Essentialism: My Ongoing Conversion Away From Time Management

“A non-Essentialist thinks almost everything is essential. An Essentialist thinks almost everything is non-essential.”

― Greg McKeown, ​Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Family, friends, and my own conscience have often suggested that I pursue too many things at once. It’s easy enough to rationalize and believe that if only I were more efficient, I would do even more, I would do all of it better, and, perhaps the greatest self-deception of all, I would be happier than I am now. This attitude can at its worst lead to physical and mental breakdown, and I find it fosters pride along with its shamefaced twin, self-doubt. Greater “success” compounds the ambition to extend oneself further; and often, a genuinely honest desire to please others prevents one from saying “no” to additional commitments.

This is the classic non-Essentialist predicament pointed out by Greg McKeown. In fact, some parts of his description gave me a slight chill, they so resonated with my own experience. I highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by the author.

Feeling convicted, and that I was tired of “moving a millimeter in a million directions,” I slowly began changing the way I think about “time management” and instead asking a surprisingly liberating question: “What can I say no to?”

At first, my stubbornness insisted that everything I’d committed to was important, and that there had to be a way to “do both.” Running through my calendar, I struggled to apply the Essentialist’s method of zero-based budgeting: if I did not already do this, would I add it now? I felt the status quo bias kick in:

● Tutoring: Yes, it gets in the way of things I like better, but it would be a shame to quit after several years of experience, plus, at this point it pays more per hour than any of my other three jobs…
● Reading groups: Each group reads different things, and besides, I wouldn’t see many of those friends otherwise…

The list went on, and I questioned whether this process was a good idea. Did I really want to eliminate anything? Variety is a source of energy and creativity for me. If I let something go, I had the melodramatic fear that I would be abandoning the ideal I’d had most of my life, that of the Renaissance man, the polymath, the jack of all trades.

However, I was persuaded that it is the Essentialist who truly maximizes his potential, and it is by embracing tradeoffs. The Essentialist is well-rounded, to be sure; indeed, Greg McKeown says that the Essentialist explores even more options. But this is because he is looking to commit to just a few. His motto is, “You can do anything but not everything.”

Greg McKeown offers a helpful analogy: Like a journalist, the Essentialist filters out the noise and listens for what matters. He cuts to the chase and eliminates anything that might distract. If he is not sure whether something is essential, he cuts it out and sees whether the end result is really so bad. For the Essentialist, it is not about doing more; it is about doing less for the sake of more.What helped me as I was evaluating my own choices was reframing them in terms of “What can I go big on?” and “What am I willing to say no to?” Resisting the urge to do everything, I asked what I would do if I could do anything. Also, I focused less on projects to do and more on lasting habits to form.

What I resolved was:
● I’d start journaling again, writing one page daily in order to trace the days’ essential threads.
● I’d set up a strict email filter to let me catch up on philosophy reading. In the future, I will open a tab for every article that piques my interest and scan for the 3 or 4 that will be most valuable.
● I’d finally prioritize physical fitness, cutting out the clarinet, piano, and voice until I’d completed 30 days of yoga and HIIT routines.
● I’d put screen time limits on my phone (30 minutes max. per day), and block non-essential apps completely on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
● I’d practice intermittent fasting 6 days per week and use the extra time of not cooking, eating, and cleaning to read the work of St. Francis de Sales.

It was daunting to start, as I’d attempted these resolutions to varying degrees in the past and stumbled countless times. I’ve made significant progress, however, and the fasting lifestyle in particular has been a wildly successful change for me and my family ​– ​we hope a permanent one. The exhilarating part about the process of letting things go is the space it creates for evaluating what’s most important. Gradually, I’m being liberated from so many things I thought I “had” to do.

To the degree that famous Renaissance men have been Essentialists, it has certainly helped them make their greatest possible contributions. But to the point, Essentialism is not about getting more things done, but getting the right things done. It doesn’t matter our talent, intelligence, or temperament. For all of us, to make our greatest possible contribution is firstly to realize that almost everything is non-essential. When we recognize that, we have profound freedom, as well as the sense of fulfillment that comes when we’re living by design, rather than by default.