"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."
In a hyper-connected world filled with endless opportunities to pursue, Greg McKeown’s approach in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less provides a roadmap to help focus our energies on high-impact activities.
Following his essentialist dream, McKeown left law school to pursue a career of teaching and writing. He started his own leadership and strategy company, guiding individuals and companies to focus on the most critical priorities. The end result of his willingness to pursue his highest contribution is this book, which describes a blueprint for taking back control and directing our lives to make the most meaningful impact.
The Big Idea
Less But Better
"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."
So what exactly is essentialism? The author defines it best as “a discipline you apply each and every time you are faced with a decision about whether to say yes or whether to politely decline. It’s a method for making the tough trade-offs between lots of good things and a few really great things. It’s about learning how to do less but better so you can achieve the highest possible return on every precious moment in your life.”
How many of the tasks that get added to our to-do lists are absolutely vital? McKeown believes that by focusing on fewer pursuits, we can concentrate our energies on those with the biggest influence and increase our happiness and productivity. It’s about continuously asking, “Am I investing in the right activities?”
The key idea is eliminating the non-essential to make time for what is important. Focusing on what’s vital starts with choosing how to spend our time and energy.
Exercise the power of choice
"If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will."
Our options are not always within our control but our ability to select among them is. Choosing how to spend our energy and time is difficult because it involves trade-offs and that means saying no to something. “The reality is, saying yes to any opportunity by definition requires saying no to several others. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agenda to control our lives.”
So how do we go about having the courage to make better choices about what we do with our precious time and energy? Our first task should be to increase our level of comfort with saying no. It is not a rejection of the relationship, but merely a dismissal of the demand or request being asked of us. When we say no, we’re saying no to the request and not the relationship.
He also advocates following the 90 per cent rule, which entails only saying yes to the top ten percent of opportunities. It involves identifying a set of critical criteria or attributes and assigning a score between 0 and 100. The only opportunities pursued would be those that score a 90 and above, disregarding everything else.
It is easier to say no when you know what you want. Scheduling time to figure out what we want is one of the key themes to leading an essentialist life.
Make time to escape and explore life
"The prevalence of noise: Almost everything is noise, and a very few things are exceptionally valuable. This is the justification for taking time to figure out what is most important. Because some things are so much more important, the effort in finding those things is worth it."
Scheduling time to focus and reflect is hugely beneficial in figuring out what the best use of our resource should be. The purpose of choosing and making trade-offs is so we can focus and concentrate on our highest priorities. That is the ultimate aim of an essentialist.
McKeown believes in the importance of “deliberately setting aside distraction-free time in a distraction-free space to do absolutely nothing other than think. We need space to escape in order to discern the essential few from the trivial many.” Only once we’ve cleared our mind of the clutter can we focus on what our biggest contribution will be.
What’s important now? Can you confidently answer that question and feel like you’re working on the most meaningful priority in your life? In order to make essential choices in our lives, we have to ask the right questions. We can only ask the right questions when we’ve taken the time to pause and reflect what we really want in our lives.
There is a mistaken belief that we can have it all and multi-task our way to efficiency and productivity. McKeown makes a clear distinction between multi-task and multi-focus. While we can text and eat, or check email and clear our desk, we cannot concentrate on two things at once; we can only focus on one thing at a time.
Master the power of choice and don’t be afraid to make the tough decisions. Concentrate your energies on your high impact contributions. You just may find your path to an essentialist life. How will you take back control and direct your life to make the most meaningful impact?