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Living a Life by Design Instead of by Default

living life by designSome days, or maybe most days, you might feel like a passenger in the backseat of your own car. You are being driven to destinations you don’t want to go by a driver you didn’t pick. You feel stretched too thin. You are exhausted. You feel overwhelmed. You are attending events you’d rather not attend. Your to-do list is filled with tasks you don’t want to do. And the things you do want to do? Somehow those aren’t on the list.

This might mean that you’re living life by default, not by design.

Thankfully, this is something you can change. In his eye-opening book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown shares valuable tips on how we can start living (and working) by design. Essentialism is pursuing less and better (versus trying to get everything done). It is constantly asking the question: “Am I investing in the right activities?” And by “right,” he means whatever is essential to you. It is being deliberate and thoughtful about our days.

Below are some tips from McKeown’s Essentialism to get you started.

Seek Space

“We need space to escape in order to discern the essential few from the trivial many,” writes McKeown. We need space to pause and explore; to focus and to think. “Unfortunately, in our time-starved era we don’t get that space by default—only by design,” he writes.

McKeown worked with one man who stayed at a company for five years too long, because he was so engrossed in the day-to-day demands of the company. He didn’t take the time to see the bigger picture: to question whether he should be there in the first place.

We, too, can get distracted by the details (and the digital) of everyday that we miss out on the greater perspective. That’s why regularly carving out space is so important.

For instance, McKeown worked on this book from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., five days a week. During that time, he didn’t check email, take calls or make appointments. “I didn’t always achieve it, but the discipline made a big difference.” He not only finished the book faster, but he also “gained control over how I spent the rest of my time.” One author I know writes most days around 4 a.m. before the rest of the house wakes up.

You might’ve heard of Bill Gates’s “Think Week,” his solitary time to read and think, which he’s been doing since 1980. Of course, many of us can’t take an entire week off. But we can carve out blocks, even tiny blocks. First thing every morning for 20 minutes, McKeown reads classical literature. It centers his day and broadens his perspective. It reminds him “of themes and ideas that are essential enough to have withstood the test of time.” He likes inspirational literature, such as: Zen, the Reason of Unreason; the Holy Bible; Walden; and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Say ‘No’ Gracefully

Saying ‘no’ is integral to minimizing or eliminating the nonessential. It opens up time to focus on what matters most to us—which is why being selective is critical (and liberating). You might say ‘no’ to something meaningless and say ‘yes’ to spending significant time with your family or creating your favorite kind of art.

But it’s hard. Saying ‘no’ feels awkward. We don’t want to disappoint or hurt others. We don’t want conflict. Thankfully, with practice, we can get better and feel better about saying ‘no.’ According to McKeown, for Essentialists saying ‘no’ “is a part of their regular repertoire.”

Plus, we can learn to decline gracefully. He includes these suggestions: Saying, “I am flattered that you thought of me but I’m afraid I don’t have the bandwidth,” or “I would very much like to but I’m overcommitted.” The key is to be clear and kind—versus giving a vague ‘yes’ or making someone wait a long time for your response only to pass (or say ‘yes,’ and feel resentment).

You also might create an auto-response for your inbox. McKeown created one while writing his book. The subject line was: “Monk Mode.” The email said he was currently writing a new book that “has put enormous burdens on my time.” He apologized in advance for not responding in the manner that he’d like.

When there’s something you’d like to support but can’t commit to fully, you might say: “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.” We also can refer people to other professionals or resources by saying: “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.”

For McKeown being an Essentialist means choosing to: wrestle with his kids instead of attend a networking event; not check social media one day a week so he can be fully present at home; not watch any TV or movies while he’s traveling for business so he can think and rest; and say ‘no’ to a speaking gig to have a date night with his wife.

It’s cliché to say, but it doesn’t make it any less true: Life is short. And McKeown’s book really asks us the biggest question of all: How do we want to spend our limited time here on this earth?

Ocus Focus

Living a Life by Design Instead of by Default

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Living a Life by Design Instead of by Default. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 22 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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