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  • Writer's pictureDavid Nagai


Updated: Feb 20, 2022

Ayaka was a young office worker at a big company in Tokyo. Her family and friends were happy for her when she started at the company since it seemed like a stable and reputable (respectable, highly regarded) career.

But after 15 years of overwork and trying her best, she realized that she wasn’t happy. Not only was she unhappy with her work, she felt bogged down (stuck, overwhelmed, pressured) and suffocated by the responsibility of taking care of her aging parents every weekend. She felt like she had no life of her own.

One Friday night, after working overtime yet again, Ayaka sat at home sipping a glass of red wine. Instead of watching a film or TV show, she just sat in silence. Taking a few deep breaths, she swirled her Cabernet Sauvignon and breathed in the bold aroma.

Slouching (sitting with relaxed posture) back on her couch with her feet up, she clenched (tightened) her left arm across her waist, cradling (holding, supporting) her right elbow with her hand, and held up her glass.

“What am I doing with my life?” she said aloud, staring at the warped (distorted, curved) reflection of herself, mixed into the wine.

As if hypnotized (captivated, enchanted) by the glass, she remained silent for several minutes, imagining a different life. It was a life where she had time, space, and energy to focus on what she wanted to do. Each day would only consist of work that was important and that could be finished with extra time to spare. Her lunch breaks wouldn’t be rushed, and her weekends would feel like holidays. Every day would be purposeful, and the evenings would be restful.

Shaking her head, Ayaka smiled to herself, wondering if this silly dream was even feasible (realistic, possible). But the more she thought about it, the more she knew deep in her bones that this would be the only way she could live.

“Nobody,” she thought, “can make this choice except for me.”

On Monday morning, Ayaka arrived at work right on time. Instead of diving straight into her emails, she took a few minutes to make a nice cup of coffee, and then put in her earphones and started listening to Mozart – her favorite focus music.

For ten minutes, she slowly thought about the most important and meaningful things she could do that day, made a list, and even a simple schedule. Realizing the list was too full to be actionable in one day, she crossed out the least important things.

“Aha!” she thought. “That looks about right.”

Ten minutes into her first task, a coworker named Masaki came to greet Ayaka. He asked if she could help him with his project, which is something he frequently did.

But Ayaka knew this would happen, and she also knew that it was one of the things that drained her time and energy the most. Not only that, but it prevented her from finishing her own responsibilities efficiently.

When she politely said she was unable to help Masaki, he seemed frustrated. Apparently, he was used to Ayaka always sacrificing her time for him. His aura (mood, feeling) was full of animosity (dislike, bitterness, hate) for the rest of the day.

“If that’s how he reacts when he doesn’t get his way,” Ayaka contemplated, “then I don’t know why I’d want to work hard to preserve the relationship anyway.”

By 5 p.m., Ayaka had said “no” to four requests, had a full one-hour lunch break outside, and checked off everything on her to-do list. Just as she was leaving the office, her boss walked over to her and said he had something he needed her to do.

She replied by saying, “I’m sorry but I have an urgent appointment, but I can attend to it tomorrow morning if you don’t mind.”

“Well then I’ll have to ask someone who isn’t rushing from work so early,” her boss replied.

“Thanks for your considerate understanding,” Ayaka responded.

And what was her urgent appointment? It was to cook a healthy meal at home and live the life she wanted, of course!

After her slow cooking and relaxing dinner, Ayaka called her brother up. She asked him to visit their parents every other weekend instead of her doing it every single weekend. Even though he was a single office worker just like Ayaka, he made excuses that he had no time, despite the fact that he lived much closer to their parents. In fact, by the end of the conversation, her brother criticized her for being inconsiderate and irresponsible. It was not a fun conversation.

As Ayaka soaked in the bathtub that night, she felt a mix of fear and freedom. She wasn’t sure how Masaki, her boss, or her brother might reject her or damage her reputation. All she could do was what she had committed to: fulfill her duties well, but also live her life freely and with dignity. Only time would tell her fate.

We’ll return shortly to see how Ayaka’s story ends.

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Doing Less, Greg McKeown argues that in today’s age, we must fight against the clutter (mess, chaos) and figure out what things in our life and work are the most essential. If we don’t cut out the non-essential, he claims, we will drown in the sea of busyness without living up to our potential. He shares many ideas, but a few of them stand out and connect with Ayaka’s story.

First, we always have a choice.

Actually, we often feel overwhelmed by too many choices so we become stuck doing everything. At the same time, we often tell ourselves that we don’t have any choice about certain things that we assume are already decided.

For example, we might assume we can never change our job, enter a new field, remain single and be happy, or move to a new location. McKeown challenges these assumptions and reminds us that there is always a choice, and only you can make it for yourself.

Second, we must discern the trivial (unimportant, insignificant) many from the vital (essential, crucial) few.

According to the Pareto principle, 20% of our effort creates 80% of the results. In the same way, we often spend 80% of our effort on low-impact tasks that only generate 20% of the results. So, ask yourself: What few things really matter? And what things are a waste?

Third, we sometimes have to say “no.”

This is a tricky one because most cultures and workplaces have certain expectations, depending on your relationship or position. That being said, saying “yes” often comes from a place of fear and not wanting to disappoint people, even though we often exaggerate their reaction or the potential consequence. If something doesn’t contribute to your main goals and obligations, consider politely saying “Sorry, I’m unable to help.”

Finally, we need to make time to reflect.

Part of our problem is that we are so busy doing non-essential things that we don’t even have time or space to sit in stillness in order to discern what is essential. Perhaps this is the most important place to start. Only if we slow down and consider our values, goals, and options, can we make a clear plan that allows us to focus on what is essential.

So, what happened to Ayaka in the end?

Well, it was a rocky (unstable, difficult) couple of months for her as she lived according to her new essentialist standards. But within a few months, her brother had complied (agreed) with her request to visit their parents every other weekend. This allowed her to rekindle (re-energize, rebuild) her social life and rest on the weekends.

And her work situation? Masaki eventually stopped expecting favors and didn’t talk to Ayaka unless it was crucial. He was never friendly to her anymore, but Ayaka didn’t care because she had decided he was not an essential person in her life.

Her boss was annoyed at first, but soon noticed Ayaka’s high-quality work and ability to prioritize important tasks efficiently. Eventually, he decided to promote her to manager so she could make a bigger impact.

Living the essentialist life is never easy, especially in the beginning. In fact, it requires hard work and difficult decisions every single day. Not knowing the outcome is scary. This is why most people shy away (avoid) from the essentialist life. It’s usually more comfortable to stay busy and keep everyone happy. It’s certainly safer.

Just like Ayaka, we always have a choice to choose what is essential for us to flourish in our lives and work. If we can carve out the time and space to really reflect, then we can make our plan for where to say “no,” and where to say “yes.”

For some of us, it’s better to remain in our current situation. But for others of us, we know we need to make a risky change. And oftentimes, we just need to shift a few essential things.

If you know a change is required, nobody will do it for you.

In fact, if you don’t choose to take action, other people will.

At the end of the day, it’s all up to you.


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