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What is Essentialism? A Complete Guide to Get You Started

What is Essentialism and How Can It Help You Become a More Effective Person

It started with a sharp pain in the belly. My wife complained about a recurring pain in her abdomen that seemed to get worst every minute. So we went to the hospital and the doctor advised us to get an X-ray. The diagnosis: appendicitis.

This happened 2 years ago. I had a job working at a startup in San Francisco. It was a challenging role, but I was having fun. That week, I was preparing to finish an important report. So when the doctor revealed the prognosis, I had a dilemma. Should I go to work to finish the report or should I stay with my wife for the surgery?

I was afraid that my boss wouldn’t understand my situation, so I decided to continue writing the report at the hospital. The problem was our room had no Internet. And it’s hard to keep your focus when someone you love is in the operating room. I ended up not finishing my work. My reputation was tarnished.

In the book titled Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, New York Times best-selling author Greg McKeown shares a similar situation about choosing between his wife or his job. His wife was about to give birth to their daughter, but Greg had an important meeting with a client.

He decided to go to the meeting but screwed it up because his attention wasn’t there. Worst, he felt guilty because he missed an important milestone in his life. The event prompted Greg to write a book about essentialism.

What is Essentialism?

What is essentialism? According to McKeown, essentialism is the deliberate practice of saying no and focusing only on what is truly important.

He adds that only when you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, and stop saying yes to anything, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.

Looking back, I realize it’s okay to say no. People, even your boss, will understand. In fact, when you get your priorities straight, people will respect you for it.

On the contrary, if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. This is the core message of essentialism. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about essentialism.

Essentialism: Priority vs Priorities

Did you know that the word “priority” didn’t have a plural form until the 1900s? The noun came into the English language in the 1400s in singular form, and it stayed singular for the next five hundred years. It simply meant the very first thing.

But during the height of the industrial revolution, the plural form “priorities” was made up to outline the multiple important things workers had to do in the day.

Priority used to be a powerful word. Unfortunately, the word is almost like a cliche today.

Essentialism focuses on the priority, not the priorities. It’s about doing less, not more. The essentialist knows that less equals more. When you’re selective, you’re giving yourself more time to create high-quality work.

On the other hand, the non-essentialist squeezes in everything. The result is more commitments, more stress, and poor quality work.

Warren Buffet is an example of an essentialist. He invests only on businesses that he understands, often making big bets on fewer opportunities and saying no to merely good ones. In fact, for every 100 great opportunities brought to him, he’d say no to 99 of them.

The Clarity Paradox

Have you wondered why successful people never make it to the next level? Why are successful people stretched too far or too thin? McKeown believes the reason is success.

According to McKeown, people don’t become very successful because of the Clarity Paradox, a situation which can be summed up in four phases:

Phase 1: When we have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.

Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.

Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.

Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

So success becomes a catalyst for failure.

When you achieve a certain level of success, it leads to new opportunities and paths. It gets to a point where success becomes a catalyst for failure, leading to what is called the undisciplined pursuit of more.

The antidote, McKeown adds, is the disciplined pursuit to less, but better, exploring the critical things, doing what’s essential.

How to Avoid the Clarity Paradox

  • Use more extreme criteria in making decisions. Search within yourself by asking more deep questions. Aim for the highest point of contribution by balancing the best of your talents, the market needs, and your passion.
  • What is essential? Eliminate the rest.
  • Beware of the Endowment Effect, which is our tendency to value an item more when we own it. Instead of asking, “How much do I value this item or opportunity?” We should ask “If I did not own this item or have this opportunity, how much will I pay to get it?”

Essentialism Concepts That You Should Know

Essentialism requires a different mindset. It goes against the principles that society tells you to do. Here are some facts about essentialism.

  1. We have a choice. We can choose how to spend our time and where to use our energy.
  2. Everything is noise. Only a few things are essential.
  3. There are trade-offs to everything. We can’t have it all. We can’t do everything.

To fully embrace essentialism, you need to replace some assumptions in your life with three core truths:

  • From saying “I have to” to “I choose to”.
  • From saying “it’s so important” to “only a few things really matter.”
  • And from saying “I can do both” to “I can do anything but not everything.”

Essentialism: Questions That You Need to Ask Yourself

Before I walk you through the steps, here are some important questions that you need to ask yourself to attract essentialism in your life. Go through each question and answer them.

  • What do I feel deeply passionate about or what am I inspired by?
  • If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?
  • What is the very most important thing you should be doing with your time and resources right now?

How to Apply Essentialism in Your Life

  1. Realize You Have a Choice

    We’re living in stressful times. We deal with many choices each day — no wonder why many people suffer from decision fatigue. The more choices we are forced to make, the more the quality of our decisions deteriorate. Know that between stimulus and response, you have a choice.

  2. Define Your Purpose

    To define your purpose, you need to reduce yourself to zero, eliminating everything else except for the thing that you’re passionate about. The great Mohandas Gandhi reduced himself to zero by focusing on liberating the oppressed. Doing what you’re passionate about will fulfill your purpose.

  3. Focus on the Vital Few

    Don’t major on minor things. What is the very most important thing you should be doing with your time and resources right now? You need to focus on the vital few and forget about the trivial many.

  4. Say No

    Learn to say a slow yes and a quick no. Everyone sells an idea, a point, or opinion in exchange for your time. Master the art of saying no. We often say yes because it’s easier, but saying no will produce long-term benefits. Check out more tips on saying no below.

  5. Prioritize Your Tasks

    It’s easy to drown in the sea of to-do lists and priorities. It’s time to prioritize your tasks. Writing down your tasks on paper isn’t enough. You need to prioritize them according to importance and urgency. You can use Week Plan to see which tasks are essential and non-essential.

  6. Escape to Think

    You need to establish a thinking time each day. This lets you see the things that truly matter to you. The problem is it’s hard to think when you’re busy at work or at home. Sometimes you need to escape in order to think. Create some space within your day to think of the choices and the trade-offs.

  7. Learn to Play

    Play fires up your brain and fuels your creativity. What are your favorite hobbies? Whether it’s playing a musical instrument and a sport or traveling and spending some time outdoors, play lets you see possibilities and broadens your perspective.

  8. Protect Your Sleep Time

    Rest so you can do the rest. Did you know that violinists sleep an average of 8.6 hours a day and nap 2.8 hours in the afternoon? We may not have the skills of a virtuoso, but science shows that sleep increase creativity and productivity. Sleep allows us to operate at the highest level and cope with the challenges of life.

Takeaways

  • Essentialism is about choosing the vital few from the trivial many.
  • To make the highest contribution towards the things that really matter, you need to stop trying to do everything and saying yes to everyone.
  • If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
  • The more options we have, the more we feel distracted from what could be our highest level of contribution.
  • Success can be a catalyst for failure. Avoid the undisciplined pursuit of more. Master the disciplined pursuit to less, but better.