All about Essentialism

August 23, 2015

I’ve been reading a book called “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown. I ordered it on the recommendation of a friend without even bothering to read the blurb and assumed it was going to be about my wardrobe. (In theory, I’m very interested in the minimalist movement but I’m crap at putting it into practice). While this book does use wardrobe analogies quite frequently, I was surprised to find it’s actually a book about how to simplify your  work (and life) and I’ve absolutely loved reading it.

My husband also loved reading it so if you count my coaching friend that’s three from three who would recommend it, so I thought it was worth sharing some highlights. (And if you’re time poor, I’ve dot pointed the highlights at the bottom of this post!)

The gist of it, as applied to your working life, is that when we’re good at doing things, we get asked to do more things (or we volunteer to do more things because we know we can do it better than anyone else) or we get offered business/career opportunities. However the more we stretch our resources to do more things, the less energy and focus and time we have available to devote to the things we truly love to do, that we are exceptional at doing, and that give us the highest satisfaction/return for our efforts.

So, in order to make our highest contribution, we need to say no to all the non-essentials.

Which all sounds utterly lovely and makes perfect sense but as you can imagine, it’s a whole lot easier said than done. Sometimes opportunities present themselves and we get hooked up in thinking we should take them because they’re good opportunities, or we don’t like to let people down and we’re not very good at saying no.

Ultimately the price we pay for this ‘non-essentialism’ though is that our resources are stretched, our energy is scattered, our focus is unclear and our work is not the best it could be, which means those opportunities quickly stop appearing. Not only that, but you’ve sacrificed the opportunity to continue targeting and focusing your efforts on making your highest contribution.

To go back to the wardrobe analogy, McKeown suggests that if you decide to clean out your wardrobe using the criteria of ‘Is there a chance I might want to wear this one day in the future?’, we end up holding onto a lot of stuff we don’t want or need. The question to ask instead is “Do I love this? Would I buy it right now if I didn’t already own it?” and that this gives us a much tougher selection process but the result is so worth it when we have a clean clear space, a select few pieces we highly value, and we are no longer overwhelmed by too many choices when deciding what to wear.

What I love about this idea is that it can be applied to any area of your life. Think about your personal commitments, social obligations, and even (dare I say it?) your friends.

When you consider where you spend your time, money, physical and mental energy, how much of the stuff of your life truly nourishes you and fulfils you and how much is there out of obligation, fear, or just because it’s always been there and you’ve never thought to get rid of it?

beware the barrenness of a busy life

Below I’ve listed a few highlights from the book if you’re interested in applying a bit more essentialism to your own life:

Discern the trivial many from the vital few

Non-essentialists view all opportunities as equal and ask “How can I make it all work?”

Essentialists ask “What do I want to go big on?” using the criteria: “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” and “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?”

Starting from zero

In zero based budgeting, every expense has to justify itself at the start of the financial year (rather than just being included because it was there last year).

Using this analogy, if you had the opportunity to build your life from scratch today, what things, people and projects would you add right now if it didn’t already exist?

Learn to say no without apology

I don’t think this one needs any more explanation. Saying no feels awkward and impolite but it’s a vital skill if you don’t want your time and energy drained by non-essentials.

And remember, if it isn’t a clear yes, it’s a clear no.

Recognise sunk-cost bias and know when to bail out

We overvalue things we already own (see your wardrobe for evidence).

We also feel compelled to continue investing in projects, people and things we have already heavily invested in. It’s why we keep waiting on hold even after hours of our time have been wasted – we want to hang in there until we see a return.

We need to get better at admitting mistakes and changing course when we realise something is no longer working for us so that we don’t keep throwing good money (time, energy, effort) after bad.

Live with intent

This applies to more than just your job. It’s a bit like having a clear mission statement for your life.

Your essential intent will be informed by your values, create a sense of purpose and help chart your life’s course.

It is making one decision which eliminates a thousand others and it takes courage because to decide literally means to cut off all other options. This means making tough trade-offs and getting over the fear of missing out, but only with this kind of clarity and purpose can we live truly fulfilling and inspired lives and achieve our highest point of contribution.

