by Greg McKeown
We have a problem—and the odd thing is we not only know about it, we’re celebrating it. Just today, someone boasted to me that she was so busy she’s averaged four hours of sleep a night for the last two weeks. She wasn’t complaining; she was proud of the fact. She is not alone.
Why are typically rational people so irrational in their behavior? The answer, I believe, is that we’re in the midst of a bubble; one so vast that to be alive today in the developed world is to be affected, or infected, by it. It’s the bubble of bubbles: it not only mirrors the previous bubbles (whether of the Tulip, Silicon Valley or Real Estate variety), it undergirds them all. I call it “The More Bubble.”
The nature of bubbles is that some asset is absurdly overvalued until — eventually — the bubble bursts, and we’re left scratching our heads wondering why we were so irrationally exuberant in the first place. The asset we’re overvaluing now is the notion of doing it all, having it all, achieving it all; what Jim Collins calls “the undisciplined pursuit of more.”
This bubble is being enabled by an unholy alliance between three powerful trends: smart phones, social media, and extreme consumerism. The result is not just information overload, but opinion overload. We are more aware than at any time in history of what everyone else is doing and, therefore, what we “should” be doing. In the process, we have been sold a bill of goods: that success means being supermen and superwomen who can get it all done. Of course, we back-door-brag about being busy: it’s code for being successful and important.
Not only are we addicted to the drug of more, we are pushers too. In the race to get our children into “a good college” we have added absurd amounts of homework, sports, clubs, dance performances and ad infinitum extracurricular activities. And with them, busyness, sleep deprivation and stress.
Across the board, our answer to the problem of more is always more. We need more technology to help us create more technologies. We need to outsource more things to more people to free up own our time to do yet even more.
Luckily, there is an antidote to the undisciplined pursuit of more: the disciplined pursuit of less, but better. A growing number of people are making this shift. I call these people Essentialists.
These people are designing their lives around what is essential and eliminating everything else. These people take walks in the morning to think and ponder, they negotiate to have actual weekends (i.e. during which they are not working), they turn technology off for set periods every night and create technology-free zones in their homes. They trade off time on Facebook and call those few friends who really matter to them. Instead of running to back-to-back in meetings, they put space on their calendars to get important work done.
The groundswell of an Essentialist movement is upon us. Even our companies are competing with one another to get better at this: from sleep pods at Google to meditation rooms at Twitter. At the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, there were — for the first time — dozens of sessions on mindfulness. TIME magazine goes beyond calling this a movement, instead choosing the word “Revolution.”
One reason is because it feels so much better than being a Nonessentialist. You know the feeling you get when you box up the old clothes you don’t wear anymore and give them away? The closet clutter is gone. We feel freer. Wouldn’t it be great to have that sensation writ large in our lives? Wouldn’t it feel liberating and energizing to clean out the closets of our overstuffed lives and give away the nonessential items, so we can focus our attention on the few things that truly matter?
People are beginning to realize that when the “more bubble” bursts — and it will — we will be left feeling that our precious time on earth has been wasted doing things that had no value at all. We will wake up to having given up those few things that really matter for the sake of the many trivial things that don’t. We will wake up to the fact that that overstuffed life was as empty as the real estate bubble’s detritus of foreclosed homes.
Here are a few simple steps for becoming more of an Essentialist:
1. Schedule a personal quarterly offsite. Companies invest in quarterly offsite meetings because there is value in rising above day-to-day operations to ask more strategic questions. Similarly, if we want to avoid being tripped up by the trivial, we need to take time once a quarter to think about what is essential and what is nonessential. I have found it helpful to apply the “rule of three”: every three months you take three hours to identify the three things you want to accomplish over the next three months.
2. Rest well to excel. K. Anders Ericsson found in “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” that a significant difference between good performers and excellent performers was the number of hours they spent practicing. The finding was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell as the “10,000 hour rule.” What few people realize is that the second most highly correlated factor distinguishing the good from the great is how much they sleep. As Ericsson pointed out, top performing violinists slept more than less accomplished violinists: averaging 8.6 hours of sleep every 24 hours.
3. Add expiration dates on new activities. Traditions have an important role in building relationships and memories. However, not every new activity has to become a tradition. The next time you have a successful event, enjoy it, make the memory, and move on.
4. Say no to a good opportunity every week. Just because we are invited to do something isn’t a good enough reason to do it. Feeling empowered by essentialism, one executive turned down the opportunity to serve on a board where she would have been expected to spend 10 hours a week for the next 2-3 years. She said she felt totally liberated when she turned it down. It’s counterintuitive to say no to good opportunities, but if we don’t do it then we won’t have the space to figure out what we really want to invest our time in.
A hundred years from now, when people look back at this period, they will marvel at the stupidity of it all: the stress, the motion sickness, and the self-neglect we put ourselves through.
So we have two choices. We can be among the last people caught up in the “more bubble” when it bursts, or we can see the madness for what it is and join the growing community of Essentialists and get more of what matters in our one precious life.