Essentialism by Greg McKeown
Essentialism is one of those books that nearly every person I have been reading recently has referenced, so with a surplus of audible credits I finally made the time to listen to it. Succinctly put, you could sum the whole book up in just a few words: Define your purpose in life, then save your "yes" for only that which serves that essential purpose. To use Mr. McKeown's words, your life should be "designed, not default."
As someone who tends to drift through life and drafts in the wake of other people's decisions, this book is a wake up call. I have not enjoyed making decisions, saying no to people... these crucial skills I had abdicated saying "I just want to help" or "that's not my personality." This idea of "design rather than default" challenges that laziness and hits me right in the gut.
The book begins by arguing that no matter what, we will face this quandary through something the author calls "The Paradox of Success." The more successful we are, the more options we have. The more options we have, the more we feel distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution. The sheer momentum of success can carry us (by default) into a situation where we are unable to be successful. This trap feels very familiar.
The book does a good job of mixing a mental framework with practical suggestions. In a world where "kondoing" has become a verb, the act of cutting down on what McKeown calls the "trivial many" may seem like old advice, but I really like the way he handles thinking about cutting down on decisions and opportunities. I learned that a choice is not a thing I possess, it's an action I take. That small twist of mindset has set me free to stop hoarding my "choices" and opportunities. By holding my cards too long, I often end up letting the universe choose for me by default.
There's also some excellent counsel and discussion of the power of discernment... especially on the topic of identifying trade-offs. McKeown says that the faulty logic of what he dubs the "non-essentialist" claims that "I can always do both." This fallacy certainly is reflected in my calendar of late... I don't choose, I just fly between commitment to commitment until I collapse.
There is also a stern warning in this section to leaders and businesses... if you don't provide clarity in values and direction, your team won't be able to discern what's important and can't make a decision as to what problem they ought to "go big on". You'll end up a thousand miles in every direction, and making no progress.
There's a fair amount of discussion on creating margin to do these activities. As McKeown says, "If you are too busy to think, you are too busy." As such, there follows advice on sleep, creating space to think, read, plan, and play. Sleep deprivation is nearly identical in effect to blood alcohol content. We would never say "He's a great worker, he's drunk all day!" however McKeown wryly points out that it's not uncommon for people to brag about staying up all night to finish an assignment. How is it different?
There's some excellent advice in the final section about how to live this life. Setting boundaries for yourself to make "no" easy. Uncommitting yourself from non-essentials that you have embroiled yourself in. Constantly analysing what commitments and activities are in your life, and whether they line up with your life purpose and values. Creating a maintainable routine to make execution effortless. Padding your estimates to maintain margin... it's all great and I'm sure I will revisit it over the next few years.
I really got a lot out of the section on routine and subconscious decision making. The book references a study that claims we make 40% of all decisions subconsciously. This is the real trojan horse of "life by default." What gets to decide that default? Our family history, the entertainment we subject our minds to, the social pressures around us, our expectations of ourselves... so much of our lives are driven by a world that doesn't value our values.
It seems to me that being intentional and designing our subconscious habits, creating boundaries and routines that reinforce our highest values, is incredibly important. In fact I'm starting to think it's a very practical way to "take every thought captive" or "demolish strongholds." Make it easy to do what is of utmost importance.
There is a certain amount of "zen" philosophy in the book. The author seems to take an almost religious satisfaction in living an essential life, comparing it to great religious leaders in history. While I do agree that this sounds very much like a purposeful and virtuous life, I don't think it'll give you purpose and joy to the extent that the author claims.
What I've Changed.
I only finished the book a week ago, but I've been reading it slowly for a few months. Here's what I am trying out or committing to try:
I want to bring clarity to personal and family life with clearly stated goals. I tend to set really broad, generic goals because it's easy. I want to set more specific goals to set a vision for our family, so we can decide with ease whether a commitment or activity moves us closer to those goals or not.
Less goals per week. I'm trying a thing in my bullet journal where I limit the amount of big rocks to three a week. It could be three work things, two work things and a big weekend... there's some freedom there, but so far it's been very freeing and I'm actually getting more done.
Say no. Historically, I've been rubbish at saying no to things. I love helping people, answering questions, being available to coach and cheer folks on. This isn't a bad thing, but in my home my family need me to do my most important things... not help random people on the internet. Same at work.
I think the book was quite worthwhile, and I'm probably going to have to re-read it sometime in the future after more success or progress starts to distract me from that which is most essential.
- A life designed, not default.
- Choosing the vital few over the unimportant many.
- By not choosing not choosing, we make choices by default. Someone or some thing will always choose… Make sure it's you.
