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Learn to Recognize How Less Equals Success

Plus 4 surefire ways to simplify


by Kate Ashford

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If you’re feeling overworked, you are not alone. Some 83 percent of Americans are stressed by at least one aspect of their jobs, according to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Everest College—up 10% from the previous year. No wonder: with mobile technology, it’s possible to work all the time, and from anywhere. More than half of employed adults said they check work email at least once a day on weekends, before or after work during the week, and even while they’re home sick, according to a survey by Harris Interactive for the American Psychological Association.

“The idea is, ‘I can do it all,’” says Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. “I think we’ve been oversold on the value of more and undersold on the value of less.” Here, five signs it’s time to scale back:

Your to-do list is longer at the end of the day. If by 6 p.m., you’ve added more things than you’ve marked off, you’re doing too much. “Solving this problem by an increase in productivity—‘If I just worked more hours and became more efficient’—doesn’t make sense,” McKeown says. “We need to go beyond how to do more and move into how to focus on less.”

You feel motion sickness, not momentum. If you are constantly moving but aren’t making headway, you need less in your life.

You’re making a millimeter’s progress in a million directions. You worked your tail off today, but you have made only infinitesimal gains on a dozen different projects. “It’s a mathematical idea,” McKeown says. “If you do fewer things you can go higher and faster. If you do more things your progress will be lower and slower.”

You’re not spending enough time with the important people in your life. One of the top regrets of people at the end of their lives, McKeown says, is that they worked too hard and didn’t spend time with family. “Nobody ever set out to achieve that goal,” he says. “They were just like us. They were just as smart, just as caring. How did it happen? That’s the question that should grab us.”

You’ve started Googling "mental breakdown." If you’re feeling stressed and besieged by your life, that’s a problem. “Stress is the emotional equivalent of a headache for the body,” McKeown says. “It’s trying to tell you that something is out of whack.”

So how can you jettison stress and get back to the essentials? McKeown offers this advice.

Quit going with the flow. Work will always press you to take on more and more. “To be an essentialist you have to be a bit of a revolutionary, because you have to be willing to say no when other people are saying yes. And that takes courage.” Stop volunteering for every committee and every extra work project that crosses your path, and focus on the ones that are important to you.


Try the one-in, two-out rule. At the very least, if you take on a new activity, drop an old one to make room. But to really improve things, drop two activities for each new one. “If you’ve got a crammed closet, and you take one sweater out for every new sweater, it will always be crammed. The key is eliminating more.”

Create a tech-free zone. Designate a room in your home as technology-free, or a time of day when you shut everything off. “I just talked to a leader where that rule is eight at night. Turn off your phone. Everything is done.”

Complete a life audit. Executives often have a once-a-year meeting in which a team identifies where they are, where they want to be and how to get there. “Sometimes I find it amazing to discover that we, as individuals, do not spend that much time doing the same thing.” McKeown identifies eight steps to help you clarify your goals and purposes. Time required: About two hours. “Anyone who’s seen a movie in the last year has enough available time to sit and evaluate their life. It’s not impossible.”

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