5 Questions That Will Help You Focus On What Matters

Focus on What Matters

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” ~Mary Oliver

Let’s get things done.

If you’ve ever read any books or articles about productivity, you’ve heard this phrase. It’s one I used and made a part of my life for a long time. More recently, I’ve discovered there’s a better and more disciplined way to work and to live.

It’s called essentialism, and it means getting more of the right things done.

According to Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, an essentialist removes the trivial and focuses on what adds value.

They make smart decisions about how to spend their time, energy, and resources because they understand this is the best way of contributing more to the people in their lives, to their families, and to society.

I’ve discovered five important questions that are helping me make progress toward getting more of the right things done.

And I want to share them with you.

1. Is this activity adding value to my life?

Since I was a child, I played and loved video games. When I was in my mid-twenties, I even reviewed them for a popular entertainment website. The website didn’t pay me, but I didn’t care. I enjoyed gaming, and I was able to keep the games after I wrote my reviews.

After a year or two of this, I felt a shift in how I approached games. Instead of looking forward to playing the next AAA title or blockbuster release, I began to dread the tedious missions, the walkthroughs, and inevitable write-ups.

To my great shame, I wrote negative reviews of games I’d only played for an hour or two before selling them.

One morning, after staying up late gaming the night before, I woke up and realized I was wasting my time and energy on something I didn’t enjoy. I emailed my editor and told him I was done. Then, I sold my games and gave my console to my son.

I’m not making a case against gaming; instead, I share this story as an example of how we value our time differently as we grow older.

2. How am I going to fill my glass?

Consider your entire day a glass:

You can fill this glass with important activities, or big rocks, such as spending time with family or working on projects you’re passionate about. Then, you can fill the glass with non-essential activities like answering email or watching television—these are likes grains of sand, and they will settle around the big rocks in your day.

However, if you fill your glass non-essential activities first, there will be no room left for the big rocks in your day.

Every night, before I go to bed, I ask myself what I want to fill my glass with?

My answer is almost always the same: to write.

Unless I act, these grains of sand will fill my day and leave no room for writing. However, if I make a conscious decision to write, these grains of sand settle around the big rocks in my day.

I’m not going to lie and say I fit writing into every day, but when I do I feel lighter. And if I write first thing—even if it’s just a journal entry—I don’t have the inevitable moment when I sit on the couch after an exhausting and demanding day and think, “Oh no, I still have to write.”

If you’re not a writer, you still have big rocks in your life. They could be spending time with a loved one, meditating, or exercising. Your grains of sand could be commitments you’ve made to others that aren’t adding value to your life or passive activities like watching the news or reading social media feeds.

Decide on your big rocks before you got to bed, and you will wake up and fill your day with what matters.

3. What clutter can I eliminate?

Two years ago, I lost a dream job. I was unemployed for six months, and spent a lot of this free time figuring out what matters most to me and reading about minimalism.

It felt like something I could get into, and when you’re unemployed, you need something to get into.

Minimalism is another name for essentialism, and the quickest way to get started is to eliminate material goods you don’t use, need, love, or depend on.

I sold my laptop because I prefer writing using my desktop computer. I donated every book to charity that I promised myself I’d read but had no intention of doing so.

I got rid of every item of clothing that I hadn’t worn during the past twelve months. And, I deleted almost all of the unwatched films and TV shows on my hard-drive and cancelled subscriptions to various online services.

Did I do this because I had free time on my hands?


Later on, when I found a job, I thought of buying a new laptop and replacing the clothes I’d given away. But I found I didn’t miss any of these things.

Eliminating clutter gave me more space, more time, and more room for the big rocks in my life.

If you want to eliminate some of the clutter in your life, McKeown offers this advice:

“If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?”

4. How do I protect myself?

To be an essentialist is to protect your physical, mental, and spiritual health. Each of these three areas represents one side of a triangle, and if one is under stress, the other two will suffer.

Here’s how I protect myself:

To look after my mental health, I expose myself to new ideas through challenging books and record ten ideas every day based on these books. This practice keeps my brain active.

To look after my physical health, I run up to twenty miles a week. This practice helps me work through stressful problems, and it gives me more energy for other areas of my life.

To look after my spiritual health, I try to meditate for an hour a week, and I write regular journal entries about what I’m struggling with and things I feel grateful for.

I find this practice exceptionally difficult, but taking a step back from the trenches of the working week helps me quiet my monkey mind. It helps me sleep better at night. And then I can return to whatever I’m doing with a renewed vigor.

5. How often do I disconnect?

Several years ago, I went on vacation to a campsite in Italy. There was no immediately available Internet access at the campsite, and I wasn’t able to check my phone and my feeds or read the news whenever I wanted.