SO… if you were to be more of an ‘essentialist’, what might you declutter from your life? It’s definitely worth thinking about!

Cass Dunn signature - Black

Highlights from the Happiness Conference

June 13, 2015
Happiness and its Causes Conference

This year, I attended the annual Happiness and Its Causes conference for the second time.

2015 marked the 10yr anniversary of this hugely popular annual event and so it was set to be quite a party at Luna Park! The conference usually attracts some of the biggest names – researchers, authors, and storytellers – in the fields of happiness and positive psychology, and is usually a great source of information and inspiration.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama normally attends every second year to coincide with the Dalai Lama in Australia tour, so his presence this year (his 80th birthday year!) drew a huge crowd. I’ve been fortunate to see His Holiness twice now, and both times have been so inspired by his wisdom, compassion and his incredibly infectious laugh.  

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

I decided I’d do a quick wrap up of the highlights from the conference and then later I’ll do separate posts to expand more on some of the presentations I liked best. So if you weren’t there, it doesn’t matter because I took notes for you!

So here goes, and I’ll try to keep it brief:

Because of my interest in Buddhist psychology and mindfulness, I was particularly interested to see Barbara Fredrickson, Ruby Wax, and several others who referred to the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace.

Barbara is a Professor of Psychology whose interests are in emotions and positive psychology. What I did not know, and what I was fascinated to learn, is that her research has found that people who practice Loving Kindness meditation (anyone who has done my courses will know what this is) demonstrate changes at the cellular level which reflect reduced likelihood of inflammation in the body and therefore reduced likelihood of disease. That’s my quick layperson non-scientific summary – and I’ll expand more later. But seriously.. WOW! Scientific data which demonstrates that kindness = not just feeling good, but actually being physically healthier.

Ruby Wax is best known as a comedienne and actress (and did you know she was a writer for Absolutely Fabulous? I did not know that!). With a long history of mental illness, Ruby decided 7yrs ago to actively seek out a treatment to prevent relapse and came across Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. She went on to complete a Masters degree in MBCT from Oxford University and this year was awarded an OBE for her services to mental health. Ruby’s presentation was of course funny, honest, and insightful and I, for one, as a practitioner of mindfulness and teacher of MBCT, was thrilled to see the word being spread!

Happiness and its causes on going conference

I was excited to see Gretchen Rubin in the line-up this year, since I’ve started reading both her New York Times bestselling The Happiness Project and her new book about habits called Better than Before. Yes, I’ve started reading both books at once because, unlike Gretchen, who describes herself as highly organised and self-disciplined, I am neither of those things. I do not seem to have the capacity to finish reading one book before picking up another, but it’s something I’m working on.

I introduced myself to Gretchen and asked her to sign my copy of her book. I told her I’m working on my own Happiness book and suggested that she and I have coffee next time I’m in her hometown of NYC. At that point, she surprisingly did not back away slowly and motion for security, but she wished me well with my book and even recommended to me a book for writers (which I have swiftly ordered from Amazon because Gretchen Rubin personally recommended it to me!) AND THEN she said she’ll see me in NYC!

Yes you will, Gretchen. Yes you will!

Making friends with Gretchen
Making friends with Gretchen

Other highlights included the amazing Lior (I didn’t even get a photo as I was too busy being in awe) and the story of his collaboration with composer Nigel Westlake and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Lior sang Avinu Malkeinu live with no accompaniment (spine-tingling) and then we heard the story of Lior and Nigel’s journey together to create ‘Compassion’, a seven song orchestra.

I’ve included this link to the final, full orchestral version of Avinu Malkeinu for your viewing and listening pleasure.

Among others, Ben Lee spoke and sang a few tunes for us. Michelle Bridges gave us a pep talk on motivation. Dr Tim Sharp aka Dr Happy was there.

Then there were the ‘ordinary’ but incredibly inspiring people who had overcome diversity and trekked across the Himalayas, sailed across oceans, rewired their brains following a stroke and tumour respectively. There were teachers doing amazing things in schools to help children learn the value of positive psychology, first-hand experiences and taking risks (no cotton wool!), and connecting with other kids globally using internet technology.

