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The value of doing less

In times of uncertainty, it can be hard to find focus. But when the world is in flux, the ability to concentrate on the essential – and to say no to everything else – is invaluable.


It can seem like an impossible ask when we live in a culture where busy is celebrated and a calendar at bursting point is a mark of honour. But squeezing that extra meeting, the lunch catch-up, a conference trip into an already packed schedule can come at a cost. To you and to those around you.

Can you remember the last time you said no? How about the last week where your focus was just on activities that really matter?

The truth is that our time and our focus are finite. We can’t avoid the fact that there will always be more things to do, see, and experience than we have the capacity for. But while FOMO (fear of missing out) can be overwhelming, there is true joy to be found in doing less.

Productive trumps busy

A full diary can make you feel important, but a productive schedule will bring you joy. So how can we get our focus right?

Essentialism by Greg McKeown is a great place to start. In it, he shares some brilliant insights into how you can create greater clarity and achieve more where it matters most.

As McKeown puts it:

“The Way of the Essentialist involves doing less, but better, so you can make the highest possible contribution.”

It’s about kicking back against the assumption that we can – and should – have it all and taking control of what we put our time and energy into.

If you’re feeling stretched, stressed, and pulled in too many directions, these lessons from Essentialism could help:

Essentialism is a mindset

It’s not a theory or tactic, it’s a way of changing your entire approach, McKeown refers to it as a mindset that wakes you up and helps you shift to an entirely new way of thinking.

The clarity paradox

Success can actually lead to failure. If people and organisations don’t make a concerted effort to keep focus on what really matters, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important and meaningful.

Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.

Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.

Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.

Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

The power of choice

“To become an Essentialist requires a heightened awareness of our ability to choose.”

We don’t always have the control over the options available to us, we have the power to choose between them.

A big part of the essentialist mindset is recognising we have the power to say yes – and no to things. To choose where to focus our mind and efforts.

But how do we choose what’s important? According to McKeown ‘we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.’ Think about what is really essential to you and your happiness. If you can recognise these few things and let go of the belief that everything is important you’re on your way to banishing overwhelm.

Audit your life

Essentialism gives you permission to get rid of the nonessentials in your life. By conducting a life audit you can identify the clutter and clear it out to give time, space, and energy to the really important stuff.  Over a couple of weeks keep track of where your time and energy goes, write it down and try to figure out which are just adopted behaviours that you can do without and which are the ones you want to pursue. Once you’ve had a clear out try to eliminate an activity before you take on any new ones in the future.

Use extreme criteria

The 90 Percent Rule can be a really great way to evaluate what’s essential – and what’s not. As McKeown puts it:

“As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it.”              

When deciding what activities to eliminate ask yourself: “If I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?”.

Embrace trade-offs

Essentialists recognise that less means more and more means mediocre. Explore new opportunities but do it with very selective criteria in mind and ready to embrace the trade-off. When you recognise you can’t have it all ‘How can I do both?’ is replaced by ‘Which problem do I want?’ and ‘What do I have to give up?’ by ‘What do I want to go big on?’. Be open and honest with yourself and others about the trade-off and communicate it to those it affects.

Know the Joy Of Missing Out (JOMO)

Heard of FOMO? How about JOMO? We’re all encouraged to fit more and more into our schedules in all aspects of our lives – to avoid the fear of missing out. But what if we could learn to relish in missing out on the non-essential. Placing value on taking control and making a conscious decision to pass on something can deliver the joy of missing out.

What are you really here to do?

The truth is that not everything is important and we do have the power to shift our mindset so our actions reflect this. Fast-forward to your final years, what do you want to look back on as your legacy? What are the things you might regret? What are the things you will truly value? It will be different for us all but adopting an essentialist mindset might help you recognise what’s truly important, get closer to that true success, and help you clear the clutter that’s getting in the way.