Do less, better: Essentialism in a nutshell

Minimalist photograph of a light bulb hanging from the ceiling.
Photo by Adrià Tormo on Unsplash

As developers, we like to talk a lot about efficiency. Maybe it’s the engineering mindset or the sense that we want to always be improving and doing things better. Or maybe it’s because we care about making optimizations. Either way, it’s something that we value highly.

Essentialism is about applying that sort of efficiency to our life. It’s about cutting through the noise and the extra baggage and getting to the core of what needs to be solved or fixed. It does so primarily by eliminating what’s not working and focusing on what’s actually important. 

I just finished reading the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown and this is my take on it. It was recommended to me by a developer I respect and I thought I’d spend a few minutes sharing what I learned in hopes that others will find it useful too.

What is Essentialism?

The whole premise of Essentialism is based around the idea of doing less, but better. Much of the book is spent comparing two types of people- what the author calls Essentialists & Nonessentialists. The Nonessentialist is your classic overstressed workaholic who makes too many commitments. It’s the person that is always busy yet still says yes to everything. They’re the folks that are outwardly successful but always seem to get bogged down in the weeds. It could also be the person with a thousand side projects that never see the light of day.

For me going through the book, the descriptions of Nonessentialists often hit too close to home. We’re living in very chaotic times and life is rough for so many people. We’re also in a spot where it’s easy to get swept up into all of the “stuff” that doesn’t really matter.

What Greg McKeown is arguing for, though, is a different perspective and way of being, what he calls the way of the Essentialist.  It can be summed up with the mantra of “do less, better”.

Do less, better

The three main components of essentialism, then, are as follows: 

  1. Individual choice
  2. Prevalence of noise
  3. Reality of tradeoffs

Let me explain about each of them.

First, as individuals, the idea is that we have the power to make choices. A choice is an action. It’s something that we decide to do. It’s about recognizing that we have the power to say no to projects and ideas that don’t excite us. We can politely decline invitations when we have other important work to do. We can make fewer commitments and promises.

Second, we can recognize the prevalence of noise in our lives and work.  Much of what we read, see, and do is in the category of noise. It’s all of that unimportant and often “urgent” work that we get caught up in. There are infinite possibilities out there to distract us from what’s important in our personal lives and work. As a result, we end up focusing on points that don’t really matter. It takes a very focused approach to be able to cut through it all and to find what’s essential. 

Third, we can come to terms with the reality of tradeoffs. People run into trouble is when they try to do everything. The end result is that their attention and focus gets diluted over too wide of an area. You may make an inch of progress in multiple different areas, but you never excel in any one spot. By cutting out unessential tasks and projects, we can open up more space to work on what we care about. The most important component, however, is to choose. And choosing means yes that there is undoubtedly something else (possibly many things) that we’ll need to say no to. We need to welcome such tradeoffs rather than trying to always jam more into our schedules. Learn to be your own best editor by graciously cutting what isn’t working for you.

Be the editor of your life

Watch out for statements like: 

  • I have to.
  • It’s all important.
  • I can do both.

We want to think we can do it all and that we’re superheroes. The reality, though, is that we can’t. We can’t be in two places at once. We can’t focus on two activities at the same time. We can’t be experts in everything. We can’t be everything to everyone.

Instead, try these statements:

  • I choose to.
  • Only a few things really matter.
  • I can do anything, but not everything.

The idea is to focus on being present for the stuff (people, projects, work) that really matters. When in doubt, Greg McKeown recommends applying the 90% rule. It’s either a Heck Yeah!! or a no. Don’t get caught up in anything in between. To borrow from Marie Kondo, we have to learn to keep only what sparks joy. Everything else, we need to graciously and respectfully say no to.

Sleep more, rest more, play more

Finally, we need to recognize the necessity of rest, play, and sleep in our lives. As busy people, there’s a tendency to think of ourselves as machines (or at least I certainly did for a while!).  The faulty thinking goes that we can do it all, we can keep working, and we don’t need to take breaks. We just need to push a little harder!

