This week we are going to cover the final part of the book, Part 4: Execute, which is made up of chapters 15-20. If you haven’t read the post from week 3 yet, go read it before you continue on with week 4.
We will be focusing on the idea of execution this week. The reading is broken down into 6 chapters, each concentrated on one aspect of what it takes to execute as an essentialist. The breakdown this week is slightly longer than the previous weeks, but still should only take about 10-15 minutes to read.
To execute, first you must plan
I love that this chapter starts out with this quote by Abraham Lincoln, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” While it is not actually known whether Abraham Lincoln ever actually said that, it is a great quote non the less.
When presented with a big task or challenge, how many times have you taken a step back to “sharpen the axe” and prepare fully before you dive into the project?
If you are at all like me, the answer is probably not as often as I should have. When I take on a new task I am excited to jump in and get going. The idea of pausing to prepare seems like a waste of time. But in reality it may be the most important thing that we can do.
So how do we put ourselves in the position to be able to prepare?
First, we must create buffers in our lives.
What is a buffer? According to the book a buffer is “something that prevents two things from coming into contact and harming each other.” By creating buffers in our life, we can make sure that we have enough time to complete the projects that we take on, without them running into the next project or task that we have committed to. This extra time allows us to be able to prepare for the project or task before jumping in. It allows us to make sure we are set up to best handle the project without needing extra time.
So why do we find ourselves needing extra time to complete projects?
According to the book, “Projects and commitments tend to expand—despite our best efforts—to fill the amount of time allotted to them.” This is because we tend to shoot for the “best case scenario” when estimating how long a project will take. However, projects almost never fit into that “best case scenario”. We are constantly presented with unexpected things that can derail or delay a project.
If you don’t have a buffer you will have to find a way to fix the unexpected things, in the same amount of time your originally planned for the task, many times causing you to cut corners. By building in a buffer we give ourselves extra time to complete the project, without the results of the project suffering.
How big of a buffer do we need?
The author suggests that we begin to add 50 percent to our time estimates. At first when I read this I thought that 50 percent sounded like a lot, but if you put it to practice you will realize how often 50 percent extra actually is the amount of time that things can take.
The other thing the author suggests we do is to conduct scenario planning. In the book he suggests that we begin to ask the following 5 questions:
- What risks do you face on this project?
- What is the worst-case scenario?
- What would the social effects of this be?
- What would the financial impact of this be?
- How can you invest to reduce risks or strengthen financial or social resilience?
You will never be able to fully prepare for a project, or completely avoid unexpected things from popping up. However, creating buffers in your life, and asking yourself these questions will help you minimize them and achieve the best results possible.
Addition by subtraction
In this section of the book the author highlights a story from the book The Goal where plant manager Alex Rogo goes on a hike with his son and some friends and is presented with a challenge of getting all the boys to hike at the same pace. The problem identified in this story is that one of the boys is much slower than the others. His task on this hike is to figure out how to remove the problem of this slow hiker, to allow them to make faster progress on their hike.
The author highlights this story to point out that in our lives many times we are affected by a “slow hiker”.
What is your “slow hiker”?
By identifying, and removing, the “slow hiker” in our lives we can achieve much greater results.
According to the book, “An Essentialist produces more—brings forth more—by removing more instead of doing more.”
How is that different from the approach most of us take?
By default most times we are presented with a problem we tend to focus on what we can add to solve the problem. Let’s look at an example:
- Problem: I don’t make enough money.
- Normal Solution: I can work more hours to make more money.
How does an essentialist approach problems? According to the author, “Instead of focusing on the efforts and resources we need to add, the Essentialist focuses on the constraints or obstacles we need to remove.”
So the problem and solutions look more like this:
- Problem: I don’t make enough money.
- Solution: I can eliminate tasks that don’t lead to income and are taking up a lot of my time, so that I can focus more of my working hours on income producing tasks.
Are you ready to remove some obstacles? The book gives us a 3 step process for doing so:
- Be clear about our essential intent. If we don’t know what our desired outcome is, we can’t make decisions on what to eliminate and what to keep.
- Identify our “slowest hiker”. Before jumping into a project take a minute to ask the question, “What are all the obstacles standing between me and getting this done?” Create a list and then prioritize it by asking, “What is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?”
- Remove the obstacle. Once you have identified the most important obstacles to remove, it is time to actually remove them.
Focus on the small wins
How many times in the past have you set out on a project or goal only to realize months later that you haven’t achieved the success you were hoping for?
This section of the book provides the solution for this problem.
By default most of us tend to focus on the outcome of the project, rather than the progress we are making along the way. However, just like most of the other ideas presented so far, the idea of focusing on the progress we make – the small wins – rather then the outcome, is how an essentialist achieves success.
