In the last few paragraphs of Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, the author tells a heartbreaking story of a man whose three-year-old daughter has died. The father wished to put together a slideshow of her little life to play at her funeral. He had documented on his camera every outing he’d ever taken with his daughter, and he had hours of footage. But as he scrolled through the thousands of photos and videos, he realized, with growing alarm, that nearly all the images he had captured were of the sights, views, meals, and landmarks of their trips. He had practically no close-up images of his daughter. He had failed to recognize what was essential in his life until she was gone.
Essentialism, according to McKeown, is about distilling one’s life down to its essence. It’s about teasing out – from the many trivial tasks, obstacles, requests, expectations, assumptions, and distractions – the essential few things that make your unique life worth living. It’s about embracing a life of meaning, simplicity, and contentment. It’s about figuring out what’s important to you, and eliminating the rest.
Crisis as Separation and Opportunity
Our collective COVID-19 crisis has been frustrating, at best, and devastating, at worst. We have had to contend with the loss of loved ones, jobs, safety, and our comfortable and predictable ways of life. We have had to oversee and facilitate our childrens’ virtual school while working from home. We have had to isolate from family and friends. We have had to grapple with our psychological, spiritual, and physical health more than ever before.
The etymology of the word “crisis” is revealing: krinein, it’s Greek root, means “to judge, to distinguish, to separate.” A crisis asks us to separate from the deadening aspects of our lives. It offers us the threshold to choose that which no longer serves us to be burned up in the fire of inner transformation. In that choice, and in the loss that follows, there is opportunity. As Alexander Graham Bell famously said, “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” The COVID-19 crisis has literally and figuratively closed many doors, but it has also opened one very special doorway: the opportunity into our true, authentic, purpose-filled lives.
McKeown suggests stepping into essentialism by first exploring the tangled details of our current lives and systematically parsing out “the trivial many from the vital few.” Take time to step back from your daily obligations, declare yourself unavailable, and discover, through play and patience, what’s important to you.
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” – Greg McKeown
As Roald Dahl once said, “A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.” It’s easy, as over-functioning and stress-filled adults, to become so goal-oriented that we forget about pure leisure. Play, defined as any enjoyable activity with no discernable objective or outcome, may seem non-essential at first glance, but McKeown argues that play fires up the brain, sparks exploration, and leads to deep insight and action. Play is crucial to self-inquisition and self-knowledge; it is fundamental to sparking creative energy and engaging in the purposeful work that follows.
In her lyrical book, When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions, Sue Monk Kidd describes waiting as a liminal state of being, a cocooning from the external demands of the world, and a drawing inward into the shadowy, murky, liquefaction of one’s highly curated ego, in order to emerge transformed and more alive than before. She likens spiritual waiting to the yeasting of bread, a vital chemistry of living transformation that we cannot see, but rather must trust in its alchemic process. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Sometimes, in order to know what to do next, we must be still, receptive, and open to our own inner direction and the mysterious guidance from beyond.
“Would I see that waiting, with all its quiet passion and hidden fire, is the real crucible of spiritual transformation? Waiting is thus both passive and passionate. It’s a vibrant, contemplative work.” – Sue Monk Kidd
After exploration, McKeown encourages eliminating extraneous aspects of one’s life. Practice asserting boundaries, uncommitting to previous engagements, cutting your losses, and very often, simply saying, “no” in the first place. He uses the powerful example of Rosa Park’s graceful, courageous, and far-reaching “no” when asked to move from her seat on the bus. For most of us, most of the time, saying “no” results in trading the initial exhilaration of people-pleasing (which inevitably is followed by regret and resentment anyway) for the conviction of deliberate choice, the serenity of self-respect, and the freedom of rigorous honesty. But sometimes, as Rosa Parks exemplifies, a simple “no” can even change the course of history.
“’No’ is a complete sentence.” – Anne Lamot
Editing one’s life down to its essence is the disciplined elimination practice critical to the path of essentialism. In his famous book, On Writing, Stephen King encourages writers to “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings,” for he insists that “to write is human; to edit is divine.” It can be painful to edit one’s writing, just as it can be painful to edit one’s life of people, events, commitments, and habits, especially when those elements are good (albeit not essential). But McKeown argues that while eliminating non-essentials can be painful in the moment, clearing out one’s life will ultimately create joy and freedom, because all of that extra time and energy you have revealed can be spent doing something better.
