Essentialism: The Disciplined Approach to Less by Greg McKeown
May 25, 2017
Have you ever found yourself stretched too thin?
Do you simultaneously feel overworked and underutilized?
Are you often busy but not productive?
Do you feel like your time is constantly being hijacked by other people’s agendas?
If you answered yes to any of these, the way out is the Way of the Essentialist.
The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done. It is not a time management strategy, or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.
By forcing us to apply a more selective criteria for what is Essential, the disciplined pursuit of less empowers us to reclaim control of our own choices about where to spend our precious time and energy – instead of giving others the implicit permission to choose for us.
Essentialism is not one more thing – it’s a whole new way of doing everything. A must-read for any leader, manager, or individual who wants to learn how to do less, but better, in every area of their lives, Essentialism is a movement whose time has come.
Focus on what matters.
Part 1: Essence - What is the Core Mindset of an Essentialist?
The basic value proposition of Essentialism: only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.
Before immediately saying “yes” to work being put on your plate, pause and evaluate the request against a tougher criteria: “Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?”
Focusing on what is essential changes your output from making just a millimeter of progress in a million directions to generating tremendous momentum towards accomplishing the things that are truly vital.
The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better.
Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.
If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.
Essentialism is a discipline you apply each and every time you are faced with a decision about whether to say yes or whether to politely decline. It’s a method for making the tough trade-off between lots of good things and a few really great things. It’s about learning how to do less but better so you can achieve the highest possible return on every precious moment of your life.
The three realities without which Essentialist thinking would be neither relevant nor possible.
1. Individual choice: We can choose how to spend our energy and time. Without choice, there is no point in talking about trade-offs.
2. The prevalence of noise: Almost everything is noise, and very few things are exceptionally valuable. This is the justification for taking time to figure out what is most important. Because some things are so much more important, the effort in finding those things is worth it.
3. The reality of trade-offs: We can’t have it all or do it all. If we could, there would be no reason to evaluate or eliminate options. Once we accept the reality of trade-offs we stop asking, “How can I make it all work?” and start asking the more honest question “Which problem do I want to solve?”
Part 2: Explore - How Do We Discern The Trivial Many from the Vital Few?
As poet Mary Oliver wrote: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
“If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?”
Ask three questions to determine purpose and focus: “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” and “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?”. Only a few things will fall into the intersection of these three questions. At the end of your life, you may still have regrets. But seeking the way of the Essentialist is unlikely to be one of them. What would you trade then to be back here now for one chance—this chance—to be true to yourself? On that day, what will you hope you decided to do on this one?
There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist: “I have to,” “It’s all important,” and “I can do both.” Like mythological sirens, these assumptions are as dangerous as they are seductive. They draw us in and drown us in shallow waters. To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.” These simple truths awaken us from our nonessential stupor. They free us to pursue what really matters. They enable us to live at our highest level of contribution.
A choice is not a thing. Our options may be things, but a choice—a choice is an action. It is not just something we have but something we do. This experience brought me to the liberating realization that while we may not always have control over our options, we always have control over how we choose among them. The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away—it can only be forgotten.
Is there a point at which doing more does not produce more? Is there a point at which doing less (but thinking more) will actually produce better outcomes? In The Tao of Warren Buffett, Mary Buffett and David Clark explain: “Warren decided early in his career it would be impossible for him to make hundreds of right investment decisions, so he decided that he would invest only in the businesses that he was absolutely sure of, and then bet heavily on them. He owes 90% of his wealth to just ten investments. Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.” In short, he makes big bets on the essential few investment opportunities and says no to the many merely good ones.
As Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer for Microsoft, has said, “The top software developers are more productive than average software developers not by a factor of 10X or 100X or even 1,000X but by 10,000X.” It may be an exaggeration, but it still makes the point that certain efforts produce exponentially better results than others. The moral of the story: ignoring the reality of trade-offs is a terrible strategy for organizations. It turns out to be a terrible strategy for people as well.
As painful as they can sometimes be, trade-offs represent a significant opportunity. By forcing us to weigh both options and strategically select the best one for us, we significantly increase our chance of achieving the outcome we want.
Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?” The cumulative impact of this small change in thinking can be profound.
“Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” —Pablo Picasso
But by abolishing any chance of being bored we have also lost the time we used to have to think and process.
Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement. And it’s the one thing that I believe we are systematically jeopardizing in the way we educate our children and ourselves.
Play expands our minds in ways that allow us to explore: to germinate new ideas or see old ideas in a new light. It makes us more inquisitive, more attuned to novelty, more engaged. Play is an antidote to stress, and this is key because stress, in addition to being an enemy of productivity, can actually shut down the creative, inquisitive, exploratory parts of our brain.
improv forces people to stretch their minds and think more flexibly, unconventionally, and creatively.
Part 3: Eliminate - How Can We Cut Out The Trivial Many?
In determining options, be incredibly selective on what you say yes to. “It’s Either HELL YEAH! Or No.”
Uncommit. Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes to quickly and not saying no soon enough. Being vague is not the same as being graceful, and delaying the eventual “no” will only make it that much harder—and the recipient that much more resentful.
An Essentialist has the courage and confidence to admit his or her mistakes and uncommit, no matter the sunk costs. It’s natural not to want to let go of what we wasted on a bad choice, but when we don’t, we doom ourselves to keep wasting even more. An Essentialist:
Asks, “If I weren’t already invested in this project, how much would I invest in it now?”
Thinks, “What else could I do with this time or money if I pulled the plug now?”
Build you life bottom up, begin from scratch, asking which you would add today. You can do this with everything from the financial obligations you have to projects you are committed to, even relationships you are in. Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.
Pause before you speak. It might sound obvious, but pausing for just five seconds before offering your services can greatly reduce the possibility of making a commitment you’ll regret.