Essentialists focus on the small wins. As Doug Firebaugh says, “Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow.”
How does this help us to reach our destination?
According to the book, “A small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.” It gives us the confidence we need to take the next step, and then the next, and so on until we reach our goal or destination.
This is regarded as “minimal viable progress” in the book. It is the idea that achieving just the smallest amount of progress necessary to move us closer to our goal. You can identify what this is by asking yourself, “What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?”
Once you have identified the very next small thing you can do to move you towards your goal, you need to do that thing. In the book the author states that we can either start “early and small or start late and big.” The power of small wins comes from starting early and small, and then celebrating each of those small steps in the process.
It’s all about the routine
Chapter 18 of the book focused on routines, and the power they have over our lives. According to the author, “Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position” and “Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles.”
Have you ever taken a few minutes to think about the routines that you have in your life?
I would be willing to bet you have a lot of routines that you may have never even set out to create. Here are just a few nonessential routines I have spotted in my life over the past few years:
- Checking email and social media immediately upon waking up.
- Surfing social media, or mindlessly looking through apps on my phone when in a situation where I am around a bunch of people I don’t know, as a way to avoid having to talk to strangers.
- Checking social media nearly every time I unlock my phone.
Note: I found it interesting that most of my nonessential routines revolved around social media. I would bet that many of you may also notice the same thing. While I do believe social media is very powerful and provides lots of potential benefits, especially if used for business purposes, it also has extreme power to distract us from what is essential in life.
When I first started to notice a lot of these routines I began to think of “routine” as a bad thing. But when you really examine the power of it you begin to realize it can be one of the best things you can implement in your life.
The key is to change the routines in your life from nonessential routines to essential ones. According to the book, “As we repeatedly do a certain task the neurons, or nerve cells, make new connections through communication gateways called ‘synapses.’ With repetition, the connections strengthen and it becomes easier for the brain to activate them.”
So the more you do a good routine, the easier it will become and the more power it will have in your life.
As mentioned in the book, as research study at Duke University showed that approximately 40 percent of the choice we make are unconscious, or run by routines/habits. While this can be good for some things, it can cause us to engage in lots of nonessential activities. The author says, “Without being fully aware, we can get caught in nonessential habits—like checking our e-mail the second we get out of bed every morning, or picking up a doughnut on the way home from work each day, or spending our lunch hour trolling the Internet instead of using the time to think, reflect, recharge, or connect with friends and colleagues.”
So how do we create essential routines?
According to the book, “Every habit is made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward.” While it is common to focus on the routine and the reward, it is the cue that we need to focus on to be able to change our nonessential habits. Once you notice the cue, you can change what you associate it with.
One example the author gives, “If your alarm clock going off in the morning triggers you to check your e-mail, use it as a cue to get up and read instead.” At first it will be hard, but each time you engage in the new activity it will get easier, until it eventually becomes second nature.
Some other suggestions the author gives for getting the most out of your routines:
- Create new triggers. We don’t have to just change the cues we already have, we can create entirely new cues to help us develop new habits.
- Do the most difficult thing first. I first learned this when I read the book Eat that Frog a few years back. The premise behind this idea, and that book, is that by waiting to do your most important task – or most impactful but least fun task – first thing in the morning you will be able to be more productive the rest of the day.
- Mix up your routines. Think about potentially making each day of the week have a theme. You can create specific routines for each day that allow you to get the maximum result without having to do them every day.
- Tackle your routines one by one. Don’t try to create a bunch of new routines at once. Pick one new routine you want to develop, and once it has become easy move on to implementing another.
Focus on the right things
For the approximate 60% of tasks that cannot be controlled through subconscious habit, we have to change what we focus on. Chapter 19 of the book is all about focus, and how essentialists apply focus in their lives.
Some of the characteristics of focus in the life of an essentialist are:
- Being focused on the present.
- Enjoying of the moment.
- Determining what is most important “right now” and only focusing on that.
One of things the book talks about that has become a hot topic amongst productivity experts lately is the idea of multitasking. I like the view this author has of the topic. He says, “Multitasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can ‘multifocus’ is.”
As he points out, we are more than able to do two things at once. After-all, when was the last time you found yourself unable to walk due to being on the phone? He points out that while we are able to do two things at once, “what we can’t do is concentrate on two things at the same time.”
So the key is not to try and only do one thing at a time, but to only focus on one thing at a time. Which means that we must determine what is the most important thing we can focus on.
How do we do that?
According to the book there are 3 ways to do so:
- Be in the now. The author says you should “ask yourself what is most important this very second—not what’s most important tomorrow or even an hour from now.”
- Get the future out of your head. It is normal to always be thinking about the future, or examining the past, but an essentialist doesn’t focus on either of these.
