Jan 10

“Essentialism”: Cutting Life Down to Size, For the Better

As John Maxwell has written, “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Greg McKeown‘s popular Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (2014) has been called “a smart, concise guide for the overcommitted and under-satisfied” by Publishers Weekly. More of their summary:

Punctuated with zippy, thoughtful one-liners, this guide to doing ‘less but better’ offers strategies for determining what is truly necessary, and shedding what is not. Too many people fall for the having-it-all myth, and would benefit from shifting from a non-essentialist mindset (unable to distinguish and parse out the truly important) to an essentialist one (capable of identifying the goal), contends McKeown. Instead of attempting to achieve everything, readers need to figure out how to do the ‘right thing the right way at the right time.’         

Truly packed with helpful quotes, Essentialism features the following words of wisdom:

Essentialism: only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.

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 it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.

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. They read between the lines.

There should be no shame in admitting to a mistake; after all, we really are only admitting that we are now wiser than we once were.

What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?

Once an Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware, who cared for people in the last twelve weeks of their lives, recorded their most often discussed regrets. At the top of the list: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” 

Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.

McKeown’s Essentialism received the following praise from bestselling motivational author Adam Grant:

Essentialism holds the keys to solving one of the great puzzles of life: how can we do less but accomplish more? A timely, essential read for anyone who feels overcommitted, overloaded, or overworked—in other words, everyone. It has already changed the way that I think about my own priorities, and if more leaders embraced this philosophy, our jobs and our lives would be less stressful and more productive. So drop what you’re doing and read it.

Watch McKeown say more about “the disciplined pursuit of less, but better”: