Essentialism

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg Mckeown has been on my radar for sometime now. It’s only a little more than 250 pages so I gave it a try. It was a good book to rethink about my priorities and sort out vital few from trivial many. The thesis of the book, as the title suggests, is to focus on the essential. Do less but better.

I was offered two jobs at the time of reading this book – one from a start-up, and the other from a well established large company. The book has influenced my decision to turn down both offers.

The book itself is not a hard read. It poses series of questions that are self-reflective. I also appreciated the real world examples the author gives to make his points.  There are also specific words to use when you want to say “No” to requests and favors that rob you from your time.

I’d revisit this book periodically to reevaluate my activities in life and career.

My Notes

The way of the Essentialist isn’t about setting New Year’s resolutions to say “no” more, or about pruning your in-box, or about mastering some new strategy in time management. It is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital. The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference—learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential.

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage.

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.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”6

sunk-cost bias: studies have found that we tend to value things we already own more highly than they are worth and thus that we find them more difficult to get rid of.

I have observed learned helplessness in many organizations I have worked with. When people believe that their efforts at work don’t matter, they tend to respond in one of two ways. Sometimes they check out and stop trying, like the mathematically challenged child. The other response is less obvious at first. They do the opposite. They become hyperactive. They accept every opportunity presented.

While Southwest had made conscious, deliberate trade-offs in key strategic areas, Continental was forced to sacrifice things around the margins that weren’t part of a coherent strategy. According to Porter, “A strategic position is not sustainable unless there are trade-offs with other positions.”3 By trying to operate by two incompatible strategies they started to undermine their ability to be competitive.

Jim Collins, the author of the business classic Good to Great, was once told by Peter Drucker that he could either build a great company or build great ideas but not both. Jim chose ideas. As a result of this trade-off there are still only three full-time employees in his company, yet his ideas have reached tens of millions of people through his writing.8 As painful as they can sometimes be, trade-offs

An Essentialist focuses the way our eyes focus; not by fixating on something but by constantly adjusting and adapting to the field of vision.

Today, everyone waiting around in an airport or a waiting room is glued to their technology tools of choice. Of course, nobody likes to be bored. But by abolishing any chance of being bored we have also lost the time we used to have to think and process.

Here’s another paradox for you: the faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule. And the noisier things get, the more we need to build quiet reflection spaces in which we can truly focus.

The best journalists, as Friedman shared later with me, listen for what others do not hear.

Essentialists are powerful observers and listeners. Knowing that the reality of trade-offs means they can’t possibly pay attention to everything, they listen deliberately for what is not being explicitly stated.

Typically, when people start to keep a journal they write pages the first day. Then by the second day the prospect of writing so much is daunting, and they procrastinate or abandon the exercise. So apply the principle of “less but better” to your journal. Restrain yourself from writing more until daily journaling has become a habit.

once every ninety days or so you take an hour to read your journal entries from that period. But don’t be overly focused on the details, like the budget meeting three weeks ago or last Thursday’s pasta dinner. Instead, focus on the broader patterns or trends. Capture the headline. Look for the lead in your day, your week, your life. Small, incremental changes are hard to see in the moment but over time can have a huge cumulative effect.

Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize.

The soft “no” (or the “no but”). I recently received an e-mail inviting me to coffee. I replied: “I am consumed with writing my book right now 🙂 But I would love to get together once the book is finished. Let me know if we can get together towards the end of the summer.”

  1. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”

“Dear Friends, I am currently working on a new book which has put enormous burdens on my time. Unfortunately, I am unable to respond in the manner I would like. For this, I apologize.—Greg.”

  1. Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritize?”

However, when saying yes is going to compromise your ability to make the highest level of contribution to your work, it is also your obligation. In this case it is not only reasonable to say no, it is essential. One effective way to do that is to remind your superiors what you would be neglecting if you said yes and force them to grapple with the trade-off.

“Yes, I’m happy to make this the priority. Which of these other projects should I deprioritize to pay attention to this new project?” Or simply say, “I would want to do a great job, and given my other commitments I wouldn’t be able to do a job I was proud of if I took this on.”

The iconoclastic entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel took “less but better” to an unorthodox level when he insisted that PayPal employees select one single priority in their role—and focus on that exclusively. As PayPal executive Keith Rabois recalls: “Peter required that everyone be tasked with exactly one priority. He would refuse to discuss virtually anything else with you except what was currently assigned as your #1 initiative. Even our annual review forms in 2001 required each employee to identify their single most valuable contribution to the company.”2 The result was the employees were empowered to do anything within the confines of that clearly defined role that they felt would make a high level of contribution to the shared mission of the company.