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Lessons from Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg Mckeown

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Related: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

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

Short Summary

Essentialism shows a new way of thinking about productivity and life. It’s a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

Lessons

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. Less but better.

Essentialism is not a way to do one more thing; it is a different way of doing everything.

The Essentialist pursues this principle in a disciplined way. More than a principle, it’s a way of living. It’s living by design, not by default.

It’s not how to get more things done but getting the right things done. 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.

It requires us to grapple with real trade-offs and make tough decisions. In many cases, we make one-time decisions that make a thousand future decisions so we don’t exhaust ourselves asking the same questions again and again.

The Essentialist

The Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and removes obstacles.

“Success can distract us from focusing on the essential things that produce success in the first place.”

Why Nonessentialism is everywhere:

  • Too Many Choices: there has been an exponential increase in choices over the last decade. Because of it, we have lost sight of the most important ones
  • Too Much Social Pressure: the strength and number of outside influences on our decisions has also increased

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. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.

The Essentialist approach:

  1. Explore and Evaluate: spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking. Exploration is not an end in itself, but a way to discern the vital few from the trivial many
  2. Eliminate: actively eliminate activities and efforts that don’t make the highest possible contribution
  3. Execute: invest the time you saved into creating a system for removing obstacles and making execution as easy as possible

These three elements are not separate events but a cyclical process. Apply them consistently to reap greater and greater benefits.

Replace false assumptions with three core truths:

  • I have to” –> “I choose to
  • It’s all important” –> “Only a few things really matter
  • I can do both” –> “I can do anything but not everything

The Invincible Power of Choice

When we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone else will step in to choose for us. 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. And when it’s forgotten, we learn to be helpless.

The most crucial skill you need to learn is to develop your ability to choose choice, in every area of your life.

“When we surrender our right to choose, we give others not just the power but also the explicit permission to choose for us.”

Certain types of effort yield higher rewards than others. You can distinguish the “trivial many” from the “vital few” using the 80/20 rule. Make big bets on the essential few investment opportunities and says no to the many merely good ones.

“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” — John Maxwell

Once we understand this, we start scanning our environment for those vital few and eagerly eliminate the trivial many. This is why you should take the time to explore all his options. You discern more so you can do less.

Which Problem Do I Want?

To make trade-offs deliberately, don’t think “How can I do both?” but rather “Which problem do I want?”.

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.

Trade-offs are an inherent part of life. It’s not about choosing what you have to give up, it’s deciding what you want to go big on.

The Essentialist explores and evaluates a broad set of options before committing to any. Because they 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.

The Perks of Being Unavailable

We need space to escape in order to discern the essential few from the trivial many. Unfortunately, in our time-starved era, we don’t get that space by default — only by design.

  1. Space to Design: focus is something we have and something we do; in order to have focus we need to escape to focus, we need the space to explore one hundred questions and possibilities
  2. Space to Concentrate: the faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule. No matter how busy you think you are, you can carve time and space to think out of your workday
  3. Space to Read: take inspiration from Bill Gates, who regularly (and famously) takes a regular week off from his daily duties at Microsoft simply to think and read. Read classic/timeless literature for the first twenty minutes of the day to help you center your day

Whether you can invest two hours a day, two weeks a year, or even just five minutes every morning, it is important to make space to escape in your busy life.

See What Really Matters

In every set of facts, something essential is hidden.

Your job is to explore those pieces of information and figuring out the relationships between them.

  • The Big Picture: train yourself to look for “the lead” to be able to see what you have missed. Instead of just reacting to the facts, you’ll be able to focus on the larger issues that really matter
  • Filter for the Fascinating: scan and filter all the competing and conflicting facts, options, and opinions constantly vying for your attention
  • Keep a Journal: think of a journal as like a storage device for backing up your brain’s faulty hard drive. Apply the principle of “less but better” to your journal: restrain yourself from writing more until daily journaling has become a habit
  • Get Out into the Field: by getting out there and fully exploring the problem, they were able to better clarify the question and in turn to focus on the essential details that ultimately allowed them to make the highest contribution to the problem
  • Look Out for Details: put yourself in the shoes of all the main players in a story in order to better understand their motives, reasoning, and points of view
  • Clarify the Question: Evading hard questions is tempting. Often it’s easier to give a vague, blanket answer rather than to summon up the facts and information required to give a thoughtful, informed answer. Yet evasiveness only sends us down a nonessential spiral of further vagueness and misinformation. Clarifying the question is a way out of that cycle

Protect the Asset

If we underinvest in ourselves — our minds, bodies, and spirits — we damage the tool we need to make our highest contribution. One of the most common ways people damage this asset is through a lack of sleep.

