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Less is More | Practicing Essentialism at Work

Liz Peintner profile image

Liz Peintner

A work desk with a to do list board on it.

The concept of essentialism is becoming even more critical in a world where technology, social media, complex work projects, and multi-faceted partnerships have become the norm. How can we be our most effective when we’re stretched so thin? The answer: we can’t.

Instead, let’s follow the advice of Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by seeking out “the disciplined pursuit of less, but better.” This, my minimalist friends, is the workplace version of Marie Kondo’s “sparking joy.”

At its base, essentialism means taking the space and time to figure out what is most important rather than trying to do everything well. It means getting a good night of sleep rather than pushing yourself to take on every project under the sun. It means saying no to anything not on the list. Finally, it means being outwardly clear on what’s truly essential so that when you have to (or get to) say no, people understand why.

Determine what’s actually essential

There are many ways to determine what’s essential. Here are four techniques you can use to discern what’s most important at work:

  • Focus on mission and intended impact first. Check out your organization’s logic model, clarify your role in it, and focus first on the project that helps advance that work most effectively.
  •  Use a structured exercise. Categorize your projects using an Eisenhower Matrix to determine what’s urgent and what’s important.
  •  Revisit your annual goals. You and your manager might have already put some important projects on your plate. Take stock. Which one item is most important? What’s the second most important? Stop there.
  •  Start at the intersection of the mission and your personal values. If you’re a social entrepreneur or your manager gives you leeway to prioritize on your own, you might have a lot of flexibility to combine what the organization needs (the mission) and what drives you (your personal values).

With one or more of these techniques under your belt, make a (very short) list of no more than three projects or goals that are essential in your job.

Enlist support

You might wonder how you can make all of these decisions when you’re not fully in charge of your time or to-do list. Get your manager looped in so you can take this journey together. Tell them you’d like to:

  • Identify the time-wasting tasks in your job and explore ways to automate them;
  • Focus on the part of your job that makes the most impact for your organization;
  • Make sure you're working on what’s most essential in your role every week;
  • Push yourself to be more efficient and productive, which could mean you’re challenging the status quo now and then.

With an open conversation about why this is important for your role, hopefully you’ll get the support you need to move ahead.

Start putting essentialism into practice

Now it’s time to make some much-needed changes so you’re in the position of focusing on those essential projects or goals. You can structure your time for better productivity, utilizing the latest on how we form and break habits to take on a new behavior. You can also structure work projects for better productivity by developing systems, automating computer tasks, building templates, and eliminating barriers that stand in the way of doing something more simply. Or get inspired by Jennifer Chan’s formula for meaningful work: limited to-do list + effective workflow system + value-based job = meaningful work.

And above all, bring your creativity to the table. As Greg McKeown writes, “Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking. But their exploration is not an end in itself. The purpose of the exploration is to discern the vital few from the trivial many.”

By utilizing creative techniques to break down complexity and excess, you can thoughtfully move toward what’s most critical.

With the long view in mind, you can start to build habits, goals, and relationships that support a career focused on what’s essential. After all, if we’re about impact, isn’t this a great way to keep our head in the game?

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Liz Peintner profile image

Liz Peintner

Liz S. Peintner is a leadership coach and consultant based in Denver, Colorado who has spent her entire career in the social impact field. She helps people to better understand what drives them so they can choose careers they love and ultimately make positive social impact in ways that speak to their talents and passions.

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