“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”
How many articles do you run across which promise to help you accomplish more with your time, or tell you that you need to become a morning person in order to do more? These articles start with the premise that what is lacking in your life is time to do what you need. But that’s the wrong place to start. The question that Essentialism starts with is: “Am I spending my time on worthy things?” The question assumes that, indeed, we are unwisely spending at least some of our time.
Obviously we can’t develop the entire book for you in a short blog post, but perhaps we can “pregame” your reading of the book by looking at two key concepts.
The importance of saying no
Greg makes the case in the book that an Essentialist says no to practically everything, in order to be able to say yes to the really important things. This concept is exemplified by the case of Mohammed El-Erian, who a few years ago was head of a trillion-dollar investment firm, Pimco. In September of 2013, El-Erian’s 10-year old daughter handed him a list of items that El-Erian had missed “due to work,” which included a first day at school, a first soccer match, and a parent-teacher conference. El-Erian got defensive and started to explain himself, until he realized that he was missing the point…again. The point wasn’t work. The point was that ostensibly, his career was to be at the service of his family, and when that started to not be the case, it was a chance to pause and reflect. To El-Erian’s credit, he resigned from Pimco, where for years he had gotten to the office at 4:15 am and returned home at 7:00 pm. He realized that “saying yes,” even to very good opportunities, was pointless if his family was being left behind.
Use extreme criteria to determine what is essential
Greg says, “If it isn’t a clear yes, it’s a clear no” when considering whether to devote time to a project, task, or activity. In this point he is echoing Derek Sivers’ well-known “Hell Yeah” article. Before you dismiss both McKeown and Sivers as “unrealistic” or “unreasonable” in their thoughts, realize that arguing against using extreme criteria to determine what is essential means retaining room in your life for things that you are not passionate about, that have simply accrued unintentionally, instead of being being open-minded as to how to change that and have a more curated and intentional life.
So, conduct a life audit. Life, like finances and garages, can get cluttered after a while. Just take a moment to go through what you are doing and ask yourself if these things are really, truly what you want to be involved with. And don’t be afraid to return back to the favorite word of the Essentialist, “No.” Just because you said “Yes” to a project or activity or board position years ago doesn’t mean you are committed for life. If you need a bit of help giving yourself permission to quit something, use this Freakonomics podcast.
Still need a bit of a nudge? Check out this brief talk the author gave for the Stanford Business school. Intrigued and want more? Listen to this interview with Greg conducted by Jordan Harbinger of The Art of Charm.