Sleep is what allows us to operate at our highest level of contribution so that we can achieve more, in less time. By “protecting their asset”, they are able to go about their daily lives with a reserve of energy, creativity, and problem-solving ability to call upon when needed. They choose to do one fewer thing right now in order to do more tomorrow.

Science shows that even a nap can increase creativity. One hour more of sleep equals several more hours of much higher productivity. Sleep is for high performers. Sleep is a priority, breeds creativity, and enables the highest levels of mental contribution.

The Power of Extreme Criteria

Put decisions to an extreme test: if you feel a total conviction to do something, say “HELL YES!”:

“If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

The 90 Percent Rule: think about the single most important criterion for a decision and give it a score between 0 and 100. If it’s any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it. This helps you avoid getting caught up in indecision, or worse, getting stuck with the 60s or 70s.

Being selective when deciding what opportunities to go after is harder when opportunities come to us. Here’s a systematic process you can use to apply selective criteria to opportunities that come your way:

  1. Write down the opportunity
  2. Think of three “minimum criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered. Write them down
  3. Write down a list of three ideal or “extreme criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered

If the opportunity doesn’t pass two of your three extreme criteria, the answer is no.

To discover your absolutely highest point of contribution purpose, ask yourself:

  • “What am I deeply passionate about?”
  • “What taps my talent?”
  • “And what meets a significant need in the world?”

The question to decide what activities to eliminate: “If I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?”

Anytime you fail to say “no”, you’re saying yes by default. Instead, ask the essential question: “What will I say no to?”

This is the question that will uncover your true priorities.

One Decision That Makes a Thousand

Eliminate any activity that is misaligned with what you are intending to achieve.

When there is a lack of clarity or purpose, we waste time and energy on the trivial many. To achieve clarity of purpose, decide on an essential intent.

Essential Intent: it’s both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable. It’s one decision that settles one thousand later decisions. One strategic choice eliminates a universe of other options and maps a course for the next five, ten, or even twenty years of your life. Once the big decision is made, all subsequent decisions come into better focus

Craft your essential intent:

  • Ask “If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?”
  • Ask “How will we know when we have succeeded?”
“A true essential intent is one that guides your greater sense of purpose, and helps you chart your life’s path.”

Creating an essential intent is hard but necessary. Only with real clarity of purpose can people, teams, and organizations fully mobilize and achieve something truly excellent.

The Power of a Graceful “No”

Clarity about what is essential fuels us with the strength to say no to the nonessentials.

Saying no is its own skill. We start with limited experience but can get better at it over time.

Here are seven effective ways to say no:

  1. The awkward pause. When a request comes to you in person, pause and count to three before delivering your decision. Or simply wait for the other person to fill the void
  2. The soft “no” (or the “no but”). Explain that you are focused on other things right now but would love to get together once you’re done with them
  3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” This will give you time to pause and assess your priorities. Take back control of your own decisions rather than be rushed into a “yes”
  4. Use e-mail bouncebacks. Why limit email auto-responses to holidays? Train other people to respect your productivity, work, and time by using an automatic response
  5. Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritize?” Remind your superiors what you would be neglecting if you said yes and force them deal with the trade-off
  6. State what you are willing to do: for example: “You are welcome to borrow my car. I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you.” By doing this you are also saying that you won’t be able to drive the person but instead you frame it in terms of what you willing to do
  7. “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.” It is tempting to think that our help is uniquely invaluable, but often people requesting something don’t really care if we’re the ones who help them — as long as they get the help

Win Big by Cutting Your Losses

Sunk-Cost Bias: the tendency to continue to invest time, money, or energy into something we know is a losing proposition simply because we have already incurred, or sunk, a cost that cannot be recouped

The Endowment Effect: the tendency to undervalue things that aren’t ours and to overvalue things because we already own them

We have a bias when it comes to non-essential activities as well as belongings. Here’s how to fix it:

  1. Pretend you don’t own it yet: don’t ask “How much do I value this item?” but rather “If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?”. Do the same for opportunities and commitment
  2. Admit failure to begin success: when you remain in denial, you will continue to circle pointlessly
  3. Get a neutral second opinion: don’t force something that is not the right fit; ask someone who is not emotionally involved for help

Status Quo Bias: the tendency to continue doing something simply because we have always done it is. To cure it, apply zero-based budgeting.