On the first day of this trip, I felt disconnected and behind. My hands kept reaching for the email app on my phone even though I knew I didn’t have access to the Internet.

After a day or two this habit died, and I began to enjoy these disconnected few days away from home. I took one lesson home from this holiday.

Being constantly connected kills my opportunity to escape, to enjoy a vacation, to spend time with the people I’m with and even to focus on my work.

It’s been a while since I’ve gone a week without email, but I’ve removed the email app from my phone and only check it at predefined periods during the day. I’ve also disabled as many notifications as possible on the devices that I use. And I regularly work without being connected to the Internet.

If you take regular time out to take care of yourself, you will be better able to focus on what matters

Live Your Wild and Precious Life

An essentialist avoids spending their time on tasks they can say no to, on people they should say no to, and on compromises that aren’t worth making.

They are committed working on what inspires them, on what they’re talented at, and pursuing their contributions to the world.

I’m still working on becoming an essentialist and eliminating the trivial from my life. It’s a difficult practice and one I fall way from often, but the five questions I’ve shared with you help.

I know now that anyone can choose to live their wild and precious life the way they want.

We just have to decide what matters.

About Bryan Collins

Bryan Collins is a writing coach on a mission to teach you how to write. The author of a Handbook for the Productive Writer, Bryan wants to give you exclusive free samples from his book (plus time-saving social media goodies) on Become a Writer Today.

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  • Hi Bryan
    I loved this post so much. I am a big fan of asking ourselves seems so simple but it is a very powerful way to bring our focus to the answers we seek about how to make our life better and it can put us on a whole different track. It is so easy to get sucked into every day life, we totally lose awareness of what is really happening.

    Having spent the last four years traveling with my husband, I have really come to embrace a minimalist lifestyle. We don’t have a home or apartment of our own, and being on the road with only a suitcase each buying lots of stuff really isn’t an option anyway. Once in awhile Ill chuck some older clothes and buy some new ones, but other than that, I am not buying much at all. It is a nice feeling for sure.

  • Hi Keli,
    Glad you enjoyed the post. Minimalism is a great practice for focusing, but it’s amazing how often things creep back into our lives.

  • Hi Bryan!
    Love this post. You are spot on. Doing what you love and loving what you do. Just fills ones heart and soul.


  • That’s good to hear Susan.

  • Emily

    I often find, too, that other people, the “non-essentialists,” chafe at this notion. They don’t understand the concept of saying “no,” of eliminating physical and mental clutter, of unplugging and just trying to be. It is up to you to set your own rules and boundaries and live by them. Your friends and family will respect you all the more (and those who don’t, those who mock or question you, are just part of the clutter anyway). -Emily

  • OddCherry

    This was so timely for me! I spent most of the night awake feeling a sense of urgency, realizing how many precious moments I have missed with my daughter because of time I have wasted. Her youth is so fleeting, she is growing up in the blanks, the blanks I have self imposed by wasting time on rubbish.
    Thank you for this. Confirmation in every way

  • Micheline

    Thank you for the article. I need some guidance. I’m a minimalist and try to live my life based on these principals. However, my partner is a collector. He has made comments about how easier life would be if he was a minimalist as well. Whenever he tries to eliminate the clutter in his life, he gets stuck. He sees the relevance and importance of all items. They all have a story that brings a cool factor to the stuff…. I try to be understanding, patient and only offer advice when he talks about it. Any tips for me? Thanks!

  • Hi Micheline,

    My wife is a collector if that helps! Joking aside, I’ve found it’s not fair to apply minimalism to other people. After minimalism is a personal choice. If he wants to eliminate clutter, perhaps he could start with simple things like clothes he hasn’t worn in over six months. Put these in a bag in the attic or a spare room for a few weeks. And then if he doesn’t miss them, give them away.

    You can move from clothes to other possessions quite easily.

  • I’ve two small children and I agree with all you said. “Things” won’t write a book, spend time with children or fill your life.

  • To say no is hard, really hard. Rules and boundaries make this easier but sometimes other people need to understand what these are so they don’t think you are being rude.

  • Christine

    Slowing down is probably the greatest gift we can give ourselves in this maddening, distracting 24/7 connected world. Thank you for the reminder. I’m an essentialist too then!

  • Micheline

    Agree…. I would never impose a way of life unless they were seeking. My challenge trying to help when he asks for help in the final step. When we actually attempt to take action, he seems to be paralyzed in actually taking the step to give away the items. We have bags of clothes in the attic, spare room, and even storage shed in back yard…. I acknowledge he efforts to put old items in a bag in the first place. It’s getting to the next step of actually donating or disposing of items.

  • Meditation is a great practice for this

  • Perhaps try giving away one small bag and see how that goes.

