Can We Improve Our Lives (And Our Bank Accounts) By Doing Less?

Casey Hynes — Up Close & Personal Finance

Do you ever feel like your life is completely out of control? You plan, you schedule, and you make to-do lists that seem to fill every minute of your day, but somehow still end up sobbing in frustration at how nothing ever seems to get done?

I’ve been there. Two years ago, I was drowning in commitments. And not just work, (though I was overbooked there, too) but commitments to everything. I’d work impossibly long days, organize monthly women’s events, attend board meetings at my local co-working space, and plan journalism meetups. If I wasn’t networking, I was constantly on phone dates with friends, scrambling to get ready for the next social event, or frantically responding to Instagram posts and Snapchat stories. And if I did find downtime, I often used it to impulse shop online while simultaneously catching up on Netflix originals and responding to even more Instagram posts and Snapchat stories.

I was miserable, even when I was doing things that were ostensibly for my own benefit—like volunteering in my community or catching up with people. My life felt like it was slipping through my hands faster and faster every second. I’d look at my to-do list app and would have 26 hours’ worth of tasks scheduled for a single day. Nothing was spontaneous or relaxed.

Once, in act of to-do list rebellion, I spent an hour-long car ride belting out ballads on Google’s “Sensitive Divas of the 90s” playlist. Sing-screaming “Daydream”-era Mariah Carey at an ear-splitting volume let out some stress, but I knew I needed to do more.

And then on one of my Amazon shopping sprees I found “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown.The core idea of the book is doing less, but better. To live a fulfilled life, we need to focus on the vital few—the things that really, deeply matter to us—instead of the trivial many.

Today, my copy is rife with underlines, highlights, and frantically scrawled notes in the margins. The more I read and thought about the concept, the more I wondered when things changed. How did we go from the seemingly simplistic life of our grandparents to an always on the go culture?

So, I spoke with McKeown to find out what he thinks is driving the collective feeling that we need to do it all. He said the seeds of non-essential living were planted during the Industrial Revolution, watered in the post-World War II era, and are in full blossom in the social media age.

Following the Industrial Revolution, according to McKeown, people saw a false correlation between machine output and human capabilities. Thanks to machines, we could produce more, do more, and have more than at any other period in human history. Why shouldn’t we expect the same of ourselves?

In the post-war era, the push toward consumerism reaffirmed the idea that people should be able to have and do it all. And today, with social media giving us a 24/7 into the lives of everyone we’ve ever met, the feeling is exacerbated. We feel we need to do more, see more, eat more, travel more, be more impressive. We’re also compulsive consumers, not just of food and experiences, but of content. McKeown even shared a disconcerting conversation he had with a teenager who puts her smartphone in a plastic bag, so she can use it in the shower and not to miss a single second of digital social activity.

Though McKeown fully acknowledges the many ways in which technology enhances our lives, he insists it doesn’t provide all the answers, especially when it comes to discerning your values and purpose.

Discerning what those values and purpose are is where essentialism comes in. To live an essentialist life, you have to cut out the noise, the endless Instagram scrolls, the productivity app with 15 different to-do lists, and focus only on what brings you real purpose. It can be a hard pill to swallow.

“When you first hear of essentialism, people think it’s countercultural. And they’re right, it is countercultural. But it’s not actually weird. It’s just weird if you’re used to living as a non-essentialist,” McKeown said.

Reading “Essentialism” transformed the way I looked at my life. For a long time, I felt that everything I was doing was essential. How could I not want to keep up with my friends? How could I not volunteer on a regular basis? How could I not say yes to every invitation?

That way of thinking also messed with my work life balance and finances. Impulse buying to keep up with the Kardashians led to worrying that I needed to work more and earn more, and that stress led to even more Kardashian Instagram scrolls, and even more late-night online shopping binges.

But I knew I wanted more quality over quantity. I wanted to have the right priorities with my time and my finances.

McKeown writes that essential living often means saying no even to very good options. If you’re clear on your values, you have to say no to everything that distracts you from them. Otherwise, we never move forward in our lives and we miss out on precious moments with the people who mean the most.

But putting it into practice can be challenging. Adjusting your priorities on a massive scale is never easy.

That’s why McKeown recommends thinking small. No one changes their whole mindset overnight. The key is to recognize that we can choose differently moment to moment. When we’re about to sink deep into an Instagram spiral, we can close the app before it even begins and pick up a book we’ve been meaning to read. We can close Amazon and do a quick yoga session, go for a walk, or call a friend. In every moment, we can do better and align ourselves with what is essential to us.

“You don’t have to take on the whole of your digital addiction in one sweep. You don’t have to take on your whole frustration about procrastinating on what matters most to you,” McKeown said. “You just have to take this next moment and say, ‘What’s the next thing I can do?’”

There will always be something else to spend money on, some other domestic activity to perfect, another TV show to watch, another book to read. There will always be interesting opportunities that sound cool but don’t really align with our long-term goals. Unless we know what we’re about, we will say yes to everything but be fulfilled by nothing. I believe that’s what ‘less, but better’ means—choosing how to spend our time and money and being faithful to what really matters.