“Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”
– Marcus Aurelius
We’re only granted so many days on this earth and, since our time is limited, it makes sense to focus our energies on the activities and goals that really move the needle—our highest point of contribution, if you will.
The question Greg McKeown prompts us to ask ourselves then is this: “Am I investing in the right activities?”
In order to do this, we need to discern the “vital few from the trivial many” and acknowledge the real trade-offs that come from that decision-making process. As Rolf Dobelli argues in The Art of the Good Life, you’ll save more time and energy in the long run if you make one decision and stick to it. By determining course ahead of time, you avoid decision fatigue and social pressure.
Essentialism is about being proactive with your energy and attention so that you can keep what’s important (or, Essential) front and center. It proposes an alternative to allowing other people’s agendas and random circumstance to dictate your life.
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
All quotes are Greg McKeown’s, unless otherwise indicated.
I’ve added bold throughout the text. Those are my own additions for emphasis.
A brilliant design move in the book is the visual juxtaposition of thought patterns. Scattered throughout the book are charts that compare the thoughts of The Essentialist and The Non-Essentialist. It provides an easy way for the reader to grasp the broader concepts of the book by boiling them down to common narratives.
Like all internal work, the process of “essentializing” will look differently for everyone. Social philosopher Richard Gregg notes that, “as different people have different purposes in life, what is relevant to the purpose of one person might not be relevant to the purpose of another…The degree of simplification is a matter for each individual to settle for himself.”
What’s vital to you, may not be vital to me, so resist the urge to compare.
Most of the examples McKeown uses in the book are catering to a particular socio-economic bracket. The first part (“Choose”) especially highlights this. It’s an unfortunate reality of life that many people have far less opportunities available to them than others. The anecdotes he uses don’t reflect this reality.
One must keep in mind, however, that part of being an essentialist (and a good marketer) in this case is to know your audience. His audience seems to be primarily business people and leaders as he himself works as a CEO and consultant. While the book reflects this perspective, the concepts are globally applicable.
Regardless of abundant or limited opportunity, we have much more choice than we realize. A negative or narrow perspective makes possibility seem finite, and that, I believe, is what McKeown is attempting to challenge.
The book is divided into four parts with supporting chapters that lead us through the process of becoming an Essentialist. Parts 1 and 2 are laying the groundwork and Parts 3 and 4 require some action.
In the spirit of Essentialism, I’ll include just 1 quote I feel best describes each chapter (~5 per section).
Table of Contents
Part 1: Essence
What is the core mind-set of an Essentialist?
“[W]hile we may not always have control over our options, we always have control over how we choose among them.”
“Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.”
“A Nonessentialist approaches every trade-off by asking, ‘How can I do both?’ Essentialists ask the tougher but ultimately more liberating question, ‘Which problem do I want?’ An Essentialist makes trade-offs deliberately.”
Part 2: Explore
How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?
“We need space to escape in order to discern the essential few from the trivial many. Unfortunately, in our time-starved era we don’t get that space by default—only by design.”
“I realized that journalism was not just about regurgitating the facts but about figuring out the point. It wasn’t enough to know the who, what, when, and where; you had to understand what it meant. And why it mattered.” – Nora Ephron
“Being a journalist of your own life will force you to stop hyper-focusing on all the minor details and see the bigger picture.”
“Play doesn’t just help us to explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.”
“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.”
“By definition, applying highly selective criteria is a trade-off; sometimes you will have to turn down a seemingly very good option and have faith that the perfect option will soon come along.”
Part 3: Elimate
How can we cut out the trivial many?
“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. We overvalue nonessentials like a nicer car or house, or even intangibles like the number of our followers on Twitter or the way we look in our Facebook photos. As a result, we neglect activities that are truly essential, like spending time with our loved ones, or nurturing our spirit, or taking care of our health.”
“The more we think about what we are giving up when we say yes to someone, the easier it is to say no.…A graceful ‘no’ grows out of a clear but unstated calculation of the trade-off.”
“Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew [in zero-based budgeting]. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.”
“Since ultimately, having fewer options actually makes a decision ‘easier on the eye and the brain,’ we must summon the discipline to get rid of options or activities that may be good, or even really good, but that get in the way.”
“The simple reality is, if you can’t articulate [your boundaries] to yourself and others, it may be unrealistic to expect other people to respect them or even figure them out.”
Part 4: Execute
How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?
“The only thing we can expect (with any great certainty) is the unexpected. Therefore, we can either wait for the moment and react to it or we can prepare. We can create a buffer.”
“An Essentialist produces more—brings forth more—by removing more instead of doing more.”
“[O]f all forms of human motivation the most effective one is progress. Why? Because a small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.”
“Without routine, the pull of nonessential distractions will overpower us. But if we create a routine that enshrines the essentials, we will being to execute them on autopilot.”
“[T]o operate at your highest level of contribution requires that you deliberately tune in to what is important in the here and now.”
“There are two ways of thinking about Essentialism. The first is to think of it as something you do occasionally. The second is to think of it as something you are. In the former, Essentialism is one more thing to add to your already overstuffed life. In the latter, it is a different way—a simpler way—of doing everything.”
At its simplest, Essentialism is about three things:
More clarity, more control, more joy.
Ultimately, it’s about taking control of your life and infusing it with meaning. It’s meant to help avoid arriving to the end of your life and realizing that you spent your time and energy on all the wrong things. Essentialism enables us to “do less, but better.”
For an explanation of Essentialism from the author himself, you can check out Greg McKeown’s interview by Matt D’Avella below: