Notes on Essentialism

3 Essential Tactics To Find Your Priority

Navigating through the Ocean of Abundance to Find the Essential

Rafa Ballestiero
5 min readJan 19, 2023

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On the second post of this short series of notes on the book Essentialism, we reviewed the Essentialist Rebel’s guide to reframing fallacies of the Era of Abundance to properly prioritize.

In the Era of Abundance, it can be overwhelming to navigate the ocean of options, opportunities, opinions and occasions in our lives. With so much to choose from, it’s nearly impossible to prioritize and make the right decisions.

The Essentialist paradigm provides a solution to navigate through this ocean of Abundance to find what is truly essential. Despite the common misconception that Essentialism limits opportunities, it in fact expands them.

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

By exploring more options, without committing to any immediately, we can prioritize with purpose the “vital few ideas and activities” that will make the most of our time. Here are three tactics employed by Essentialists to navigate all possibilities masterfully, without getting lost:

  • With the Escape, they’re able to make time to truly focus.
  • With the Compass, they keep an eye on their True North, instead of getting thrown off course by the currents of life.
  • With the Game, they nurture their creativity and cultivate a beginner’s mind through play.

Read on to find out more.

The Escape: Make time to focus

The Essentialist Rebel systematically schedules “distraction-free time in a distraction-free space” to do nothing but think.

Even when their schedule is full of back-to-back meetings, as is the case for many knowledge workers, they prioritize this time for reflection and recharging. Jeff Weiner, a true Essentialist Rebel, schedules around two hours of “nothing” every day,

The buffer is the best investment you can make in yourself and the single most important productivity tool I use.

Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn

The Escape is not a selfish way to avoid today’s responsibilities; it is a necessary habit to nurture deep, uninterrupted focus. In the Era of Abundance, our focus is constantly under attack from all sides (I discussed this in detail in the first post of the series). The Escape protects this innate ability and replenishes it, so that it’s easier to focus for longer beyond the Escape.

Naturally, the Essentialist Rebel also escapes their phone and social media, in addition to meetings and awkward small talk. Ideally, they leave their phone in a different room. At the very least, they put it in Airplane mode to avoid distractions and temptations. This necessary unplugging makes it easier to be mindful of their thoughts, emotions and surroundings.

How can you find time in your schedule and a quiet space to escape life’s noise?
When was the last time you were able to
maintain deep focus for a long time?

The Compass: What’s the point, anyway?

The Essentialist Rebel always keeps an eye on the bigger picture, without getting bogged down in the small details.

A single grain of essence is often hidden behind dunes of noise and facts. Statisticians like to call this the signal behind the noise. It’s never about the data and the numbers themselves, it’s about the underlying narrative (pronounced “model” in statistics) that connects them all. Like the best data scientists, good journalists rise above the minor details to identify the bigger picture.

I realised that journalism was not just about regurgitating the facts but about figuring out the point. It wasn’t enough to know the who, what, when, and where; you had to understand what it meant. […] something that works just as well in life as it does in journalism.

- Nora Ephron, Journalist & Director of “Sleepless in Seattle”

The “point” of a story emerges from its facts, but it’s much greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, this property of emergence is common to all complex systems. A forest is more than the sum of the trees in it. A human is more than the sum of their cells. A story is more than the sum of its details.

The Essentialist Rebel thinks systematically; they don’t explore every single piece of information in their path. They use the Compass to stay focused on the underlying narrative: their True North. They don’t listen to everything being said, they listen for what is not being said. They don’t settle for easy answers, they follow the Compass towards the right ones.

Awesome cartoon by Wiley Miller

What is the True North of your own journey?
What ideas or activities have are
abnormally attractive to you?
Which easy answers are you accepting without questioning them?

The Game: Is Always Afoot

The Essentialist Rebel makes a conscious effort to incorporate play into their lives.

Humans don’t need to be taught how to play. From elementary school to our professional career, we’re taught to stop playing and start working. Eventually, we forget our ability to play; most adults are terrible at playing. That’s a problem. As McKeown writes in his book,

We are built to play and built through play. When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality.

The Essentialist Rebel knows that choosing between work and play is a false dilemma. They choose The Game (any game, really, has an element of play) to improve their work and their lives. They understand that play improve their brain’s executive functions such as planning, prioritizing and decision making.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

The Game also cultivates a beginner’s mind. It increases creativity, open up new possibilities, make new connections and challenge obsolete assumptions. In the beginner’s mind, we approach the world with a sense of wonder and curiosity allowing us to challenge the status quo.

One thing is certain, during play, animals are especially prone to behave in flexible and creative ways.

- Jaak Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions

Lastly, incorporating play into our routine can be an effective way to reduce stress. This is especially important when it comes to exploring new options and opportunities, as stress can hinder the exploratory process and limit our ability to think clearly. When we are stressed, we tend to develop tunnel vision and become less able to consider new possibilities and make well-informed decisions. Play helps to alleviate stress and allows for a more relaxed, open-minded mindset when exploring new opportunities.

What games do you like to play?
How can you play more in your everyday life?

In the Era of Abundance, we are constantly bombarded with options and opportunities, making it easy to lose sight of what truly matters. With these tactics, we can better navigate our options and “discern the vital few, from trivial many”. Through exploration, we take our first step towards becoming an Essentialist Rebel.

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Rafa Ballestiero

Published in Bootcamp | Mindful Tech & Behavior Science | Co-founder @ Behale | rafaba.org