Why you should front the essential facts

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…

Henry David Thoreau says it so well. But what are the essential facts?

The theological concept of the apophatic way, also known as the via negativa, is a good place to start. In simple terms the theological idea was that it’s hard to sum up what God is, but easier to define what is not divine. We develop a picture that is like negative space, arrived at by considering what we cannot say.

The essential facts are more graspable than notions of divinity, but thinking about what they don’t include is a good starting point. What is essential to life that is dear, will not accept resignation and aims to suck the marrow out, is not likely to include:

  • social media
  • obsessive phone checking
  • answering emails as they arrive all through the day
  • being reactive so that you let others’ demands always control you time
  • being ‘too busy’ to eat well, sleep enough, take a walk or read a book
  • settling for mediocrity
  • colluding with the mindless consumerism sleep-walking our world into disaster
  • accepting the pessimistic political rhetoric of ‘there is no alternative’

In book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown talks about:

the disciplined pursuit of less

and adds

you cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.

He points out that life is finite and we may be able to do anything, but we cannot do everything. McKeown’s approach begins with defining the essence. Like Thoreau he wants to front the essential facts and to this you need to:

1. Find your mission

What is it that is most important to you right now and why? Dig deep, find the reasons in yourself and make the choices that support that quest. What is it that matters to you most?

2. Define success for yourself

Whatever you love, whatever your craft or art, give it time. You should always be pushing your learning and your boundaries in that area.

3. Give more than you take

When we stop giving we’ve entered a state of fear and small-minded living. There are all kinds of ideas about how giving reduces stress or has benefits health, but we don’t need to reduce generosity to a crude transaction to know that it’s the right way to go. Yes, generosity always returns to you, but it may not in the ways you might expect. Quite simply, an intentional life should be a generous one.

Vicktor Frankl, who survived a Holocaust concentration camp, put it like this in Man’s Search for Meaning:

We… can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread… They offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

4. Build habits and rituals that support your quest

We can’t all go to the woods to live deliberate lives, but we can shape our time. We can advocate for our priorities so that they are not marginalised by the onslaught of the worlds’ busyness and noise.

To do this will require at least some time to think. Picasso tells us:

Without great solitude no serious work is possible.

Even if you can’t escape to the woods for a year, at least carve yourself some thinking time. It might be a week away or a daily practice, but give yourself time to focus and:

  • make yourself unavailable. I did this for a whole month last year — I had contact with family but no work and the results were profound;
  • disrupt your life — it might not be a cabin in the woods, but change your environment whenever you can;
  • have time each day without technology — especially when you first wake because emails aren’t the most important thing when you are in that amazing state between sleep and waking. And also before you sleep, because the blue light of screens has an adverse effect on sleep;
  • read — as much as you can — poetry, fiction, essays, history, philosophy. Read great tomes and 4 minute articles. Read as much as possible without screens;
  • journal — I’ve kept a consistent journal for the last 24 years. Day to day I often think not much is happening, but when I look back I can see all kinds of shifts in perception that made a difference;
  • play — McKeown defines this as as anything we do for the sheer pleasure of of it. Play and imagination not only relieve stress, they are vital to creativity. In the words of Einstein:
When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge;
  • sleep — deliberate lives need nourishment;
  • in short, have a routine that supports your direction:

To quote W H Auden:

Routine, in an intelligent (wo)man, is a sign of ambition.

5. Learn to say no

Being generous isn’t the same as thinking you have to do everything that’s asked of you. Nor does it mean you have to take every opportunity that comes along. Do the things that align with your mission, that mean more to you than anything else, that help you to grow in the area you love.

6. Make plans

In a fast-paced world it’s so easy to let most of what we do become a reaction to something. Instead we can learn to live with intention, becoming pro-active instead of reactive.

When I have a week at work where demands come thick and fast or problems arise that take me away from the work I’ve planned, I’m ragged and exhausted by Friday. When I have a plan for the week that includes leeway, so that unforeseen events don’t throw out the whole timetable, I reach Friday feeling in control. I’m more satisfied even if I’ve actually worked longer hours or put in more energy.

For my work, I have a calendar with a weekly plan of tasks for the whole year ahead, put together each new year. Each week, I put this into a time block, adjusting for unforeseen events or variations in timing that arise as real life unfolds. It’s not impossible for it to go off-track and the weekly adjustment assures that there is flexibility, but most of the time it makes a huge difference. If I don’t plan my time, others will plan it for me.

For my personal goals I journal, morning and evening, every day. I also do a major journalling exercise at the end of each year and think about what I want to achieve in the next year. The results go into a tiny book (about an inch and half square) that I carry with me always.

To front your essential facts, you need to know what they are.

7. Make progress

The Japanese concept of kaizen is a fascinating one. It developed as a way of making change to organisations and workplaces, but the thinking is useful for individuals. It involves tiny, incremental steps for constant and continuous improvement. It focusses on process rather results.

There are days when it’s all we can do to write in our journal that we made the bed today or smiled at someone. McKeown talks of:

small and simple wins in areas that are essential

These increments build up. Why? To quote McKeown:

Because a small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.

8. Live now

Reflecting on the past and planning the future can help us shape who we want to be and how we want to live, but the most vital thing is to be present to the now.

At any one time, think about what is the most important thing to be doing in that moment and give it your full attention. Time isn’t only about how long we live, but about how deeply we live; the quality of the time we have is everything.

I recently injured my hip while lugging a case across a train station. It’s a minor injury that will soon heal provided I let the joint rest. The injury prevented me from going to a conference that I was eager to attend. It was with our distribution and marketing agency for Cinnamon Press. Inpress Books do fantastic work and the annual event is always a source of learning and encouragement. But it wasn’t to be. Faced with a rare day when I wasn’t going to do the work I’d planned my mind immediately went to the work I could do on my laptop instead. But I was staying with my daughter. Rather than filling the enforced stay with other work, I had the opportunity to spend extra time with her and my baby grandson. The day was a gift, despite being in pain.

9. Know what matters

Our essential facts will vary, but each of us needs to front the essential facts so that we do not come to the end of life only to discover that we have not lived. In the words of poet Mary Oliver in her poem ‘The Summer Day’:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

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