Truly an amazing line up of speakers.

And finally, a personal highlight for me was being interviewed for an upcoming documentary on Happiness! It was a great experience even if I do end up on the cutting room floor, which is very likely. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on and consolidate my own ideas about the causes of happiness, and I was heartened to hear my own thoughts reflected in the presentations of leading thinkers and researchers from around the world.

Getting prepped for my interview
Getting prepped for my interview

I think that’s enough for now! I’ve included lots of links so you can check out anything that might interest you, and later I’ll post some more info about the really interesting stuff.

Cass Dunn signature - Black

Is social media ruining your friendships?

May 29, 2015
downsides of facebook

My husband and I have moved interstate a number of times and in each new place that we make our home, we collect a whole bunch of wonderful new friends. It truly is a blessing to be able to arrive in a place where everything is so unfamiliar and slowly, but surely, create new social networks until eventually it feels like home. Of course, those friendships are also what make it so difficult to leave a place when later the time comes to move on – and this is why I love social media (especially Facebook).

Social media has meant that I’ve been able to maintain friendships that might otherwise have fallen by the wayside with the busyness of life and the tyranny of distance.

But last week I had a revelation, which very nearly caused me to deactivate my Facebook account.

Let me be clear that as a psychologist I’m all over the potential downsides of social media. Facebook gets a beating for wasting our time and reducing our capacity for sustained attention; for encouraging narcissistic behaviour; and for contributing to low mood or even depression when people use it to engage in upward social comparisons. In my mind, I’m too smart to fall for any of that. I know that Facebook is the ‘highlights reel’ and we all know that you don’t compare your own ‘behind the scenes’ with everyone else’s highlights. (And if you haven’t yet learned that, I encourage you to remind yourself of this fact every time you find yourself judging your real life negatively compared with someone else’s Facebook life).

It wasn’t any of these potential Facebook perils that had me looking for the ‘deactivate’ button. It was, in fact, a series of events that eventually led to a light-bulb moment about the quality of my friendships.

It started late last year when I had the wonderful opportunity of catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen for many years. She is gorgeous and successful, a world traveller and inspirational leader. I couldn’t wait to hear about the good fortune she’d experienced in the years since we’d last seen each other. Her social media updates depicted a life being very well lived. But when we sat down together, I discovered that actually life had not been as kind to her as Facebook would have had me believe. She had struggled with chronic illness, financial losses, legal battles, and relationship heartbreak.

I had no idea.

I had a similar experience when I caught up later with another friend and learned that she was going through fairly tumultuous changes in her life. As we spoke, she described to me what I know to be many of the symptoms of major depression. Again I was confronted with how little I knew about what was really going on in someone’s life because I hadn’t bothered to ask.

And then just a few weeks ago I received an apology from a friend for her delay in replying to a message I’d sent. Her apologetic message began with the words “Despite Facebook appearances….” and went on to explain that she’d been dealing with some difficult personal issues. I was already aware of what some of those difficulties were, but I was struck by those three words “Despite Facebook appearances…”

In fact, I couldn’t shake them. I wasn’t really sure what was so surprising to me about those words because like I already said, we all know that Facebook is the highlights reel and if we’re honest, none of us expects anyone to post the darker sides of life on our lighthearted, time-wasting, superficial social media. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that there was a message here for me and I was missing it. And then the penny dropped.

All this time while I’ve been defending Facebook as an important tool for maintaining connections, what Facebook has been giving me is the illusion of connection. And because of the illusion  created by seeing snippets of people’s daily lives and activities, and photos of their kids, I have become lazy about maintaining real connections.

I’ve realised that when I see pictures and updates on Facebook, I don’t have the opportunity to miss someone or to wonder what they’re up to. If I did, I might call or email them; and in replying, they would likely skip over the daily trivia and tell me about the important stuff of their lives. (I doubt they would tell me where they just had their morning tea or send me a photo of their coffee.) In a one-on-one conversation they might confide in me or ask my advice or just allow me to listen. And if life really is grand, I could share in their joy in a much more personal and meaningful way. But because of the illusion of connection created by Facebook, I haven’t given them that opportunity.  

