Just a few years ago, I was teaching in Costa Rica while my mother battled cancer thousands of miles away. As I wrote last month, that gut-wrenching experience put life into new perspective for me. When I came home, I started over completely. I needed to know that, for the rest of my life, I would always be doing something that was worth it. I had to stop trying to do everything — and learn to focus on the one thing that is most important.
I am not alone in this: in the United States and many other countries, we are brought up on a diet of multitasking, maximizing time, working until we’re too tired or sick to continue. The underlying belief is that, if we work harder, we will make more money and become happier. But we seldom stop to examine our priorities. What if your life ended tomorrow? Would you be happy with how you spent today?
In some ways, it is easier to just keep working, working, working, and not worry too much about what you are working for. But, of course, without a clear goal, how will you ever get there? I’m not the first to say this, and indeed there are millions of people around the world who probably understand it better than I do. What I can tell you, is what it means to focus on your purpose instead of your pastimes. And I can give you a tool to start.
Let Essentialism Be Your Guide
If you’re like me, you have a constant to-do list spinning around in your head. I don’t think that will ever go away, but I also don’t let it overwhelm me.
Twice a day — once before I leave the house in the morning, and once when I come back in the evening — I sit down and ask myself this question:
What is the most important thing I can accomplish in the next twelve hours?
That’s it. The answer to that question shears through my mental to-do list, eliminating all the busywork and illuminating the essential activities. Suddenly, I know what I need to get done in order to make progress toward my essential goals.
Note that word: essential. It is not used lightly. In recent months, I’ve been actively practicing essentialism, a discipline that allows me to simplify my thoughts and actions, and become more effective, with less stress.
It’s based on the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown. From the book:
The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done. It is not a time management strategy, or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.
Or to put it another way:
Non-essentialism says “I have to do this.”
Essentialism says “I choose to.”
Figuring out what, exactly, you choose to do — well, that’s a process that takes some time. I hope to share more about essentialism with you in the months to come.
In the meantime, here is one of my favorite coaching tools, which can help you start to see how balanced your life is (or isn’t).
Use the pie chart below, or draw your own (feel free to customize the segments to represent your own life). In each wedge, draw a line representing how fulfilled you feel in that area.
This will probably bring up some ideas for you. What do you want to focus on? What could you worry about less? What’ve you been meaning to get to but neglecting? How do you feel about the balance in your life?
From here, practice choosing how you spend your time, and examining your activities on a daily basis. The rest … well, it’s probably not essential.
(chart source: http://thegeekyleader.com/2013/05/22/coaching-tools-life-balance-wheel/)