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Imagine the sun shining in all directions, kind of like this:

If it’s the summer, it will be nice and warm, but most of the energy will be dissipated and none of the individual rays has much power.

On the other hand, imagine you could focus all these rays into one and shine it just on one thing, kind of like this:

Now that ray will be pretty powerful. It will burn through things (have you ever used a magnifying glass as a kid to burn a piece of paper?).

That same thing happens with your time and energy. Most people are engaged in a million different things. They say ‘yes’ anytime someone asks them a favour. They’re on Instagram, Twitter, FB, while writing their thesis and while thinking about the conference talk they have to give.

And I’m sure you’ve heard about the solution: just work harder. Get up earlier. Work later. Work at the weekends.

However, the thing is that as humans we all have a finite amount of physical and mental energy we can use each day. We also have a finite amount of time.

Of course, you can stretch it a bit by drinking coffee, but not for long before you collapse. And the more you stretch it and the more things you use your energy on, the less progress you will make in each direction.

Solution?

Cut the non-essential crap and focus all your energy on the essential.

What do I mean by essential and non-essential?

In a nutshell, non-essential activities are the ones which do not bring you anywhere closer to your goal, nor contribute to your mental and physical well-being. For example, social media. Responding to your supervisor’s email within 5 minutes of seeing it. Volunteering to organise an event for international students. Going to a talk you know you won’t learn anything from just because everyone else is going.

When I was doing my PhD, I never volunteered to do anything. My default response to requests was a ‘no’. I didn’t sign up for additional courses. I didn’t go to weekly talks given by other PhD students in the education department. I turned down most requests from my supervisor to do this or that thing. I never went to the common office shared by PhD students, because I knew we’d end up drinking coffee and talking. I didn’t read in the library, because I knew there would be people I know that would want to have a chat and go for a coffee.

You might be thinking: what an absolute hermit! How boring!

Fair enough.

But the truth is that if you want to make good use of your time and energy, you’ve got to cut out the non-essentials and focus on the essential. Otherwise, your energy gets dissipated and you make insignificant progress on a million of insignificant things.

On the other hand, if you focus on the essential and channel all your energy there, you make significant progress on one significant thing. And that’s how you achieve great things.

As someone said, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. And this means saying ‘no’ to everything that isn’t the main thing.

As a quick aside, I want to clarify that there are certain activities that might seem non-essential, but are absolutely vital, and are completely non-negotiable: 8 hours of sleep a day, quality time with your family, relationships with friends, exercise, healthy diet. And in fact, while they might seem non-essential, but they are completely essential, because they contribute to your mental and physical well-being.

So, how do you keep the main thing the main thing?

  1. Identify what your goal is – now, don’t get fooled by putting the word priority in the plural: there can only ever be one priority at any given moment (e.g. send the first draft of my paper to my supervisor by [date]).
  2. Identify the actions you need to take to get to that goal (e.g. write X number of words a day).
  3. Identify other actions you do that do not bring you closer to your main goal (e.g. attending a 3-hour talk), or that distract you (e.g. Instagram), or put demands on your time and energy (e.g. responding to emails).
  4. Eliminate the non-essentials from no. 3 one by one.
  5. If you can’t eliminate some, try to automate them or delegate (e.g. automate referencing using Zotero or Mendeley).

The result of this is not only that you will achieve your goals faster. You will also have much more time. You will no longer have to work evenings and weekends. You will also feel happier and more fulfilled.

So remember: Cut the non-essential crap and focus all your energy on the essential.

Keep the main thing the main thing.

PS If you want to find out more about the way of the essentialist, read Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

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