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How to do less and achieve more? Learning to be an essentialist could be the key to a happier work life

NOTHING worth having comes easy, or so the saying goes. But is the “no pain, no gain” mantra really working when it comes to our jobs?

According to the latest research, 79% of us are experiencing burnout* – hardly surprising given the past 18 months.

The line between work and home life has only become more blurred as a result of WFH during the pandemic, with many of us mastering the art of responding to emails while simultaneously cooking the kids’ dinner.

According to psychologist Niels Eek, as offices have started reopening after lockdown, this high rate of people experiencing burnout is likely to escalate given our obsession with presenteeism – the act of showing up for work without necessarily being productive.

“This can encourage people to work long hours, even when this isn’t immediately necessary, and there is a possibility that this could re-emerge as an issue now offices have reopened,” warns Niels, co-founder of mental-health platform Remente (

While the holy grail of a work/life balance is a contributing factor to burnout, the culture of working harder and longer for very little in return is leading to work martyrdom – a phenomenon rife among millennials, who strive to be irreplaceable in the workplace by shunning paid holidays and traditional working hours.

But is there a healthier way to achieve our goals?

At a time when our work lives are more overwhelming than ever, it could be time to embrace essentialism – and learn that less really is more.

Badges of honour

First things first, we need to try to get over the idea that trivial things are easy, while the important things in life are hard. So says Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism and Effortless.

“One of the greatest misconceptions we live with today is that the only path to achieving great results is by working harder,” he explains.

“This is largely because people have been brought up believing that hard work leads to success, but this has somehow morphed into the idea that hard work equals success. Our culture glorifies burnout as a measure of success and self-worth.

"The implicit message is that if we aren’t perpetually exhausted, we must not be doing enough – that great things are reserved for those who bleed and those who almost break. Burnout and busyness have become badges worn with honour.”

Be precise

That’s not to say that kicking back is the answer, Greg stresses. The key, he says, is learning to be more precise about where we put our energy.

“Strangely, some people respond to feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by vowing to work even harder and for longer,” he adds.

“It’s true that hard work can equal better results, but this is only true to a point.” After all, there’s an upper limit to how much time and effort we can all invest. 

So how can you make more of the time you’ve got? Greg says it’s as simple as asking yourself one question. “When people begin to ask themselves: ‘What’s an easier, more effortless way to get this done?’ their perspective begins to shift.”

Work smarter, not harder

The shame we often feel about not doing enough, or the link we make between ease and laziness, is often at the root of the problem.

Whether it’s caused by a feeling of inadequacy in childhood or overachieving as an adult, the stigma of doing less prevails – and Greg is determined to stamp this out.

“For many of us, the idea of finding an easier way feels uncomfortable,” he says. “We feel guilty for not ‘going the extra mile’. But achieving our goals efficiently is not unambitious – it’s smart. It’s a liberating alternative that allows us to preserve our sanity, while still accomplishing our goals.”

It begs the question, what if instead of pushing ourselves past the point of burnout, we took the opposite approach? “I truly believe that seeking out an easier path is the antidote to the epidemic of exhaustion that many of us are facing,” Greg says.  

What matters most?

Zoom fatigue, decision fatigue, pandemic fatigue… the past 18 months have left us all zapped of energy. But that’s why there’s no better time to assess old habits and mindsets, Niels argues.

“Taking a streamlined approach to decision-making can encourage a healthier attitude,” he says. And it all starts with a daily to-do list. “Consciously making decisions about how much you can take on and what is most important to you may offer a sense of perspective.”

Niels suggests taking time to think about what matters most each day, to “cut out peripheral tasks that offer little benefit and act as a distraction for more pressing projects. This can also allow you to make space for activities that may improve your mental wellbeing, such as having lunch with a friend, or going for a walk outside.

"This can give you a chance to escape the stresses of the working day and be more focused when you return.”

Understand yourself

We live in a world of unprecedented choice. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and try to be everything to everyone. But as Greg warns: “An essential life is one that is lived with intention.

This requires incredible clarity. It means understanding what you want to achieve. This allows you to say no to many good options in order to say yes to the truly great ones.” Doesn’t that sound tempting? 

5 Ways To Be An Essentialist

Greg shares his top tips for living a more streamlined life.

  1. Instead of asking: “How can I tackle this really hard but essential project?” simply invert the question and ask: “What if this essential project could be made easy?” 
  2. Watch out for when you use the words “I have to”. Replace them with “I choose to”. 
  3. Pause once today and ask: “Is this the most important or valuable thing I could be doing right now?” 
  4. Catch yourself when the thought “I will do both” crosses your mind. When you spot it, stop, pause and pick just one of the choices you have. 
  5. Ask yourself: “How can I double my results with half the effort?” For example, don’t let minor details distract you from your task.
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