Are You an Essentialist?

Ask most people what they are up to these days and – as often as not – you will get one of the following responses:

  1. Busy!
  1. So busy!
  1. Crazy busy!

I’m never sure whether these folks are bragging or complaining. Some of us wear our busyness like a badge of honor.

What are we busy about?

You know the litany: the job. The kids. The dog. The school. The meeting. The call. The deadline.

It’s a bit exhausting just hearing about it all. Yet it wouldn’t hurt to stop and ask a few questions:

How much of this busyness is self-imposed?

Are we mistaking being busy with being important?

Are we getting some kind of adrenaline rush from feeling stressed out? If so, what is this doing to our health?

Is it possible that we are so busy because we dread what we’d feel if we weren’t busy?

Is it possible that the disciplined pursuit of less makes more sense than the undisciplined pursuit of more?

If your answer to that last question is yes, you’re probably an essentialist.

I’d never heard the term until I read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, a business consultant and popular blogger for Harvard Business Review.

According to McKeown, essentialists are those who continually strive to remove non-essential things and activities from their lives. It is the relentless and disciplined pursuit of less but better.

This is not some time management technique where you find a new way to somehow cram it all in. It’s just the opposite. It’s about eliminating daily urgencies that keep you from what matters most.

We only have so many days – so many hours – on this little blue ball. There are more people than we can interact with, more activities than we can participate in, more opportunities than we can capitalize on.

Are we doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason?

Essentialism means living by design, not by default. Look around, however, and you may find that many (perhaps most) of your friends and family members are living decidedly non-essentialist lives.

How can you tell? According to McKeown:

  • The non-essentialists says “I have to.” The essentialist says “I choose to.”
  • The non-essentialist believes almost everything is essential. The essentialist recognizes that only a few things really matter.
  • The non-essentialist believes that making things better means adding The essentialist believes that making things better means subtracting something.
  • The non-essentialist takes on too much, and his work often suffers. The essentialist chooses carefully in order to make the maximum contribution to his greatest priorities.
  • The non-essentialist says yes to most people because he doesn’t want to let them down. The essentialist says either “hell yeah!” or no.
  • The non-essentialist feels exhausted and overwhelmed. The essentialist enjoys the journey.

This is really about realizing that if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

How did we get here? Why are we all so busy?

It’s partly a side effect of our society’s increasing affluence. Throughout most of human history, we devoted most of our waking hours just to staying alive.

Today, the vast majority of us have plenty of time and choices. Yet we really aren’t prepared for them. (The vastness of our options may even contribute to the depression that is epidemic in the West today.)

Uncertain about what matters most, many folks start mindlessly doing what everyone else seems to be doing: pursuing more and more… yet never feeling fulfilled. We may sacrifice what really matters – time with family and friends, for instance – for what matters less: a raise, a promotion, the corner office.

We can also be undisciplined in material ways, continually accumulating things we don’t need and don’t really value.

A lifetime collector of art, music and books, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. (When your stuff starts gathering dust in storage bins, you know you’ve gone over the top.)

Nearly 10% of American households not only have filled the space in their homes but currently rent a self-storage unit. That’s a 65% increase from 15 years ago.

Psychologists say we suffer from sunk cost bias. We tend to value things more highly than they are worth because we paid good money for them and so are reluctant to get rid of them.

McKeown recommends that you ask, “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?” That usually does the trick.

No one can have or do it all. Essentialism begins with determining what matters most in your life and using this knowledge to prioritize each day. (In the words of author and educator Stephen Covey, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”)

Determine where you could make your highest contribution by asking, “What am I particularly good at?” “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” or “Where do my talents intersect with a significant need in the world?”

The next step is to accept the reality of trade-offs. To achieve what’s important, you will have to sacrifice what isn’t. A good starting point is web browsing, binge viewing or idle gossip.

Essentialists make cutting, condensing and simplifying part of their daily routine. It’s about achieving more by removing more rather than doing more.

Put your life on an essentialist tack, and you exchange continual stress and striving for more listening, pondering, experiencing… and savoring.

The end result? More time, greater freedom… and no regrets.

Carpe Diem,



Click here to access the full archive.

About the Author

Alexander Green
Chief Investment Strategist

Alexander Green is the Chief Investment Strategist of The Oxford Club. A Wall Street veteran, he has more than 20 years' experience as a research analyst, investment advisor, financial writer and portfolio manager.

Get Email Updates