The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Grey McKeown

Summary in 100 words or less

Essentialism is about how to get the right things done. If you don't prioritize your life, someone else will. Replace "I have to" with "I choose to," "It's all important" with "Only a few things matter," and "I can do both" with "I can do anything but not everything." Creating the space to explore, think, reflect, play, and rest is the antidote to non-essential busyness. Develop a routine that enshrines the essentials so we begin to execute them on autopilot. Build a buffer for unexpected events and practice extreme and early preparation.


My Highlights

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 your highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

The pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure. Put another way, success can distract us from focusing on the essential things that produce success in the first place.

There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist: “I have to,” “It’s all important,” and “I can do both.” Like mythological sirens, these assumptions are as dangerous as they are seductive. They draw us in and drown us in shallow waters.

To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.”

Options (things) can be taken away, while our core ability to choose (free will) cannot be.

As painful as they can sometimes be, trade-offs represent a significant opportunity. By forcing us to weigh both options and strategically select the best one for us, we significantly increase our chance of achieving the outcome we want.

If you believe being overly busy and overextended is evidence of productivity, then you probably believe that creating space to explore, think, and reflect should be kept to a minimum. Yet these very activities are the antidote to the non-essential busyness that infects so many of us.

Before you can evaluate what is and isn’t essential, you first need to explore your options. While non-Essentialists automatically react to the latest idea, jump on the latest opportunity, or respond to the latest e-mail, Essentialists choose to create the space to explore and ponder.

The faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule. And the noisier things get, the more we need to build quiet reflection spaces in which we can truly focus.

Being a journalist of your own life will force you to stop hyper-focusing on all the minor details and see the bigger picture.

As we get older something happens. We are introduced to the idea that play is trivial. Play is a waste of time. Play is unnecessary. Play is childish. Unfortunately, many of these negative messages come from the very place where imaginative play should be most encouraged, not stifled.

Modern corporations were born out of the Industrial Revolution, where their entire reason for being was to achieve efficiency in the mass production of goods. Furthermore, these early managers looked to the military—a rather less-than-playful entity—for their inspiration.

The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies, and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution. One of the most common ways people—especially ambitious, successful people—damage this asset is through a lack of sleep.

Here’s a simple, systematic process you can use to apply selective criteria to opportunities that come your way. First, write down the opportunity. Second, write down a list of three “minimum criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered. Third, write down a list of three ideal or “extreme criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered. By definition, if the opportunity doesn’t pass the first set of criteria, the answer is obviously no. But if it also doesn’t pass two of your three extreme criteria, the answer is still no.

When there is a serious lack of clarity about what the team stands for and what their goals and roles are, people experience confusion, stress, and frustration. When there is a high level of clarity, on the other hand, people thrive.

When we are unclear about our real purpose in life—in other words, when we don’t have a clear sense of our goals, our aspirations, and our values—we make up our own social games. We waste time and energies on trying to look good in comparison to other people.

When we have strong internal clarity it is almost as if we have a force field protecting us from the non-essentials coming at us from all directions.

The more we think about what we are giving up when we say yes to someone, the easier it is to say no. If we have no clear sense of the opportunity cost—in other words, the value of what we are giving up—then it is especially easy to fall into the non-essential trap of telling ourselves we can get it all done.

Being vague is not the same as being graceful, and delaying the eventual “no” will only make it that much harder—and the recipient that much more resentful.

To apply the principle of condensing to our lives we need to shift the ratio of activity to meaning. We need to eliminate multiple meaningless activities and replace them with one very meaningful activity.

Non-essentialist assumes the best-case scenario will happen—forces execution at the last minute. Essentialist builds in a buffer for unexpected events and practices extreme and early preparation.

To attain knowledge add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day. –Lao-tzu

Instead of trying to accomplish it all—and all once—and flaring out, the Essentialist starts small and celebrates progress. Instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter, the Essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.

Take a goal or deadline you have coming up and ask yourself, “What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?”

The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential to the default position.

Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles. Without routine, the pull of non-essential distractions will overpower us. But if we create a routine that enshrines the essentials, we will begin to execute them on autopilot.

Life is available only in the present moment, if you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply. –Thich Nhat Hanh

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.

More book notes

How to Be a Productivity Ninja
The Hour between Dog and Wolf
The Art of Thinking Clearly
Smart Choices
An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

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