?
Do you think it is at all likely you will wake up one day and say ‘I wish I had been less true to myself and had done all the non-essential things others expected of me?”
McKeown reduces this down to a simple formula:
Explore, eliminate, execute.
Explore and evaluate
Explore what you want to achieve in life. What you could spend your time doing. Then ask tough questions:
“Will this activity/effort make the highest possible contribution towards my goal?”
Ignore biases that encourage you to continue wasting your time, such as the sunk-cost bias (whereby we irrationally continue investing in an acitivity, regardless of outcome, just because we’ve already started it).
Be ruthless & eliminate tasks that are not having a direct, large impact on achieveing your goal.
Create a routine — a system even — to deal with an unpredictable world.
The goal is to learn how to do less — but do it better — so you can achieve the highest possible return on every precious moment of your life.
Why Follow Essentialism
“To follow, without halt, one aim: there is the secret to success” — Anna Pavlova
“The crime which bankrupts men and states is that of job-work; — declining from your design to serve a turn here or there” — Emerson
The modern world is one of distraction. It is one of vanity. Of false concepts of ‘success’. It is one, in short, that leads us astray from our true intentions.
Therefore, not actively cultivating the practices of Essentialism in some form will lead to you spending your time — your life — on mediocre, trivial things, rather than on great things.
Never pursuing your own goals.
Never having the time.
Yet, as McKeown points out, even when we follow the principles of Essentialism, dangers lie ahead:
By following Essentialism, it engenders a ‘paradox of success’ that goes as follows: When we really have clarity of purpose, it enables us to succeed at our endeavour. When we are successful, we become a go-to person, with more opportunities and options open to us.
However, increased opportunities and options — whilst they sound great — lead to greater demands on our time and diffused efforts. We become distracted from the essential and undermine or lose sight of the very clarity that led to our initial success.
How To Cultivate Essentialism
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe” — Abraham Lincoln
Through regular, deliberate practice.
By following the formula of exploring ideas, eliminate the non-essential, executing effectively on those tasks which are essential.
1/4 Change your mindset:
Try to accept these beliefs:
1. That we have individual choice:
That everything we do is active.
In McKeown’s own words, he wasted years of his life doing something he didn’t even want to do:
“By refusing to choose ‘not law school’, I had chose law school. Not because I wanted to actively be there, but by default.”
2. That almost everything is noise and unessential
We believe we can & should do it all. From an early age we are taught that hard work equates results. We are never taught, conversely, to prioritise effectively, to “not do”, to critically evaluate how we use our time.
We are only taught that more work equates more results. Yet if you’re already working hard, there’s a point where more is, in fact, damaging to results.
3. That trade-offs are a reality
That, in the pursuit of doing less, we must actively, critically think about how we spend our time and on what.
That we cannot do it all.
Changing your mentality to accept trade-offs as an inherent part of life — not necessarily negative — is key.
If you believe being overly busy and overextended is evidence of productivity, then you probably believe that creating space to explore, think, and reflect should be kept to a minimum. Yet these very activities are the antidote to the non-essential busyness that infects so many of us. Rather than trivial diversions, they are critical to distinguishing what is actually a trivial diversion from what is truly essential.
Create mental space for yourself to focus, whether that be by working from home, going for a walk, or, like the CEO of LinkedIn, blocking out 2hrs in your Calendar each day for thinking time
Set aside time for reading to trigger new ideas
Write a journal to clarify your thoughts, to keep track of your goals, to simply remember things
Set aside time to play, a key tool for creativity
Prioritise sleep to ensure you’re brain is performing optimally, enhancing your ability to explore, to make connections, to do less but better throughout your work day
Create extreme selection criteria: If it’s below an 8/10, then avoid it at all costs, whether a social event or work commitment
Now actively reduce what you are currently doing:
Be comfortable saying no to opportunities to free up time to either discover your true purpose or to focus on your true purpose
Create on clear, concrete goal in life so you know what to eliminate
Uncommit from activities that are not contributing to that goal, regardless of how much time, money, or energy you have already invested
Edit your life, by cutting out, condensing, correcting our activiities on a continuous basis
In a distracted world, the only defence is to create robust systems that focus on your essential intent every day:
Build a regular routine to make execution effortless: This could be journaling as soon as you wake up, spending an hour before work in the pursuits of your essential intent, adding a Calendar reminder to read part of a book each day. Any strong habit you can form on a daily basis.
Expect uncertainty: Accept the certainty that the unexpected will happen in life, so create a buffer — assuming the worst-case scenario — so you remain on track towards your essential intent
Use extreme preparation: Plan meticulously, even if it’s a year-long project, so you know exactly what you need to achieve today, tomorrow, next week
Follow this formula, as I have done, and McKeown suggests that you will live a far more rewarding life, as you free yourself to focus your time on energy on your goal in life, to focus on acheiving the highest contribution you can make.
These practices may seem intimidating, or a lot of work, but they are in fact, liberating.
You will find that, by cultivating discipline & critical thinking in your daily routine, you progress towards your goals & find fulfilment there in.
So, when you stop reading this & move on with your lives, ask yourself this:
“Will this activity have the highest contribution towards my goal?”