“An essentialist knows that if you have limits, you will become limitless.” – Greg McKeown
Sunk Cost Bias
McKeown also describes the psychological phenomenon of sunk cost bias, which he defines as “the tendency to continue to invest time, money, or energy into something we know is a losing proposition simply because we have already incurred, or sunk, a cost that cannot be recouped.” Be courageous and cut your losses, he argues, in order to free up your time, money, and energy to invest in something more essential.
Status Quo Bias
Similarly, he warns of becoming trapped in the status quo bias, or “the tendency to continue doing something simply because we have always done it,” as well as succumbing to the fear of missing out, or FOMO. Dare to uncommit to the past if it’s no longer essential, he says, and venture to let go of future non-essential commitments. See for yourself if your absence has any effect whatsoever on your own happiness or the true needs of others.
Trading Popularity for Respect
Setting boundaries with those who hijack your time and energy can come at a high price: the recipient of your “no” may rebuke, guilt, or punish you with hostility, criticism, or silence, especially if you have already established yourself in the relationship as a people-pleaser. However, says Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, authors of the book Boundaries, the price of not establishing limits with others costs more. Victimization, envy, resentment, and rage are just some of the reactive emotions that build up over time into a form of complicated grief when our boundaries are porous or non-existent. We may think we are being kind in saying yes to others’ needs, but unless our “yes” really comes from our own hearts’ desire, what we are really being is compliant, avoidant, and dishonest. Alternatively, getting clear and communicating honestly about who you are and what you want brings you into the oneness of your own integrity.
“An internal ‘no’ nullifies an external ‘yes.’” – Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
Moving forward in action is the last phase of adopting the essentialist way. After identifying what’s important to you, and after cutting out what’s not important, taking small and focused action in your essentialist activities is the last piece of the puzzle.
Progress, not Perfection
Starting with a small goal, McKeown says, and getting big results eventually over time is more of an essentialist practice than attempting flashy goals and falling short. Acknowledging small wins and celebrating progress keeps us motivated and focused, and we must relinquish perfectionism in favor of it. Perfectionism is not a healthy pursuit of excellence; rather, it is obsessive, addictive, and can lead to an internal pressure-cooker situation. Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, calls perfectionism “the 20-ton shield,” which we wield to protect us from rejection, blame, and judgement. She says that “when perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun.” Let go of impossible standards, practice humility over grandiosity, hold self-compassion close, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
“Done is better than perfect.” – Sheryl Sandberg
According to McKeown, establishing routines, rituals, and rhythms in your life can reduce repetitive and energy-zapping decision-making and will free up mental space for decisions that count. For example, streamlining repetitive tasks like sleeping, eating, dressing, and working into ritualized processes, and thereby stepping into a mental flow of doing, rather than thinking, can give you the equivalent of an “energy rebate,” that we can put toward essential activities that require our creative and intellectual mind.
During his two-term presidency, Barack Obama restricted his wardrobe to only gray or blue suits. “I’m trying to pare down decisions,” he told Vanity Fair. “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.” Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg, in his predictable gray t-shirt, and Steve Jobs, in his trademark black turtleneck, favor(ed) essential business-oriented mental activity over frivolous decision-making, thereby staving off “decision fatigue,” a term used by psychologists to describe the energy depletion we experience when repetitively focusing our willpower on miniscule or meaningless things.
Larry Gelwix, longtime coach of Highland High School’s highly successful rugby team, attributes his nearly unrivaled 36-year winning streak to a single guiding principle neatly packaged into a memorable acronym: WIN – What’s Important Now? By zeroing into the present moment and asking yourself this question often, right now even, you can almost effortlessly prioritize the essential thing to do. Drifting into anxieties or hopes of the future, or regrets or nostagia of the past, will only serve to distract you from your immediate life, which is happening right now.
The ancient Greeks used two words, chronos and kairos, to describe time. Chronos refers to literal clock time: the chronological, linear, and measurable path of life from youth to old age, morning to night. In contrast, kairos refers to a more qualitative, mystical, and poetic time of right now. It’s the best time, the right time, the opportune moment. Resisting distraction from the past or future, and tuning into the intense kairos quality of now, is how essentialists focus their attention.
“Forget about your life situation and pay attention to your life. Your life situation exists in time. Your life is now. Your life situation is mind-stuff. Your life is real.” – Eckhart Tolle
The simple way of the essentialist, according to McKeown, offers a life of clarity, meaning, courage, and gratitude. Imagine if the father, whose young daughter had died, had had the clarity to have asked himself, in those precious fleeting moments, what is essential?