Surrounded by family and friends, I find the holidays are a great time to reflect on what really matters. While I’m fairly clear on the current direction of my life, I noticed a disconnect between what’s important to me and how I was actually spending my time and energy everyday. This reminded me of a key point in Greg McKeown’s latest book Essentialism which I read this past fall:
“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.”
That’s it! Even though we know what’s important to accomplish, our daily activities often don’t match up and we squander our time on the non-essential. To be productive is not enough. In order to make our highest contributions both personally and professionally, we must consciously direct our efforts to do the “right" things.
Here are 4 practices to help focus your energy on what is essential, every day.
1. Learn to Say No
Your time is limited. Therefore, the only way to focus on the essential is to reduce time spent on the non-essential. This requires saying no to people or opportunities that distract you from what you value most.
These techniques can help you decide when it is in your best interest to say no:
- Monitor what is on your plate. Your life is already full. You spend every minute of the day on something. When a new opportunity comes along, think about what it will replace and deliberately decide if this trade is worthwhile. If you’re not willing to give up something else (whether it’s another project, sleep or even relaxation time) then you can confidently and graciously say no.
- Listen to your body and intuition. They are important! Saying yes to something that seems attractive, but leaves you feeling tight in the belly, or cramped in your back, merits reconsideration. Your body is your best ally in situations where an answer may not be apparent. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s usually a sign for you to first stop and think before moving forward.
2. Always Give Your All
If you are saying no to the non-essential and focusing only on what’s important to you, it will be easier to bring your best effort to activities. With more time, energy and focus available, you can develop strategies to do higher-level work in a given time.Here are 3 ways to give your all on a daily basis:
- Be fully present in whatever you are doing. This requires staying in the moment, accepting the current situation as it is and then deciding how you want to respond and engage. A daily mindfulness routine can help you develop this habit – start your morning with meditation, watch a motivational TED Talk, spend 15 minutes making something with your hands (art, food, music, etc.), take an improv class, or anything else that helps you focus on the now.
- Start your top priorities first. Since you can only accomplish a number of tasks each day, starting your top priorities first ensures they aren’t neglected due to fatigue. Instead of spending the first hours of your day archiving junk email, take that time to focus on the heavy hitters, such as finishing a business proposal.
- Be open to feedback. Listening openly, without judgment and without taking things personally is one of the most valuable skills in the workplace and world today. It requires noticing your thoughts and letting defensiveness go while receiving feedback from supervisors, your team, your spouse, or anyone who provides it. First, consider if the feedback resonates with you. If so, put it into action – showing up earlier, sharing more ideas at meetings, spending more time with your kids, or anything else. If it doesn't, choose to continue in a way that is best for you.
3. Optimize Your Habits
Often, we develop unintentional patterns that waste time, energy and money. Monitoring your daily actions can help you become aware of how you spend resources and how to maximize your ROI.
- Review how you spend time, money and energy. Track everything for a short period so you have a thorough assessment. Use tracking apps to simplify the process.
- Eliminate the unnecessary. Identify activities you can cut altogether. I’m no longer checking email when I don’t actually have time to respond. Last year I stopped keeping snacks at my desk, which led to habitual, mindless eating.
- Replace unintentional patterns with efficient ones. I used to spend about $30 a week on subway train tickets instead of buying an unlimited monthly pass for $100. It took me four months to finally make the switch, realizing the unlimited pass would have saved me $80 in that time period, and countless minutes spent buying tickets every time I took the train.
4. Energize Your Mind and Body
Our minds and bodies need breaks. We put a lot of pressure on them to relentlessly perform, but they are living organisms that also require nurture and care. If you plan to give your all for the long haul, you'll need to keep your mind and body energized.
Here are three ways to sustain your energy on a daily basis:
- Physical activity. You don’t have to climb Mount Everest, run a marathon, or even join a gym. But incorporating simple and stimulating physical activity in your daily routine will improve your energy level. Take power walks, do cubicle yoga, or jog on lunch breaks.
- Change your work setting. Mix it up. Spend a few hours on your laptop in a communal space, then move to your desk to make your day’s phone calls. When you’re done, step out to a café for some relaxation, or choose another fun destination and keep the work going.
- Connect with others. When the 3pm office slump kicks in, be the first to drum up a game of Catch Phrase with the team, lead a ten minute dance party, capture a funny group video, or make plans to grab a few beers together when the day is done.
Now equipped with four practices for an essential life, how do you envision your year ahead? Whether you're ready to build your business, start a family, travel abroad or anything else, frequently check in with the actions you are taking to make sure they align with your larger goals. There are few things more inspiring than to accomplish exactly what you set out for, no matter what else comes up.