I came across a great read by Greg McKeown entitled Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less which resonated with me and I wanted to share its essence and how it can help in your personal and professional life. Essentialism isn’t about getting more done in less time but about getting only the right things done. It’s a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential and eliminating everything else. In doing so, we can make the highest level of contribution toward the things that really matter. We can then reclaim power over our own choices where we spend our time and energy. It’s about doing less, but better in every area of our lives.
The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials – Lin Yutang
It can start with simply learning to say “no” more and when asked to do things or thinking about what you should be doing from moment to moment, simply asking yourself is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now? In our fast-paced internet and smartphone world where we are habitually always available and “on” for others it can become a real trap. Like a hamster on a treadmill, busy but non-productive. Working in your business, but not stepping back and working on your business, your health, your family, etc. To the Essentialist, almost everything is noise and trivial.
Case in point, after leaving the corporate world and starting my own investment company, I work from home much of the time. I noticed after several months that the home phone rang about 10 times minimum per day. I just accepted this annoyance for many months. After reading this book I started becoming more conscious of distractions which were suddenly everywhere. I discovered virtually no one I know calls me on my home phone yet it was noise happening around me that was distracting as fingernails clawing a chalkboard until I simply asked my wife why the heck do we have a home phone when these are all just robot spam calls? I unplugged all the cordless phones in my home and problem eliminated. I took back control by simply being more conscious and realized I had a choice and could eliminate it. How many annoyances are you unconscious of and putting up with? Take the next few days or week and consciously identify them.
If most things are noise in our lives, our job is to filter through and find the essence. The way of the Essentialist according to the author is the relentless pursuit of less but better. It means pursuing it in a disciplined way, not a casual observance. It’s about pausing to say, am I investing in the right activities and people? There are far more opportunities and activities in the world than we can or would ever possibly participate in, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital. The way of the Essentialist is learning to tell the difference. It’s not about getting more things done, it’s about getting the right things done. It’s also a case for living by design and not default. The Non-essentialist will pursue many activities but has little energy to give to the best ideas or pursuits and hence, energy is diffused, creating little long-term success. For the Essentialist, pursuing fewer but higher reward activities, offers the opportunity to achieve the highest possible contributions in the focused areas.
If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. One of the most life changing and freeing decisions in my life was to leave the corporate world and start my own company. The most obvious things I noticed right away was how much time I got back by not having to be in traffic congested commutes to get to a place where I then endured often pointless and endless meetings working on too many things that I deemed non-essential. It’s very liberating now however. In my business, I work on the things I deem most important, work with the people I want to work with, pretty much see them when I want to see them and am much more control over my schedule. In Austin, TX where I live, traffic is pretty bad. My business meetings requiring me to drive my car are scheduled at 10am or 2pm to avoid the heavy traffic times. I’ll also do lunch. The commutes are so less stressful by taking control of when I have to go to meetings. Occasionally when I do have to do something during rush hour like take my child to her swim practice and spend 30 minutes getting there when the crow could fly there in half the time is when I realize how important this simple but powerful strategy in my life helps me get important things done with less time and hassle.
Curiously, the pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure. Success can distract us from focusing on the essential things that produce success in the first place. In his book, How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins found in his research on companies that were one time darlings of Wall Street, that “the undisciplined pursuit of more” was a key reason for failure. It’s true for companies and the people that work there. So, why is nonessentialism everywhere?
Too many choices – cause us to lose sight of what’s most important. We lose our ability to filter due to these increased choices that cause clutter and stress.
Social pressure – information and opinion overload think Facebook and Twitter.
Advertising – you can have it all and do it all now mentality. It’s embedded in almost everything from university applications that require dozens of extracurricular activities to job descriptions that provide huge lists of skills.
Increased choices and increasing expectations create stressed people who try to cram more activities into over scheduled lives. The corporate world from where I spent twenty years often pays lip service to work / life balance while they expect employees with their smartphones to be on 24/7/365. A caregiver who cared for people in their last twelve weeks of their lives said most often these folks regretted that they wish they had more courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them. This requires not just saying “no” but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the non-essential, not just obvious time wasters but cutting out some really good opportunities as well. It’s all about reducing, simplifying and focusing on what’s absolutely essential and eliminating everything else.
McKeown uses the clothes closet analogy that helps understand this concept better. What happens to your closet if you never organize it? When you make no conscious effort to keep it organized, the closet becomes cluttered and stuffed with clothes you rarely wear. Similarly, our lives get cluttered as well-intended commitments and activities we’ve said yes to pile up. Most of these efforts don’t come with an expiration date. Unless we have a system for purging, once adopted, they live on in perpetuity. How does an Essentialist then approach that closet?
