How to discover better in less: Lessons learned from an essentialist

Have you read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown?  If not, I recommend it. Especially if you feel like you are never able to catch up or you find yourself asking, “is this all there is?”book-cover

I’m reading it now.  So much of the book’s three-word message — less but better — is resonating with me that I’ve turned almost every page of my e-book a bright shade of green from all the highlighted sections.

I was fortunate to have heard Greg speak at a conference of Professional Organizers a few years ago, before he became a New York Times best-selling author.

I was only a couple of years into running my own business but the memory of the daily grind I experienced in my previous corporate job was still fresh in my mind.  At one point, I recall, Greg explained that most of us use about 10 percent of our potential in our jobs when we are desperate to use so much more. That certainly rang true for me.   Then he asked everyone in the audience to raise their hands if they thought they were using 100 percent of their talent now. My hand shot up like a rocket.

Using 100 percent of your brain’s potential doesn’t mean spending 100% of your time in activities that leave you exhausted, overwhelmed and stressed.  It means spending your time doing things that matter most to you even if it means having to say no to things that matter most to others.

“It’s natural not to want to let go of what we wasted on a bad choice,” Greg writes, “but when we don’t, we doom ourselves to keep wasting even more.”

We all make bad choices or mistakes that we later regret. This is human. but it’s the act of realizing and then doing something different, changing course, or eliminating that choice altogether that makes us wiser.  He reminds us that “there should be no shame in admitting to a mistake; after all, we really are only admitting that we are now wiser than we once were.”

I love this idea so much that I found myself using it in a conversation I had with a young woman designer I met recently who was berating herself for getting into a project she quickly discovered was over her head.  I said to her, “how wise you are to know this now.” Not surprisingly, she had a hard time taking this in. Sometimes it’s easier to blame ourselves than it is to recognize the wisdom in our mistakes.

The same holds true for the “stuff” in our lives.  So much of what we surround ourselves with is the result of out-dated choices.  When those choices cost us, we tend to hold on to them longer. Greg refers to this as the “endowment effect” meaning our tendency to overvalue things we already own.

So much of our daily lives is spent in the act of making choices – both trivial and essential –  that mistakes are inevitable.  How many times have you bought or acquired something that later you discovered was the wrong choice but couldn’t let it go anyway?  This happens because  we force ourselves to find value in the thing, even when there is none, to justify our choice in the first place.  When I work with clients.  I often ask them, “if you saw this today, would you buy it?” Even when they say no, the pain of learning that the original choice no longer has value is sometimes hard to bare.

I believe the clutter in our lives (and in our minds)  also comes from having too many choices to begin with. We have so much already coming at us that the very act of choosing is exhausting.   There are simply too many other “more important” choices to make.  This is in essence what creates clutter.  Too many choices, too much saying yes, or simply not choosing, when we really want to say no.

But living an essential life, a life that Essentialism defines as “the space and the time to think, time to look and listen, permission to play,” invites us to ask ourselves not, how can I do it all or have it all but instead how do I recognize the essential from the trivial? It takes awareness about our motives for choosing this over that and then consciously AND deliberately asking ourselves, “is this essential to me or can my life be just as good, if not better, without it?” By choosing what is essential, we discover how life can be better, even with less.





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