Identify the Essential and Eliminate the Rest

by Stephen Mills on June 2, 2009

The Essential

This is the getting things done philosophy of Leo Babauta.  I have found it to be a fantastic way to move forward in a massive way.  This goes against my perfectionist, do-a-million-things-at-once, ADD nature and so it was very hard for me to accomplish.  But if you can pull it off, it’s life changing.  Recently, I found myself slipping back into some of my old habits and spinning my wheels and so I decided to refocus on a philosophy that works very well for me.

Give this a chance.  Try it for a month and I think you will be shocked at the results.  However, if you are going to truly give it a chance to work, you have to commit to it.  You can’t intellectually accept it and do something different in practice.  You might as well not bother in that case.

Identify the Essential – Step 1

  1. List of all the areas that you consider essential in your work and life.  You can do one list for work and a separate list for your personal life if you wish.
  2. If you make the categories so broad as to include everything, you would be cheating and undercutting your own success.  Things like “Spend quality time with my spouse” is a category that is about right.  “Work on Personal Development” might be another.  “Focus on only two projects at work” might be another.  The narrower and more defined each category, the more success you will have.  Otherwise you are just watering down the impact. “Be happy” is way too broad.  It says nothing about how you are going to be happy.
  3. Now cut that list down to a maximum of six combined for both work and your personal life.  Ideally get to four, but if you must you may keep six.  This might be hard but just do it.  Everything in your life can’t be essential.  Suspend your disbelief and give it a chance to work and you will be amazed at the results.

Eliminate the Rest – Step 2

You can’t eliminate all the other stuff can you?  Oh yes you can, and it is an incredibly freeing experience when you do it.  Leo expands on ways to do this in his book the Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…in Business and in Life.

  1. If you want to accomplish the essential, you simply must eliminate the rest.  It’s a simple step to take intellectually because you cannot accomplish the essential until you eliminate the rest.
  2. You need to make a very important decision in your life.  Sit down and ask yourself the following question.  Am I going to do what is important and essential in my life or am I going to continue to water down my potential fantastic life with the trivial and the less important?  I’m not suggesting that some things that didn’t make your list aren’t at some level important.  But by your own definition they are less important or they would have made your list.  Make a choice.  You are 100% accountable.
  3. A common tactic to help with this is to ask yourself the following question all day long every day.  At this point in time, out of everything I could be doing, is this the very most important one to be working on?  If the answer to that question is no, then why are you doing it?  When I started using this method, it was a shocking and eye-opening experience.  I realized how habits had taken me away from what is important and into the trivial.  I think you will have the same experience.

Some Other Tactics for Eliminating the Non-Essential

  • If any particular task does not progress one of your essential goals it should be eliminated.
  • Start gradually as this will be a major behavioral change in your life.
  • Conduct periodic reviews (daily or weekly) of all your tasks and commitments.  Eliminate any new items added that do not progress your essential goals.  Continue the gradual elimination of prior tasks until you completely eliminate all non-essential activity.
  • Every day before you do anything else identify your most important tasks (MITs), your big rocks, or whatever else you call them.  I find that 1 to 3 items works best for me but your specific situation might be different.  Don’t list more than 4 or 5. These must be aligned with the areas of your life you identified as essential.  Doing MITs that are aligned with explicitly identified essential activities is the best way I have ever found to make massive progress in life.
  • Each day before you start reading email and end up chasing rabbits or any other typical daily chaos, complete your 1 to 3 MIT’s.
  • Say no. Unless you stop taking on commitments you will never succeed at escaping the rat race or living a happy life.  Another person’s want or desire is not a commitment on your time or your life.
  • Start now.


Get Free Updates to The Rat Race Trap by Email here or via a reader in the top left sidebar.  I would love to have you on board.

What do you think?  Leave a comment below.

{ 1 trackback }

Getting To Freedom by Working the System
February 22, 2010 at 2:08 pm

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Vin | June 2, 2009 at 9:40 am

Hi Stephen, this is great advice, especially for people who are busy trying to find an alternative to the rat race. I’m not sure if I’ve formally ever read this advice, but I live by it all the time. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by having too many things to do, I think about which tasks are most important and are most closely tied with my most meaningful goals. I do my best to simply forget about the rest of them and resort to the mentality that they’ll get done eventually. Like you, I’m a perfectionist that wants to do a million things at once, so this is easier said than done.