  • Micheline

    Will do. Thanks

  • Nicole W.

    Excellent questions! Thank you!

  • Your welcome

  • rt

    Great post Bryan and thank you for the reference. I’m going to use some of your hints for direction.

  • Drake Willmannson

    A few days ago I had this realization about what I’ve been doing with my life and at the end of the day I kept thinking about how inefficient I have been all day long. Doing stuff, that doesn’t matter, spending time on Internet that didn’t matter, playing video games just to kill time. I knew I had to bring serious changes to fill my glass with those big rocks. I always tried but never got efficient through the day. I remember when one day, the ISP had some problem and Internet was down for one whole day. I was pissed and irritated that day but this helped me in doing the stuff that matters. I started focusing more on spending time with family rather than surfing Internet, I started learning programming languages rather than playing video games, I discovered a series of areas I felt interested in as a career choice. And that made it all.
    Your post is definitely going to help a lot of people I hope. I’m gonna try the minimalism thing and see if it works for real. Thank you 🙂

  • I’ve spent a lot of time and had a lot of fun playing video games, but there’s always a trade-off. Minimalism is making room for what matters by reducing time spent on other less valuable activities. It’s good to hear your progress as a coder is going well. That’s a valuable skill to cultivate.

  • Great!

  • HI Bryan, I enjoyed this post. It is a great reminder for looking at how we spend our time. Since I’ve started devoting time to the ‘big rocks’ first thing, I’ve gotten much more done. And i feel more fulfilled. Sometimes by big rocks are practicing yoga and mediation, and sometimes writing, and sometimes spending time with my son. I’m going to read the Essentialism book. And I love tip #4. Thank you.

  • Joanna

    Excellent post, Brian. Thank you!

    I’ve been going through ‘is this adding value to my life’ exercise for the past few months. It’s great, but it’s hard too, because some of those commitments we make for the sake of other people and causes that are dear to our hearts at the time. While it may be easy to walk away from things/activities/commitments that don;t matter to us any more, it’s much harder if it means also walking away from people that are connected with the cause and still care.

  • Becky0237

    I’ve been practicing minimalism for over a year now, but this is the first time I’ve heard it expressed as “essentialism”. Makes a lot of sense. Great post.

  • Becky0237

    just want to offer my experience, maybe it will help. On one hand, I’ve been very vocal about my mental process with my husband and prayed for him and slowly he’s made changes and gotten rid of stuff…and asked himself the same questions all “minimalists” find themselves asking: do I really use this? Does this make me feel good or bad? Is my life just as good without this? BUT we also had a big, healthy fight, and that was important. I’m usually pretty chill, but I got so upset one day I started screaming that I wasn’t going to live my life surrounded by s### and I couldn’t handle it anymore. It wasn’t pretty, but he realized that what was not a big deal to him (just some stuff) was having a huge negative impact on my life. It’s easier to let something go if you understand its legitimately hurting someone you love.

  • Micheline

    Thanks Becky. That’s exactly where I can see this going… I’m really trying to keep our preferences separate. And hoping he would start to take action for himself. But I’m not sure how patient I can be. Since I moved into his house I’ve had no choice but to compromise and stretch. He on the other hand needs to work to stretch out of his comfort zone a little more and has the choice to do so or not… Good to know I’m not the only one and others have same struggle. Thanks

  • They’re slightly different, but they’ve a lot in common.

  • I took up yoga recently. I am amazed by how beneficial it is.

  • That’s difficult alright. I hope you find a solution. I use these questions when I get stuck.

  • What an inspiring read, Bryan! I especially like what you said about decluttering. Even when I don’t see immediate results, just diving in to a cluttered zone in my space reinvigorates my momentum. You’re so right that clearing out what you don’t want really does make room for what you do want. Thanks for the great reminders!

  • Hi Anne,

    Once I week I tidy up where I write, file my notes and clean away whatever is on my desk. It helps me set up the following week.

  • Tanya

    Love it! Very inspiring and well-written. Bravo.

  • Great read Bryan, v powerful. I often think about the glass metaphor, but recently it’s been all about the sand, and my big rocks seem to have no chance. Hopefully this will inspire me to get more of the big rocks in early each day this week.

    I love the decluttering too, but as I live ‘on the road’ I only own a couple of suitcases worth of stuff, and my desk is different every day, so that helps! (though I do have a storage unit in the UK I should probably declutter a bit more!)

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  • linda

    Thank u Bryan….Your article was very helpful…I have been working in the mental health field for 30 years and have decided to start my own business due to the management being more dysfunctional than the clients I work with. This gives me the courage to know I’m doing the right thing for me. To get rid of the clutter, say no to people, places and things that do not work anymore. Namaste, Linda Savidge

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