Nonessentialism: The #1 Obstacle to Smart People’s Success

So, I have been reading this book called “Essentialism – A Disciplined Pursuit of Less”. While I am typically a hater of the nouveau-entrepreneurial pseudo-philosophical genre a la Malcolm Gladwell, I also know that I can use any help I can get with reigning in my dilettante mind. So, I ordered the book.

Now, you are thinking that I will draw on it to talk about streamlining your work day or decluttering your desk and closet. Nope, I am going to be very blog-topical and talk about why you can’t make that career or life change that you are secretly fantasizing about – or really, be successful at anything without applying this one crucial concept.

You see, most people I know tell me that they can’t make big changes in their life because they don’t have time. Work, exercise, friends, dating, kids’ baseball games…how could they possibly do more? Yet, I am here to tell you what I learned from this book:

The #1 reason you are not reaching your goals is not that you can’t do more – it’s that you don’t know how to do less.

Now, you are thinking: ha, easy for you to say! I could not possibly do any less, because I have to do all these things. Well, I am going to challenge that, in the same way that the book challenged my (similar) belief and improved my life kind of instantly (and I suspect I’ll be reaping benefits for years to come).

Here is what I learned.


Takeaway #1: What you think is essential is not

Have you ever had something big in your life – be it a work project, or a new-born baby, or a house renovation – something so overwhelming that you saw clearly that you had to give up everything else? Something that made itself an absolutely priority, where nothing else mattered, something that made you drop it all to make it happen?

And? You made it happen! You gave up everything else because it was, ehm, not essential.

Now, what would happen if you treated your big dream this way?

Let me tell you a funny thing: before reading this book, I thought I was an essentialist. In the past decade, I have let go of so many activities, interests, pursuits… friendships even. This was primarily because I realized that I needed more time to rest, relax, read, play (something the book encourages as well).

Regardless of motivation, it’s worth noting that I let go of a lot.

Reading the book, however, I started thinking about some things that have not been happening lately. Like writing more. Like moving into the house we bought in August. And I realized it was because I’ve been – despite the grand illusion that I was doing so few things – still doing too many.

I realized that it wasn’t inefficiency that prevented me from balancing things properly; rather, it was the time and energy wasted to switch from one thing to the other, the focus divided and priorities constantly battling – the basic nonessentialist approach. As the book tells us:

Nonessentialist thinks: “I can do both”

But how on Earth was I going to let go of either of these things?

Takeway #2: Almost everything is non-essential

Despite feeling overwhelmed, stretched too thin, and unable to spend a few hours relaxing or doing something really important, we still let so much unimportant crap sneak into our lives.

Serendipitously, just as the book arrived, I joined this 500 words/day writing group. It was very painful at first to write every day, even for mere 40 minutes it takes me to bang out the required verbiage. This forced me to start observing the chunks of time I waste daily. I chose to think of every little thing I do: engage with my witty coworkers on Slack, or return my dog’s oversized collar, or declutter my closet, or offer to help someone with their PowerPoint presentation or attend a birthday dinner for someone I like but don’t know that well…..all pleasurable and life-improving things and yet…

I looked around and took mental stock of everything else I was doing – things that seemed as essential to life as eating and breathing. And I realized that they were not. They were not eating or breathing, and they were not indispensable. They were just habits, routines that could be delegated, or completely scratched.

McKeown quotes John Maxwell:

“You cannot underestimate the unimportance of practically everything”

This is hard, and requires a deep shift in the way we perceive things.

Takeaway #3: It’s not a sacrifice, it’s a trade-off

It was always so hard for me to let go of any activity, largely because I always thought of letting go as great sacrifice. And it is a sacrifice, no doubt, but here is the thing that happens when you become an essentialist: you realize it is not a sacrifice of something, it’s a sacrifice to something – to something so much grander, more important and life-altering than the activity we tend to consider indispensable.

Things change when you start examining every little thing you do as being at the direct expense of your most important life goal.

When I give up dance classes for a few months to pursue writing, I am not sacrificing my mental health, a lovely group of friends, a quality of life (notice how I exaggerate, so unwilling to let go…). Rather, I am sacrificing to doing the one thing that makes me happy, helps my career, gives me mental balance, and lets me get rid off feeling purposeless and crazy.

Here is what the book tells us:

Nonessentialist                                                         Essentialist
Thinks: “I can do both”                                               Asks: “What is the trade-off I want to make?”

What if you were to trade two hours/week of meeting people or seeing movies or the book group or… for time devoted to finding out what you want to do with the rest of your life and career?

You’d find yourself with just enough time for life-altering, grand, essential things.

Takeaway #4: What to do with the 3 takeaways

The book has confirmed my deep suspicion: that every sore spot in the tapestry of feeling under-accomplished – or, rather, accomplished beneath my potential – has to do in some way or another with my doing too much rather than my not doing enough. I don’t beat myself up over it: a little philosophy, a little therapy, some coaching, and, last but not the least, aging granted me that, as well as a sort of permanently-settled feeling of gratitude and happiness. Yet, there are things I feel I could do with a more focused being in the world, and this lovely little book has crystallized a new dimension in seeking to understand how.

As for action: I chose not to enroll in a writing class in addition to the French class I am taking (small victory, but I wanted to take that writing class so badly).

Next week, I am going to take a three-day vacation to slow down, think through my career goals and what to do on that front. I will devote the rest of January to growing my blog, and make February a house-only month.

Finally, I am going to keep the book on my nightstand, bible-style, and find spiritual solace every time I feel a pang of pain thinking of all those fun and important (but nonessentialist) things I am not doing.

Essentialism is a daily habit, a way of thinking.

Hell, even writing this article was easier, because I started realizing that my perpetual desire to explore every nook and cranny of my brain was in fact preventing me from 1) conveying the most important things and 2) taking it to the finish line.

So, there. This is all you get.

What is your essentialist plan?

  6 comments for “Nonessentialism: The #1 Obstacle to Smart People’s Success

  1. Farinaz
    January 18, 2016 at 6:38 pm

    Thanks for this, Ivana. Exactly what I needed. I bought the book. Now I just have to read it!

    • Ivana
      January 23, 2016 at 3:47 am

      Yay! This is a quick read…and delightful. Having a 14-year old dog helps…those long, long…loooong walks :) Another awesome book I just got: “Playing Big”. You will so love that, I promise you! Check out Tara Mohr.

  2. Jane
    January 18, 2016 at 8:18 pm

    Great piece. Love the concept of sacrificing toward.

    • Ivana
      January 23, 2016 at 3:47 am

      So glad you liked it. You are the true master of this game, Jane.

  3. Nellie Dorn
    January 18, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    This post reminds me of this list that I printed out from the “Zen Habits” blog and re-read from time to time:

    I’m enjoying your blog, Ivana, I think it can help me! I’m looking forward to checking out “Essentialism” Keep up the good work!

    • Ivana
      January 23, 2016 at 3:48 am

      Thanks so much, Nellie! I hope it helps, and I can’t help but wonder what you need help with. I”ll get in touch :)

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