“In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time – literally – substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.”

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It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload.

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What is new is how especially damaging this myth is today, in a time when choice and expectations have increased exponentially. It results in stressed people trying to cram yet more activities into their already overscheduled lives. It creates corporate environments that talk about work/life balance but still expect their employees to be on their smartphones 24/7/365. It leads to staff meetings where as many as ten “top priorities” are discussed with no sense of irony at all.

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The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralise the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality.

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After all, there is still a feeling of sunk-cost bias: studies have found that we tend to value things we already own more highly than they are worth and thus that we find them more difficult to get rid of.

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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.

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As a quote attributed to Victor Hugo, the French dramatist and novelist, puts it, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” “Less but better” is a principle whose time has come.

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What if society encouraged us to reject what has been accurately described as doing things we detest, to buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like?

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What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?

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Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices – or even a function of our own past choices.

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Working hard is important. But more effort does not necessarily yield more results. “Less but better” does.

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The overwhelming reality is: we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.

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To discern what is truly essential we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make.

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For some reason there is a false association with the word focus. As with choice, people tend to think of focus as a thing. Yes, focus is something we have. But focus is also something we do.

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Think of a journal as like a storage device for backing up your brain’s faulty hard drive. As someone once said to me, the faintest pencil is better than the strongest memory.

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I also suggest that once every ninety days or so you take an hour to read your journal entries from that period. But don’t be overly focused on the details, like the budget meeting three weeks ago or last Thursday’s pasta dinner. Instead, focus on the broader patterns or trends. Capture the headline.

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Rand took a risk when he said no. He bet a short-term popularity loss for a long-term gain in respect. And it paid off.

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It’s all too easy to blindly accept and not bother to question commitments simply because they have already been established.

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Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.

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When we are added onto an e-mail thread, for example, we can resist our usual temptation to be the first to “reply all”. When sitting in a meeting, we can resist the urge to add our two cents. We can wait. We can observe. We can see how things develop. Doing less is not just a powerful Essentialist strategy, it’s a powerful editorial one as well.

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The way of the Essentialist, on the other hand, is to use the good times to create a buffer for the bad.

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One way to protect against this is simply to add a 50 per cent buffer to the amount of time we estimate it will take to complete a task or project (if 50 per cent seems overly generous, consider how frequently things actually do take us 50 per cent longer than expected). So if you have an hour set aside for a conference call, block off an additional thirty minutes.

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Essentialists don’t default to Band-Aid solutions. Instead of looking for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, they look for the ones slowing down progress. They ask, “What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?” While the non-Essentialist is busy applying more and more pressure and piling on more and more solutions, the Essentialist simply makes a one-time investment in removing obstacles.

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Removing obstacles does not have to be hard or take a superhuman effort. Instead, we can start small. It’s kind of like dislodging a boulder at the top of a hill. All it takes is a small shove, then momentum will naturally build.

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“My experience has taught me this about how people and organizations improve: the best place to look is for small changes we could make in the things we do often. There is power in steadiness and repetition.”6

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So we introduced a token system.9 The children were given ten tokens at the beginning of the week. These could each be traded in for either thirty minutes of screen time or fifty cents at the end of the week, adding up to $5 or five hours of screen time a week.

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Take a goal or deadline you have coming up and ask yourself, “What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?”

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According to researchers at Duke University in North Carolina, nearly 40 per cent of our choices are deeply unconscious.7 We don’t think about them in the usual sense. There is both danger and opportunity in this.

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Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter and founder of Square, has an interesting approach to his weekly routine. He has divided up his week into themes. Monday is for management meetings and “running the company” work. Tuesday is for product development. Wednesday is for marketing, communications, and growth. Thursday is for developers and partnerships. Friday is for the company and its culture.9 This routine helps to provide calmness amid the chaos of a high-growth start-up.

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To operate at your highest level of contribution requires that you deliberately tune in to what is important in the here and now.

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I’m not talking about doing only one thing at a time. I’m talking about being focused on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can “multi-focus” is.

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When faced with so many tasks and obligations that you can’t figure out which to tackle first, stop. Take a deep breath. Get present in the moment and ask yourself what is most important this very second – not what’s most important tomorrow or even an hour from now. If you’re not sure, make a list of everything vying for your attention and cross off anything that is not important right now.

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