“Hack away at the unessential.” — 2 simple lists will do the trick

Focus on the trees, not on the bushes and weed.

You’re a Medium reader. You’re smart (not because you read M but because you’re smart you read M). And still, you can improve yourself.

I have a tool that’ll help you improve yourself. I stole it from the idol Leo Babauta.

It’s about simplifying your life. Self-improvement through a simpler life.

Simplifying your life is about removing distractions and spending your time with the most essential things in your life.

The 2 lists that will do the trick

The ‘Essentials’ List

These are the trees you want to focus on.

What is essential? What are the most important things in your life? What do you love the most? What gives you the most value?

As I stole the idea from Leo Babauta, here’s what he states:

Create a life that focuses on the essentials — what you value and love the most, what you’re most passionate about.

For most people that ‘Essentials’ List looks something like this:

  • Friends & Family
  • Work
  • Self-Mastery

Now, you could be more specific (e.g. for self-mastery: meditate, read great books, eat healthy, and work out).

If I was your coach, I’d give the following HOMEWORK:

Give yourself 10 minutes and list your 4–5 most essential tasks, people, and activities that give you the best bang for the buck (or for your time). What do you value most in your life?

What’s the point of all this?

The idea is that you want to spend most of your time with your essentials. These are your self-identified most important things in your life. When you spend time with those, you’ll get most out of your life. Simple as that.

That brings us to the second list.

The ‘What I actually Spend My Time with’ List

The name of that list speaks for itself.

For me, that list looks like this:

  • Self-Mastery: meditation, working out, reading, journaling, self-reflection, preparing food
  • Work: writing, reading, blog promotion, and sometimes frustration ;-)
  • Family & Friends: eating dinner, playing games like Jass (traditional Swiss card game) or the good old Nintendo 64, watching sports games, going out, and doing other activities together like playing soccer or badminton
  • Time Killers: mindlessly surfing the WWW (mainly porn, haha. Just joking, you know Facebook, YouTube etc.), watching series (I stopped that), watching TV (I stopped that), playing video games (I combine that with social time, so it’s ok)

Often, I’m quite happy with my ‘What I actually Spend My Time with’ List. I got much better in the last year (I got rid of the TV and I stopped watching series… these were my worst time wasters).

On some days though, I could put the Time Killers easily on top of that list… You know, the not-so-productive days.

Plus, I should stop using the Social Time as an excuse for wasting time with unessential activities such as playing video games, watching TV, and binge-drinking ;-) I’d rather spend quality social time with my besties (e.g. go for a coffee and talk about essentials or do some fun activities together).

(By the way, the Time Killers are the bushes and weed you don’t want to focus on. Focus on the damn trees.)

Now it’s your turn. I know, I’m not your coach, but I’d give you some more HOMEWORK:

Give yourself 10 minutes and list all the things you spend your time with. Really EVERYTHING. And then compare that list with your essentials. What do you see? What could you change in order to spend more time with your essentials?

Here’s a crucial time spending rule:

Whatever is not essential, minimize it.

Or, to go back to the title…

It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential. — Bruce Lee

So, once you’ve identified your essentials and the things you actually spend your time with, it’s time to hack away at the unessential. In other words, it’s time for ruthless elimination.

Okay, there we go. These 2 lists can have a massive impact on your life. Seriously. Just seeing that you don’t spend most of your time with your essentials can be an eye-opener. At least it was for me.

If you keep on reading, you find 4 tips that help you focus on the trees, not on the bushes and weed.

Now, I originally published this on my blog, so I just give the short version of the tips here. If any of them sound interesting, go and check them out closer on my blog. Dig in.

4 Tips for Ruthless Elimination

Tip #1: Say Hell Yeah! or No Thanks

Once you’ve identified the things you spend your time with, ask yourself for each item, “is this worth my time? If you can’t answer with “Hell Yeah!”, then it’s a time killer and should be eliminated.

I stole this Hell Yeah! idea from Derek Sivers:

When deciding whether to commit to something, if I feel anything less than, ‘Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!’ — then my answer is no.

I love that idea.

It’s about saying “yes” less often. And saying “no” instead.

Don’t commit to things you don’t absolutely want to do. As you say “yes” to others you say “no” to yourself and your essentials. If something is not an essential, then it’s not worth committing to.

Your time and energy are finite. Reserve most of it for your essentials and say “no” to other things. Otherwise you shortchange your essentials with commitments that are important to others but not for you.

Tip #2: Limit Screen Time

Have you ever walked through the metro?

Have you noticed what everybody’s doing?

OF COURSE, it’s obvious. Everybody’s staring at their phone, tablet or laptop like a bunch of zombies.

When you leave the metro… screens EVERYWHERE.

Back home… the TV is already on.

And at night it’s time to binge watch Netflix.

. . . . . (Crazy right?!)