Sometimes this can get a bit complicated when mixing exciting tasks that contribute to your growth versus mundane tasks that absolutely need to get done, but it’s still a great practice.

Vin |´s last blog post..How to Defeat Mood Disorders through Diet


Robin Easton June 2, 2009 at 11:08 am

Hey Stephen, I read your comment on Jonathan’s site and rejoiced over your time alone in the mountains. I love the Rockies and have spent much time in them skiing, camping and hiking when I was younger. One of my favorite places on Earth. Go safe and really absorb all the beauty you can. Life is so short and it really is RIGHT NOW. This is YOUR life happening in THIS moment. You (your existence) are a miracle standing on top of the Rockies. The Rockies: another miracle, young mountains (compared to many others) that once pushed themselves up from a living Earth. If the rain clears make sure to look at the stars and feel your place in this astounding infinite universe. Imagine the odds of such creation. It’s a miracle for sure my friend.

Also this article is great and one that I am going to print out now and read again while away from the computer. I am good at seeing know what is key in my life and I’m good at letting the small stuff go, but I want to read this again and try to apply it to my work. Thank you and enjoy these days of great freedom of spirit. Feel who and what you really are and bring that back with you. Become it. Hugs, Robin

Robin Easton´s last blog post..Keeper of the Circle


Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills June 2, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Stephen, this is timely for me right now. I am working at getting more organized an this information will help me to better evaluate the way I ration my time. Asking yourself “At this point in time, out of everything I could be doing, is this the very most important one to be working on?” seems like a really good suggestion. Thanks for this, it’s got that ‘practical’ flavor I appreciate so much.

Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog post..Where Does Disappointment Come From?


Dragos Roua June 2, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Being able to identify the essential will ultimately lead to elimination of the rest. The problem is with that identification. 🙂

Good resource on becoming productive by doing less and accomplishing more.

When you mentioned ADD, something rang in my head, but it’s not Attention Deficit Disorder, it’s something I cooked for some time now and hopefully will bring it up to the light during this month. I will be really curious to know your oopinion on that, because it will relate to productivity and effectiveness.

Have fun where you are right now 🙂

Dragos Roua´s last blog post..June Mariner Promo Code


Patricia June 2, 2009 at 6:52 pm

This has been how I have been operating since my youngest left home and I started my blog. I eliminated cleaning the house and office.
Now I have no money to pay a cleaner and the house is really becoming a pit…
and I must add cleaning back into the essential’s list….I don’t want to!!!! Dammit!
I hate cleaning…and I have to fool myself into liking it….I have done it for 32 years – yes I know my partner cleans our bathroom and does his own laundry…but he is working nearly 24/7 to get work into his office and keeping folks employed..

I try doing the bare minimum….I am definitely in burn out and can’t get this onto the essentials list again???What’s a body to do?

Patricia´s last blog post..And The Winner Is!


Focused Awareness | Matt June 3, 2009 at 1:56 am

Simplification is the key. How can you reach your goals if you have forty of them. Unless we zero in on exactly what we are going after, every step we take is in a different direction. Identifying the basics and tackling them one by one is the only strategy that’s going to enable you attain you aspirations.


Lisis | Quest For Balance June 3, 2009 at 7:55 am

I think the key to this being successful is that YOU must identify what is essential in YOUR life. If you let others do it (the boss, the spouse, the kids, the neighbors, the friends) you will be overwhelmed and unfulfilled. If you know yourself and what matters most to you, it becomes real easy to eliminate the non-essential.


Lisis | Quest For Balance´s last blog post..Why Religion Is Irrelevant


Angela June 3, 2009 at 8:20 pm

This is a very good point…and as life changes we need to constantly reevaluated what is essential, put certain things on the back burner for awhile, and so on. Thanks for the good advice.

Angela´s last blog post..Zombies, Food Security and Little Shifts


Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge