Essentialism: The mindful pursuit of quality

It’s been quiet around here for the past few months. Generally when things go dormant at Get Rich Slowly, that’s not a good sign. It usually means that I’ve sunk into the depths of depression, the pit of despair.

I’m pleased to report that in this case, that’s not the issue. In this case, the opposite has happened. Lately, life is grand. During the past three months, I’ve been diligently working to eliminate the net negatives from my life while also emphasizing those things that are essential. To that end, I’ve:

  • Recorded, edited, and published nearly 50 YouTube videos. These are rough, and I know it, but I’m learning from them — and having fun.
  • Given up alcohol. And recently, I’ve given up pot. I’m experimenting with complete sobriety for a while.
  • Lost nearly twenty pounds through simple, sensible eating (and calorie counting). This morning, I weighed in at 186.8, down 17.4 pounds since I started on July 28th.
  • Cleaned and organized nearly every space in my life, “editing” my belongings in an attempt to cut back to the essentials.
  • Worked hard in the yard. I’ve built a fence with one neighbor and am starting another fence with a second neighbor. Plus, I’ve continued our landscaping projects.
  • Begun reading again for pleasure. Yay!
  • And much, much more.

I’ve had a busy three months. And while, yes, I’ve had a few bouts of depression, they’ve been minor and brief. Mostly, I’ve been happy and productive.

Not much of that productivity has been directed at this website, and I’m okay with that. I know there’s plenty of personal finance inside me ready to be shared in due time.

Meanwhile, it’s been rewarding to devote so much time to essentials, to the core concerns of my life.


Essentialism by Greg McKeownI’m currently reading Essentialism by Greg McKeown. It’s a book about “the disciplined pursuit of less”. McKeown argues that instead of trying to get more things done, we’d be better served by getting the right things done. I find that he’s articulating some of the choices I’ve made over the past three months, that he’s expressing the reasons for my change.

“Almost everything is noise,” McKeown writes. “Very few things are essential.” He argues that we should live by design, not by default. We should aim to make one-time decisions that obviate the need for dozens (or thousands!) of future decisions. We should determine where our “highest point of contribution” is, then focus on that.

McKeown’s philosophy comprises three steps.

  1. Explore and evaluate. An essentialist, he says, exposes herself to new ideas. She’s curious. She explores the world and everything it has to offer. As she does, she evaluates the objects and opportunities that come her way, trying to identify those that are most aligned with her goals.
  2. Eliminate. It’s not enough to explore and evaluate, though. An essentialist also has to learn to say no. As he explores and evaluates, he has to reject anything that distracts him from his purpose. “It’s not enough to simply determine which activities and efforts don’t make the highest possible contribution,” McKeown says. “You sill have to actively eliminate those that do not. This step is tough for me.
  3. Execute. Finally, an essentialist must take action. He needs to develop a plan and follow through with it. From the book: “This is not a process you undertake once a year, once a month, or even once a week…It is a discipline you apply each every time you are faced with a decision.”

In other words, you must constantly and deliberately be exploring the world, then eliminate the noise, identify the handful of extraordinary opportunities, and pursue them with vigor.

This is, in essence, what I’ve been doing for the past three months, although I haven’t had a name for it until now. I like what McKeown calls it: essentialism. I’ve been moving toward essentialism. And it’s producing great results!

Taming Email

My pursuit of essentialism started with a change to the way I handle email.

For years now, email has been the bane of my existence. I hate it. I have several email accounts, each of which is flooded with people demanding my attention. It’s all so much “noise”, to use McKeown’s terminology.

In June, I began to use a new email service called Hey. At first, I was reluctant. (Honestly, I’m still getting used to it almost four months in! But I have no plans to go back.)

Hey does not allow you to import your old email from Gmail (or any other service). You’re forced to start from scratch. And the Hey methodology differs from any other email program I’ve ever seen. The net effect is that it forces you to focus on essentials. Hey is deliberately built to filter the noise and only show you important messages.

Since switching to Hey, email is much less overwhelming for me. I still fall behind sometimes, but now I’m able to catch up with maybe 30 minutes of work. And instead of my inboxes being buried in hundreds (or thousands) of messages, a bad day means I have dozens of messages that need attention. At this very moment, I have eleven messages to deal with. That hasn’t happened in fifteen years!

Email is but one piece of the puzzle.