I don’t think the screens are a problem per se. But being accessible 24/7 is.

* Facebook * Twitter * Instagram *

News is pouring all over you. Nonstop!

Attention here. Attention there. Watch this. Listen to that. Buy this. Buy that.

You’re getting BRAINWASHED left and right.


L i m i t a c c e s s t o y o u r s e l f !

All these distractions are not essential. Seriously, STOP THAT MADNESS and limit access to yourself. Stop the constant stimulation.

Shut off the TV. Don’t check Facebook 50 times a day. Don’t (spam) text your friends all day long. — Don’t waste your life online. Don’t get me wrong, I love social media, but it’s a time trap if you don’t watch out.

Spend your screen time consciously.

Tip #3: Get Rid of Shit You Don’t Need

How many things do you own?

Go and count. I’ll wait.

Just kidding. But I’m sure you own a ton of things.

And how many things do you actually need?


And that’s the clue.

You need less than you have.

All the stuff you own holds you back from feeling free. Check your list with your essentials. Does it say anything about all the tchotchkes, knickknacks, and gewgaws that decorate your shelves?

No, it doesn’t.

Pssst… Here’s a secret about my mum (luckily she doesn’t speak English very well so she won’t understand…).

She’s got a shelf that’s sole purpose is to make room for decor angels (she wouldn’t agree though). Such things are easy to buy because they look cute. But once you’ve bought them all the fun is over. They won’t make you happy. They just take up space and catch dust.

My mum’s weakness for angels (and turtles and elephants) just serves as an example. You and I, we too have waaay too much stuff we don’t need.

Such needless stuff takes up space and clutters our lives. Yet we don’t notice the effect it has on us. Once you get rid of things you’ll find yourself with room to breathe. It’s a liberating feeling to disconnect from material things and clutter.

When do you know whether something is unessential or not?

Ask yourself: Do I use this? Do I need that?

Hell Yeah! I need my toothbrush!” So keep it.

Hell Yeah?! I need that plush toy I got as a gift when I was already waaay too old for that stuff…” Trash it, donate it, or give it to your cousin who could actually use it.

You can do that with ALL the stuff you don’t use (maybe start with your wardrobe…). As far as I’m concerned you’re not going to miss things you’ve never used anyway.

The opposite is actually true, you’re going to feel free and liberated once you get rid of things.

Tip #4: Don’t Buy Shit You Don’t Need

Guess what, getting rid of stuff isn’t a free pass to buy a bunch of new stuff.

You and I, we live in a world of consumerism.

We are conditioned that way. We always want more: More clothes. More gadgets. More toiletries. A bigger house. A faster car. Nicer furniture. And so on.

More. Bigger. Better. → That’s the motto of consumerism.

And interestingly, we don’t get satisfied when we buy new things. There are always (seemingly) newer, better, and more promising things out there.

Don’t get me wrong. You actually are satisfied when you buy something new. This satisfaction just doesn’t last…

Wanting more is an illness. And we are all ill. As I said, we are conditioned that way.

One main force that makes us want more is the pervasive influence of advertising. It’s EVERYWHERE: On TV, on the radio, on public screens, in the metro, in the internet, in magazines and so on…

  • “What?! That dress is on sale? I must have it!”
  • “Finally, the new iPhone is released. It’s got 1 new feature! I’ll buy it!”
  • “WOW! Cristiano Ronaldo wears new soccer boots! I want them now!”


Advertisers have studied a thousand ways that make us want something.

The result? Impulse buying.

There are 4 simple tricks you can use to minimize and control impulse buying:

  1. Reduce the trap situations altogether: Less media. Less advertisements. Less magazines. Less strolling along the shopping areas. Try to escape and ignore advertisement.
  2. Before you go shopping make a list of what you need. Everything that’s not on the list, you don’t buy. Simple as that.
  3. When you see something you want, ask yourself: Do I need this or can I live without it? Does this still make me happy in a few weeks from now? When am I going to use/wear it? Will it contribute to a better life? If the answer is not “Hell Yeah! I need this and it will contribute to a better life.” then don’t buy it.
  4. If you still find yourself buying stuff you don’t need, consider this: Make it a rule that you don’t buy the day you find what you want. Sleep on it. Go for a week without it. If you still feel that you need it, you can buy it later.

The basic idea is to trick yourself so you don’t buy.

By asking yourself whether or not you need something, you become more conscious. When you buy/consume consciously you will automatically appreciate it more.

Okey dokey. That’s it. Don’t buy shit you don’t need. Get rid of shit you don’t need. Limit screen time. And say either Hell Yeah or No Thanks. → Make time for your essentials. Live life at your best.

If you dug this article, then give it a green heart ❤ so others can see it as well. Thank you.

Plus, if you have another tip for ruthless elimination, let me know in the comments. I’m all ears for the craziest and simplest tricks out there. Cheers!

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