Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

17 mins read

About the Author

Greg McKeown born 1977 in London is a business writer, consultant, public speaker and researcher specializing in leadership, strategy design, collective intelligence and human systems. He is also New York Times Bestselling Author. An American citizen now Greg holds a B.A. in Communications (with an emphasis in journalism) from Brigham Young University and an MBA from Stanford University. Greg is an active Social Innovator and currently serves as a board member for Washington D.C. policy group, Resolve, and as a mentor with 2Seeds, a non-profit incubator for agricultural projects in Africa. He also serves as a Young Global Leader for The World Economic Forum. Greg is currently CEO of THIS Inc., a leadership and strategy design agency headquartered in Silicon Valley. He has taught at companies that include Apple, Google, Facebook, Salesforce.com, Symantec, Twitter, and VMware. He is a regular keynote speaker at non-profits groups including The Kauffman Fellows Program, St. Jude and the Minnesota Community Education Association.

Source: Goodreads

Book Review and Notes

This is an appropriate book for someone who struggles to keep up with day-to-day demands on their time. For those people who feel like they are sprinting to keep up. How do we combat being busy in life? How do will deal with abundance of options and information? Why do we have lack of clarity despite best technology and abundant information. Essentialism, as per the author is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless. It gives us a framework to develop our own purpose and stay focused on our goals. It is applicable to both work and personal life.

I am not an admirer of self-help books which are riddled with clever and catchy terminology and lack conceptual clarity. In the present times, where it is fashionable to look busy and overloaded with work, McKeown tells us to do the opposite – “Less but better”. “Fewer obligations but greater clarity.” It is the way of living that I have been converging towards in many areas of my life for some time now but without knowing what it is called.

Essentialism encapsulates the best practices of mindfulness and planning to achieve a desirable end state – that by investing in fewer things we have the satisfying experience of making significant progress in the things that matter the most.

The book is divided into four parts, namely Essence, Explore, Eliminate and Execute, which according to the author is an Essentialists road map.

  1. Essence –what it means to move from “non-essentialist” to essentialism
  2. Explore – here we assess and experiment with changing our patterns and habits to gain some essentialism in our work and lives
  3. Eliminate – the ongoing practice of eliminating any and all low-value distractions that take us away from being truly effective
  4. Execute – Daily practices and small wins

Essence – What is the core mindset of an Essentialist

The central tenet in Essentialism is “Choice”. We need to assess our current reality and make hard choices so that we are living by design, not by default. McKeown defines the paradox of success as “The more success you get, the more distracted and unsuccessful you are.” He drills down to three key issues – 1) too many choices 2) too much social pressure and 3) the idea that “you can have it all”. We want more, but we are poorly prepared to accept it when we get it, so we work harder, run faster, sleep less, and complain more. Our “pursuit of success can be the catalyst for our failure.”

Choice is a powerful action and to become an Essentialist requires a heightened awareness of our ability to choose. When we overlook our ability to choose, we become helpless. Slowly, we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices – or even a function of our own past choices.

McKeown recommends we should replace the three commonly entrenched assumptions: “I have to,” “It’s all important,” and “I can do both” with: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.

EXPLORE – How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?

Over time there has been a shift in our mindset – from the old age wisdom “do less to get more” with our unending “To-Do list mindset”. We often blindly assume crossing more tasks off our list moves us forward. In fact, the opposite is true. Time to reflect and think is “critical to distinguishing what is actually a trivial diversion from what is truly essential.

Greg suggest three ways of exploring Essentialism:

  1. Get more sleep – our mind, body, and spirit are the most essential assets we need to make superlative achievements. One of the most common ways people – especially ambitious and successful people damage these assets is through a lack of sleep. Essentialists see sleep as absolutely necessary for operating at high levels of contribution more of the time. Sleep will enhance your ability to explore, make connections, and do less but better throughout your waking hours.
  2. Be more ruthless saying no – Without the courage to say NO, the disciplined pursuit of less is just lip service. Being an Essentialist, the author says that people respect and admire those with the courage of conviction to say no. So, we need to learn to say no gracefully?
  3. Employ the 90% rule – Greg says that one can apply this rule to just about every decision or dilemma. As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90%, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it. The benefits of this ultra-selective approach to decision making in all areas of our lives should be clear: when our selection criteria are too broad, we will find ourselves committing to too many options.

Eliminate – how can we cut out the trivial many?

Consequent to sufficiently exploring the options, the question one should be asking is not: “What, of my list of competing priorities, should I say yes to?” Instead, the essential question should be: “What will I say NO to?” This is the question that will uncover your true priorities. The process of elimination also starts with getting clarity. “When there is a serious lack of clarity about what the team stands for and what their goals and roles are, people experience confusion, stress, and frustration.”

A favourite strategy for eliminating could be the “reverse pilot”, a term coined by Daniel Shapero, a director at LinkedIn. Essentially, it is that you remove something and see if it is missed like a newsletter, a regular Monday morning meeting, or report.

EXECUTE – How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?

After essence, explore, and eliminate, comes learning how to execute as an Essentialist on what is most important. Nonessentialists tend to force execution. Essentialists invest the time they have saved by eliminating the nonessentials into designing a system to make execution almost effortless.

Like Michael Phelps famous pre-race routine successful habits reduce the mental workload and, according to author of The Power of Habits, Charles Duhigg – “means you have all this mental activity you can devote to something else.

‘Essentialism’ sounds simple but trying to implement these concepts in life could be much harder in practice. An excellent and refreshing read, nevertheless. This book could be summed up with these two quotes:

“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”

“Remember that if you don’t prioritize your life someone else will.”

My Takeaways

  1. “The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.” -Lin Yutang
  2. “When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people—our bosses, our colleagues, our clients, and even our families—will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important.”
  3. “Studies have found that we tend to value things we already own more highly than they are worth and thus that we find them more difficult to get rid of. If you’re not quite there, ask the killer question: ‘If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?’”
  4. “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”- Lao-tzu
  5. “If you believe being overly busy and overextended is evidence of productivity, then you probably believe that creating space to explore, think, and reflect should be kept to a minimum. Yet these very activities are the antidote to the nonessential busyness that infects so many of us. Rather than trivial diversions, they are critical to distinguishing what is actually a trivial diversion from what is truly essential.”
  6. “Beware the barrenness of a busy life”- Socrates
  7. “When there is a serious lack of clarity about what the team stands for and what their goals and roles are, people experience confusion, stress, and frustration. When there is a high level of clarity, on the other hand, people thrive.”
  8. “Without courage, the disciplined pursuit of less is just lip service.”
  9. “Since ultimately, having fewer options actually makes a decision ‘easier on the eye and the brain,’ we must summon the discipline to get rid of options or activities that may be good, or even really good, but that get in the way.”
  10. “I realized that until I knew what was important right now, what was important right now was to figure out what was important right now!”
  11. “The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that, I mean our minds, our bodies, and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution.


Quotes from the Book

 Remember that if you don’t prioritize your life someone else will.

Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.

What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years.

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?

There should be no shame in admitting to a mistake; after all, we really are only admitting that we are now wiser than we once were.

Today, technology has lowered the barrier for others to share their opinion about what we should be focusing on. It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload.

Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.

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