When I left my office job about a year ago to spend more time with my three children, I thought I’d have more time. Time to start a blog, read, write, learn, exercise, practice mindfulness, and do a lot more. Clearly, I was being too ambitious. And soon enough I became so frazzled and overwhelmed by it all that I realized I was being busy but not productive at all. I’m sure I’m not alone in trying to pack our schedules to the brim, doing everything we think we should be doing (or want to be doing) to improve our lives. But we just have to come to terms with the fact that we can’t do it all. And I don’t know about you, but when my house is full of things that never get used (i.e. clutter) or schedules that are filled with tasks that I cannot complete, I don’t feel any better for it. Quite the opposite, in fact. So, in the attempt to look for ways to identify my priorities and do things more efficiently, I picked up a copy of “Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” by Greg McKeown. Seeing that he coaches companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, and LinkedIn, I’ll take any advice he might have! The first tip is I picked up from this fantastic book is that we should learn to focus on what is absolutely essential to our happiness and well-being. When we do things we "have to do," rather than things we "choose to do," we’re surrendering our power to choose. And essentially we give this power to others. McKeown calls this "learned helplessness." Instead, embrace the idea of "less but better" and accept trade-offs as an inherent part of life. To do this, we need to adopt the principle of essentialism, which focuses on four main points. 1| Do less, but do it better. Identify the things you need to cut out, and do what’s left at a higher standard. Be ruthless in cutting away things that aren’t essential. 2 | Reject the notion that we should accomplish everything. We just can’t do everything. So choose what matters most to you and choose to excel in those specific directions. 3 | Question yourself and update your plans accordingly. Life, people and circumstances change, so keep asking yourself: is this worth my time? Or should I invest my time and energy into a more productive area? 4 | Take action. Nothing changes if we don’t take action. But how exactly do we implement these principles?
Giving yourself space to escape will help you pick out the vital from the trivial. With modern technologies giving us instant and constant access to entertainment and communication, we’re never bored. But carving out regular periods of time to do nothing can give us an opportunity to think clearly about what needs to be done. Think about your life – what options, problems, or challenges you face, and assess what’s vital and what isn’t. According to McKeown, people like Newton and Einstein used to do this, and many of today’s most successful CEOs do the same. Are we really too busy to do this too?
We get so lost in the small, day-to-day tasks that sometimes we lose track of the reason we are doing certain things in the first place. In order to maintain focus on what’s important, essentialism teaches us to always concentrate on the bigger picture. And one way to do this is to keep a journal. McKeown suggests to force yourself to write as little as possible though. This way you can think through everything you’ve done and sift out only what you consider essential. And when you read it back, you will see the big picture emerge.
Playing is a vital tool for inspiration. It gets our creative juices flowing, helps us develop new connections between ideas that we would have never otherwise considered, it’s a great antidote to stress, and it helps us prioritize and analyze tasks. Unfortunately, some of us (me included) tend to see play as trivial and unproductive. Because it’s pure entertainment, we may feel it’s as a waste of time. But if companies like Twitter, Pixar, and Google, for example, promote play based on the belief that a playful employee is an inspired and productive one, maybe we should take a leaf out of their book too?
It sounds counterproductive, doesn’t it? With so much to do and not enough hours in the day, are we really saying that we should sleep more? Indeed. Sleep increases your ability to think, connect ideas, and maximize your productivity during your waking hours. One hour of sleep actually results in several more hours of higher productivity the following day. Studies have shown that going 24 hours without sleep, or getting a weekly average of just four to five hours of sleep per night causes a cognitive impairment equivalent to what you would have with zero point one percent blood alcohol level. That’s enough to get your driver’s license suspended!
Say no to non-essential tasks. Unfortunately, we are so socially programmed to please others that when other people are involved in our decision-making, we fear saying no. We feel awkward and pressured not to disappoint everyone we care about, fearful that we may damage our relationships. So separate your decisions from the relationship. Know it’s not personal and try and remember that failing to say not to the things which aren’t vital can lead you to miss out on the opportunities that truly are.
Do you ever find yourself doing something that you know is a waste of effort simply because at some point you committed to it? McKeown calls this the sunk-cost-bias – the tendency to continue investing money, time, effort, and energy into something we already know is unlikely to succeed. You can easily avoid this trap by developing the courage to admit your errors and mistakes and to let them go. If it’s clear that something isn’t going to work out, don’t be afraid to cut your losses and abandon ship.
Creating success is all about building upon your previous progress with small, incremental steps. Small wins create momentum, which gives you the confidence to further succeed. And they allow you to stay on track by giving you the opportunity to check whether you are heading in the right direction. While it might be frustrating to take small steps, their consequences can be far-reaching.