Minimalism vs essentialism – Becoming an Essentalist

Greg McKeown, author of the New York Times Bestselling book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, describes essentialism as “a different way of doing everything. It is a discipline you apply constantly, effortlessly.

[It] is a mindset; a way of life”. Similar claims can be made about minimalism. As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that minimalism and essentialism are closely related.

Minimalism vs essentialism

They mimic each other in their emphasis on prioritizing, and making decisions about what’s important to you and the pursuit of your goals. Some people would even say that they mean the same thing, but that’s not exactly true.

The truth can be found in their anatomy. The root of essentialism is “essential”. An essential is something that is urgently necessary. The root of minimalism is “minimal” which means the minimum.

Essentialism, if anything, demands more than minimalism that you more clearly define what is important to you in your life. Next, we’re going to par down what essentialism means so we can have a clearer idea of how it relates to minimalism.

What is essentialism? What does it mean?

The simplest way to look at essentialism is at face value: essentialism is prioritization of what’s important in your life and disregard/disposal of what’s not.

It’s a focused, almost tunnel-vision way of going about things. Essentialism originated in Ancient Greece where Plato hypothesized that everything has an intangible essence that makes it uniquely what it is. “Essence” can be defined, in short, as a set of characteristics.

Since its conception, the viability of essentialism in the philosophical realm has been widely debated by philosophers of all periods, and its definition has shifted over time. The concept of essentialism makes more sense in this article when it’s defined in terms of its psychological application.

In the realm of psychology, essentialism is “a way the brain represents and classifies things”. 

Essentialism, in the way we’re using it here, refers specifically to how we classify what is and what isn’t important to us.

When we’re able to correctly discern what is and isn’t of importance, then proceed to give all our attention to what is, we naturally shed what isn’t. This is conducive to a fulfilling, joyful life.

Does this sound familiar? Essentialism and minimalism sound similar but are not interchangeable. There are key differences between the two.

Minimalism and Essentialism: What’s the difference?

Essentialism is actually under the umbrella of minimalism. It’s a subset of minimalists whose motivations vary slightly from the conventional minimalist. Essentialists can be described as more militant minimalists.

They are very disciplined and focused on what they determine is important to them. If you don’t make an essentialist’s list, you basically don’t exist to them. They don’t waste time or energy on things that they don’t find worthy.

They do what’s on their to-do list, and no more if they don’t have to. Essentialists cherish their free time and spend it doing fulfilling activities or with loved ones—whatever they find important to do.

As you can conclude, essentialism is also a lifestyle choice that branches out to affect all other aspects of your life. 

Minimalists are independent thinkers who are less vulnerable to outside influences and people. Essentialists take that to the next level, as they totally live in their own world! Essentialism requires that you dedicate a lot of time and deep contemplation into making decisions about what you want in your life and what is best for you.

So when an essentialist makes up their mind that something is important to them, no one can tell them differently—even if whatever it is is unconventional or unorthodox. Essentialists have no qualms about taking their own path if it’ll land them right where they want to be.

Both minimalism and essentialism encourage wise distribution of time. But their time isn’t exactly used in the same way. Essentialists are stepping back to decipher what is vital to their wellness and happiness, what they need to succeed, and where they should be allocating their time for maximum results.

When a minimalist takes a break, they’re decompressing and detaching.

Minimalists prioritize possessing only what they need to live. Essentialism is more focused on possessing only what they need in order to fulfill their purpose and goals. An essentialist’s home might be spacious aside from a cacophony of work supplies and an obviously-used desk.

Essentialists don’t necessarily get more things done, but they get the things that need to be completed done right. That’s not to call them more motivated than a minimalist. Their drives are just different.

While closely akin to each other, essentialism is minimalism but with a slight difference in motivation. 

From Minimalism to Essentialism: 5 Steps

Is your minimalist journey not intensive enough? Do you want to take it up a notch?

Essentialism demands more discipline than conventional minimalism, so if you’re in the market for a greater challenge or a straighter path to your goals we’re going to discuss just how to achieve that.

A quick reminder: more intensive doesn’t mean massively uncomfortable. If your essentialist process is causing you intense episodes of overwhelm and anxiety, step back from it.

There might be some deeper issues that you need to address. Essentialism will likely be challenging at first, or course, but it shouldn’t feel painful

1. Clearly define your essentials and priorities

This is the obvious step but it’s detrimental to the essentialism process. The first thing you’ll want to do is draw up a list of essentials.

This list of essentials is a list of all things in your life (treasured people, relationships, passions, obligations, things, etc.) that are genuinely important to you and your wellbeing at a grassroots level. Think to yourself, “How would it affect me if this person or thing disappeared today?” And be honest with yourself. 

What you put on that list is going to get the majority of your time and focus from this point forward so make sure it’s a comprehensive and thoroughly thought out list. These essentials should be things that are consistently present in your life.

The list is subjective and will vary widely amongst everyone so don’t feel pressured to write down what you think you should be on the list. This process requires the courage to be completely truthful about what and who you need to be happy and healthy.

