- We have clients who want to have meetings all the time.
- Our friends ask us for favors and to hang out.
- New work opportunities arise that we feel obligated to accept.
This is all simply too much for one man to handle and is the core of Essentialism by Greg McKeown.
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.
The idea of Essentialism is about more than just saying ‘No’. It’s about living a life of purpose with a clear sense of direction.
In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.
The concept is quite simple, but one that too few people take to heart. In fact, many people do too much at once hoping to get ahead, only to burn out quickly with no tangible results.
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, and the next one and so on until we have a significant breakthrough
The most successful people take on one project at a time. They put ruthless focus and attention into a business or book and when it is complete they move onto the next one.
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?”
Just Say No
Derek Sivers came up with the phrase ‘It’s either a HELL YEAH! Or no’. What he means my this is that if you’re not overly enthusiastic and passionate about doing something, don’t do it. This is echoed in Essentialism.
You’re going to have to not only learn to say ‘No’ to things you don’t want to do, but learn to love saying it:
Remember, Essentialists don’t say no just occasionally. It is a part of their regular repertoire. To consistently say no with grace, then, it helps to have a variety of responses to call upon. Below are eight responses you can put in your “no” repertoire.
People say you can’t multitask—that’s not quite true.
For example, I used to be great at multitasking, it just meant I never exceeded at anything.
…in fact we can easily do two things at the same time: wash the dishes and listen to the radio, eat and talk, clear the clutter on our desk while thinking about where to go for lunch, text message while watching television, and so on. What we can’t do is concentrate on two things at the same time. When I talk about being present, I’m not talking about doing only one thing at a time. I’m talking about being focused on one thing at a time. Multitasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can “multifocus” is.
Focusing >>> Mindlessly Doing
Okay, let’s say you’ve taken on too many projects and you’ve got yourself in a bit of a pickle. What to do?
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.
This echoes the mantra of Chris from Good Looking Loser:
“I MUST DO THE MOST PRODUCTIVE THING POSSIBLE AT EVERY GIVEN MOMENT.”
Taking Control Of Your Life and Your Work
If you work for someone else, you don’t get to make all the decisions. If your boss says he needs X, Y, and Z on his desk by Friday you better get that done. Surely, your superiors are not thinking about what is best for you, or the most effective way to complete a task. Rather, they want to wave their magic wand and have the work magically appear.
This is why it’s best to take control of not only your work, but all aspects of your life:
If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
Advice on Reading
As an avid reader, and reviewer of books, I feel obligated discuss book recommendations or readings habits whenever written about. McKeown recommends the practice of reading first thing in the morning. This is actually something I disagree with and don’t practice, but he makes a compelling point:
One practice I’ve found useful is simply to read something from classic literature (not a blog, or the newspaper, or the latest beach novel) for the first twenty minutes of the day. Not only does this squash my previous tendency to check my e-mail as soon as I wake up, it centers my day.
But for the interested, here are some to consider: Zen, the Reason of Unreason; The Wisdom of Confucius; the Torah; the Holy Bible; Tao, to Know and Not Be Knowing; The Meaning of the Glorious Koran: An Explanatory Translation; As a Man Thinketh; The Essential Gandhi; Walden, or, Life in the Woods; the Book of Mormon; The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius; and the Upanishads.
What an excellent and wide-ranging selection. I appreciate the fact that McKeown included religious texts in this list. Too often religious books are completely ignored by secular people, and even religious people who don’t want to read another religion. Yet, these religious texts contain a plethora of wisdom and inspiration for the mind and soul.
Curiosity and Play as an Essentialist
If an Essentialist is supposed to be ruthlessly focused, how can they embrace natural curiosity? Well, the two are not mutually exclusive as McKeown explains:
Essentialists actually explore more options than their Nonessentialist counterparts. Nonessentialists get excited by virtually everything and thus react to everything. But because they are so busy pursuing every opportunity and idea they actually explore less. The way of the Essentialist, on the other hand, is to explore and evaluate a broad set of options before committing to any. Because Essentialists will commit and “go big” on only the vital few ideas or activities, they explore more options at first to ensure they pick the right one later.
I recently wanted to get more into ‘Niche Sites’. I bought a site for drones and wanted to build it up a bit to make a little money each month. I then realized I had 0 inspiration or motivation to get it done. I also realized my investment of time and money would be better spent on 1 big project (i.e. Masculine Books).
There is also a section dedicated to play. Again, the idea of the Essentialist invokes a rigid, ascetic like existence shunning hedonism and anything not work related. This is a far-cry from its true meaning.
Desk toys, dinosaurs covered with flamingos, and offices full of action figures may seem like trivial diversions to some, but the very point is that they can be the exact opposite. These efforts challenge the Nonessentialist logic that play is trivial. Instead, they celebrate play as a vital driver of creativity and exploration.
Becoming an Essentialist
Again, it’s hard in this modern world to find focus and eliminate distraction. Yet, if we want to succeed and find happiness it is imperative to do so.
The process is not easy, but one you should embrace nonetheless.
Becoming an Essentialist is a long process, but the benefits are endless.
The journey also starts with just one simple question:
If you take one thing away from this book, I hope you will remember this: whatever decision or challenge or crossroads you face in your life, simply ask yourself, “What is essential?” Eliminate everything else.
Takeaways from the Book
I’ve really taken Essentialism to heart and have made a concerted effort to purge excessive work from my life. In addition to foregoing certain projects, I’ve also used the tenets of Essentialism to ‘skip’ meetings and turn down social invitations. Of course, we don’t want to go wild with this and become an anti-social hermit, but internalizing these principles will go a long way.
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