- Prioritize. Each time you are presented with something new that you could focus on, take a deep breath and pause. Take the time to figure out if this new thing is the most important. If the answer is yes, proceed with it. If not, move past it.
Its time to be an essentialist
Now that you have made it through this book and learned all the principles of essentialism, all that is left to do is to become an essentialist.
Over the course of the last 4 weeks I have highlighted a number of actionable tactics you can take from this book to apply to your life. While these are all great, and important to implement, they are not what makes you an essentialist. The author states that, “There are two ways of thinking about Essentialism. The first is to think of it as something you do occasionally. The second is to think of it as something you are.”
So how do you become an essentialist?
You must make it a way of thinking. Just like the proverb says, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Being an essentialist isn’t about achieving success, it is about living a life filled with purpose and meaning. It is about focusing only on that which is essential, rather than “majoring in the minor things” of life. According to the author, “Once the essence of Essentialism enters our hearts, the way of the Essentialist becomes who we are. We become a different, better version of ourselves.”
The book points out that living as an essentialist leads to these three traits in life:
- More Clarity. As the author says, “Life will become less about efficiently crossing off what was on your to-do list or rushing through everything on your schedule and more about changing what you put on there in the first place.”
- More Control. Living as an essentialist gives you the power to pause, and examine an opportunity before jumping in. It allows you to select the opportunities that are right for you, rather than accepting every opportunity out of fear of missing out.
- More Joy in the Journey. We tend to get caught up in the belief that we constantly have to add more and more to our lives to be happy. However, essentialists know that is the exact opposite of what we really need. They know that what we really need is simplicity, and the ability to spend our time focusing on what matters most. The book says, “If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness.”
My Favorite Quotes
- While 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.
- Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. – Attributed to Abraham Lincoln
- The only thing we can expect (with any great certainty) is the unexpected.
- From chemistry we know that gases expand to fill the space they are in; similarly, we’ve all experienced how projects and commitments tend to expand—despite our best efforts—to fill the amount of time allotted to them.
- The way of the Essentialist is different. The Essentialist looks ahead. She plans. She prepares for different contingencies. She expects the unexpected. She creates a buffer to prepare for the unforeseen, thus giving herself some wiggle room when things come up, as they inevitably do.
- Essentialists accept the reality that we can never fully anticipate or prepare for every scenario or eventuality; the future is simply too unpredictable. Instead, they build in buffers to reduce the friction caused by the unexpected.
- Essentialists don’t default to Band-Aid solutions. Instead of looking for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, they look for the ones slowing down progress.
- An Essentialist produces more—brings forth more—by removing more instead of doing more.
- Replace the idea “This has to be perfect or else” with “Done is better than perfect.”
- Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow. – Doug Firebaugh
- The Essentialist starts small and celebrates progress. Instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter, the Essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.
- There are two opposing ways to approach an important goal or deadline. You can start early and small or start late and big.
- The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position.
- Most creative individuals find out early what their best rhythms are for sleeping, eating, and working, and abide by them even when it is tempting to do otherwise.
- 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.
- Multitasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can “multifocus” is.
- There are two ways of thinking about Essentialism. The first is to think of it as something you do occasionally. The second is to think of it as something you are.
- But the way of the Essentialist isn’t just about success; it’s about living a life of meaning and purpose.
- Once the essence of Essentialism enters our hearts, the way of the Essentialist becomes who we are. We become a different, better version of ourselves.
- The life of an Essentialist is a life of meaning. It is a life that really matters.
- The life of an Essentialist is a life lived without regret.
This is the last action tactic for Essentialism:
- Get rid of your “slowest hiker.” Hopefully by now you have at least a pretty good grasp on your essential intent, and since you know what it is you can now begin to examine things against it. Take a few minutes to examine your most important task for the day and ask yourself, “what is my slowest hiker?” Many of us have something that is standing in the way of us achieving our most important task. Figure out what that is for your most important task of the day today, and then remove it.
Essentialism Wrap Up
I hope you have enjoyed this book as much as I have. I have read it multiple times, and each time I get something new out of it. If you haven’t implemented the action items over the last few weeks, I would encourage you to do so now. While most of them take only a few minutes to complete, they have a lot of potential power towards helping you become an essentialist. Here are links to each of the previous weeks:
If you have completed the action points and read the book, and still don’t feel like you are an essentialist, don’t worry. Becoming an essentialist isn’t something that happens over night, or even over 4 weeks of a book club. It is something that happens over time. Remember, “There are two ways of thinking about Essentialism. The first is to think of it as something you do occasionally. The second is to think of it as something you are.”
Keep applying the principles of essentialism to your life, and your thinking, and you will become an essentialist!
Coming up next…
Keep an eye out for the email later this week with the next book selection.