Essentialism: How to vastly improve your life by setting priorities

The art of doing less but better


Here’s my dream: I want to seem busy. This gives me a sense of importance. It’s my status symbol. Constantly answering emails instantly, being online 24/7 so I always make a good impression. The adrenaline and cortisol provide me with a pleasant rush.

Hell no.

You’re here for some awesome tips to work less but better. Providing more expertise for your company, yet working less and being more relaxed.

So, what should you do right now to improve your skills in setting priorities?

Essentialism is the answer.

How to become mediocre and disorganized

General busy-ness is the norm these days. Always online answering emails, doing busywork, endless “K”PI reporting and boring meetings which do not serve any purpose. This is great! …. for a path down the road to mediocrity.

This distracts you from what is really important and alienates you from the people you like and love. Go figure, if you can’t get your act together and spend time with those around you that are important, those relations are bound to suffer.

Also at work, when you only focus on the urgent or the smaller easy tasks, they will definitely distract you from providing your highest contribution. A lot of people fall into the trap of busy-ness (including myself sometimes I’m ashamed to admit). So much so, that this even leads to personal tragedies….

Karoshi – the complete opposite of essentialism

Karoshi, which means something like: death by too much work is a phenomenon that is a big problem in Japan.

For instance, in 2017 the 31 year old Miwa Sado literally died because he worked too much. Because of high expectations, Miwa Sado felt obligated to stay and work crazy hours. In Japan it is impolite to leave before your manager does. It signals loyalty when you stay longer. Also, it is considered a weakness to leave early.

Working much causes stress, which increases the cortisol and lipoprotein in your blood. In turn, this makes your body less efficient in processing sugars and fats, so your arteries get clogged. Also, you run the risk of obesity and all kind of other stress related diseases, for example heart problems.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples in other countries as well.. For instance, in 2013 a German intern of Bank of America Merrill Lynch was found dead in the shower, after working a 72 hour work week.

Of course, I know these are extreme examples of terrible personal tragedies. What these illustrate however, is that working more is definitely not the answer.

Now, what is essentialism and how will it help you?

What is the definition of essentialism?

In his book “Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” Greg McKeown gives the following definition of essentialism:

“Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless”.

It’s about going back to the essence. This is important, as just a handful of the activities are likely to produce the biggest part of the result – also called the 80/20 law or the pareto principle. This states that 20 percent of the work produces 80 percent of the results.

One of the examples Greg McKeown gives is about a renowned chef, Ferran Adria. Where his restaurant first was closed 6 months of the year to focus on creating the greatest dishes, he later closed altogether. The reason: to focus on the most essential part of his craft, which is creating new recipes and experimenting with food.

The book about essentialism consists out of 4 parts:

This post is an introduction of sorts, in which I’ll discuss just a few aspects of Essentialism. In my next posts I will go into some more depth according to the parts of the book, with some more of my research and additional key insights.

Yeah, yeah, all fun and games you think, but where’s my tips about setting priorities? Give me, give me!

Here they come!

Tips for setting priorities

Going back to the essence, that’s what’s the important take-away. This means that you first need to be clear what your main priorities are. Spending time with your family, making a positive contribution at work by serving others etc. Essentialism is even about setting extreme criteria, which means passing on good opportunities to only pursue the great ones.

Therefore: set priorities if you haven’t already done so. Make sure to limit your priorities to no more than 4 or 5, because otherwise this will leave your attention scattered: you need to have laser focus to achieve your highest level of contribution.

After setting priorities, it’s important that you start making some changes. Priorities change over time and people make constant demands on your time. This means that you need to be equipped to assess new opportunities as they arise and either pursue these new opportunities or decline demands made on your time by others.

To be able to constantly guard your priorities, you need to be well rested, not too stressed and knowledgeable (training is vital). Some more tips on how to achieve this follow next.

Changing habits

Habits can carry you really far. It’s something you do automatically. Therefore they’re really important. You’ll probably have some good habits and some bad habits, like me.

Stop right now and think of some good habits you want to create and some bad habits you want to lose. Stopping / starting with which habit will add the most value? Focus on that one. Here’s more on how to start or stop a new habit.

Habits around protecting your most important assets, your body and your brain, follow next. Preserving your own physical and mental health should definitely be part of your priorities.

Sleep & play:

When you grow-up people tell you that sleep is not important and that play is just for children. This is based on the conviction that you can work well into the night, burning the midnight oil so to say. The idea is that people are almost as productive as during day time.

What a bullshit!

According to the Harvard Business Review, if you stay awake longer than 18 consecutive hours, reaction speed, short term and long term memory and cognitive abilities all start to suffer. Along with other longer term health problems such as obesity and heart problems which I mentioned earlier. Therefore, if you’re not getting enough sleep, make sure to change this. An average adult needs around 7 to 8 full hours of sleep.

Greg McKeown also mentions that play is important to foster creativity. Play is also a vital antidote to stress. Therefore, humor is important for example, also in the workplace.

I’m also very happy that me playing computer games at age 34 is hereby finally justified!


Mindfulness is about getting focus in our lives and to train the mind to be less distracted. When we train this ability, it’s easier to come back to the (essential) task you’re doing. It also helps you to ask yourself regularly: “is what I’m currently doing really leading to my highest possible contribution”. For more information about mindfulness, make sure to read this post.

Don’t forget this essential skill!

During the work day, people will make constant demands on your time to get you to solve their problems. However, that is exactly what they are: their problems. Therefore, an essential skill is to say no with grace.

This means that with each demand that is made on your time, you need to assess if it aligns with your priorities. If not, you need to have the courage to say no or to look at the request later. For me, it helps to make people aware which recurring times of the month I’m very busy. That way, they probably understand if I do not help them or not give them what they want instantly.

Repeat, repeat!

Becoming an essentialist and constantly focusing on setting priorities can be difficult. Also, living in a way to achieve your highest point of contribution is even harder. Therefore, it is important to keep repeating essentialist behaviors, such as weekly reflection, getting some sleep and improving your habits where possible.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading my blogpost. Note that this post was part of a blog series about Essentialism, so make sure to be back for more. I’ll share the next article with this topic in two weeks. Please hit the like button and share. And if you’ve got something to say, comments are very much appreciated below.

Recommended further reads:

Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

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