Essentialism 101: How to Do More of What Matters and Less of the Rest

essentialism 101

What’s stopping you from doing more of what matters, and less of the other stuff? You, and only you.

How often do you find yourself wishing you had an extra 20 minutes in the day, or maybe even an extra hour or two, so you can get everything done that you had planned?

If you’ve got time management and life management in general figured out, then you don’t need to read any further.

But this blog post on essentialism — and how changing your mindset can change your life — is for the rest of us (ahem…the normal ones).

Choosing the Difficult Path

When I first set out to pursue my dream of leaving the 9-5 world and running my own business on my terms, I’ll admit, it was downright overwhelming. It was terrifying, to be honest. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, where to start, or who to look for guidance from.

I felt this way despite all of the genuine support I was receiving from my then employer, my then fiancé (now husband), my family and friends, and my inner instinct that told me this was the right thing to do.

While I knew deep down that working for myself was the best (while also most difficult) decision I could make, I also knew that the road ahead would be paved with serious potholes.

I wasn’t sure if my polite, thin-skinned, people-pleaser personality could make it in a dog-eat-dog world. In fact, I was partially convinced I was going to get eaten alive.

Not Just Another Self-Help Book

Source: Greg Mckeown

Because of my self-doubt and the inability to shake the feeling that I was destined for failure, I found myself reading a lot of blog posts about being a successful business owner.

I finally stumbled upon a book that intrigued me, and from the moment I opened it to begin reading, I couldn’t put it down. The book is titled Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown.

While the book itself didn’t solve my problems for me (because books don’t actually have that power – only you do), it did help me to take a closer look at not only how I use my time, but also why I use it the way I do.

The book helps readers explore what they feel most important in their lives, and guides them towards taking meaningful actions to support only what is essential.

Essentialism Is a Mindset; a Way of Life

According to Greg McKeown himself,

“Essentialism isn’t one more thing; it is a different way of doing everything. It is a discipline you apply constantly, effortlessly. Essentialism is a mindset; a way of life. It is an idea whose time has come.”

I really can’t think of a better way to say that, so I’m not even going to try. And I’ll tell you what else I won’t do – can’t do. I won’t sum the book up for you in the remainder of this blog. That wouldn’t be fair to Mr. McKeown; nor would it do the book justice. You’ll have to read the book to get the genuine experience that I did and to take from it what you need to.

What I can do is tell you four of the most important things that I learned from the book, how they’ve changed the way I evaluate potential projects and clients, and how they’ve changed my definition of what’s essential in my life, dramatically.

1. Learn to Say No

Saying no isn’t any fun. We all want to please everyone all of the time, but it’s simply not possible. Plus, even if we please everyone else, we likely aren’t pleasing ourselves, because we don’t have any time left to do what we enjoy, or do things that help us better ourselves.

Instead of beating around the bush, I strive to be honest from the beginning. I remind myself that I don’t have to give a reason why or feel guilty about it.

Saying yes may feel better at first, but if my yes eventually turns into a maybe, and ultimately a no, whoever asked for my help is going to wish I had just said so from the beginning.

If you’re pretty sure you don’t have time to do something, it’s likely that you don’t.

If you aren’t able to assess when you have to say no, and can’t do so with authority, your schedule will get taken over by projects and people who have pushed you to take on more than you can handle. And, when you rush through tasks and projects simply to get them done, you’re not doing you or your customers any favors.

2. Own the Freedom to Choose

We all have the freedom to choose, but we also all love to use our supposed lack of having the freedom to choose as an excuse for why we do or don’t do certain things. McKeown talks a lot about our freedom to choose in his book, and how our choices affect every aspect of our lives. He also makes a point of highlighting the fact that choosing the essential over everything else is really, really, hard.

It’s hard to make difficult choices, especially choices that are unpopular or that we’re afraid may be received with feelings of frustration, judgment, or simple rejection.

However, I’ve learned that if something is that important to me that I must make a difficult decision to do what matters most, then it’s worth whatever risks are associated with the choice.

3. Sleep More. Work Less.

Without sufficient sleep, your brain doesn’t work properly. When your brain isn’t working properly, you aren’t able to approach tasks and projects most productively and efficiently.

While it may be tempting to sacrifice sleep to get more done, sleep is one of those things that fall on the list of things we should do more of.

I’m one of the lucky ones, in that I generally don’t have any trouble sleeping. However, I do try to fit too much in sometimes (okay, a LOT of the time). This concept is about:

  • Reminding yourself to go to bed instead of answering an email
  • Picking a hard “quitting time” when the work day is officially over
  • Aaccepting that sometimes you won’t finish everything on your “to-do” list (without kicking yourself for it the next day)
4. Give Yourself a Buffer

This is something I’ve neglected to do my entire life, and that’s not even an exaggeration. If I know it takes me 15 minutes to get somewhere on a normal, low-traffic day; then I allow 15 minutes to get there every time. That’s a terrible way to manage my time, and I know it. I do this so that I can, in theory, fit more into my day, but you can guess what happens.

McKeown opens up his chapter about buffers with the perfect quote (in my opinion) attributed to Abraham Lincoln, who said,

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

In this same chapter, McKeown compares how a “Nonessentialist” would approach a task or project with regards to time management vs. how an “Essentialist” would approach it. And, you guessed it, the “Essentialist” would be sure to account for potential issues, setbacks, and other obstacles that may prevent things from going smoothly.

Unlike in the case of my estimating travel time based a low-traffic day, an “Essentialist” would estimate that there would be at least some traffic or some similar obstacle that would add 5-10 minutes onto my travel time – just in case. (I’m still working on mastering this.)

I know now what I can realistically fit into each day because I account for any number of things that could go wrong every 24 hours.

Applying Essentialism to Life

Greg McKeown’s book has helped me to realize that I can’t – nor do I want to – do everything for or be everything to everyone. It’s not sustainable, and it certainly isn’t going to help me grow as a person and business owner.

By sharing my talents with the world and letting the best version of myself shine through, I can improve my quality of life and provide better services to my clients.

And all of this happens when I practice essentialism by saying no when I need to, owning my freedom to choose, getting enough sleep, and accounting for the unexpected.

  • What do you wish you had more time to do?  
  • Are there things you wish you spent less time on?
  • What if you did less of what you don’t enjoy, and more of what you do enjoy?

I know it’s not quite that simple, but it almost is. What’s stopping you from doing more of what matters, and less of the other stuff? You, and only you.

What’s your take on essentialism? Share your thoughts in the comment section!

About the Author

Lisa Leslie

Lisa Leslie, owner of Writer By Default, is a professional writer, editor, and social media marketing consultant. She enjoys working with entrepreneurs and small businesses to help them tell their stories. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the outdoors or spending time with her family.


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