Essentialismessentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

By Greg McKeown

This book seeks to provide its readers with a systematic discipline that can be applied to every decision so we can make the best use of our time and skills for the things that really matter.

If (like most people) you find yourself stretched too thin and find that you finish each day having worked really hard but not necessarily having achieved much then this book is worth a read.

The difference between the thinking of an Essentialist and a non-Essentialist can be seen in the below diagram:


In both images, the same amount of energy is exerted but on the left, it’s spread across many different activities, whereas on the right, the focus is on one activity. The key difference is that a non-Essentialist believes almost everything is essential whilst the Essentialist thinks that almost everything is non-essential. The author recognises that most of us reside in a non-Essentialist place and to move to an Essentialist mindset is not easy. It requires tough decisions and trade-offs but by making hard choices once, we can then reduce the number of decisions we have to make in future.

The author breaks the process into four parts: Essence, Explore, Eliminate and Execute. He sets out the core mind-set of an Essentialist which is to identify the trivial activities which take up most our time, and to replace them with the few vital activities which will yield the greatest results.

The starting point for the process is to decide where our highest point of contribution lies then eliminating everything that impedes our ability to achieve this. If, when asked to do something, the answer isn’t, “Hell, yeah”, then it should be a, “no”.

Essentialists CHOOSE how to spend their time. They are able to filter out the noise and they recognise the reality of trade-offs – we simply can’t have and do it all. Rather than asking, “how can I make it all work?”, they ask, “what problem do I want to solve”. There are three core truths to Essentialism: “I choose to”, “Only a few things really matter”, and “I can do anything but not everything”. In simple terms, it’s taking responsibility to move from a passive to an active mindset.
You can explore your options once you understand what the point is of what you’re trying to achieve and why it matters. McKeown recommends that you take time to get perspective by making yourself unavailable and removing distractions. This could be as simple as allocating Tuesday mornings to shut yourself away to work ON your business rather than IN it. Use an out of office message to set expectations for your response times to email, turn the phone off and draw the blinds. The key is to identify a regular time and stick to it. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted. Look at every opportunity you’ve got – Essentialists spend time looking at everything to ensure they make correctly identify the one or two key opportunities to focus on. The default position here is, “what will I say no to”?

If you’re not sure what to choose, go back to the, “hell yeah”, question; if you’re feeling “ish” about it, or aren’t sure what to do, then ask yourself what you’d do to acquire this opportunity if you didn’t already have it. If you feel less than 90% about it, get rid. What’s the trade off to NOT pursuing a weak opportunity, or one that won’t help you achieve what you want? Improved reputation? Better figures? More time to focus on the great chances you’ve got? Perhaps an activity might take time in the short-term i.e. giving a trusted colleague banking authority might involve a trip to the bank and two hours out of your day now, but how much time will this free up in the future if the team can go to them instead of you? McKeown wagers that if you fail to say no then you’re actually saying yes by default.

The final step is to Execute. This involves creating systems which enable you to carry out your desired tasks effortlessly. Build in buffers for unexpected events and realise that preparation is vital for success – Essentialists will have a contingency plan. Add 50 % extra time to tasks – this may seem extravagant but how many times have you allowed 30 minutes for a meeting or call which went on for 45? Why not just allow 45 minutes and stick to it? We cannot predict the future or prepare for every scenario but we can build in a buffer to minimise the stress caused by the unexpected. Create a routine that enshrines what is essential so you can execute it with the minimum effort – every step in the routine will be essential.

To become an Essentialist you need to identify what is vital to you, your family and your desired achievements. If an activity distracts you from these goals, either delegate them or forget them. Make conscious decisions and act decisively. Learn the art of saying no and shut out the noise so you can focus and achieve.


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