Essentialism

 Photography: Veri Ivanova

Photography: Veri Ivanova

In my life, productivity (or a lack thereof) has been the main source of my frustration. I have a big stack of books on my shelves at home that speak to how to get things done, including “Getting Things Done,” by David Allen, “Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life,” by Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore, “Living Forward,” by Michael Hyatt, “The One Thing,” by Gary Keller and “The Sweet Spot,” by Christine Carter.

The book “Essentialism,” by Greg McKeown stands out for me because it was the first one I read that was about doing less in order to be more productive. I wrote about this concept in a previous blog post, so I won’t repeat it here, but I would like to pull out some essential lessons I learned from reading this book.

First, I bought this book in 2014 when it was published. At the time, I had put years of thought and effort into my next career move. I was newly married to James, and in October I teamed up with my coach, Stew, to help me make some progress on this effort. I’m not surprised that I bought this book, as I was fed up with the length of time it had taken me to even get to this point in my career. I needed to find a better path forward.

Second, the reason for writing this book came out of the author’s own frustrations of spending less time on his personal priorities than he preferred. He learned that if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. He became obsessed with why otherwise intelligent people make the choices they make and wanted to answer the question:

“Why is it that we have so much more ability inside of us than we often choose to utilize?”

Well, I knew from my own experience that I have a hard time choosing one thing to focus on. As a result, I either make no progress because I don’t start, or I start, but select many things at once and then hope one of them will result in success or happiness. I often end up with dozens of projects, either intending to do them but not starting, or projects I’ve started but stopped doing half-way through, because there’s only so much time in the day and I can’t do it all. I essentially set myself up for failure. Finishing anything is a miracle.

The same was true with my career. I was at a cross-roads for a long time. I could choose what I felt I had to do or what I really wanted to do. But by delaying action, I had chosen to not choose.

Third, there is a hard reality to life. What is most important to people at the end of their life is not what they have accomplished, but whether or not they lived a life of meaning and purpose, whether they lived a life that they truly loved. The biggest regret you hear from those on their deathbed is: “I wish I had had the courage to live true to myself, rather than what others expected of me.”

Let’s look at Essentialism in its four distinct steps

1. Essence: the mindset of essentialism, the reality of noise and making trade-offs.

In order to even get into essentialism, you have to know the difference between an essentialist and non-essentialist. In the end, being an essentialist is not something you do, but something you are. It’s about having a vision of living a meaningful life. It’s about leaving behind habits of learned helplessness. It’s about making strategic trade-offs in order to focus on the bigger questions or problems in your life. It’s about not dividing your energy into many things, but putting all your energy into the most important thing. 

A non-essentialist thinks: "How can I do it all?"
An essentialist thinks: "What can I go big on?" "What's the trade-off I want to make?"

2. Explore: discerning the trivial many from the vital few.

To do this part, you have to create clarity. What problems are you trying to solve? What questions are you trying to answer? What will your life, business, relationships, etc look like in 5 or 10 years? What matters to you? You can do this through journaling or by making a statement of purpose that is both concrete and inspirational. It’s about becoming laser-focussed: Is there one decision that could eliminate a thousand later decisions? 

“Creating an essential intent is hard. It takes courage, insight, and foresight to see which activities and efforts will add up to your single highest point of contribution. It takes asking tough questions, making real trade-offs, and exercising serious discipline to cut out the competing priorities that distract us from our true intention. Yet it is worth the effort because only with real clarity of purpose can people, teams and organizations fully mobilize and achieve something truly excellent.” ~ Greg McKeown, "Essentialism"

A non-essentialist is too busy to think about life.
An essentialist creates space to escape and explore life.  

3. Eliminate: cutting out the trivial many.

This process is about creating boundaries for yourself (what to let in and not to let into your space, whether physical or mental) and creating buffers by planning ahead of time (making choices so that distractions or overwhelm don’t creep in). You want to eliminate or reduce the stress of: taking on other people’s problems, financial and social risks, and constraints or obstacles.

A non-essentialist avoids saying no to avoid feeling social awkwardness and pressure.
An essentialist dares to say no firmly, resolutely, and gracefully. 

4. Execute: making executing effortless.

This portion is about creating a system that works for you and that you can replicate for any project or goal. Note that an essentialist goes for many small wins rather than one big one. By starting small, you are motivated to do the one thing you set for yourself. Focus on the positive rather than the negative. Some people use a reward system, or a checking off system to stay on track. Ask yourself: “What’s the minimal amount of effort I can do right now, to prepare?” Start early even if the deadline feels far off. Make a routine and create a habit. Allow yourself time to focus and be in the “now.” This means not getting caught up in thoughts about what has already happened or hasn’t yet happened. 

A non-essentialist tries to execute the essentials by force.
An essentialist designs a routine that enshrines what is essential, making execution almost effortless. 

Summary

Being an essentialist is about living a life of meaning and purpose. Would you rather see a long list of accomplishments when you look back on your life, or a life in which you really lived a life you loved? The life of an essentialist is a life lived without regret. Start now

If you could be an essentialist, what would you do with your one wild and precious life?