Slowing Down and Practicing Essentialism

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!

Henry David Thoreau

Three months ago on December 31st, I published my ambitious New Year’s Resolutions for 2019. In the coming year, I aimed to become fluent in both Spanish and Python, a programming language, qualify for the Boston Marathon, and read 50 books.

Although I’ve made significant progress towards some of these resolutions (I’ve read 23 books so far this year, for instance), most of these aims have proven far too demanding of my time and energy as well as incongruent with my broader life goals.

Recently, I read Essentialism by leadership consultant Greg McKeown. The eponymous life philosophy advocates for focusing one’s attention on the “vital few” in place of the “trivial many.”

This “disciplined pursuit of less” warrants the recognition and excision of that which may be considered chaff in one’s life— the cumulative hours of scrolling through the Explore tab in Instagram, taking on dead-end projects to impress co-workers, checking and responding to email every twenty minutes— and instead focusing on the wheat that will germinate into the constituents of a productive and fulfilling life.

At 246 pages, Essentialism is a quick read, containing an abundance of actionable advice and practices to cultivate the mentality of an Essentialist. In this piece, I reassess my 2019 resolutions using essentialist framework, paring down these goals to a vital few.

An admission: I am Type A to a fault. A planner and a worrier by nature, with the next five, ten, fifteen years of my life charted in a Google Doc.

My ten-year plan circa senior year of high school

I crammed as many classes and extra-curricular activities as could fit in my schedule during high school and college, hoping to impress both my peers and admissions committees.

Following my college graduation, I continued that pattern and worked upwards of 60 to 70 hours per week in my two gaps years. Though I gained exposure to research modalities in public health and pharmacology and helped expand educational opportunities for low-income students, little consideration was given to my mental health or to my long-term happiness.

There are doubtless benefits to encountering the adversity that comes with such toil and working outside of one’s comfort zone. In his famed essay, The Moral Equivalent of War, William James argued as much,

We should get toughness without callousness, authority with as little criminal cruelty as possible, and painful work done cheerily because the duty is temporary, and threatens not, as now, to degrade the whole remainder of one’s life.

Subordinating personal desires and working to serve the needs of a larger group, as performed in times of war, can bring about a rare confluence of solidarity, cohesion, and heroism. In war, of course, these qualities are so often eclipsed and maligned by unspeakable cruelties and horrors, rendering any upside almost nugatory.

The moral equivalent of such war-like conditions, James concludes, can instead be achieved through a commitment to service work that contributes to the betterment of an individual’s community or nation, much like that brought about by organizations like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.

To be sure, in honing an essentialist practice of less, anguish and struggle are almost certain to be present.

Norman Borlaug, the agronomist who literally saved billions of lives, spent years of his life in “mind-warping tedium” with the single-minded focus of increasing crop yields and creating disease-resistant strains of wheat and rice. Surely Borlaug wasn’t terribly focused on his own individual happiness, instead prioritizing the enormous good his discoveries would provide for the world.

In neglecting to assume a similarly stringent concentration and having too many resolutions, I will ultimately be unable to accomplish so much as a modicum of my larger aims, my life goals. At present, my diffuse investment of energy appears similar to this schematic:

In embracing the principles of essentialism as the second quarter of 2019 begins, I will inevitably have to reduce my involvement in lower-yield projects and increase my attention on ends that carry more meaning.

In time, I expect this shift in my priorities will also have a positive effect on boosting my baseline level of happiness.

With this spring cleaning of sorts, the expenditure of my energy will look much closer to the following:

Original Resolutions

1. Become fluent in conversational Spanish

I made the intention of improving my ability to communicate in Spanish to promote “health equity and more effectively serve a diverse range of patients as a medical student and later, as a physician.”

Indeed, this resolution aligns directly with my life goal of reducing the suffering of others. Providing culturally competent medical care to Spanish-speaking populations, some of whom live on the margins of society, is a patent means through which more good is placed in the world. Accordingly, this aim requires a redoubling of my effort and focus, should I genuinely want to be fluent in Spanish.

Decision: KEEP

2. Become fluent in Python

At the start of this year, I held some vague notion about the benefits that would stem from fluency in a widely-used programming language. In particular, I was swayed by its potential use in developing technologies to bolster patient health behavior and decision-making.

At present, however, I still lack clarity in whether learning Python, or another programming language, will actually allow for that desired impact on healthcare. Other avenues, such as policy research or robust public health interventions, might be better suited to achieving those ends.

Given the inevitable scarcity of my time and energy, I will be removing this resolution as a point of focus for the remainder of this year.


3. Serve 10 hours per week

Serving others and connecting to a purpose larger than myself are guiding principle that shape my life philosophy. Moreover, there is reason to think that this ethic of service may also promote long-term happiness and health.