- A choice is not a thing… it's an action. It is something we do… Not an opportunity we possess. Having an opportunity… Is the act of not choosing between that opportunity and everything else.
- A broad vision is no vision. You have to pick one thing as a business or family.
- If you are too busy to think, you are too busy.
- our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize
- A non-essentialist uses vague criteria… if other people are doing something like this, I should. This is a particular vulnerable mindframe in the age of social media.
- You have to actively eliminate the non-essential.
- "If I didn't have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?"
- Vision gives the ability to say no. Emotions and fear of awkwardness make it hard to say no.
- Save in the times of plenty. It's too late once the famine arrives.
- Planning fallacy. We underestimate, even when we have completed the task before.
- If 40% of our choices are subconscious. We ought to design our subconscious rather than allow our defaults and sins to reign. This is part of taking every thought captive, I think.
- This is a worldview and a religion. It promises purpose, meaning, and identity. Even transformation and power to become more than you are.
If I didn't already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?
- I have to, it's all important, I can do both.
- I choose to, only a few things really matter, I can do anything but not everything.
- What is essential? Eliminate everything else.
Started in April on Audible. Finished in August.
the way of Essentialist
Started with a story inviting us to the inner ring of essentialism.
Four stages of the paradox of success:
- Become that guy
- Opportunity and demands distract
- Spread too thin
Choices can distract us from the essential.
Priorities only became a word in the early 1900s.
Explore and evaluate.
Discerning the trivial many from the vital few.
Instead of asking is there a chance that I will use it sometime in the future, ask the harder question: do I love this? Basically the Marie Kondo thing.
Will this make the highest possible contribution to my goals?
Cutting out the trivial many.
It's more an emotional than a mental discipline.
Who gets to choose what I do? If I don't choose, someone else will.
We struggle with sunk cost bias.
Removing obstacles, and making execution effortless.
You need a system to make it easy.
This is a system and discipline for every moment where you have to say yes or no.
Less. But better. This is an idea whose time has come.
You won't regret doing more of your life purpose.
Part 1: essence: the core logic of the essentialist
The power to choose makes us human. > – Madeleine L'Engle
If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?
We over emphasize internal options and under emphasize our internal actions.
Learned helplessness. Seligman. "I'm just bad at math."
Learned helplessness can also be the feeling that you have to do everything…
3: Discern: The Unimportance of Practically Everything
We have become accustomed to doing more and more and more… Less but better does not come naturally. Pareto principle… 80% of results come from 20% of effort
Warren Buffet owes 90% of his wealth to 10 investments.
The law of the vital few.
Weird call out to the 10X developer here.
An essentialist thinks almost everything is non-essential.
Discern more to do less.
all opportunities are not equal. choose.
4: Trade off: which problem do I want?
Trade-offs made by design and not default.
Your competitive strategy is trade offs.
You can't keep adding one more… this faulty logic is "I can do both"
It will creep in over time. (CFO of Leland Brothers op ed)
According to the author, executives have a hard time with this.
Trade offs are hard because it is indeed two things I want.
The essentialist must ask "which problem do I want?"
This is important to marriage and family as well.
What do I want to go big on?
Part 2: Explore: Discerning the Vital Few
Explore and evaluate broadly before committing… only commit on the vital few.
The exploration is not an end in itself.
5: Escape: The Perks of Being Unavailable
space to design
You need time and space to find what is essential.
Create the space to explore and ponder life.
Many of these examples are a place.
space to concentrate
We desperately need thinking and reflecting time.
We need this space even more more when life is overwhelming and busy.
space to read
The author talks about reading classical literature at the beginning of the day… But he just as easily could be talking about reading scripture. Considering and meditating on themes and truth that has withstood the test of time: truly essential.
He points out that the main thing is to read something before our hyper connected era.
See what really matters.
Be a journalist of your own life. Find the meaning inside the facts. don't get hyper focused on the nonessential.
filter for the fascinating
You often have to listen for what is not being said.
To be a journalist… write a journal. Spend time periodically reviewing and looking for the pattern in the noise.
Keep your eyes peeled for unusual details.
Clarify the question. Vagueness breeds vagueness.
7: play. Embrace the wisdom of your inner child
Play is essential.
Consider that the death of play is partly the fault of the school system at the beginning of the factory age.
Play invites exploration.
Our best memories are often during play.
Play is the enemy of stress… Praising desk toys, foolishness.
Mind your past for play memories… rediscover and revisit.
8: sleep. Protect the asset
You have to be a careful steward of your sleep and self in order to be effective as long as possible.
The best violinists from Malcolm Gladwell's 10k hours Study practiced more… and sleep 8+ hours a day and took naps daily.
