How to Tread the Lonely-but-Rewarding Path of Essentialism

Essentialism might get you a bit of social exclusion.

You probably aren’t going to win any new friends, or endear yourselves to the ones you already have, by following the principles (at least initially). Especially if you have been living life as a non-Essentialist until now.

But the so-called ‘disciplined pursuit of less’ might be worth a bit of unpopularity. It offers a legit pathway to avoid the ‘lives of quiet desperation’ that seem to be common now, and instead gain clarity, control and joy in the journey.

But before you get excited – Essentialism isn’t for the faint hearted.

That’s because, to coin a term from Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, living as an Essentialist is a non-neutral challenge. This is because the counter-force – non-Essentialism – is compelling, as we will explore.

Let’s take a closer look at what this involves.

essentialism essentials

In order to awaken from our ‘non-Essentialist stupors’, Gregg says we need to start embracing some opposing assumptions to the prevailing ones pedaled by non-Essentialists. These are:

  • I choose to‘ (Essentialism) instead of ‘I have to‘ (non-Essentialism).
  • Only a few things really matter‘ (E), as opposed to ‘it all matters’ (NE).
  • I can do anything but not everything‘ (E) versus ‘I’ll take it all’ (NE).

Here’s a closer look at each of these.

1. Claw back Choice

Individuals that exercise choice to their capacity are an oddity. I hardly know anyone making full use of their free will. How about you?

In certain situations, we can see intellectually that we have a choice. But without feeling like we have choice emotionally, we carry on, sometimes indefinitely.

As all good advertisers know, emotions are more powerful than logic. There’s no easy way around this. We simply arrive (or not) at a stage where we are willing to risk breaking hearts and losing everything in the name of improving things for ourselves.

The good news is, although we might forget we have it for a while, we never really lose choice.

Reclaiming the power to choose is at the heart of an Essentialist life. Essentialists maintain a heightened awareness of their free will, instead of the reduced awareness we use to autopilot in our days and lives and maintain the tolerable status quo.

Essentialists pause constantly to ask 'am I investing in the right activities'? Click To Tweet

Of course, to exercise choice, you need a good idea of what you are trying to achieve. When we don’t know what we are really trying to achieve, all change is arbitrary.

Try this: Small changes in the things you do often

Because a lot of us have been ignoring our ability to choose for so long, it can be helpful in the beginning to look to make small changes to the things you do often, rather than going straight for the big guns. (For the record, I recommend diving in. It saves time).

Look at things like your routine and your passtimes and habits. Consider dropping some pointless activities out, and adding new ones in, as fitting with the life you want. There is power in steadiness and repetition. You develop a proven track record in your brain for making choice.

2. Yearn to discern

I think that learning to discern will, for a lot of us, make the biggest difference to our lives.

In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Gregg shows us how we generally say yes too quickly, and no not enough. Inevitably, this means anyone with a stronger sense of will or purpose than our own makes the choices for us. Which is probably ok for things like what to have for dinner, but not ideal for other things like whether to have children.

Gregg suggests that a useful principle to help guide your decisions is: ‘if it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no’.

Probably the most useful trait to cultivate here is courage. Courage is key to eliminating what we don’t want in our lives. And often, it produces the kind of social awkwardness that we all deeply fear. I wrote about how I think we cultivate greater levels of courage here.

Can you make peace with the fact that saying no often requires popularity for respect? Click To Tweet

Try this: applying the Parateo principle to your life

Popular among entrepreneurs, the Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

You can apply the Pareto principle to your life until you learn the habit of becoming more discerning. Consider that 80% of the things you do are pointless. The other 20% – that’s what’s taking you closer to a life you long to inhabit.

3. Learn to love trade offs

For an Essentialist, trade offs are their bread and butter. They do not fear them; rather, they enjoy making them knowing that the trade off is an exercise in purpose.

To get more comfortable with trade offs, avoid asking ‘what do I have to give up?’, try asking ‘what do I want to go big on.‘ The cumulative effect of this simple shift can be profound.

Try this: stop ignoring or decrying the trade offs you make

Celebrate trade off situations as opportunities to be deliberate, strategic and thoughtful with your life.

Other things

In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Gregg also discusses the importance of time for solitude, play, getting bored, sleep and routine.


“Once you become an Essentialist, you will find that you aren’t like everybody else. When other people are saying yes, you will find yourself saying no. When other people are doing, you will find yourself thinking. When other people are speaking, you will find yourself listening…in many ways, to live as an Essentialist in our too-many-things-all-the-time society is an act of quiet revolution.” – Gregg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Living Essentialism is process of constant and ongoing discernment. You’ll have to get some serious intent, and possibly a bit of a stubborn attitude.

Essentialism insists that you develop clarity on what sort of life it is you want, and it has you constantly call that forth as the day’s events grope and contort for your attention.

It’s hard, but you can’t knock those rewards.