Unfortunately, though, we’re humans. Trying to burn the candle at both ends usually ends in… well, exhaustion and burnout.  As someone who has personally struggled with these issues, I can tell you that it’s just not worth it. Make space when you can, particularly when you feel the most resistance. When we’re at our busiest, that’s often when we need our rest and play time the most.

TLDR: We need to make room in our schedules and lives for the things that matter the most.

Closing thoughts

In summary, Essentialism has been an eye-opening experience for me in a lot of ways. It builds upon a number of books and concepts that I’ve previously read about, most notably the book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang and Marie Kondo’s lovely book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

If I had a complaint about the book Essentialism, it would merely be that the author focuses perhaps too much on CEOs and people whose lifestyles are frankly out of reach for many of us. His target audience is not the “everyman” or “every person”, it’s the high functioning business executive. So if you do read the book, keep that in mind.

I also want to recognize that the ability to say “no” and to guard your time aggressively in and of itself can be rife with a lot of privilege. If you’re struggling to make ends meet or fighting for survival, it’s a lot harder. If you’re in a toxic work or home environment, it’s a lot harder.  If you have kids, it’s a lot harder. If you are from an underrepresented community in tech, it’s a lot harder. If you’re currently dealing with fallout from the pandemic, it’s a lot harder. You get the idea. 

However, in its defense, I might argue that setting boundaries on your time and energy is even more critical when all is not going well or when you’re coming from a place of low personal power. It might even help you regain some semblance of your focus and control over your life to help you work toward a better situation.

Either way, as with most things, take what you can from it and leave what doesn’t work for you. No judgment here. Be gentle and kind to yourself. I just know that engaging with this philosophy has helped me already.

Some changes that I’ve personally made after reading this book is that I decided to quit volunteering once a week. I realized that it wasn’t contributing to my goals and instead it was leaving me exhausted after. I’ve also moved all of my teaching lessons to the weekends so that I can focus more on my writing and development skills. Baby steps toward a less chaotic schedule and hopefully baby steps toward honing in on what’s most important to me. 

Take-away Points:

I’ll leave you with my three main take-away points:

  1. Learn to guard and protect your time & energy. If it’s not a heck yeah, then it’s a no.
  2. Focus on what’s important to you, ignore the rest.
  3. Sleep more, play more, rest more. Especially when there’s no time.

Questions for Discussion:

  • What personal philosophy have you relied on? Have you used a version of essentialism in your life? What have you found that works for you?
  • How do you go about saying no to various nonessential commitments or responsibilities in your life? How do you decide what your priority is and where your focus should be? 
  • Are there any nonessential projects that you could say goodbye to this next week? What would your schedule look like if you had more time to do what you love? 

That’s all for now! 🙂


I welcome your feedback. If you enjoyed this article or if you have any questions or concerns, feel free to contact me on Twitter or write to me in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!

Tired? 17 Activities for Low-energy Days

Photograph by Jonathan Fink on Unsplash

Tired? Need a pick-me-up? We all have those days… and some days we need more rest than we’d like! Especially with all of the happenings around the world, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

Over the past year or two, I’ve been on a quest to figure out what helps me relax and what doesn’t. As a former workaholic and someone who has dealt with burnout in the past, learning how about this essential skill relaxation has become increasingly important to me.

After reading a few books, including Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pan, I’ve been giving serious thought to how I refresh my energy when I’m not working.

Please note that this list was not developed with any true scientific rigor. It was, however, created with love and by carefully noting how I feel before and after each activity, and giving myself an honest assessment. Because human nature is as it is, everyone’s list may be different. For that reason I’d recommend that you modify this list and find what works for you. I offer suggestions at the end of the article for how to develop your own list.