Quotes about making friends

Since having this realisation, I’ve resolved to work harder on maintaining direct and personal communication with the people who are important to me – although I still think it would be easier if I didn’t have Facebook hoodwinking me into believing I know what is happening in people’s lives.  While I might not have deactivated my account just yet, I certainly have a new skepticism about the role of social media in supporting my social connections.

Facebook has been put on notice that our relationship is on shaky ground, and I still haven’t ruled out the idea of a temporary or permanent break. Meanwhile, I’ll be making a lot more effort to talk to my friends and find out what’s really going on behind the status updates.

Cass Dunn signature - Black

Goals & Intentions: An alternative to new year’s resolutions

December 28, 2014
Restart life on New year

I stopped making new year’s resolutions a long time ago. Even when I was running a successful full-time Life Coaching practice,  helping people to achieve their goals, I was very clear that I don’t care much for new year’s resolutions.

I do, of course, fully support any effort to make positive changes in one’s life; I just think there are better ways than the traditional “From 1st January, I will…” approach.

What’s wrong with resolutions?

1. The Willpower Factor

I already covered off in a previous post that most people choose to make sweeping life changes on the first day of the new year, and outlined all the reasons why this is not a wise idea according to the latest research on willpower. In a nutshell, willpower is a finite resource so if you attempt to make too many changes at once, you’re more likely to deplete your resources. Starting slowly and building new habits that become so routine they no longer require a lot of willpower is a much more effective approach to making long term change.

2. All or nothing

A resolution, by definition, is a statement of resolve. I resolve to either do something or not do it, commencing 1st January (or whatever date you choose). Stating your intention in such absolute terms only allows for passing or failing. If you resolve to go to the gym three times per week, as soon as you miss a session you’ve broken your resolution. Many people slip up on their way to achieving goals and this is no sign of failure – in fact, it can be a great opportunity for learning and growth – but resolutions don’t allow for slip ups. The feelings of discouragement (and accompanying negative self-talk) make it difficult to pick up where you left off, which is why many people have shelved their resolutions by mid-January only to bring them out and dust them off again on January 1st next year.

3. The laundry list of resolutions

“Get fit, get out of debt, drink less, eat better….”   *yawn*. It’s a long, boring list only serving to highlight all your perceived inadequacies and there isn’t very much inspiring about that! Combined with the high probability of breaking all those resolutions due to points 1 & 2, people find themselves by mid-January adding lack of self-discipline to their list of (supposed) faults. It’s a lose-lose.

An alternative approach

I’d like to share my preferred options when it comes to planning what I’d like to achieve in the coming year.


live every day with intention

image via pinterest

1. Get clear on your intentions.

Living with intention every day is more likely to take you closer to the life you want to create than any list of goals.

You might, for example, have an intention to live more simply. Or more sustainably. Your intention might be to foster more authentic social connections, or stretch yourself and step out of your comfort zone.

Living with intention cuts through the to-do list of goals and requires you to get clear on your values.

From values and intentions, goals and actions emerge very organically. For example, if your intention is to nurture social connections, you might be inclined to cut back on social media and make more effort to have real conversations with people in your life. Your decision and action is inspired by an authentic value whereas creating a new year’s resolution to ‘spend less time on Facebook’ is unlikely to stick.

2. Choose one word.

I first read about this approach several years ago in this blog post and I’ve chosen a word every year since.Your word for the year can encompass many different life domains and represents a kind of ‘theme’ or thread that weaves through all areas of life and influences your decisions and actions. Some of my favourite words over the years have been Compassion, Courage, Simplify, Unsubscribe and Balance.

3. One Year From Now.

When it comes to setting goals, imagine yourself a year from now looking back on what you’ve achieved. Decide on the specific accomplishments that are most important to you and that are likely to make you feel proud and satisfied. Then wind back. How will that look in six months if you’re on track to your best outcome. How will it look in three months.

It can be fun to make a vision board either in real life or on Pinterest to bring your goals to life and add a sense of excitement.

