• Sometimes, life gets overwhelming and it can be difficult to make decisions that feel right

  • Leo Babauta, author of The Power of Less, offers nine questions to help you live life based on your values

  • When circumstances outside of our control are making life too much, it can help to talk to a professional. Find your therapist here.

The list of questions below is a good way to determine which things are essential to you if you’re having difficulties, no matter what area of your life you’re examining. From your work projects and tasks, to e-mails, to finances, to goals, to your commitments in life, to the clutter in your home and on your desk, identifying the essentials is the first and most important step in simplifying things so that you can be more effective.

The key is to take a few moments (or hours, or days, if necessary) to stop what you’re doing and think about it in a broader perspective. Are you focusing on the essentials? What are the essentials? Can you eliminate the nonessentials? Take the time to ask yourself the questions below and you’ll do a much better job of honing in on what you really need to do, and really want to do—a better job of focusing on what’s important, and on getting the important things done. That’ll cut back on the time you spend doing things that aren’t important, that you don’t love doing, that don’t lead to the accomplishment of your goals.

In everything you do, use these questions to guide you to choose the essential, especially if you have problems deciding. Once you get the hang of it, you won’t need these questions anymore—they’ll become automatic.

1. What are your values? 

Values are simply knowing what things are most important to you. Think about the things that really matter to you, the qualities you want to have, the principles you want to live your life by. Once you’ve identified these values, everything you do and choose should follow from those.

2. What are your goals? 

What do you want to achieve in life? How about over the next year? How about this month? And today? If you know what you’re trying to achieve, you can determine if an action or item will help you achieve it.

3. What do you love? 

Think about what you love, who you love to spend time with, what you love doing.

4. What is important to you? 

Along the same lines, make a list of the most important things in your life, in your work, or in whatever area you’re thinking about.

5. What has the biggest impact? 

If you have a choice to make between a list of projects or tasks, think about which project or task will make the biggest difference in your life or career. What will have the biggest effect on everything else? For example, if you have a choice between making some calls, having a meeting, and writing a report, think about the impact each task will have: the calls are to clients who spend perhaps one hundred dollars each on your company, the meeting is with a client who will bring in ten thousand dollars in business if you can close the deal, and the report is something that might not even be read. The meeting, in this example, has the biggest impact, and is therefore the most essential.

6. What has the most long-term impact? 

There’s a difference between the size of an impact and its long-term value. For example, a meeting with a client might bring in ten thousand dollars next week, but a long-term marketing campaign might bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next year. The impact doesn’t have to be in terms of money—it could be anything that’s valuable to you.

7. Needs vs. wants

This is a good criteria to use when you’re trying to decide whether to spend on certain items: Which items do you actually need, and which ones are just things you want? If you can identify needs, you can eliminate most of the wants, which are nonessential.

8. Eliminate the nonessential

Sometimes it’s useful to work backward, if you’re having trouble figuring out the essentials. If you have a list of things to do, for example, start by crossing off the nonessential items. You know that washing your car, for example, isn’t as important as paying your bills or fixing that leak that is costing you hundreds of dollars on your water bill. Once you eliminate some of the nonessential stuff, you are left with the more essential things on the list.

9. Continual editing process

Most of the time you don’t pare things all the way down to the essentials on your first try. You eliminate some of the nonessentials and give the remaining things a try. Then you take another look at it in a week or two and eliminate more things. Continue that process until you are happy that you can’t eliminate anything else.

The Power of Less by Leo Babauta is published by Hay House 

The Power of Less by Leo Babauta

Further reading

Challenge your thoughts: are they helpful?

The psychology of home: why is it so hard to let go of clutter?

Why can't I stop overthinking?

Mental flexibility and resilience to change

Giving yourself permission to say no