But without any further ado, here are 17 possible activities to try…


The List of Relaxing Activities

Close your eyes

Eye strain can be a very real problem, especially when looking at the computer for long hours. Be sure to take regular eye breaks, which can include closing your eyes for a short while.

If it’s a consistent problem for you, check out this article on eye strain from Mayo Clinic for more information.

Go for a walk

I can’t tell you how many times simply going for a nice walk has helped me. Something about the fresh air, or body movement helps me to feel refreshed whenever I get back.

Here’s another article from the Mayo Clinic about the benefits of walking.

In the time of coronavirus, maybe we can’t go outside as easily. In that case, even doing some laps in our home can be helpful!

Curl up in pajamas or comfy clothes

Never underestimate the comfort of simply wearing comfortable clothes.

If you have nowhere pressing to be for the day (or are stuck inside anyway thanks to the quarantine), it can be wonderfully relaxing just to hang out in PJs.

Make a smoothie

Although this one won’t be an option for everyone (it requires a blender), I find that a smoothie can go along way in helping me feel more energized. Probably it’s the sudden influx of sugar and nutrients, but you also don’t have to make your smoothies super sweet to get benefits.

I personally like green smoothies with orange juice, spinach, apple, ginger, and blueberries, but figure out a recipe that might work for you!

Put on lotion

This is one that I always drag my feet about. I don’t really like putting on lotion as it can sometimes leave my hands or feet with a slimy or oily feeling. However, putting hand lotion on can be very refreshing. I live in the desert right now so it’s even more critical that I remember to do this. Likewise, if we’re washing out hands often, they will dry out more frequently. Cracked, dry skin serves no one.

Extra bonus points if you also give your hands a massage.

Clean your space

This one also might be controversial, but cleaning & tidying is incredibly relaxing and cathartic for me.

Whether it’s the feeling of tossing out unneeded paperwork, dumping literal trash, shining a mirror, or dusting, I find that cleaning can leave me feeling refreshed and energized.

At the end of the day, too, it can be very satisfying to look over my handiwork and see how everything feels much better. It even seems to sparkle. Silly, I know. 🙂

Do laundry

I put this one on here specifically, even though it could technically fall under the category of cleaning. Either way, there’s something very refreshing about having clean clothing, towels, or sheets, especially when I’m exhausted or not otherwise feeling well

I wanted to add though that sometimes laundry can be a stress point, though, too, depending on the way you do laundry. Coin laundries are decidedly less fun, especially when you have to wait for long hours.

When I lived in Japan, we would let our clothes out to dry on the balcony, which was pleasant but also labor intensive. Sometimes waiting for good weather was difficult and you had to watch out for sudden gusts of wind 🙂

Either way, the end result is usually satisfying- clean, nice smelling clothing!

Exercise

Sometimes I don’t like exercise very much, but I always feel better after I’ve gotten some physical activity. There’s really no wrong answers here. Stretching, body weight training, cardio… just do what feels right to you. And just a reminder that you don’t have to overdo it. Even 5-10 minutes can make a big difference.

Personal activities that have worked well for me include walking, cycling, hiking, stretching, dancing to a favorite song, or following along with the Wii Fit. Make it fun, make it silly. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Listen to music

Try putting on Spotify, Pandora, or your favorite YouTube playlist and just kicking back for awhile.

I know I tend to listen to music when I’m actively doing something, but it can also be nice to just make the music your primary focus– Have fun getting lost in it!

Shower or take a bath

Showers especially are always my go-to whenever I need to feel refreshed. They’re great for thinking, but also for just resetting my brain.

I’m almost always in a better mood after.

Put in eye drops

This one goes along with closing your eyes for awhile, but when you’ve been staring at the computer for far too long, sometimes eye drops are called for. I recommend lubricant eye drops.

Drink water or make tea

Staying hydrated is important, and some of us simply don’t drink enough water. Here’s an article from the Mayo Clinic that can give some recommendations for water intake. Hint: It’s highly individual.