Sleep deprivation is like a low blood alcohol level. We would never say "he's a great worker, he is drunk all day!" However we do celebrate sleep deprived workers.
9: select. The power of extreme criteria.
No more yes or no, just no and "hell yes".
If you are stuck filtering things rated 0-100… eliminate everything below 90.
An essentialist only affirms that which matches their specific vision and narrow goals.
Opportunity knocks… but it's not always good. Saying yes to an ok opportunity now almost always means saying no to amazing opportunities.
References Good to Great, choosing only one thing for focus.
Simple strategy for choosing opportunities…
- Write down the opportunity.
- Write down three criteria for minimum passing.
- Write down extreme criteria for being ideal.
The opportunity needs to pass at least two extreme criteria.
Part 3: eliminate. Cutting out the trivial many.
"What if I need this?" We tend to value things we already own over much.
I don't think being an essentialist will give you purpose and joy.
10: clarify. One decision makes a thousand.
Eliminate any activity that is misaligned with your purpose.
A pretty clear strategy is insufficient. When teams lack focus:
They indulge in politics to please the boss.
They waste time in meaningless work.
Essential Intent is inspirational and concrete… it makes lots of other decisions for you.
If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would that be?
How will we know when we are done?
This chapter about Essential Intent is a great intro to building a vision statement or mission statement.
11: dare. The power of the graceful no.
The conflict between internal conviction and external pressure.
The art of the graceful no is something to learn.
Peter Drucker response to the professors incitation: work on your own work, not others.
Strategies for graceful no:
- Separate the decision from the relationship.
- you don't have to say no.
- focus on the trade off. What are you giving up to do this?
- remind yourself that everyone is selling something
- make your peace with trading popularity for respect
- a clear no is more graceful.
Possible options for no
- the awkward pause
- no but, or the soft no
- let me check and get back with you
- use an email bounce back
- yes. What should I de-prioritize?
- say it with humor
- your welcome to x, I am willing to y
- I can't do it, but z might be interested.
12: uncommit. Cut your losses.
Sunk cost bias.
The more you pour in, the harder it is to break free.
If I weren't already invested, what would I invest to get here?
Avoid commitment traps. (The endowment effect)
We value you that which we own. It owns us. Same for opportunities and stuff. Act as if you didn't own it yet.
Get over the fear of waste. We are so vulnerable to sunk cost bias… way more than children.
Be aware of the status quo bias, we keep doing what we always do.
Use zero based budgeting on your commitments. Start from nothing. What would you add?
Stop making soft commitments. Offhand, unplanned commitments. Pause before you speak. "Is this essential?"
Get over FOMO. Run a reverse pilot. Simply stop doing the thing, and see if anyone complains. There is an intrinsic self centered ness that assumes everything we do must be important.
13: Edit. the Invisible Art.
As we connect exploring to being a journalist, but eliminating is like being a film editor.
Edit your life. Make it easy. To decide is to kill. Even the Greek.
Make every word and moment count.
Are you saying what you want to say? Are you saying it as clearly and clearly as possible?
Replace multiple meaningless activities with one meaningful activity.
Make it right.
You need an overarching sense of the purpose of the work.
Not the most editing, the most useful edits
Editing is a continuous activity… not just when things are out of control.
14: limit. The freedom of setting boundaries
Setting boundaries pays off.
Non essentialists feel that boundaries are constraints, weaknesses. Setting boundaries makes no easier.
Give other people their problems.
People will always try to use you to solve their problems. Build fences to keep their problems in their yard.
Find your dealbreakers. Make a list of the kind of things that always violate you or drive you off you're goals.
Make a social contact. Agree up front.
Part IV: Execute. Making execution effortless
You need a system.
15: Buffer. The unfair advantage.
The story of Joseph and Pharoah's dream.
A buffer is something that keeps two things from coming into contact and being damaged.
You must work to maintain a buffer.
A essentialist prepares for worst case with making margin.
Use extreme preparation.
Get on it immediately, be prepared.
The folks who reached the South Pole… one hoped for the best, the other obsessively prepared for the worst. Roald Amundsen was the margin builder. Scott's team died.
Execution is not based on future prediction, it's based on preparation.
Add 50% to your estimate.
We tend to estimate based on our best time ever, not reality.
Grad students estimated 28 days for completing their thesis. When asked how long it'd take if everything went poorly, 48 days. Actual average time? 54 days.
Never underestimate the force of social pressures on estimation.
Just add 50% to your estimate.
conduct scenario planning
Develop a risk management strategy.
- what risks do we have?
- who is vulnerable?
