Why You Should Flush 90% of Your To-Do List Down the Toilet

It’s easy to confuse abundance with blessing, especially in our work life. But sometimes abundance is just another word for burden. And it’s crucial for our success and satisfaction that we learn to spot the difference.

Are You an Essentialist?

More opportunities cross my desk every day than I can manage, and I bet it’s the same for you—even if you don’t always realize it.

We face a constant temptation in life to take on more than we can handle. We just don’t have the bandwidth. But it’s hard to let an opportunity go, isn’t it?

Dismantling the Yes Bomb

Each invitation, pitch, and request feels special, seems flattering, and promises more money, fun, or significance than we currently have. It’s just too good to pass up, we rationalize—forgetting that we’ve already excused several other yeses using the very same logic.

It’s even harder to reject demands from employers, clients, and others—even when we know we can’t manage them all.

We figure we’ll have to squeeze the new demand into the margin someplace, unaware that all our yeses are building a bomb that will eventually make casualties of our health, job performance, family life, and more.

The best guide I’ve discovered to dismantling these “yes bombs” is Greg McKeown’s new book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

The Trivial Many and the Vital Few

“There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in,” McKeown says. “And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital.”

That’s the crucial difference between blessing and burden. We can fill our time with very good things and end up saddled, straddled, and stressed. That’s because good things might still be trivial.

As McKeown shows, Essentialism is a lifestyle focused on discerning the difference between the “many trivial” and the “vital few.” Essentialists are committed to the vital few in every circumstance they can manage.

The benefits include not only lower stress, but the satisfaction of developing real excellence and making a vital contribution through our callings.

7 Realities Every Essentialist Knows

Essentialism explains the ins and outs of the Essentialist lifestyle, but these are seven realities I found particularly meaningful as I look at my own day-to-day evaluation of opportunities.

  1. The power of choice. When we forget we have the power of choice, we allow others to determine what fills our time instead of ourselves. Essentialists remain empowered by choice to determine what they do and don’t do with their time.
  2. The momentum of focus. For every ten things Nonessentialists do, Essentialists do one. Instead of diffusing their energy, they focus it and gain momentum to make more impact than they otherwise could. When we complain about being “spread too thin” at work, this is a sure sign we need to shed tasks and train our focus.
  3. The importance of tradeoffs. To do one thing is to miss out on others—and maybe even essential things. The more we commit to doing, the more strained our schedules for the the things that are truly important, including family, rest, and play. Essentialists weigh every opportunity against the potential tradeoffs.
  4. The value of extreme criteria. Essentialists don’t consider the minimum requirements for a yes. They use extreme criteria: Is this exactly what I want? I’m I ideal for this opportunity? As McKeown says, “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”
  5. The role of the journalist. The role of a journalist is not to regurgitate facts, but to explain the meaning of those facts. Essentialists act as journalists of their own experience. Instead of allowing others to determine what matters and why, Essentialists make that determination for themselves.
  6. The power of clarity. According to McKeown, Essentialists pass on about 90 percent of opportunities. If we are clear on what we do, we can filter out a thousand things we shouldn’t. To gain this clarity requires asking hard questions, making difficult tradeoffs, and exercising self-discipline. And Essentialists know it’s totally worth investing in the 10 percent of opportunities that make sense for them.
  7. The liberating possibility of no. Saying no to the many trivial requests, Essentialists are really saying yes to what matters most in their lives: their faith, their family, their health, their calling.

To be successful, satisfied, fulfilled people, according to McKeown, we need to save our energy and creativity for just a few essential opportunities and pass on all the rest.

That will mean some hard choices, but we’re tricking ourselves to think burdening ourselves with superfluous yeses will make our life more comfortable. We’ll just shortchange the important activities and people in our lives.

Question: What’s truly essential in your life right now and what extraneous activities do you need to limit today? Share your answer on , , or .

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