A Digital Detox

I’ve also been re-assessing my relationship with digital devices. Like many folks in the modern world, I get a lot of “screen time” each week. Part of that is because I work online, sure, but it’s also because I play online. I look at Facebook. I browse Reddit. I play videogames on my iPad. And so on.

I have zero qualms with my connectivity if that connectivity is used toward creative, productive ends. If I’m writing a blog post, great. If I’m producing a YouTube video, fantastic. If I’m reading a news story, also good.

The issue comes when I fritter away hours playing Hearthstone or — worse — spend ninety minutes at bedtime mindlessly scrolling my Reddit feed. It’s when my screen time is “consumptive” that I feel like I’m wasting my life.

Plus, like many people, I’ve become increasingly concerned with the nature of social media. I don’t just mean the spread of misinformation and my friends’ continued insistence on using it as a political forum (although that’s part of it); I also mean the deliberate addictiveness of the stuff.

I’d already been contemplating reducing (or eliminating!) my social media consumption when I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix last month. The Social Dilemma was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I haven’t abandoned social media completely, but I’ve removed it from my mobile devices and only allow myself to view it on my desktop computer. This includes Reddit. (Especially Reddit.)

My current iPhone layout

Then I took things a step further. Our phones and tablets are tools — or ought to be. All too often, however, I’ve felt like my phone was using me. I was the tool. So, about ten days ago, I spent an entire afternoon weeding my phone and tablet of non-essential apps.

I currently have twenty apps on my iPhone (and about the same on my iPad). Previously, I had over 100. What’s more, I spent a lot of time and effort to change how my devices look and feel. I created a custom layout and introduced new icons for every app. I also removed app names. The result, as you can see in the image to the right, is a spare and minimalist tool.

(The apps, from left to right and top to bottom: Settings, Hello Weather, App Store, iTunes Store, Health, Happy Scale, Find My, Music, Audible, Calendar, YoutTube Creator Studio, YouTube, YouTube TV, Apple TV, HeyTell, Shazam, Safari, Hey, Camera, Messages. Apple’s unremovable apps are hidden in those blank, black spaces, so I can still receive phone calls. Facebook Messenger is there too since so many of my business colleagues use it.)

My goal is to be deliberate about my device use. When I go to pick up my phone, I want to have intention behind it. And I want to have to think about which app I’m choosing instead of doing things out of habit. This is remains a work in progress. I still find myself picking up the phone several times a day just to see what’s new. This minimalist layout prevents anything “new” from being there, but it’ll take a while for me to overcome my past conditioning.

Space and Time

Meanwhile, I’ve been gradually “re-modeling” my space and time.

I think this started because of my recent fascination with Japanese culture. I particularly like how the Japanese aesthetic seems to emphasize simple, clean, functional forms. It’s as if the society as a whole decided to strip away everything non-essential. All that remains are beautiful things in which form follows function. (I know this is just my personal — probably faulty — perception, but I’m okay with that right now. It’s serving a purpose.)

After watching a bunch of Japanese movies, I began to be frustrated with my own cluttered life. One day, for no reason whatsoever, I went through every inch of our living room, sorting and tidying and organizing as I went. (I chose the living room because it’s the space we use least, which means there’s far less stuff in it.)

When I finished the living room, I tackled the guest room. That led to re-organizing the bedroom. And that meant I need to clean my writing shed. I’ve cleaned my writing shed twice now, including a pass that I completed yesterday.

I’ve cleaned rooms and spaces before, but it’s always been perfunctory. I’ve done quick cleans that look fine on the surface but which fail to address underlying structural issues. As a result, problems (and clutter) returned. This time, I’m addressing those structural issues. I’m taking time to really think about how we use each room (and how I want to use them in the future), and to arrange things to reflect this usage.

Why do I have my dresser on one side of the bedroom, my closet on the other, and still more stuff in the spare room? Why not put all of my wardrobe together in one corner?

When organizing my writing shed, I pulled everything outside onto the porch. I emptied the shed. Then I asked myself how I really wanted to use the space. One by one, I brought my things back into the shed and placed them in their new homes. Some of my stuff wasn’t allowed to return. Some of it got purged. The result is a workspace that fosters creativity and productivity instead of hindering it. I like it. Very much.

I’ve been doing something similar with my use of time. More and more, I’m trying to do only the things that I want to do and/or feel called to do. That means that if I don’t feel called to write at Get Rich Slowly, I don’t write at Get Rich Slowly. If I don’t want to speak at a conference, I don’t speak at the conference. If I don’t feel like recording a daily video, I don’t.

