How important is it on a scale from 1 to 10?

I’m sitting in the student restaurant (Mensa) in my home town Hamm. I'm thinking about Essentialism, a term coined by Greg McKeown. Essentialism is something I turn to time and time again when I’m attempting to do too much at the same time.

Is this essential?

The big question of Essentialism is: Is this essential? And if it isn’t it goes. You don’t do it. You cut it out of your life.

Think about how many non-essential things you spend your time doing. What if you would use that time to further your most important goals instead?

Many creative people—and people who love to learn—tend to spread themselves too thin, taking on too much. A bit of painting here, a bit of web design there, a bit of photography there. But not all of these tasks and activities are a valuable use of your time.

On a scale from 1 to 10

The most useful thing I’ve taken from the Essentialism book is this exercise:

  1. Write a list of all the activities and commitments you have in your life. I like to do include all the activities that I attempt to do too. Here are some examples:
  • Write daily
  • Write weekly
  • Daily drawing practice
  • Do German vocabulary
  1. For each of the activities you then ask yourself: On a scale from 1 to 10, how important is this to me? Then you write down the number next to each activity.
  2. Now you have a list of engagements to the left and a number from 1 to 10 on the right. The next step is to strike everything with a score of 8 or lower. Simple as that.

Coming up with a number is usually the easy part. I even do it with my kids sometimes. “How much do you want to start pony riding on a scale from 1 to 10?” They can usually tell me with precision.

The difficulty comes when you actually start to implement it. When you decide tonot do something that scores low.

I know, it seems radical. But it can also be liberating. It gives you permission to get yourself out of activities that aren’t important to you. And it gives you time and space to focus on what is truly important to you.

It is like the 80/20 principle, where 20% of your efforts bring 80% of the results. Only here we’re not only looking at the data—the results. Instead we're determining what kind of activities are important to you.

Stumbling blocks

There are a few things to watch out for when doing this exercise.

  1. One tricky thing is, that when you know that eight is the cut off point, you might start to cheat. You might tell yourself that an actual eight is a nine.
  2. You’re honest about the number you’re giving it, but you still cannot bring yourself to cut it out of your life. It’s simple concept, but it’s not always easy to put it into action.

So why is it so difficult to say no to the sevens and the eights? Heck, it’s even difficult to cut out the fives!

The thing is, all the activities that are sevens (or fives), they are good things. But they aren’t as good as the nines or the tens. And who wouldn’t want to have more nines and tens in their life?

You can only do so much. And hence – why not choose the thing you want to do the most?

“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don't have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don't have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”

― James C. Collins, Good to Great

Bigger decisions

I know, I know, there are other things to consider too. There are other ways to test what you really want to do. But at least it gives you some data. Especially for non-crucial activities it’s is a very useful tool.

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