In conjunction with attaining fluency in conversational Spanish, I resolve to continue my goal of serving others in a meaningful context for a substantial amount of time each week. My hope is to form a bit of synergy between my goal of fluency in Spanish and my service work.


4. Win ten games of chess against opponents who are about as equally skilled as I am

Although I have quickly learned to enjoy the intricacies of chess strategy and the forward-thinking mental models one must utilize to be successful in the game, this resolution has only an oblique connection to my overarching life goals and, as such, will be dropped as a resolution.


5. Qualify for the Boston Marathon

At the time of writing, I’ve been nursing an ankle injury for the last five months. In total, I’ve run a shade under 40 miles over that period. In comparison, I ran 40 miles nearly every week in 2018 leading up to my injury. (This exertion is no doubt related to the emergence of my ankle troubles.)

Though I have started making plans to run a marathon this fall, the enormous commitment of energy to properly train for a 26-mile race— including the actual time spent running as well as stretching, weight training, and receiving adequate rest— will naturally detract from other, more meaningful aims.


6. Learn how to swim

The inability to swim, I acknowledge, carries a significant risk to my life should I come into contact with a large body of water without any means of refuge or rescue. Given that my executive functioning is nearing its peak at my tender age of twenty-four, I need merely to avoid such dangerous situations to compensate for this maladroitness in water.


7. Read 50 books

Perhaps the single most important trait one can possess is intellectual curiosity. Personally, I attribute whatever scholastic success I’ve managed to achieve to the diligence that stems from this spirit of inquiry rather any natural level of intelligence.

What matters most, I firmly believe, is not how smart an individual is, but rather how hard they’re willing to work towards achieving goals from which they derive meaning.

Nonetheless, this intellectual curiosity is often directly mediated by the degree of one’s literacy. The motivation to learn new subjects and disciplines is altogether nugatory without possessing the adequate tools to act upon it.

(As an aside, I hold that the existence of a well-informed and civically-engaged citizenry in a functioning democracy is also inextricably linked to the availability of education on an equitable basis. Absent those resources, democracy has little chance of long-term survival.)

Most of what I’ve learned about the natural world, the functioning of human society, and the means through which to lead a fulfilling life has come from reading books. Given my life goal to “acquire, maintain, and utilize an eclectic repository of knowledge,” this resolution naturally takes primacy.

Moreover, I’m happily already half-way to accomplishing this resolution at the three-month mark for this year!


8. Ride a bike or take public transportation as frequently as possible

As a species, one of the most pressing existential risks we face stems from the deleterious effects of climate change. Individual actions to reduce consumption of fossil fuels by altering one’s diet or lifestyle does little to substantially move the needle away from what journalist David Wallace-Wells calls an “uninhabitable Earth.”

Each of those initiatives to use fewer fossil fuels, however, constitutes a “tiny ripple of hope,” in the words of Bobby Kennedy. As more and more individuals change their behavior and make sustainable choices, these ripples can summate into a critical mass, forming “a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Surely using my bicycle or taking the bus alone won’t do very much to forestall the effects of climate change, though the ripple I create is well worth the effort.

My own actions, I should note, must ultimately be supplemented with broader, more systemic changes accomplished through state and national legislation in the United States as well as multilateral agreements to reduce the use of fossil fuels and invest in clean, renewable sources of energy.


Revised Resolutions

  1. Become fluent in conversational Spanish
  2. Serve 10 hours per week
  3. Read 50 books
  4. Ride a bike or take public transportation as frequently as possible

3 thoughts on “Slowing Down and Practicing Essentialism”

  1. I have to say that I’m glad you’ve started to practice essentialism to a greater degree (though I haven’t read the book, the idea was introduced to me about four years ago). Far be it from me to stop the ambitious from aiming high, but I do believe that focus is the key to inner potential. I should add that am of the mind that focus can be broadened too far.
    One idea that I’ve been considering for a couple months now (brought to me by Run with the Wind, a recent anime about a collegiate cross-country team) is what meaning certain acts, like physical training or public speaking or community service, hold. I have some ideas, but I’d love to know your thoughts. While it doesn’t answer any questions, one certainty is that we use these behaviors – like studying ving tsun or running races or playing Super Smash Bros. – to identify analogues. Analogues for what, I’m not entirely sure, but I feel very secure saying that the compartmentalization of understanding to a discrete act seems to be, however conscious, a primary mode of processing for a lot of people I’ve come across.

  2. Wow this is great. Good luck on your goals. Sometimes we get really excited to set different goals in the beginning of the year. When I started my marketing career, I wanted to do everything. My resume was all over the place. I had no sense of direction. Now, I want to pursue Ecommerce because I have interest in it and I see a long term growth in the selling channel. In Essentialism, I learned to focus on concentrating on a few things that will lead you to your long term goal like learning and implementing ad copy. Your blog post encouraged me to put more of the essentialism concepts on my career.

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