I used to sit in the window of my dad’s makeshift art studio in the basement as a kid and watch him paint for hours. I would study his concentration face, his humble eyes examining the brush strokes. And it wasn’t until well into hindsight that I realized how this was hours into the night, long after holding space all day long as a counselor, teacher, father, and husband. I see now that that painting probably paid for my dance lessons. That the car he was fixing in the garage likely funded yet another traveling soccer tournament. He was so talented and genuinely loved honoring these other facets of his interests. But when did it slip from hobby to necessity? Whenever it was, I was there to absorb it. And the society I grew up in perpetuated the “more equals more” narrative.
Within the first handful of pages in reading Essentialism by Greg McKeown, I knew this book would change the way I viewed, well, nearly everything—and I truly don’t say that flippantly. While reading I dog-eared pages, highlighted sentences, and conceived of tattoo ideas for my forehead to serve as daily reminders (all the signs of a true page turner!). While every chapter and section was bursting at the edges with unmitigated wisdom, three of the themes in particular held up a mirror for an extended but necessary amount of time.
These are the most important lessons I learned from the book Essentialism.
Takeaway 1: Overhaul Your Triggers (Page 209)
In this segment, McKeown talks about the difficulty of changing a habit, no matter how big or minuscule it is, no matter how badly we want it changed. He goes on to explain a few more tangible ways in which we can reframe and rewire these seemingly impossible forces.
I want to preface by saying this is an incredibly layered, complex topic (ironically, as we’re here to discuss overarching simplicity) but perhaps that’s why it’s so hard. How could something that embodies “bringing less noise” to our lives feel too loud to actually hear?
Our reactions to things are often actually habits we’ve subliminally formed and it can be difficult to see the difference. I don’t know about you, but I find myself vehemently responding to something as basic as a task for my businesses with the same vigor and nerves of prepping for a marathon. Or I’ll find that the constant pinging of texts, emails, and other various notifications will send me into overdrive and savior complex, thinking that the requests of others are far more urgent than the task before me. And, let’s be honest, we all know how the cycle usually ends up: Fight or Flight > Anxiety that time is running out > Panic > Mental Paralysis.
One thing that has helped me better face this trigger of always feeling like I need to be “on”? Batch communication! It’s no novel idea but one I’ve come to just recently. If you have even an ounce of people-pleasing in you and want to be at the ready for all, I highly encourage you to either toss the ol’ phone in airplane mode from time to time to do deep focus or be okay with messages going unread until you are able to carve out time to answer. Your energy will be less like salt sprinkled across the day’s landscape and you’ll instead be able to offer responses that are not as full of platitudes as they may be by answering in a flurry.
Takeaway 2: Forgot to Choose (Pages 36 and 37)
One of my favorite quotes in the whole book is, “The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away—it can only be forgotten.” The section goes on to deeper hit home about how we get to a point of forgetting we have choices at all when we’ve become so beholden to other demands. Somewhere in between learned helplessness and peripheral expectations, we fall prey to a non-essentialist way of living, blindly forgoing the autonomy that actually makes us powerful. The feedback loop a majority of us are stuck in that prevents us from essentialism in the first place is tantamount to running on a treadmill at the highest speed, except the stop button doesn’t work and there are no handles to guide us off, so we have no choice but to keep running until we are ushered backward on our face, against our will.
I have lost count of how many times in my life I have lamented the fact that there is simply not enough time for a long lunch or a mid-day walk when there is so much to do. When you wear so many hats, they often come with a veil of trepidation to stretch beyond what is the “productive thing to do,” where the torrent of responsibilities feels too much to have a choice in it at all.
The feedback loop a majority of us are stuck in that prevents us from essentialism in the first place is tantamount to running on a treadmill at the highest speed, except the stop button doesn’t work and there are no handles to guide us off, so we have no choice but to keep running.
Physical space opens up mental space by proxy. We know this and are always better for forging an errant route when we’ve succumbed to the “shoulds.” It’s not uncommon for humans to sublimate any form of worry, grief, or fear into work or production. In fact, some might argue that it sometimes is to their benefit as a means to distract and stay afloat. (I would be in the camp that sometimes this can even be healthy!) But we know that lethal, murky route, Americans especially. And the praise for going above and beyond only further forms a conduit for needing more, filling more, being more.
Are you feeling fulfilled by the doing or are you disassociating? The choice is the difference and it takes ceaseless effort but will eventually become less daunting and more anchored in who you are.
Takeaway 3: The Power of a Graceful “No” (Page 131)
Opening with these prophetic words, “The right ‘no’ spoken at the right time can change the course of history,” this part of the book stopped me right in my tracks. There are examples of this where, at large, it absolutely is true and so powerful to think about. And what about the less grandiose nos, the ones that seem less earth shattering but in time change the course of our own lives, schedules, and overall space? The author’s breakdown of this and his examples of a “non-essentialist vs. essentialist” way of handling such a heavy word really brought it home for me.
We are hard-wired to people please (*cough* some of us more than others) due to an inherent desire to get along, for less social awkwardness, to keep the energy upbeat, and for fear of reprimanding. To do what is right for us in the moment and mutter the word “no,” kind as it may be, is challenging. Whether it be your boss or a parental figure, you’d be hard-pressed not to find someone you are afraid of disappointing, right? For most of my life, I would have rather NOT said no and dealt with the repercussions of my own discomfort to keep the peace in the room, but it never stops there. Our society perpetuates this by telling us we have “such big hearts” or glorifying/taking advantage of the people pleaser and, in turn, resentment brews hot like coffee (and we’re talking the kind that burns your tongue with every sip).
The beauty of declining is that it does not always have to be by saying those two little letters. It can also be enveloped in an “I love you for inviting me but I’m unable to commit to more right now. Appreciate you thinking of me though!”
Practicing essentialism teaches us to read the room but not become engulfed in its energy. If you are an HSP (highly sensitive person) to any degree, this can be incredibly difficult because it can be tough to discern whose energy is yours or theirs, what nuances to use or dismiss. But the more we can remove the clutter, silence the noise, and stay within our boundaries, the more clear this becomes. And, all of a sudden, standing in a room where you may feel the weight of the heavy energy, you’ll know it’s no longer yours to carry because you are so unshaken in your own being.
In short, if it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no (thank you).
An easy way to integrate all of this into everyday life as the situations simmer is what page 24 jumped out and shook me with as I read it: “explore, eliminate, execute.” These three Es are an adjuvant reminder to all of the wisdom that is at the helm of nearly every page. (And likely the first of my aforementioned forehead tattoos.)
Now if you’ll excuse me, this pot who is calling the kettle black is going to put Gregory McKeown’s sage wisdom into action as I’ve got sixteen tabs to close, a phone to silence, and a patch of pavement that is begging of me to give permission to assess the loud thoughts on repeat in my head. Turns out, the world and all the work will still be there when time’s up, and it will probably all feel a little lighter a load to carry because of it. Hell, we may even be a better parent, partner, friend, or business owner when we return.
Small wins? We love that for all of us.
Sarah Hrudka Behlke is a gal with big feelings, even bigger hair, who’s never met a stranger. She is the co-owner of design brands linyage and velvet raptor, as well as a lifestyle photographer. When she is not spilling coffee on her white tee, you can find her at the park with her husband and toddler son, where he is likely wiping his sticky hands on her back-up white tee.