5 Questions That Will Help You Focus On What Matters

Originally posted on tinybuddha.com

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” ~Mary Oliver

Let’s get things done.

If you’ve ever read any books or articles about productivity, you’ve heard this phrase. It’s one I used and made a part of my life for a long time. More recently, I’ve discovered there’s a better and more disciplined way to work and to live.

It’s called essentialism, and it means getting more of the right things done.

According to Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, an essentialist removes the trivial and focuses on what adds value.

They make smart decisions about how to spend their time, energy, and resources because they understand this is the best way of contributing more to the people in their lives, to their families, and to society.

I’ve discovered five important questions that are helping me make progress toward getting more of the right things done.

And I want to share them with you.

1. Is this activity adding value to my life?

Since I was a child, I played and loved video games. When I was in my mid-twenties, I even reviewed them for a popular entertainment website. The website didn’t pay me, but I didn’t care. I enjoyed gaming, and I was able to keep the games after I wrote my reviews.

After a year or two of this, I felt a shift in how I approached games. Instead of looking forward to playing the next AAA title or blockbuster release, I began to dread the tedious missions, the walkthroughs, and inevitable write-ups.

To my great shame, I wrote negative reviews of games I’d only played for an hour or two before selling them.

One morning, after staying up late gaming the night before, I woke up and realized I was wasting my time and energy on something I didn’t enjoy. I emailed my editor and told him I was done. Then, I sold my games and gave my console to my son.

I’m not making a case against gaming; instead, I share this story as an example of how we value our time differently as we grow older.

2. How am I going to fill my glass?

Consider your entire day a glass:

You can fill this glass with important activities, or big rocks, such as spending time with family or working on projects you’re passionate about. Then, you can fill the glass with non-essential activities like answering email or watching television—these are likes grains of sand, and they will settle around the big rocks in your day.

However, if you fill your glass non-essential activities first, there will be no room left for the big rocks in your day.

Every night, before I go to bed, I ask myself what I want to fill my glass with?

My answer is almost always the same: to write.

Unless I act, these grains of sand will fill my day and leave no room for writing. However, if I make a conscious decision to write, these grains of sand settle around the big rocks in my day.

I’m not going to lie and say I fit writing into every day, but when I do I feel lighter. And if I write first thing—even if it’s just a journal entry—I don’t have the inevitable moment when I sit on the couch after an exhausting and demanding day and think, “Oh no, I still have to write.”

If you’re not a writer, you still have big rocks in your life. They could be spending time with a loved one, meditating, or exercising. Your grains of sand could be commitments you’ve made to others that aren’t adding value to your life or passive activities like watching the news or reading social media feeds.

Decide on your big rocks before you got to bed, and you will wake up and fill your day with what matters.

3. What clutter can I eliminate?

Two years ago, I lost a dream job. I was unemployed for six months, and spent a lot of this free time figuring out what matters most to me and reading about minimalism.

It felt like something I could get into, and when you’re unemployed, you need something to get into.

Minimalism is another name for essentialism, and the quickest way to get started is to eliminate material goods you don’t use, need, love, or depend on.

I sold my laptop because I prefer writing using my desktop computer. I donated every book to charity that I promised myself I’d read but had no intention of doing so.

I got rid of every item of clothing that I hadn’t worn during the past twelve months. And, I deleted almost all of the unwatched films and TV shows on my hard-drive and cancelled subscriptions to various online services.

Did I do this because I had free time on my hands?


Later on, when I found a job, I thought of buying a new laptop and replacing the clothes I’d given away. But I found I didn’t miss any of these things.

Eliminating clutter gave me more space, more time, and more room for the big rocks in my life.

If you want to eliminate some of the clutter in your life, McKeown offers this advice:

“If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?”

4. How do I protect myself?

To be an essentialist is to protect your physical, mental, and spiritual health. Each of these three areas represents one side of a triangle, and if one is under stress, the other two will suffer.

Here’s how I protect myself:

To look after my mental health, I expose myself to new ideas through challenging books and record ten ideas every day based on these books. This practice keeps my brain active.

To look after my physical health, I run up to twenty miles a week. This practice helps me work through stressful problems, and it gives me more energy for other areas of my life.

To look after my spiritual health, I try to meditate for an hour a week, and I write regular journal entries about what I’m struggling with and things I feel grateful for.

I find this practice exceptionally difficult, but taking a step back from the trenches of the working week helps me quiet my monkey mind. It helps me sleep better at night. And then I can return to whatever I’m doing with a renewed vigor.

5. How often do I disconnect?

Several years ago, I went on vacation to a campsite in Italy. There was no immediately available Internet access at the campsite, and I wasn’t able to check my phone and my feeds or read the news whenever I wanted.

On the first day of this trip, I felt disconnected and behind. My hands kept reaching for the email app on my phone even though I knew I didn’t have access to the Internet.

After a day or two this habit died, and I began to enjoy these disconnected few days away from home. I took one lesson home from this holiday.

Being constantly connected kills my opportunity to escape, to enjoy a vacation, to spend time with the people I’m with and even to focus on my work.

It’s been a while since I’ve gone a week without email, but I’ve removed the email app from my phone and only check it at predefined periods during the day. I’ve also disabled as many notifications as possible on the devices that I use. And I regularly work without being connected to the Internet.

If you take regular time out to take care of yourself, you will be better able to focus on what matters

Live Your Wild and Precious Life

An essentialist avoids spending their time on tasks they can say no to, on people they should say no to, and on compromises that aren’t worth making.

They are committed working on what inspires them, on what they’re talented at, and pursuing their contributions to the world.

I’m still working on becoming an essentialist and eliminating the trivial from my life. It’s a difficult practice and one I fall way from often, but the five questions I’ve shared with you help.

I know now that anyone can choose to live their wild and precious life they way they want.

We just have to decide what matters.

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