Title: Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Author: Greg McKeown
Where to purchase: Amazon | Audible
What does it mean to be an Essentialist?
The core idea of essentialism can be summed up in the phrase, “The relentless pursuit of less but better.”
It is the idea that we need to be intentional about focusing on identifying, and engaging in, activities that are essential, while saying no to everything else. By focusing on the essential we can “generate tremendous momentum towards accomplishing the things that are truly vital,” rather than making “a millimeter of progress in a million directions”
So how do you focus on becoming an essentialist?
The author suggests pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” When you ask yourself that question, if the answer is anything but a resounding “yes” you rethink what you are currently doing.
You also need to be aware of the reasons that you tend to be drawn to nonessential activities. According to the book there are three main reasons:
- Too many choices. Due to the amount of choices we are presented with, we can suffer from decision fatigue.
- Too much social pressure. We let too many people’s opinions play a role in what we do or don’t invest our time in.
- The idea that “You can have it all”. The word priority originally referred to a singular thing. However, our society has made us believe that we can have as many “priorities” as we want. This is not true, and can stop us from making progress on our true priority.
According to the book there are 3 main phases to becoming an essentialist:
- Explore and Evaluate. This is where you pause and ask yourself the questions that allow you to identify the essential and the non-essential things in your life. For example, rather than asking “Is there a chance I will wear this some day in the future” begin asking yourself questions like “Do I love this?” and “Do I look great in this?”
- Eliminate. Once you have identified the non-essential, it is time to get rid of it. Don’t let sunk cost bias convince you not to eliminate it just because you already have it. For example, ask yourself “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?”
- Execute. The key to living as an essentialist is to have a system that supports the execution. Try to think about what works best for you. Maybe it’s reminders in your phone, or an accountability partner. It can be anything, but just make sure that you choose a system that works for you.
The 3 Assumptions We Must Conquer
The first “Part” of the book breaks down three assumptions that we have to conquer to become an essentialist. Each of the three is something that I know I have struggles with many time, and I am sure you have too.
I have to.
This assumption makes us believe that we don’t have the power to choose. In the book he makes the statement, “By refusing to choose “not law school,” I had chosen law school—not because I actually or actively wanted to be there, but by default.”
How many times have you been in a similar situation, where you do something just because you believe you have to?
So why do we give into these type of things, rather than making the choice not to?
According to the book, “There is evidence that humans learn helplessness in much the same way. One example I heard is that of a child who struggles early on with mathematics. He tries and tries but never gets any better, so eventually he gives up. He believes nothing he does will matter.”
Don’t let learned helplessness rob you of your ability to choose. Shift from the non-essentialist mindset of “I have to” to the essentialist mindset of “I choose to”.
It’s all important.
We tend to believe that everything we are presented with is important. Sometimes even to the point that we treat it like it is an emergency, and drop what we are currently working on – potentially something that is essential – to deal with the new, most likely non-essential, thing that has popped up.
In the book he highlights the 80/20 rule, or the Pareto Principle, and how it applies to the essentialist life. Its pretty simple, the 20% of things that lead to 80% of our results are the essential things. The other 80% are the non-essentials.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking everything is important. Find the 20% of life that is essential and focus your time there. Remember, the idea is “less but better.”
I can do both.
No you can’t. It seems so simple, but is such a hard thing to grasp. How many times have you said yes to two things that conflict with each other and have still convinced yourself that you could make it work?
If you are human, the number is probably too high to count.
In the book, the author highlights the idea that we have to ask ourselves “Which problem do I want?” In reality we can’t do it all, saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” to another – maybe even several others. You have to decide which problem you want to have.
So how do you decide which problem you want to have?
You have to operate with a clear view of what you want in the future. In the book he talks about how Johnson & Johnson had a credo that dictated what decision they should make in a tough situation. It outlined what was important to them as a company.
Do you have a credo for your life? Do you know what you stand for, and what you want people to think about you? Having a clear view of what is important to you in life will help you to make the trade-off a lot easier.
It may still be painful but, “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.”
My Favorite Quotes
- The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials. – Lin Yutang
- Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?
- Just because I was invited didn’t seem a good enough reason to attend.
- The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better.
- It is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?”
- There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital.
- Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.
- If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
- If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?
- We often think of choice as a thing. But a choice is not a thing. Our options may be things, but a choice—a choice is an action.
- When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless.
- “Most of what exists in the universe—our actions, and all other forces, resources, and ideas —has little value and yields little result; on the other hand, a few things work fantastically well and have tremendous impact.” -Richard Koch
- The overwhelming reality is: we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.
- “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” – John Maxwell
- We can try to avoid the reality of trade-offs, but we can’t escape them
- 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.
- “Imagine a four-burner stove,” she instructs the members of the party. “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work. In order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.” – David Sedaris
- If it doesn’t get scheduled, it doesn’t get done. Schedule a time to read on your calendar. It can be whatever works best for you. If you can do 10 minutes per day, schedule that. If you can do 2 hours once per week, schedule that. Make sure that you choose a time and duration that is realistic for you.
- Ask yourself “Am I investing in the right activities?” Set a reminder on your phone to ask yourself this question a few times per day. It can be any number you want, but I recommend 3. This won’t take much of your time each day, but will help you identify how often you are focusing on nonessential items without even realizing it.
Coming up next…
Next week we will be covering Part 2: Explore. In my Kindle edition it is pages 59-113.
See you next week! Continue to Week 2
Great summary Jeff – a lot of very challenging and useful concepts. It’s funny how sometimes, at first, it’s hard to simply do less.
One additional “Action Item” I’ve found to be very helpful is to actually write a list of priorities. The book talks about exploring and evaluating a broad set of options before committing to any. Since I’ll only be committing to a few vital ideas or activities, I want to be sure I’ve considered many “good” paths and then chose the best one. So even though this takes a little more effort in the beginning, I’ve found that once you commit to your choices, it really does increase efficiency down the road. Only focusing on a few things, along with the comfort of knowing those are the most important things, goes a long way in reducing stress.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the book!
Thats a great additional action item! I have done the same thing in the past and I agree it is really helpful to know you have considered the options at hand before you begin to take action.
Good stuff my friend, thanks!