Three Ways to Be an Essentialist in Your Thinking and Doing

There are times when I walk into my closet or open one of my dresser drawers and just sigh. Sigh because there is so much clutter that I have kept over the months and years that I no longer remember where things are are why I even kept something for so long.

What was I thinking? 


Last week was one of those times. My dresser was starting to look more like a Goodwill store than something to effectively store clothes. Receipts, money, birthday cards, cologne…and that was just what was on top. The top drawer was even worse – like a time capsule of junk that one day some future family member might find and marvel over the stuff that seemingly defined me.

Older birthday cards, knives, flashlights, Chinese monies, a pedometer. And don’t forget the earplugs, just in case I don’t want to hear. Or the instructions for my knife – “Open blade and cut things.” Glad I kept that.

It felt good though to just go through my drawers and make evaluations as to each item’s worth and toss a great deal of it. So much of the stuff that I thought was so essential was really…nonessential.

At some point in time, I believed this clutter to be essential, or at minimum, in the “I’ll just put it in this top drawer and deal with it later” category.

Being an essentialist

I recently listened to a podcast that was an interview with Greg Keown, the author of Essentialism. I would highly recommend this book. Thought provoking for sure.

The podcast gave some timely reminders to me about not only the clutter in my dresser drawers, but more importantly, the clutter going on in my life. 

The author defines “essentialism” as the disciplined pursuit of less, but better, and “nonessentialism” as the undisciplined pursuit of more.

This is not about just simply de-cluttering your closet or your dressers. Essentialism is about intentionally choosing. It is a mindset that overflows into a lifestyle. Like a ship laden down with cargo in a storm, I realize that if I want to live, I must toss some things overboard. And that suddenly what was in the boxes was not as valuable because it was keeping me away from actually breathing and living.

The problem with the nonessentialist life is not necessarily the stuff that is cluttering my life. It is the fact that the nonessentialist life is encouraging me to bypass what truly should be important to me. Like my dresser drawer, the relevant and necessary things were there but were so buried with the unimportant that everything ended up feeling nonessential. 

This past Sunday was Father’s Day. I love being a dad. Challenging? Hard work? Yes. But absolute awesome and so gratifying. Fulfilling. Joyful. Fun.

Though my dad got promoted to be with Jesus over two years ago, one thing that I remember that means a lot now is his essentialism mindset toward my sister and I. My dad used to say of his dad that his dad would rather give him twenty dollars than twenty minutes. And that he never wanted that pattern to be repeated with us.

And it wasn’t.

My dad gave us time. He gave us himself. He did things with us, for us, alongside us. I did not appreciate it at the time but I do now. His kids were essential.

Essentialism is not just about having “less stuff,” though that is a start. It is about pursuing less so that in having less life clutter, I actually have time to pursue the better. In other words, an essentialist mindset gives me the margin to give time to what is lasting and has meaning.

Have you heard the saying, “If some is good, more is better”? At times I treat my life that way. And in the midst of being in a lot of stuff, I lose the essence of what is meaningful, what is permanent, what is valuable.

So where are you today? Does your life feel like the top drawer of my dresser that I described? So how do you move to a mindset of essentialism? Here are three ways that are helping me.

1. Reflect

Part of the reason my dresser got cluttered is that with each new item added, I did not reflect on its value or longterm worth. And by everything having an equal importance, the drawer itself lost its value.

If I would have simply taken one minute to determine its significance, I would not have had to do this great purge.

One of my problems is that I simply do not take enough time to assess my current season of life and make judgments. What is going to take precedence at this stage of life? What is going to get more attention right now?

My last child has graduated from high school, and this fall my wife and I are going to be empty nesters. This is a new season with new opportunities. How will my wife and I assess this new stage of life? What opportunities can now be given attention that were not feasible when there were late practices, games throughout the week, and school events to be attended?

2. Ask yourself, “Am I drifting?”

I do not like to feel as if I am drifting in my life. That I am simply following the bends and curves set out in front of me with no planning or foresight.

I am a big Michael Hyatt fan, and he just came out with a new book titled Living Forward. This text is more a deliberate exercise than just another motivation book. And I need that.

The essence of this book is to look at the top 5-7 categories of your life (marriage, vocation, parenting, friends, etc.), define where you would like to be, assess where you are, and then be intentional about how to get there.

This month, I plan to take an entire day and do this. I have recently turned 50 years old and more than two thirds of my life is behind me. If I am blessed with the “three score and ten years” of life,  then I have about 20-25 years remaining. Wow. That seemed like a lot of time some years ago, but now it seems like a drop in the bucket.

I believe my most influential days are ahead of me. I really do. And with my most key life accounts, how does God want to use me in each of these to impact His kingdom? I am hoping this exercise with this book will help me avoid drift that I later regret. It might be a good exercise for you as well.

3. Quit stuffing your closet

One habit that I am trying to break is simply getting a new shirt or new pair of shoes and simply stuffing them in my closet. Why? Because there is always room for one more item. Push the clothes on the rack to the left and stuff in one more shirt. Stack the shoes on top of each other and stuff in one more pair.

I do this with my life as well. It’s what we call FOMO, or the Fear Of Missing Out. And in not wanting to miss out, I end up doing to my life what I do to my closet – I simply stuff in one more thing so I do not miss out.

Some years ago, my wife and I were feeling this and so, for a season, we backed out of everything so that we could start with an “empty closet” again. I got some flack for this but I was OK with that. And I did this so that I could determine what was permanent and what was valuable.

And it worked.

Because at the end of that season, I was only involved with was most critical for us as a family and as individuals.

If I “stuff my closet” you had better believe that I will pass this mindset along to my kids. If everything is essential, then nothing is essential. 

I close with a quote from McKeown…

Essentialism is not about how to get more things done, it’s about how to the get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.

What are you thoughts about this topic? Anything to add?



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