Book Review: “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown

Essentialism book cover

Many of us have too much going on. Busy is the new status symbol. I’m no exception. And yet many of us also feel that while we do more and more, we actually accomplish less and less. I’m no exception on that point, either.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown is a response to that trend. It advocates for whittling down what we spend our time and energy on so we can focus on the few activities and efforts that will have the most impact. In truth, it should have been subtitled “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less but Better” (which is an actual quote from the book).

“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.” (emphasis added)

If there is the concept of “essentialism”, there must be one of “nonessentialism”. In fact, the book contrasts the mindset, assumptions, decisions, and choices between “essentialism” and “nonessentialism”.

Here are some of my thoughts on the key points in the book.

1. There’s an essentialist mindset.
The essentialist mindset is based on three assumptions.

  1. Individual choice: We can choose how to spend our energy and time.
  2. The prevalence of noise: Almost everything is noise, and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.
  3. The reality of trade-offs: We can’t have it all or do it all.

These assumptions are counter to what we tend to feel typically: we have to, there are many important things, and we can do it all. We have to replace the old “nonessentialist” assumptions with the new “essentialist” ones.

2. Essentialism requires both mental and emotional discipline.
We often feel pressure to say yes to things. I, for one, don’t like letting people down and think I have a lot to contribute, so I say yes to a lot of things. We also don’t always think through the implications of saying yes to something in terms of the time involved and commitment required. When we say yes to something, we’re saying no to something else — or lots of other something elses. We need to learn how to say no better to preserve our ability to say yes to the most important, most impactful things. Saying no is a core leadership skill.

“So eliminating the nonessentials isn’t just about mental discipline. It’s about the emotional discipline necessary to say no to social pressure.”

3. Evaluate, choose, and commit.
Essentialists evaluate lots of alternatives for where they should focus so they can be sure the thing is the right thing. When they choose that one right thing, they’re specific about what it is and what they’re trying to accomplish. And when they commit, they go big and all in.

“An essential intent, on the other hand, is both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable. Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions.”

4. Set boundaries and stick to them.
Easier said than done. But the boundaries will protect your “essential intent” from getting overcome by events and watered down as the yeses accumulate.

“Essentialists, on the other hand, see boundaries as empowering. They recognize that boundaries protect their time from being hijacked and often free them from the burden of having to say no to things that further others’ objectives instead of their own.”

The book also gets bonus points for referencing The Goal when discussing constraints.

5. It’s good and healthy to not always be “on”.
I’m always doing something. Always. That might not be the best thing to maximize my impact. To maximize their impact over the long-term, essentialists need time to:

  • Play.
  • Sleep.
  • Think.

I definitely need to make some changes in my schedule and routine. Maybe experiment with an afternoon power nap for a few weeks…

Here’s a great final thought about essentialism.

“Life will become less about efficiently crossing off what was on your to-do list or rushing through everything on your schedule and more about changing what you put on there in the first place.”

I love crossing things off my to-do list. It’s addictive. But crossing lots of things off my to-do list doesn’t mean I’m productive and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m having a meaningful impact on anything. I want to make an impact. I want my efforts to matter. I need to become an essentialist.

I created a cheat sheet of all the Nonessentialist/Essentialist comparisons. Better to read the book so you understand what these comparisons really mean and then use the cheat sheet to remind yourself of what being an essentialist is all about.

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