Zero-Based Budgeting: instead of trying to budget your time on the basis of existing commitments assume that all previous commitments are gone. Then begin from scratch, asking which you would add today. Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.

Reverse Pilot: test whether removing an initiative or activity will have any negative consequences. By quietly eliminating or at least scaling back an activity for a few days or weeks you might be able to assess whether it is really making a difference or whether no one really cares.

The Invisible Art

Editing — the strict elimination of the trivial, unimportant, or irrelevant — is an Essentialist craft.

To become a great editor at life:

  • Cut out options: when making decisions, deciding to cut options is the very essence of decision making. In fact, the Latin root of the word decision — cis or cid — literally means “to cut” or “to kill”
  • Condense: lower the ratio of effort to results. Eliminate multiple meaningless activities and replace them with one very meaningful activity
  • Correct: regularly compare your activities or behaviors to your real intent. If they are incorrect, edit them.

Becoming an editor in our lives also includes knowing when to show restraint. One way we can do this is by editing our tendency to step in.

Becoming an Essentialist means making cutting, condensing, and correcting a natural part of our daily routine — making editing a natural cadence in our lives.

The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

Technology has blurred the lines between work and family. You need to set boundaries to protect your time and free yourself from other people’s agenda.

Don’t rob people of their problems. When people make their problem our problem, we aren’t helping them; we’re enabling them. Put up fences well in advance. Forcing people to solve their own problems is equally beneficial for you and for them

Make a list of your dealbreakers. There are the types of requests or activities from people that you simply refuse to say yes to unless they somehow overlap with your own priorities or agenda

The “planning fallacy”: our tendency to underestimate how long a task will take, even when they have actually done the task before.

To protect yourself against this, add a 50 percent buffer to the amount of time you estimate it will take to complete a task or project

Think of the most important project you are trying to get done at work or at home. Then ask yourself the following: “How can I invest to reduce risks or strengthen financial or social resilience?” Your answer will point you to buffers that you can create to safeguard you against unknowable events.

“Essentialists accept the reality that we can never fully anticipate or prepare for every scenario or eventuality. Instead, they build in buffers to reduce the friction caused by the unexpected.”

Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles

What is the obstacle that is keeping you back from achieving what really matters to you? By systematically identifying and removing this “constraint” you’ll be able to significantly reduce the friction keeping you from executing what is essential.

Instead of looking for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, look for the ones slowing down your progress.

An Essentialist produces more — brings forth more — by removing more instead of doing more. Instead of focusing on the efforts and resources we need to add, the Essentialist focuses on the constraints or obstacles we need to remove. But how?

  1. Be clear about the essential intent: we can’t know what obstacles to remove until we are clear on the desired outcome. When we don’t know what we’re really trying to achieve, all change is arbitrary. So ask yourself, “How will we know when we are done?”
  2. Identify the “Slowest Hiker”: make a list of the obstacles standing between your and getting something done. Prioritize this list by asking “What is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?” Keep in mind is that even activities that are “productive” — like doing research, or emailing people for information — can be obstacles. Remember, the desired goal is to get a draft of the report finished. Anything slowing down the execution of that goal should be questioned
  3. Remove the obstacle: shift to a mentality that “Done is better than perfect” rather than aiming for perfection

The Power of Small Wins

Start small and celebrate progress. Pursue small and simple wins in areas that are essential.

“A small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.”

Minimal Viable Progress: done is better than perfect. Ask yourself: “What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task I am trying to get done?”

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 Genius of Routine

Design a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position. This will help you execute essentials on autopilot. We must simply expend a small amount of initial energy to create the routine, and then all that is left to do is follow it.

Routines also free up mental space to concentrate on something new. This allows us to autopilot the execution of one essential activity while simultaneously actively engaging in another, without sacrificing our level of focus or contribution.

The habit loop:

  • Cue: a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use
  • Routine: the behavior itself, which can be physical or mental or emotional
  • Reward: this helps your brain figure out if this particular habit is worth remembering for the future

To change your routine, you don’t need to change your behavior. Instead, you 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

However, if the goal is to create some behavioral change, can create brand-new cues to trigger the execution of the routine.

Don’t try to overhaul multiple routines at the same time. Start with one change in your daily or weekly routine and then build on your progress from there.

Whatever decision or challenge or crossroads you face in your life, simply ask yourself, “What is essential?” Eliminate everything else.

If you are ready to look inside yourself for the answer to this question, then you are ready to commit to the way of the Essentialist.