It’s tempting to spend every minute of every day trying to do it all—especially at the start of a new year, when our attention shifts to goal-setting and self-improvement. However, even when there are so many things we “could” be doing, more is not necessarily better. Research has shown that focusing on too many tasks at once weakens strategic thinking—and can even impair our judgement.
Enter Essentialism, an approach to decision-making that prioritizes getting the right things done over getting more done so you can live by design, not default. Defined by author Greg McKeown in his best-selling book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, it’s been called the “antidote” to the epidemic of burnout by business leaders, academics, and celebrities.
The difference is in how you exert energy: The “Nonessentialist” is like a sprinkler, putting an equal amount of effort in many directions; the Essentialist is a firehose, focusing all of their powerful attention and energy in a singular direction. Guess who gets more done?
Here are three ways to live and work like an Essentialist.
1. Value your values. As McKeown says, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” Being a true Essentialist isn’t just a matter of making a pledge to say “no” more often. The goal is to focus not just on fewer things, but on things you value most.
How to do it: Visualize your dreams. What is most important to you, personally and professionally? What have you always dreamed of? Imagine the moment your dream becomes real in as much detail as possible: See, feel, hear, and even smell it. Seeing your goals actualized (even if only in the mind’s eye) helps you channel your energy, tap your potential, and recognize opportunities when they arise. Then, make a plan to focus on those goals this year.
2. Know the trade-offs. It’s tempting to try to fit as much into your day as you possibly can. But it’s important to keep in mind that every choice you make to do or add or commit to another thing comes with a cost: time, energy, and attention—your most valuable and limited assets.
How to do it: Ask the right questions. An Essentialist guards these resources by asking: “Is this really the best use of my time?” Rather than asking “How can I fit it all in?” McKeown says, ask yourself, “What are the trade-offs?” If you choose A over B, what is the cost? The key is to be honest about these costs, and then decide where your resources are best spent.
3. Check your motivation. While time management is a matter of what can be done in a given timeframe, a bigger question to ask yourself is why you feel you need to do it all.
How to do it: Look below the surface. When you feel like you “must,” “need,” or “should” act a certain way, if often means you’ve hit against an Iceberg Belief. These big and mostly subconscious beliefs usually show up as rules about how you should behave, like “Everything I do must be perfect,” or “I should do everything myself,” and can lead you to be pretty hard on yourself. The key is to recognize when these beliefs when they show up so you can become aware of when they’re affecting you, then create an affirmation to challenge them, such as “I’m only human and will do my best,” or “Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”
Reconciling what you “should” do with what you must do or want to do is a critical exercise—and it goes beyond pruning a to-do list or turning down a few lunch dates. When you begin to peel away at what doesn’t matter and focus more on what does, you’ll be astonished at what you can achieve.
Terri Trespicio is an award-winning writer, speaker, and a long-time media expert on health and wellbeing. She was one of the early contributors to meQuilibrium, and her work has been featured on Dr. Oz, Oprah magazine, Prevention, and MindBodyGreen, among others. Find her on Twitter @TerriT