Reclaiming my time in this way has been tough, though. Sometimes I feel guilty.

You see, as much as I want to believe that I don’t do things to please others, I really do. And that’s a trap. When I base the value of my work on comments, likes, shares, and Google Analytics, I’m seeking external validation. Well, fuck that. I’m over it. I’m 51. I have fewer days ahead of me than I do behind me. If I don’t start living and acting for myself today, when will I? That doesn’t mean I need to be a jerk — that’s not who I am — but I do need to speak up for myself.

Last November, I had a chat with my ex-wife. (Kris and I are still on friendly terms and communicate regularly.) “I don’t think you’re happy,” she said at the time, which was true. I was in the midst of my deep depressive funk. “It sounds like you’re doing too much of what other people want and not enough of what you want. What do you want?”

Well, I’m finally giving myself permission to think about what I want, and to structure my life and work around that.

Mindfulness and Quality

For me, two additional related pieces of this process are an increased focus on mindfulness and quality.

I’ve become much more mindful about everything I do. I’m forcing myself to be deliberate about my choices and my actions. I’m trying not to rush through chores and projects. I take my time. I pay attention to what I’m doing. I work slowly and methodically.

The result is increased quality in everything from building a fence with the neighbors to folding laundry to editing video. It takes longer to do these things now, but the final products are better. (Much better.) And you know what? I’m actually enjoying the experience more. Go figure.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, quality begets quality.

Obsessing over (and enjoying) the quality I’ve produced through increased mindfulness and attention has made me want to pursue quality for its own sake.

Embracing the Imperfections
Paradoxically, my pursuit of quality has also allowed me to start letting go of perfectionism. In the past, I’ve conflated the two, but quality and perfection are not the same. Again, this idea is rooted in the Japanese aesthetic for me.

According to Wikipedia, “wabi-sabi is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection”. It’s the appreciation of beauty — of quality — despite (or perhaps because of) obvious flaws. It revels in asymmetry, simplicity, and roughness.

I love it.

My YouTube videos are an example of me putting this notion into practice. These are short clips on a single subject. They’re deliberately amateurish. They have rough edges. At the same time, however, I spend a lot of time thinking about them and editing them to get my message right. I know that they’re not perfect, but my hope is that they’re quality. (And that they’ll lead to increased quality in the future.)

Three months ago, I never would have released these videos. I would have needed them to be perfect. But three months ago, I hadn’t yet made even one video despite years of talking about wanting to do so. After embracing the imperfections, I’ve created nearly 50 of these in ten weeks.

I hope we can all agree that 50 imperfect pieces of work are much better than zero perfect pieces. Let’s sing the praises of perfect imperfection.

How does this new-found pursuit of mindfulness, quality, and essentialism relate to Get Rich Slowly (and elsewhere)? I’m not sure yet. I need more time to think on it, to discuss it with my business partner, Tom.

The One Thing I Can Control

Remember my Hamilton-inspired epiphany from late July? My realization that I am the one thing life I can control? Well, my past three months pursuing essentialism are a direct reaction to that flash of insight. I’ve begun exercising control over myself. And, by extension, control over my time and my immediate surroundings.

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will,” Greg McKeown writes in Essentialism. He’s right.

I’m fortunate. I have a clear sense of my purpose in life. I’ve had a grasp of this goal for nearly a decade now. Still, I’ve done a poor job executing on that purpose, on building a life that supports this priority. I’ve allowed my time, money, and energy to be misdirected. (Our 15-month RV trip was an exception to this, and I was so happy during that time! That should have been a clue.)

At long last, I am prioritizing my life.

I feel as if I’m doing to my life what I did to my office. I’m taking everything out, placing it on the porch, then making considered decisions about what to bring back inside — and where to put it. I’m evaluating my choices and habits. Why do I use pot and alcohol? What’s positive about it? Why do I waste time on Reddit? How can I improve my relationships with email and social media? What work do I want to be doing — and for whom?

I’m trying to identify and emphasize essentials.

“I like the new J.D.,” Kim said last night. “I hope this lasts.” So do I. And I think it will!

Often when I try to make changes to my life, they don’t stick. But that’s usually because I’ve made a sudden course correction or because I’ve adopted some sort of sweeping change without addressing underlying issues. This time, I’ve been methodical. It feels like these changes are coming from deep inside of me, and that they’re being made as an expression of this internal growth.

Plus, I can see that all of the various changes are part of a whole. They’re all linked. They’re philosophical and systematic, not just superficial.