He thinks of the role of CEO as being the chief editor of the company. At another event at Stanford he explained further: “By editorial I mean there are a thousand things we could be doing. But there [are] only one or two that are important.”
Don’t rob people of their problems. I am not saying we should never help people. We should serve, and love, and make a difference in the lives of others, of course. But when people make their problem our problem, we aren’t helping them; we’re enabling them. Once we take their problem for them, all we’re doing is taking away their ability to solve it.
Boundaries are a source of liberation: when we don’t set clear boundaries in our lives we can end up imprisoned by the limits others have set for us. When we have clear boundaries, on the other hand, we are free to select from the whole area—or the whole range of options—that we have deliberately chosen to explore.
Part 4: Execute - How Can We Make Doing The Vital Few Things Almost Effortless?
Once you’ve figured out which activities and efforts to keep in your life, you have to have a system for executing them.
Use extreme preparation and build in buffers: Think of the most important project you are trying to get done at work or at home. Then ask the following five questions: (1) What risks do you face on this project? (2) What is the worst-case scenario? (3) What would the social effects of this be? (4) What would the financial impact of this be? and (5) How can you invest to reduce risks or strengthen financial or social resilience? Your answer to that fifth and crucial question will point you to buffers—perhaps adding another 20 percent to the project’s budget, or getting a PR person on board to handle any potential negative press, or calling a board meeting to manage shareholder expectations—that you can create to safeguard you against unknowable events.
You can only go as fast as the “slowest hiker”, which can be a system bottleneck, lack of financing or could even be another person. If the “slowest hiker” is another person, whether it’s a boss who won’t give the green light on a project, the finance department who won’t approve the budget, or a client who won’t sign on the dotted line. To reduce the friction with another person, apply the “catch more flies with honey” approach. Send him an e-mail, but instead of asking if he has done the work for you (which obviously he hasn’t), go and see him. Ask him, “What obstacles or bottlenecks are holding you back from achieving X, and how can I help remove these?” Instead of pestering him, offer sincerely to support him. You will get a warmer reply than you would by just e-mailing him another demand.
Research has shown that of all forms of human motivation the most effective one is progress. Why? Because a small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.
Instead of starting big and then flaring out with nothing to show for it other than time and energy wasted, to really get essential things done we need to start small and build momentum. Then we can use that momentum to work toward the next win,
“My experience has taught me this about how people and organizations improve: the best place to look is for small changes we could make in the things we do often. There is power in steadiness and repetition.”
“Early and small” means starting at the earliest possible moment with the minimal possible time investment. Often just ten minutes invested in a project or assignment two weeks before it is due can save you much frantic and stressed-out scrambling at the eleventh hour. Take a goal or deadline you have coming up and ask yourself, “What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?”
When we start small and reward progress, we end up achieving more than when we set big, lofty, and often impossible goals. And as a bonus, the act of positively reinforcing our successes allows us to reap more enjoyment and satisfaction out of the process.
The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position. Yes, in some instances an Essentialist still has to work hard, but with the right routine in place each effort yields exponentially greater results. Our ability to execute the essential improves with practice, just like any other ability. The right routines can actually enhance innovation and creativity by giving us the equivalent of an energy rebate. Instead of spending our limited supply of discipline on making the same decisions again and again, embedding our decisions into our routine allows us to channel that discipline toward some other essential activity.
If we want to change our routine, we don’t really need to change the behavior. Rather, we need to find the cue that is triggering the nonessential activity or behavior and find a way to associate that same cue with something that is essential.
Do the most difficult thing first each morning.
“Focus on what’s Important now. LIfe is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
To Larry, losing means something else. It means you lost focus. It means you didn’t concentrate on what was essential. It is all based on a simple but powerful idea: to operate at your highest level of contribution requires that you deliberately tune in to what is important in the here and now.
It is mind-bending to consider that in practical terms we only ever have now. We can’t control the future in a literal sense, just the now. Of course, we learn from the past and can imagine the future. Yet only in the here and now can we actually execute on the things that really matter.
When faced with so many tasks and obligations that you can’t figure out which to tackle first, stop. Take a deep breath. Get present in the moment and ask yourself what is most important this very second—not what’s most important tomorrow or even an hour from now. If you’re not sure, make a list of everything vying for your attention and cross off anything that is not important right now.
Get the future out of your head: I asked myself, “What might you want to do someday as a result of today?” This was not a list of firm commitments, just a way to get all of the ideas out of my head and on paper. This had two purposes. First, it ensured I wouldn’t forget about those ideas, which might prove useful later. Second, it alleviated that stressful and distracting feeling that I needed to act upon them right this second.
“Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.”
“Beware of the barrenness of a busy life.” —Socrates
The life of an Essentialist is a life lived without regret. If you have correctly identified what really matters, if you invest your time and energy in it, then it is difficult to regret the choices you make. You become proud of the life you have chosen to live.
Whatever decision or challenge or crossroads you face in your life, simply ask yourself, “What is essential?” Eliminate everything else.
Essentialism in Leadership:
“Clarity equals success.” This is just one of the many reasons that the principle of “less but better” is just as useful in building teams that can make a difference as it is in enabling individuals to live a life that really matters.
Debate until you have established a really clear (not pretty clear) essential intent. Without clarity of purpose, Nonessentialist leaders straddle their strategy: they try to pursue too many objectives and do too many things. As a result their teams get spread in a million directions and make little progress on any. They waste time on the nonessentials and neglect the things that really matter
Go for Extreme Empowerment. The Nonessentialist disempowers people by allowing ambiguity over who is doing what. Often this is justified in the name of wanting to be a flexible or agile team. But what is actually created is a counterfeit agility. People don’t know what they are really responsible for and how they will be judged on their performance.