Essentialism Is an Important Practice of Mindfulness (Part 1 of 2)

Anne Bruce

Anne Bruce

Author and Leadership Consultant

Published August 05, 2014

Welcome to Mindfulness in Medicine, a monthly column by best-selling author Anne Bruce designed to cultivate leadership and collaborative relationships among hospital leaders, nurses, providers and ancillary staff. Mindfulness is a powerful leadership tool that enhances emotional intelligence in medicine. It is a tool that, when practiced, can help us develop and implement relational coaching skills and illuminate various ways to improve hospital operations and cross-departmental performance. Mindfulness also improves our capacity for decision-making and participatory medicine, all while enhancing our own health and well-being. Your comments and insights on these postings are greatly valued.

When we are mindful, we live by design, not by default. By being mindful, we also become essentialists. We become more present and don't allow distractions to rule the day.

Essentialism is about being in control of our choices (like where to spend our precious time and energy) instead of giving others permission to choose for us. And given the job demands and pace of change of in the healthcare industry, it's an important consideration for providers.

Choosing to Respond vs. React

Just the general concept of responding to life's situations versus reacting to them gives most of us a feeling of calm and inner control.

Let's say you don't feel well. You visit your primary care provider and she gives you a prescription to take that will hopefully make you feel better. But it doesn't, and instead you break out in a rash. You return to her office and you are told that you are having a "reaction" to the medicine. Not a good thing.

A new prescription is written. You begin to feel better, and when you return for a follow-up visit, you are told how well you are doing and that you are "responding" to treatment. That sounds a lot better, right?

Responding to what happens in our lives — discerning critical elements of the day and choosing the best way to move forward, vs. reacting to others' perceived needs — almost always results in a better, healthier outcome, both on the job and at home.

In the healthcare industry, providers are often pressed to do the impossible and stress levels are high. Being mindful and thinking like an essentialist (rather than making choices reactively) can help healthcare professionals to distinguish the vital few from the trivial many.

Essentialist thinking makes us mindful of what we are consciously choosing in the moment. By doing this, we remove annoying obstacles and inconveniences so that we can focus on essential matters with greater clarity. Essentialism and mindfulness allow us to redesign old ways of thinking and discard old habits developed over a lifetime.

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (Crown Business), author Greg McKeown emphasizes that essentialism married with mindfulness is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies. Knowing this makes the execution of our ideas, solutions, patient care and other processes easier and more effortless.

In other words, mindfulness and essentialism work in tandem. They both provide paths to new levels of success and meaning in both our professional and personal lives.

Essentialism, Like Mindfulness, Is a Movement Whose Time Has Come to Healthcare

Do you think like an essentialist? To find out, answer "agree" or "disagree" to the following:

  • I feel like I am constantly being interrupted.
  • Sometimes it feels like my life is being hijacked by other people's agendas and I am reacting to everyone else around me.
  • I am constantly busy, but not as productive as I should be — and I don't know why.
  • Life feels like a hamster wheel, and I'm the hamster.
  • I often feel stretched too thin.
  • At the same time, I feel overworked and underutilized. How can that be possible?

If you agreed with most of these statements, you may be practicing what is called "non-essentialism." Fortunately, as we'll discuss later, it's possible to replace these thoughts and behaviors with more constructive ones.

"Beware the barrenness of a busy life."

— Socrates

It's Not About Time Management

None of us can truly manage time — there are only 24 hours in every day. However, we can definitely choose to manage what we do with the time we are allotted.

Essentialism is much more than time management, or a way to improve productivity on the job. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is truly essential and then eliminating what is not so we can give the best of ourselves to our work and family.

When we get mindful about what really matters -- patients and healthcare's overall benefit -- we become laser-focused on the essentials, not the non-essentials that can consume us and dilute our effectiveness.

When we start to focus on what really matters — what's absolutely essential — we begin to apply more selective criteria for how we spend our time, money and energy in the healthcare arena.

"No is a complete sentence."

Anne Lamott

If You Don't Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will Do It for You

The model below explains how essentialism looks and sounds — and how you can replace problem thoughts and behaviors with more constructive ones.

Step 1:

The non-essentialist is thinking …

  • How can I fit all of this in?
  • I must get this done.
  • This situation is so important, I have to…
  • Why do I have to be all things to all people?

The mindful essentialist is thinking …

  • I can work smarter, not harder.
  • I can do less, streamline this process and make it better for my patients and staff.
  • Why am I really doing this and at what cost?
  • It all comes down to a few things that really matter in the end.
  • What are the possible trade-offs?

Step 2:

The non-essentialist is in pursuit of doing more (not better) and says …

  • "Yes" to people without really thinking things through.
  • I can do more because I need or want more.
  • I'm going to "react" to what is most pressing and urgent, and what happens, happens.

The mindful essentialist is in pursuit of less (but at higher quality) and says …

  • I can remove these obstacles and make things easier for everyone involved.
  • "No" to anything that is not essential.
  • I will discern what matters most before I respond and move forward.
  • I will not react to this.

Step 3:

In both work and personal life, the non-essentialist is …

  • Not sure if the correct thing actually got done.
  • Taking on so much that work and home life both suffer.
  • Feeling out of control when the pressure is on.

In work and personal life, the mindful essentialist is …

  • Full of purpose and knows what really matters.
  • Confident the right things have been accomplished in the best interest of colleagues and patients.
  • Someone who chooses carefully.
  • Satisfied and full of joy.

Have We Lost the Ability to Filter What's Important and What Isn't?

Thanks in large part to the Internet, almost all of us have observed the exponential increase in choices over the last decade. As a result, many of us have lost sight of the most important ones. This is why a return to mindfulness and essentialism is critical, especially in healthcare.

For the first time, the preponderance of choice has overwhelmed our ability to manage it. Psychologists call this "decision fatigue." The more choices we are forced to make under extreme life pressures, the more the quality of our ultimate decisions deteriorates.

Simply put, we can't have it all. Or can we?

"Courage is grace under pressure."

— Ernest Hemingway

Check back to read Part 2 of this article on mindful essentialism by Anne Bruce next month.

Anne Bruce has provided training and performance coaching for Vituity. She also serves as MBSI's Employee Development Coach and Leadership Facilitator. Anne is a bestselling author with more than 20 books published by McGraw-Hill Publishing, New York. She considers her award-winning life-coaching book, Discover True North: A 4-Week Approach to Ignite Passion and Activate Potential (McGraw-Hill Publishing) to be one of her most "mindful" books to date. She also leads a popular Discover True North Expedition group on LinkedIn. Anne can be reached at 214-507-8242 or by writing to her at

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