If your current career actually isn’t that important to you then don’t put it on the list. Take a considerable amount of time to decide how you feel about these aspects of your life in order to set yourself up to speed off in the right direction. 

Writing it down has the added benefit of giving you something to refer back to. A helpful reminder of your endgame can make a difference in your focus. We all lose sight of our goals sometimes, especially when life begins to pile up high.

When you’re mulling you life over, ask yourself questions like, “What are my passions?”, “What do I do in life right now that makes me happy?”, “ What do I do in life right now that makes me unhappy?”, “If money and resources weren’t an issue, what would you be doing right now?”, and “What is the greatest thing I could be doing with my money right now?“.

2. Normalize saying “no”

Once you shift into the process of shedding the nonessentials and giving your essentials all your time and attention, you’re bound to have to turn some of your pre-essentialist engagements things down. We don’t (or maybe we do) notice just how readily we say “yes” to things with little thought.

For example, if you’re feeling distant from your wife, and maintaining a good relationship with your wife is one of your essentials, then you’ll have to reject trips to the bar after work in exchange for spending more time with your wife.

Say “no” to bad habits so you can allocate all your resources in positive directions. Say no to events that clash with must-do’s on your calendar. And say no to people and things that don’t align with where you want to be.

Think of “no” as an opportunity to establish boundaries and reinforce your freedom of choice. Besides, if you’re going to effectively challenge consumerist norms you’re going to have to have a little audacity.

A bridge into mastering “no” is to just practice mindful decision making and honesty. When you’re first practicing “no”, take time to think before you make any decision at all. When you receive an offer that you’re unsure about, don’t make a decision right away.

You’re not mandated to give anyone an immediate answer, and there’s nothing rude about letting them know that you need a few moments to think about it. We want to make correct decisions, not quick decisions. That vital deliberation period begets decisions that shape the life you want. 

3. Rearrange your planner

This one shouldn’t come as a surprise. In order to maximize your time, cull your planner down to only the things that need to be done. Consider all of your consistent commitments, hobbies, activities, errands and obligations.

Get rid of whichever is not contributing to the life that you want. Don’t forget to delegate some time to yourself within the day. An essentialist’s to-do list for the day might look something like: visit mom; go to work; singing practice; enjoy downtime; go to bed by 8.

Our time is our most precious asset so put as many minutes as you can into sculpting your dream life—whatever that means for you!

Here’s a little essentialist tip: work in terms of trade-offs. An essentialist will not have anything on their schedule that is not contributing to their goals. Their planner is full of priorities and necessities, so if asked to take on a task that is outside of their bounds they’ll have to bump something else down on the priority list.

This is even more reason not to accept any offers that don’t align with your best interest. If you get an offer that you find worthy to take up, eliminate something else to give you sufficient time to tackle everything.

4. Start small

When you do interpret what your goals and wants are, don’t dive head-first into all of them at once. It’s not a race, but by zoning in on your priorities and muting the rest of the world you can expect to tackle your goals more quickly.

The most efficient way to approach our goals is by mapping our steps towards them. Essentialists specifically like to find the method that’ll directly decrease the margin between themselves and their objective by as much as possible.

Rest assured, you’ll get there. In the beginning stages while you’re still getting acclimated to essentialist life, set smaller, more manageable goals to get your momentum going.

Also, start small in your relationships. Our relationships with people are indispensable and you might have a few in your essentials list. If there’s an important relationship on that list that you haven’t given the appropriate attention until now, start small.

Don’t just jump in trying to fix everything and do better, that can be overwhelming and come off as ingenuine. Take small steps in the direction you know they’d want you to take. 

5. Develop a routine

A routine to an essentialist is a safety net. The predictability of a routine negates the choice-factor and the potentiality to make a counterproductive decision.

It also makes it more likely that you’re going to do  something every day to get you where you need to be. Engaging in a similar routine every day lessens the likelihood that you’ll deviate from it and engage in anything unnecessary.

A routine basically serves as reinforcement to your commitment to essentialism and helps keep you within the bounds of your minimalist journey.

Final Notes

A vital component of essentialism is awareness of choice. You have the freedom to choose what to do with every hour of your day.

When you realize this, you’ll naturally want to spend that time engaging in activities that will better your life or get you leaps closer to your dreams. While minimalism emphasizes ridding ourselves of things we don’t need, essentialism endorses getting rid of things that don’t matter. 

Even though there are many benefits to minimalism, it alone can be trying. But if you’re the kind of person that likes to play on hard mode then essentialism might be your cup of tea. Essentialism is best suited for goal-oriented, brass tacks people.

Busy corporate officers, tireless business owners, and remote workers looking to find balance in their home-work life can use essentialism to transform their lives. The recent Great Resignation, spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen a lot of people leaving their jobs.

It’s important now more than ever to set clear priorities in our lives in order to reach our goals. Build the discipline you need, and cut away what you don’t need, the essentialist way!

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