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Welcome to Essentialism, Where You Can Boost Productivity By Working Less

Mark NicholsLast Updated: October 4, 2016

On a winter day in California years ago, Greg McKeown had just welcomed a healthy and happy daughter into the world. But as his daughter lay in his wife’s arms at the hospital, he was glued to his phone, answering e-mails and debating whether or not to attend a meeting with a client.

“Instinctively, I knew what to do,” writes Greg in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. But he agreed to attend the meeting, leaving his exhausted wife and day-old daughter at the hospital. He felt serious regret as he arrived at the meeting, and got some immediate scorn from the clients.

I had said ‘yes’ simply to please, and in doing so I had hurt my family, my integrity, and the client relationship.”

It’s a key illustration of the imbalance in all of our lives, both at home and at work. We often know what’s best for us, but with a litany of equal-seeming tasks, meetings, and discussions competing for our attention, we become unable to make smart decisions about what’s most worthy of our time and attention.

This experience led Greg to ponder some major questions:

  • Why do we make decisions that go against our best judgment?
  • Why do we so often knowingly leave our abilities untapped?
  • Why are we never satisfied with focusing on just one thing?

It all led him to Essentialism.

From priority to priorities

Most of us are just like Greg in that moment at the hospital: We feel that we have to do it all, from client meetings to emails to all requests in between. In our quest to boost productivity, we default to trying to do more. But our brains may not have caught up to this phenomenon. After all, over the past century, we’ve been a culture that has shifted from having a singular priority to plural priorities, and in the process, we’ve lost much of our ability to overt orient—or, focus intently on one single thing.

Taking an inverted approach to the most common thinking behind productivity, Essentialism is not about how to get more things done, it’s about how to get the right things done. It’s about thoughtfully extracting the priority from a mess of priorities, and treating everything else like the noise that it is. It’s about acknowledging our brain’s craving for focus.

How do we end up with so much noise in our lives, though? Where is this I have to do it all mindset coming from? It starts with what Greg calls “The Paradox of Success.” As we work harder and become more successful, we have an increased number of options and opportunities—and we’re suddenly spread thinner and thinner, typically against our wishes.

And much like a browser window with 25 tabs open, we quickly forget what we were looking for in the first place.

How Unessentialists falter

Faced with an overwhelming number of opportunities, the Unessentialist—Greg’s term for anyone who isn’t an Essentialist acolyte—approaches a problem like this:

One, they ask themselves, “How can I do it all?”— rather than the Essentialist-friendly “Which problem do I want?” They approach significant decisions in terms of what they stand to lose in the trade-off, rather than the inevitable gain in focus that will come with fewer opportunities. Essentialists love focus. Nonessentialists rarely have it.

Two, they end up just doing everything, because they haven’t yet discovered the joy of saying no. Success, or at least the prospect of it, is addictive—guilt-tripping bosses have trained us to believe that once an opportunity is turned down, it’s gone forever. Essentialists acknowledge that saying no is a realistic option. And an attractive one, at that.

When we say yes to everything, we say no to control

The result of saying yes to everything—and making no decisions over which work is truly important to us—is catastrophic. As Greg writes in Essentialism:

When we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone else will step in to choose for us.”

We resign ourselves to being a to-do machine, and we become nothing more than a function of our companies, and other people’s sometimes sordid agendas.

When we’re not making our own choices, we’re not working towards where we want to be. That leaves us floundering, frustrated, and taking inefficient routes to getting our most important creative work done.

Essentialism may be primarily about personal choices, but ignoring its implications sends shockwaves across entire teams and organizations.

Striking back against priorities

So what’s the key, according to the Essentialist, of taking back this control over our destiny?

To Greg, Essentialists know the appeal of the slow, thoughtful “yes” and the quick, decisive “no.”

As he told us in an email interview:

“We emphasize the fear of missing out. What we need to discover is the joy of missing out.” (tweet this)

To start down the path of getting better at the slow “yes” and the quick “no,” Greg suggests taking stock of everything, and starting the process of locking in on what’s essential to you. It’s the first and most important step towards having that crystal-clear priority.

Start with the nonessential tasks you have total control over,” Greg told us. “Slowly build your essentialist muscles in order to better discern what is most essential and why, and then how to negotiate and navigate the requests you have less control over.”

To aid that process of discernment, Greg let us in on a simple method for knowing what’s most meaningful at that moment:

Write each (task) out on a separate piece of paper and then compare each one to every other item with the question, ‘If I could only have one of these items, which would I pick?’ Once you are done with this process, you will have a prioritized list. Then start work from the top.”

The Essentialist team

But the Essentialist life too often comes up against a culture that doesn’t quite agree with it. Our workplaces have been constructed and reinforced over the years to repel the focus that comes with something like Essentialism—and to be more accommodating to the get-everything-done-all-the-time mayhem of which most of us have adjusted.

“Most modern offices are extremely essentialist-unfriendly,” Greg told us.

This is why when people know they need to focus and get a big piece of work done, they leave work and find that special place, corner, room, or plane to focus on the essential work that needs to get done.“

Greg also holds fast that even if Essentialist principles are mostly executed at the personal level, it’s ultimately a challenge best addressed as a team.

Understanding it’s a cultural challenge is sobering,” says Greg. “Once we can see the culture clearly, we realize the urgent need for us to make different decisions personally.”

In fact, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less highlights “clarity of purpose” as a core part of any Essentialist team’s toolset. After all, if our physical workplaces are going to be this inhospitable by design, we may as well focus on changing our company’s values from the inside-out.

To the Essentialist, the answer is establishing an Essential Intent. This is not an airy mission statement, or a vague and impossible objective—it’s a clear, achievable goal. Without this clear company objective, people play the game of their own careers, rather than working together. This clarity of purpose can inspire your employees and differentiate your team—and, as Greg points out, it serves as a consistent predictor of team success.

It’s as simple as asking the question that Greg poses in his book:

“If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?”

From there, decisions can be made with the dead simple calculus of:

“Does this new idea really help us achieve our intent?”

Essentialism in practice

I’ll admit it—after reading Greg’s book and even interviewing him, I was a skeptic. It sounded like an unachievable dream of modern worklife. Used to it as we are, the noise of options and tasks often seem too loud to drown out. And I’m terrible at saying no.

But a few days after my emails with Greg, I was on a flight to Montreal for a vacation with my wife. I wrote out a list of restaurants to try, museums to see, buildings to gawk at, parks to drink in. And like a flash of lightning, I realized how impossible my expectations were of this trip. (For one, we had fewer meals to eat than restaurants to visit.)

I quickly rattled off the Essentialist mindset to my wife, and told her that we needed to decide what was important to us on this trip, and make decisions around that. For me: I had an old friend who had recently moved to Montreal. My wife, who had gone to school there, had friends she wanted me to meet who she hadn’t seen in years.

That became the Essential Intent of the trip for us: See friends, and let any other experiences be a byproduct. It was a simple goal that would let us say with certainty whether the trip had been successful or not.

The relief was unmistakable. And we finally felt in control of our vacation destiny.


Learn more about Essentialism on Greg’s blog:

Illustrations: Bully

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