Making tea, especially herbal tea, can also be very refreshing and soothing. If you’re not a big tea drinker, you could try cucumber water or some watermelon.

Find a sunny spot

This one will depend on the time and your location, but sitting in sunshine for a short while can be wonderfully relaxing and comforting. Channel your inner house cat and find the nearest sunny spot.

Pro-tip: Don’t sit in the sun for so long that you get sunburned. 😉

Related, but if it happens to be raining or snowing, park yourself near a window and just watch the weather for awhile. There’s a meditative quality about just watching and observing.

Take care of plants / gardening

I love caring for plants! There’s something really nice about being able to care for them and watch them slowly grow over time.

Whether you’re raising houseplants or have a full garden to attend to, I know I’m always happy after I’ve tended to the plants.

Bonus: It’s also fun to play in the dirt and wrangle plants with shears!

Hang out in nature

Again, this one will depend on the current time and location (and the relative safety of your living arrangements), but if at all possible, hanging out in nature can be wonderful. You could visit a park or garden if you live in a city, or find a hiking trail if you’re the adventuring type. There are ways to make this work with social distancing, too!

Either way, getting away from everyday life and civilization and connecting with the natural world on some level is welcome.

Watch a nature documentary or feel good show

I love documentaries & silly children’s cartoon shows. I also love cooking shows. One of my go-to pick me up series for awhile was The Great British Baking Show. There was something special about the way the contestants all became team mates and friends over the weeks, and the joy of watching all of the amazing recipes somehow come together. I’d find myself in a much better mood & refreshed after. Other good candidates might be movies you remember from childhood, or your favorite cheesy soap opera.

Sleep / take a nap / go lay down

I saved the best for last! For me, though, one of the best recommendations for sleepy & tired days is simply to go lay down for awhile. I’m a proponent of 20-30 minute naps, as needed. But even if you’re not able to sleep during the day, simply closing your eyes and reclining can be helpful.


Wrap-up

I wanted to finish up with a short disclaimer at the end. Just because you do a task for fun, or find it especially worthwhile or rewarding doesn’t mean it’s going to help you relax. I intentionally left out some activities that could potentially be relaxing for some people, and that’s because I’ve found that they don’t always work for me. The short list includes video games, reading books, making art, playing music, writing, meditation, programming, and a few others. These are all tasks that I find deeply enjoyable and fun. I would never give them up.

The primary reason I’m NOT including them is just because I’ve found in my experience that they aren’t always relaxing as their central purpose. Especially video games. I love games dearly and I recommend them for other reasons (play and creativity is SO important!), but I just don’t find that I’m necessarily more relaxed after. It depends on the game, of course, but I just wanted to throw that out there.

How do you find what works for you? That brings me to…

Tips on making your own List

If you’re unsure about anything on my list, or want to find out what works for you in your life, I’d highly recommend taking notes before and after you do an activity. The most important part is just to observe yourself and to be honest with yourself.

Questions for before:

  1. How do you feel?
  2. What is your current mood?
  3. Do you notice any tension or discomfort anywhere in your body?

Questions for after:

  1. Have there been any changes to the way you feel now vs how you felt before?
  2. Do you feel any more alert or awake now?

For me when I did this self-assessment, I was most surprised that games didn’t work for me. I was also surprised that exercise and particularly cleaning helped me feel better. If you decide to do this self-assessment, what most surprised you? Were there any activities that you thought were relaxing, but actually left you feeling more stressed after?

Wrap-Up Questions:

Now that we’ve gotten through everything, I thought I’d end on some questions & final thoughts.

  1. What relaxation techniques work for you when you’re cranky, tired, or exhausted?
  2. What are some ways that you make room for rest in your life?
  3. How can you structure more relaxation and rest in your day?

Thanks for reading! I welcome your feedback. If you enjoyed this article or if you have any questions or concerns, feel free to contact me on Twitter or write to me in the comments section below.