In a recent series of short-fused angry bursts, burnouts, and frustrations at lack of resources at work, I was so tired that there were nights after work I couldn’t move. Did I need sleep? Did I need food? Did I even want to shower? Sometimes, I would fall on my bed, shut my eyes, and just sleep until the next day because sleeping was much better than dealing with the noise in my head.

One day, a good friend sat me down and told me to slow down. He said I was like an airplane with a lost left wing caused by metal fatigue and fuel leaking through the sides. I was moving too fast, executing too fast, and burning out too fast.

But was it my fault the world was moving too slow? I’ve always prided myself in getting the things I said I would do done. I was a mover and pioneer, but perhaps I was moving too fast, and it was affecting my physical and mental health.

I grimaced at his words. Just a few days ago, I had made a mental note comparing my head to a pressure cooker, and that I should be aware of this feeling — I had brushed it under the rug. I felt like I was being pulled apart by so many things: the never-ending workload, my projects, my responsibilities to my family, new contacts wanting to chat, and the worst of it all — the vast, vast potential of all the things I wanted to accomplish. It was a lot. I was being crushed.

My friend urged me to read a book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

The next day, I went to the nearby Kinokuniya bookstore and bought it. I read a quote in the book that stated, “You can do anything, but not everything.”

I had this insane idea that I was still only 27 and I could conquer the world by age 30. I was enamored with every big idea, and would lose my focus on the various projects I’d be managing. I thought I left the work intense startup life back in San Francisco, but I found it again in Singapore. It was like this hat of intensity I wore everywhere I went: I wanted to pick up everything, to do everything, and to fix everything.

An image showing the difference of managing energies in Essentialism. Photo credits to Greg McKeown.

What was happening to me?

On the side image, I’m the energy on the left. I was exhausted with decision making fatigue and content fatigue. I managed a large content platform at a digital media company, started in a NAS Academy x Grab4Good videography class, ran my own YouTube channel, started a podcast, opened a community group for digital nomads, and did a pro bono project for a startup on women’s fertility. On top of that, there was the hovering stress of my transition into the sandwich generation because my parents were getting older and their retirement plans were nonexistent.

In all clarity, I think I carry this pressure with me like a luggage — it’s an internalized pressure of needing to prove myself to the world and say yes to everything that comes my way.

Key points from the book

  • Tradeoffs will come in every aspect of your life. Learn to figure out what problems you want and what you want to prioritize. In the book, it states, “We can try to avoid the reality of trade-offs, but we can’t escape them.”
  • Exercise the power of choice. You do have a choice to say yes or no. Control your choices, or other people will do it for you.
  • Essentialists take the time to explore each and every option thoroughly and throughly to make an informed decision. Non-essentialists take on everything and don’t give themselves the space to think.
  • Create space to design, to play, and to explore.

“Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs. It’s about deliberately choosing to be different.” — Michael Porter

Application of learning to my own life

  • I deliberately cleared my schedule that week. I told everyone that I needed to reschedule so I could breathe. I needed my headspace and I didn’t want calendar notifications or pings showing up. I needed my space.
  • I started to make no quick decisions without taking a step back and thinking it out. I let things sit for a bit so I could think all options.
  • I’ve started to say no, and establish stronger boundaries for myself. I don’t jump at every ping, every notification, or every invite to hang out with friends or new people because I am carving out my own time to think and digest.
  • I decided to cut down a few projects and decrease the cadence of content distribution on my own channels. I also rejected a few projects that were offered. I carved out time for my team at work and I to brainstorm for an hour so we could think, rather than continue executing and pushing out double digit articles per week.
  • I planned out where I wanted to be in the next year and in 5 years. Any shiny new project that did not contribute to that path of focus was not approved by my alter ego, Essentialist Emily.

What I’ve learned from the book: just because you have high capacity, it doesn’t mean you should be stretched beyond what is good for you.

The cyclical routine of working hard and burning out has almost been seared into my lifestyle and the culture I grew up in, which had made it hard for me to unlearn. I’m always learning new things about myself, what triggers me, what exhausts me, and what refreshes me. There’s also 100 things that excite me. But it has been reforming to apply essentialism into my adulting lifestyle — I feel that I have control.

I hope others, like myself, can take a deeper pause when it comes to adulting and juggling various parts of life.

Apply essentialism.