I Tried Essentialism And It Changed My Life

2016 marked a milestone for me. It is the year I decided to go into business for myself as an independent writer, speaker and consultant. But I quickly realized that all that independence could be deadly. I’m used to email pings from coworkers, drop-ins from students and endless meetings to dictate how I spend my day. What’s more, “opportunities” (read: obligations) to volunteer, contribute, work late and network have fallen away, leaving me with more control over my time, energy and work output than ever before.

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In the absence of all those signposts, I sometimes felt a little lost. It’s hard to believe anyone could ever miss those things, but I did. So, inspired by one of my favorite reads, I spent a week following the tenets of Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. In it, he talks about how we lull ourselves into comfort by being busy. But in actuality, this leads to subpar work in a lot of different areas. In his words:

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

This fresh start gave me the opportunity to recalibrate my life that was hectic, frenzied and full.  I hit upon a few tricks that I thought are worth sharing – as much with you all, as with myself.

1. Wake up at the same time every day.

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I am terrible at waking up. Seriously. Don’t ever endorse me for it on LinkedIn. I don’t deserve it. But McKeown talks about the importance of morning routines to ensure that essentialism can work. Many of us struggle to set and keep priorities because we place ourselves in situations that create “decision fatigue.” In other words, we wear ourselves out making decisions about simple things. As a result, we don’t have much energy to decide on big things. Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist that studies this topic, has found “making successive decisions depletes a limited mental facility.”

“As people get tired,” he says, “they look for shortcuts, and one of the easiest shortcuts is to uphold the status quo.”

And for me, that status quo would likely be taking up permanent residence in my warm bed.

However, with morning routines and other elements of our lives “automated,” we don’t have to think about them. The energy saved can float to a later scenario where we might need it. So during the week, I’ve met each shrill screech of the alarm clock with a grumbled acceptance. This is when I wake up. I have to deal with it. That, and my trusty French press, have made my life a little easier as I reach the afternoon hours.

2. Get ‘cha head in the game.

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There are certain trappings that we participate in that separate a workday from the rest of the week. These things include showering, getting dressed in something that doesn’t have a drawstring and sitting at a real desk. Now, I’m committed to doing all of these things no matter where I’m working. Even on the days when I don’t leaving the house, I still suit up like an East High Wildcat and “go to work”…all the way across the apartment.

Why do I do this? That ritual puts me in the headspace that I need to get things done. It signals to my brain that I’m working – something that can feel necessary when your living room and office are separated by a coffee table. So yes, even on the days when my only interactions are on the phone or over Skype, I get dressed. I even wear a bra. And it’s made “going to work” with so much else happening (read: The Price is Right, The View, The Real, the ever-present possibility of a nap) possible.

3. Remember that your structured days will make the unstructured days easier.

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My first test to this “make your days the same” lifestyle didn’t take long to arrive. And as I start to travel more to meet with students, I know that there will be “versions” of what I’ve cultivated, as well as other routines that will keep me going. What’s more, there are a lot of new challenges that will inevitably come with working this way. Will I have enough money for rent every month? Which days do I have to send in my taxes again? Do I have to go to that networking thing tonight?

But as I shifted the current routine an hour earlier to head to an event in Cambridge, I realized something: tasks that normally wear me out (making small talk, speaking up for myself) weren’t as difficult. I had more energy in these interactions, likely because I hadn’t spent it all trying to decide on whether to hit snooze or take morning meetings. In fact, I don’t morning meetings because I’m better at those in the afternoon. Simply put, being essential makes me better. It makes me my best.

Finding a new way to govern my days hasn’t been easy. It’ll likely take a bit more trial and error to get it juuuust right. But, I feel freer to live in a way that gives me energy for the people and things that I care about the most. In Essentialism, McKeown asks,

What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?

Choosing to live “essentially” is setting me on a path to create a life that leaves me more energized to give Greg’s way a try.

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