- how vulnerable?
- how can we invest to strengthen and protect?
We must accept the reality that we can't predict everything.
16: subtract. Bring forth more by removing obstacles.
If you are bound by the slowest link, any improvement to the slowest improves everyone.
The non-essentialist is always responding to disasters, rather than anticipating with them.
How will we know when we are done?
My desire for perfection maybe the constraint keeping me back.
Instead of pestering with demands… ask "what can I do to help remove obstacles and problems that are holding you back?"
17: progress. The power of small wins.
(idea of a non-zero day)
Positive tickets as a policing strategy. (Richmond, Canada?)
Reduced recidivism from 60% to 8% over a decade.
Celebrate the small wins… positive reinforcement.
To do something big, start small. Progress is a huge motivator. We are apparently motivated by achievement and recognition of achievement.
There is power in steadiness and repetition.
The Stanford prison experiment demonstrates that how we are treated can affect our behavior.
His attempt at the token system for good children: 10 tokens per week. Each token is 30m of screen time, or .50 cents at the end of the week. 30m or reading earns another token.
What is the smallest unit of progress that is still valuable towards our goal?
Do the minimal viable preparation…
start early and small. What is the minimal amount of preparation I could do right now? Just start.
Visually reward and represent progress.
18: flow. The genius of routine.
Phelps' race routine… precise and careful. Mental and physical routines for success…
The routine allowed him to win all day long until the actual event. The stretches, preparation, is all small victories by default.
Routine makes winning the default plan. It enshrines what is essential.
making it look easy
Most of the energy comes early while creating the routine.
Creating new neural pathways … as Pavani loves to say.
What is most important? How can I create a routine to make it default?
If we have built those pathways, we can focus on something else. (Gun fighting requires some subconscious on demand skills while thinking and communicating)
consider and overhaul our triggers
A habit: a cue, a routine, and a reward. If we want to change our behavior, identify the cue first.
create new triggers
Make it easy.
Do the most difficult thing first
Do the hardest thing first… make it habitual.
mix it up
Have different routines per day to avoid routine fatigue.
one at a time
Tackle and overhaul routines one at a time. This is basically Shawn Blanc's plan your year plan… Choose a habit, and tackle that for a month.
19: focus. what's important now.
W. I. N. = what's important now. Focus not on what just happened, how we failed, what the other team is doing, etc. (from highland rugby coach)
While it's natural and human to fret and worry, it's not helpful. Chronos vs. Chiros.
This lines up with Christ's command to not worry about tomorrow…
Mind and body present in the moment. Could be meditation, prayer, or a lunch with a loved one.
multitasking vs multi focusing
You can do more than one thing at a time, but you can't focus or concentrate on more than one thing at a time.
how to focus
Identify what is most important now. Sometimes it's to find out what is more important now.
When you are overwhelmed, stop, identify. Eliminate anything that isn't important immediately.
Get the future out of your head. Make a list. Put it somewhere else… it'll relieve the mental pressure. Prioritize.
The pause that refreshes
I do wish there was less eastern mysticism in this rather than biblical thought. For the author your peace comes from presence, your ability, within oneself. It's a form of self worship.
I do thinking that training yourself to be present and "in Chiros" is a useful skill in this distracted age.
20: Be. The essentialist life.
References Ghandi… (mixed reviews about whether this is a good historical reference.)
The goal for the author is high contribution and personal joy.
Essentialism is an identity rather than a activity. McKeown identities Buddha and Moses leaving Egypt, Mohammed, and John the Baptist as examples… finally Jesus.
majoring and minor differences
Do you make it a core aspect, or a small thing we add?
It's easy to get caught in the paradox of success from the first chapter.
Here's the inner circle argument again.
I don't think the religious practice language of essentialism causes me to throw away the book. It will cause me to consider the advice and practices against my goals and beliefs.
I do think that this mindset has been historically the mind of those who are successful and useful in the kingdom of God. Luther, Calvin, Jim Elliott, Billy Graham.
I appreciate how over and over McKeown emphasizes how essentialism allows him to focus and prioritize his marriage and children.
When there is clarity of purpose, the team thrives.
When theres a lack of clarity, people are stressed and fail.
Clarity of purpose, less but better.
leading as an essentialist
This was a good appendix.
- be ridiculously selective in hiring people (bozo explosion, Guy Kawasaki)
- debate until you have established a very clear intent.
- go for extreme empowerment. (Extreme ownership?) Clarity leads to empowerment. Peter Thiel demanded each employee and executive identify their one priority.
- Communicate the right things to the right people at the right time. Less but better.
- Check in often to ensure progress. Accountability.