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Essentialism in Higher Education

Jill Diaz
University of Colorado Boulder

“Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” –Greg McKeown

Perhaps you have caught onto the “Kondo craze” this year of eliminating clutter and getting clear on what is important and what brings you joy in your home. Today I challenge you to take that mindset out of your closet for a moment and into your work. In Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism, he covers the principle of breaking down your work and your work DAY into things that matter and simply eliminating the rest.

I can hear your skepticism already. Sure, no big deal. Let me just go ahead and cancel the 2,475 meetings I have this week and I am sure NOBODY will be upset about it. I get it, I really do. But here are some facts that should scare you:

  • The average person spends 11 hours a week on email.
  • 95% of text messages are read within 3 minutes.
  • The average American works 47 hours per week. AVERAGE.
  • The average person needs 23 minutes to fully get back on task after an interruption

Take a look at this straightforward visual from Essentialism. This is what it looks like when we put energy into several different things at once versus focusing our energy.

We are unfortunately not working as hard as we feel we are, yet the many directions we are being pulled in has us feeling exhausted both physically and mentally. There is this idea that if we do not respond to parents and students immediately, then we will lose our job. Or not make enrollment goals. Or whatever. But what about losing our family? What about losing our fire and our passion? Our sense of self? Don’t those things matter? In THIS profession especially, setting up boundaries is a crucial exercise for both the students you work with and what you can allow in your workday. It is of course our nature to serve and want to make a difference. But I am afraid we have journeyed into this muddy path of making other people’s problems our problems. We are not helping, we are enabling.

The main principle of Essentialism is to have laser focus. Pick what you need to focus on and do those things REALLY well. And if you have space left over in your day or in your week, great. However, some of that time should be spent innovating, advocating and dreaming. That is where the magic happens. That is where change happens. There is a lot we need to change and advocate for on behalf of ourselves and our students in the realm of higher education right now, but we cannot possibly make time for that when we are already spread too thin. While I highly recommend giving this book a read, here are some questions to ask yourself and your team to get you started:

What is the core purpose of your job? What is ESSENTIAL? Then make a list of all the things you spend your time doing. Do they align?

Are there meetings in your day that could be shortened or that are not necessary?

What processes are taking you AWAY from serving students? Can they be simplified or taken away?

What part of your job brings you the most stress? Think about it, talk about it, and find a solution.

Do you have time in your day/week to reflect? To Brainstorm? If not, this should be scheduled in.

What tasks do you need large batches of time to complete? Schedule those time blocks in your calendar and don’t answer emails, phone calls etc. during that time instead of trying to rush through and sacrifice quality or time at home with family.

If these questions need to be taken to a supervisor, be brave and do it. These are some of the most important conversations you can have in the workplace. The most successful companies and organizations take all of these things into considerations and their success is a direct result.

“The only way out of this trap is to learn to say no firmly, resolutely, and yet gracefully. Because once we do, we find, not only that our fears of disappointing and angering others were exaggerated, but that people actually respect us more.” – Greg McKeown

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