You might have personal, family, financial and business goals. Make them specific and write them down so you can refer back on your progress throughout the year. Give yourself a full year to map out a course for achieving these things. Nothing magical needs to happen on 1st January; so you don’t have to try to achieve everything all at once; and there are no resolutions to be broken.

Sometimes at the end of the year, I find there are some goals that aren’t achieved or only partially achieved. Regardless, I know that by writing down my objectives for the year and systematically working towards them, I have achieved far more than I would have had I not set any goals at all.

A life lived with intention, values, a sense of purpose and clearly defined goals is far more likely to bring you success and fulfillment than another year of procrastinating on what’s most important to you. But if you have a long trail of broken new year’s resolutions in your past, maybe it’s time to try a new approach.

Do you make resolutions?  I’d love to hear what works for you.

Cass Dunn signature - Black

The ‘slow’ movement and why it’s gaining momentum

October 5, 2014
slowdown living

It’s a funny thing, really… that for all the advances in technology and the myriad wondrous inventions we’ve created to make things quicker, easier and more efficient, somehow we’ve come full circle and now find ourselves so overwhelmed by the busyness and sheer pace of life that we are all looking for ways to slow down.

Fast food, cheap fashion & social media are the signs of our times. They are relatively new concepts in our culture, and all serving the common purpose of providing instant gratification.

But the truth is that despite all the inventions designed to make life easier, the number of ‘friends’ just a button click away, the prosperity we enjoy and the abundant choices presented to us every time we hit the supermarket or the nearest shopping mall, we are experiencing our highest ever levels of anxiety, depression, obesity and debt.

Depression is in fact the leading cause of disability globally. Consumer debt is at an all time high. The planet is being destroyed. We are disconnected, isolated, and dissatisfied; working harder and longer, yet never being rewarded with the grand prize of happiness that we so long for.

And so it appears we have woken up to the con of ‘fast’.

Voluntary Simplicity. Downshifting. Minimalism. These are all terms used to describe a growing movement towards unhooking from our technology-addicted, consumption driven lives and finding five minutes of peace and quiet in the simple activities and lifestyles our grandparents might have enjoyed.

The slow food movement was born in Italy in the 1980s when Carlo Petrini and a group of activists objected to a McDonald’s being constructed on the Spanish steps of Rome. Fast food is a disaster for animals, the planet and our own health. Today, ‘slow food’ embraces the values of wholesome food, grown locally and sustainably, and offering a fair price and conditions to its producers. It is the antithesis of fast food and processed food.  ‘Slow food’ values time taken to prepare and enjoy meals and the role of food in connecting family and friends. Most importantly, it’s a reminder to slow down in every aspect of our lives.

The slow living movement takes its cues from these same principles of mindfulness, connection and community.

Slow fashion for example, objects to the speed at which clothing designs move from catwalk to chain store, inviting us to reconsider our fashion purchases and opt for choices that will sustain us beyond a seasonal trend.  Fast fashion pollutes the environment with its manufacture and its rapid disposal, and demands we keep spending money as seasons and styles change.

Where ‘fast fashion’ often utilises offshore labour with unfair working conditions, chemically laden textiles, and rapidly obsolete trends, slow fashion calls us to choose quality over quantity. It also emphasises getting back to basics and repairing or re-purposing pre-loved clothing. Big fashion houses are lining up to get themselves accredited with Ethical Clothing Australia. Thus, it would appear that consumer demand for high quality, ethically produced fashion exists, and that suppliers are happy to meet our demand.

Slow living invites us to unhook from the continual distraction of our screens and gadgets by taking a regular ‘digital detox’  and spending quality, purposeful time in our real lives and connecting with our people face to face.

With a quick Google search (the irony), you can find a multitude of manifestations of the slow movement: people living in tiny houses, embracing thrift and minimalism, and living in intentional communities. Blogs like Zen Habits and Becoming Minimalist have millions of subscribers, such is the level of interest in scaling back and slowing down.

Most of us will never truly escape the hustle of modern life with our gadgets and our shops and our busy jobs. But we can look for small ways to slow down, shed what is unnecessary from our homes and schedules, shop more ethically and choose more wisely in every respect.

What about you? How do you find ways to slow down?

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