What Is Essentialism?

The concept of Essentialism was introduced to me this year. I first heard about the book by Greg McKeown on The Purposeful Home podcast.

Since then, I haven’t stopped talking about it.

Once I dove into this idea, there was no going back.

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I think I’ve always been an essentialist, I just didn’t know it yet.

Essentialism = make room in your life for what really matters. 

Less But Better

Essentialists know that they cannot do it all – and they are okay with that.

Instead they do one thing – and they do it with their whole heart. 

We cannot be all things to all people. Therefore, essentialists pursue less – but better.

Rather than the normal “undisciplined pursuit of more” essentialists focus on the “disciplined pursuit of less.”

By investing in fewer things, essentialists make more progress on those things that matter most to them.

The same amount of energy goes farther because it is focused in one, single direction.

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It’s important to prioritize our lives, because as McKeown points out, if we don’t do it, someone else will – and you can bet it won’t be in line with our values and passions.

Non-essentialists are everywhere, partly because we have more choices now than ever before in history. Many of us suffer from decision fatigue.

It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time -literally- substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.

Peter Drucker

We also have more social pressure than ever before. Our connectedness via the internet has not only increased “information overload” it has also increased “opinion overload.” People we don’t even know can now weigh in on our decisions, further complicating the process.

All around us are opinionated people – usually people we don’t even know – influencing how we live our lives and telling us what to value.

Essentialism helps us focus on what really matters.

But, wait a minute – what really matters?

That’s the most exciting and also most challenging part for me.

Because it’s up to us to decide.

Find Your Words

No one else can tell me what is important for me and my family. We needed to set aside time as a family, and me as an individual, to set priorities.

To decide what to go big on. 

And, by default, what to unashamedly say no to.

I was encouraged by a group of friends to come up with a list of words.

Words that I would “go big on” this year.

Importantly, the list is not supposed to be very long.

As mission statements that are too ambiguous and all-encompassing, so is a list that is too long.

If I have too many values, the ones I have lose their potency. There’s no way I could possibly focus on more than a few things.

So I had to be choosy. This is what it came down to…

Our family mission for the past few years has been: Simplicity. Generosity. Hospitality. Community

When we make decisions about what to say no to and what to say yes to, we hold it up to our family mission and decide whether or not it is in line. We don’t always do this perfectly, but it is a great starting point.

My personal words for this year are: Available. Intentional. Healthy.

I’m sure I’ll probably dig into each of those words more another time. Stay tuned for that.

I’ve definitely found that it helps to have a system in place – words to help make my “no’s” a little easier and my “yes’s” more wholehearted and effective.

The Steps of Essentialism:

  1. Explore and evaluate – do I love this?
  2. Eliminate everything unnecessary.
  3. Execute the plan.

These steps can really be applied to all areas of life – to physical clutter, to “calendar clutter,” and even mental clutter.

Once we figure out our “words” – those things we love and value most – we can eliminate those things that are simply taking up space or draining our energy.

Both at work and at home, we can eliminate the busywork and the I-have-no-idea-why-I-said-yes-stuff.

We aren’t being lazy by eliminating the busywork. We are actually more effective when we focus our efforts on meaningful work.

People sometimes ask me “how do you do it all?” The short answer is that I don’t! I can’t do it all and neither can anyone else!

All I’ve done is eliminate the things that don’t matter – for instance, we don’t have TV in our house, so my free time is spent either talking to my husband, reading books, or blogging.

I’m not doing these things on top of everything else. Rather I’m choosing to do them instead.

Same with working out. How do I find the time to do it? I’ve made it a priority over other things. When my husband is home and I have the chance, I’ll ask for 30 minutes to go for a run or lift some weights. I don’t have endless amounts of time, but I’m intentional about the time that I do have. Health and mental well-being are on my list of personal priorities.

Basically, if I don’t prioritize myself and my health, then no one else will. And if I’m not well, my whole family will suffer the consequences. Therefore health – physical, spiritual, and psychological – are my personal priority list.

Be There

“Wherever you are at, be there.”

My old choir teacher used to say that. He said it because he was trying to get us to focus on our music during the 30 minutes he had with us each week.

But I’ve found those words to be true in almost every life circumstance.

We aren’t as good at multitasking as we think we are.

But even those of us who can multi-task are incapable of being multi-focused. 

This means we can only actively focus on one thing at a time.

I’d rather do less and be completely present.

This means a lot of practical things:

Focusing on the road when driving.

Listening to my body when working out.

Giving my kids my full attention throughout the day – no phone between us. (Ouch, still working on this!)

Giving my friends my full attention when we’re together – not thinking about my to-do list at home.

You can’t be everywhere at once.

Decide where to be. 

And then be there. 

Essentialist Minimalism

The idea of essentialism meshes well with minimalism.

It all comes down to believing that less is more in a society that overall wants us to believe that more is more.

I don’t know about you, but clutter stresses me out. I feel a physical lightness every time I clear something I don’t need out of my home.

It’s liberating and addicting.

Essentialism is the application of this feeling to all areas of life.

Take a quick peek at your to-do list right now. Then ask yourself, how much of this is actually essential? 

Last but not least, here are three questions we can all ask ourselves, inspired by Allie Casazza & Kelsey Van Kirk.

  1. How are your values currently reflected in your day to day activities?
  2. What would an objective, outside observer say that you value – based on your lifestyle and habits?
  3. What changes can you make today to better align your life and your values?

When we prioritize what matters most and clear out the clutter – be it physical, mental, or otherwise, we are able to better live a life in line with our true values.

We can’t do it all, but we can do a couple of things really well.

What are your thoughts? How can essentialism be applied in your work, in your home, in your life? Is there anything you need to say no to so that you can give something else your most wholehearted yes?

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One Comment

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  1. Yes to essentialism! Thank you for writing this piece. I love it.

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