Explore and Evaluate – do I like this? do I look great in it? do I wear it often? If no, then it’s a candidate for elimination. In activities, will this activity or effort make the highest contribution towards my goals?
Eliminate – according to research and the concept of “sunk cost bias”, we tend to value things we already own more highly than they are worth and hence find it more difficult to give away. Hence the growth in the self-storage business. So, once you identify things that don’t fit or match your goals, it still takes courage and discipline to act against this bias and eliminate it.
Execute – You need a regular routine for organizing. You need a system to make executing your intentions as effortless and automatic as possible.
What makes this more challenging is that unlike the static closet example, our lives are dynamic with new clothes coming at us daily (demands on our time) that can quickly clog up that closet making it difficult to find anything vital amongst the clutter. If we don’t have filters, this can become a huge burden quickly clogging up our lives with non-essentials. Essentialism is a mind set and discipline that you apply each and every time you are faced with a decision about whether to say “yes” or to politely decline. It’s a method of making tough trade-offs between a lot of good things and a lot of great things. Learning how to do less, but better so you can achieve the highest possible return on your limited amount of time here on earth. To live a life true to yourself, not the life others expect of you.
What is the core mind set of an Essentialist?
1) Individual choice – we choose how to spend our time and energy.
2) The prevalence of noise – almost everything is noise and very few things are exceptionally valuable.
3) The reality of trade-offs – we can’t have it all or do it all. Instead of saying “how can I make it all work”, start asking “which problem do I want to solve”?
Three simple steps for the Essentialist:
1) Explore: Discern the trivial from the vital few. Explore and evaluate a broad set of options before committing to any. What do I feel deeply about? What am I particularly talented in? What meets a significant need in the world? Then commit and go big on one or two ideas. The highest point of frustration the author points out is at the intersection of “everything, popular, now”. The highest point of contribution (liberation) is at the intersection of “right thing, right reason, right time”. The overall purpose of exploration phase is to discern the vital few from the trivial many.
2) Eliminate: The key will be more conscious of and getting better at saying “no”. People become more effective according to Peter Drucker when they start saying “no” more often and saying “no, this isn’t for me”. It takes courage and compassion. If we forfeit our right to choose, someone else will choose for you. In my work, I get a lot of requests for folks to say “how did you do it” or “how can I do what you are doing”. I call this giving back time because I often will spend an hour talking on the phone to someone I never met. I’ve now paired that back to 30 min and also often request that person read some of my blogs, eBook or podcast interviews first so that when they do talk with me we can get to the essence of the conversation faster. I also kindly turn down (eliminate some conversations) by looking at the request and often their online profile. If little time or effort has been put in by them to explain their background, experiences and goals in their online profile (LinkedIn or Bigger Pockets REI social site) I often will not accept a call.
3) Execute: Instead of forcing execution, Essentialists invest the time they have saved into creating a system for removing obstacles and making execution as easy as possible. Here’s a simple example. I have a challenge saying no to sales folks that knock on my door. It’s also highly disruptive since I work from home. My secret weapon is my mother in law who speaks very little English. I told my wife that its highly effective if we had my mother in law answer the door and simply state in broken English that she doesn’t understand. It’s been highly effective sparing me explaining to my wife why I bought something we don’t need and allowing me to stay focused on my work. Yes, I appreciate my mother in law. She’s been a big supporter of the growth in my business by simply allowing me to find my focus.
Summing up, “less is better” is a principle whose time has come. According to McKeown, everything changes when we give ourselves permission to be more selective in what we choose to do. It creates tremendous freedom knowing we can eliminate the non-essentials, no longer controlled by people’s agendas. We can then discover our highest point of contribution. The author makes us think with these insightful questions. What if schools eliminated busywork and replaced it with important projects that made a difference in our community? What if business eliminated meaningless meetings and replaced them with space for people to think and work on their most important projects? What if society stopped telling us to buy more stuff and instead allowed us to create more space to breathe and think? What if we stopped being oversold the value of having more and being undersold the value of having less? What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance and instead celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives? Our lives would be more meaningful as a result, we’d be giving our best self to our families, friends and our communities contributing at the highest level, deeply satisfied, liberated, confident and relaxed. Go get this book and ponder it. Start putting a few principles to work and build on that as a framework to free yourself. Make room to enjoy the essential by eliminating most everything that is non-essential and trivial.
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