Navigating ‘Essentialism’

In May 2019 I finally submitted the work for my second module of Year 1 of MA Illustration, Visual Language. The course had been so intensive that I had no time to blog, create self-directed work, or cook and clean without feeling stressed. But was this really because the course was too intense? Or was I just spread too thin and poorly organised? How can I make next semester better?

In the weeks since submitting my assignments and as the third term approaches, I’ve been thinking about these questions. How can I be better at doing the things I need to do to get where I want to be, without feeling so overstretched?

We all try so hard to succeed. Many of the conversations I have with close friends revolve around productivity and procrastination. We’re all striving to change, progress, attain, move forward and become better. It’s a very ‘millennial’ mindset – we feel the tools to build our dreams are at our fingertips, then blame ourselves when we fumble them. Despite all of this striving, none of us have really made it yet. I’m still not making a stable living as a graphic designer or illustrator, despite so much of my energy and mental resources being used to steer myself in that direction. Most people in their lives never come close to achieving their goals, no matter their drive and motivation. They remain in the cycle of perpetuating the habits which led them to where they are now.

I always have a lot of things that I feel I need to be doing to ‘make it’ – I need to blog, make YouTube videos, post to Instagram, make work, be more creative, do my MA work well, get a Distinction…. The list goes on. Time passes, I achieve less than I would like day to day, feel bad and the cycle repeats.

This made me wonder about how I can make things simpler.

I stumbled upon the idea of essentialism this week. Essentialism is a concept whereby you make time only for the most ‘essential’ things in your life, and everything else is peripheral. This means that you and you alone have agency to decide how you spend your time. You decide what the most important thing is, and do it first.

I think this concept can be useful, but is also hard to actualise for most people – the washing up or laundry is fairly essential. If I want to be an illustrator, so is drawing, editing those drawings and promoting them. But where is the line between ‘essential’ and ‘take it or leave it’? I suppose that we simply have to ‘feel’ where the line is. This grey area where we have to use our judgement makes the process more complicated. It requires us to take an honest look at how we manage our time. It might require conversations with family or partners about chore sharing. It’s hard, and requires effort.

I think for me, the best way to judge if a habit is being approached in the right way is whether or not I can continue doing it for more than a week or so. If we can’t maintain an action, for example dedicating one hour a day to our illustration, perhaps we’ve set the bar too high? Maybe we need to say ‘30 minutes’ or ‘15 minutes’ or simply say, ‘ every day I will commit to sit at my desk and make myself available to draw, even if it’s only for a minute’. In this way we continue to lower the bar until we feel able to engage with the habit regularly, then watch it grow once it’s established.

I think I could employ essentialism in work in several ways:

1.       Being more efficient at maintaining my living space day to day – put things back after I’ve used them and generally avoid the need for big tidy-ups on weekends. Little and often.

2.       Combine complementary activities. Perhaps, rather than feeling deprived if I don’t spend time listening to podcasts and watching YouTube videos, I could try to listen to podcasts or music as I draw – something I loved as a child but do less as an adult. Though unsuitable for the Ideas Generation stage of my workflow when I need to focus 100%, I think this might help me to concentrate when the ideas are decided and all that’s left is to draw or edit.

3.       Reduce ‘decision fatigue’ by making the good habits easier to do. For example, keep my pens and paper on my desk and keep my project folder in reach to make sure they’re the first things I notice when I sit down.

Ultimately I suppose it is important to remember that we are not superhuman. Productivity is a concept which might not be appropriate for our lives. Sometimes ideas can rise from doodling or zoning out. Rather than pushing ourselves to ‘achieve’ and ‘progress’, perhaps it’s just enough to say that, today, I choose to draw rather than surf the internet? If repeated steadily, that small decision will have a large impact on our ultimate progress towards our goals.