essentialism | Greg McKeown

Author: Greg McKeown
Author: Greg McKeown

Main Theme: Life / Time Management

For People Who: Want to get the right things done.

essentialism was a “vacation read” for me and perhaps it was because I started it while sitting on a beach rather than in the business of life, I came to a very ironic conclusion: This book about essentialism has a lot of unessential things to say. This 237 pager could easily have been knocked down to less than 100 pages (e.g. too many stories). Having said that, I am not saying essentialism lacks substance. In this brief summary, I plan on cutting through the fat and pointing out the areas in which essentialism is a winner. In essence, essentialism is a deeper look at time management. Personally, I have read a lot about time management and have always been a great manager of myself. Hopefully this provides you with context for my remarks. However, if you feel stretched, if you feel like giving up, if you feel like your schedule is overrunning and controlling your life, essentialism will hit home for you. And I would certainly recommend that you pick it up. Because if you can’t learn to lead yourself, how do you expect to lead an organization, business, group of peers, or even your own family?

Brief Summary

Part 1: Essence

In this part, McKeown answers the question: What is the core mind-set of an essentialist? The first matter of importance, similar to Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is the power of choice. No one is forced to do anything against their will. Saying, “I have to” abdicates your right to choose and pushes responsibility for your daily actions onto someone or something else. An essentialist, rather, would say “I choose to do X.” Later in the book, McKeown will write on the power of a graceful “No” which empowers us to choose what is important over what is thrust upon us. And McKeown points out, “Working hard is important. But more effort does not necessarily yield more results. ‘Less but better’ does.” (pg. 43) Essentialists are proactive in the sense that they don’t wait for the world to act upon them, they make decisions and begin to act upon the world. This means if we don’t choose what to value, then our job, our boss, our colleagues – whether people or unanticipated circumstances – will force their values upon us. Someone other than yourself will determine what is important for you. To live as an essentialist, we must make trade-offs – we must realize that when we say yes to one thing, we are saying no to something else. So, are we saying yes to what is most important? Part two deals with how we discover the difference between what is trivial and what is vital.

A non-essentialist thinks almost everything is essential. An essentialist thinks almost everything is nonessential. –essentialism, pg. 46-47

Part 2: Explore

In the second part of his book, McKeown answers the question: How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few. The first step in discerning the difference between trivial and vital is making the time to figure it out! “An Essentialist focuses the way our eyes focus; not by fixating on something but by constantly adjusting and adapting to the field of vision.” (pg. 66) If you think you don’t have the time to do this, then you have to answer this question: Do you own your schedule or does your schedule own you? McKeown lays out four chapters worth of essential actions:

  • Look – If you don’t look for what really matters, you’ll hear the information but miss the point of it.
  • Play – Studies have shown that “play has the power to significantly improve everything from personal health to relationships to education to organizations’ ability to innovate” (pg. 85)
  • Sleep – A lack of sleep leads to a lack of effectiveness and productivity. In fact, in a study by Charles Czeisler, the Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School has shown that going a week of sleeping 4-5 hours a night “induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.1%.” (pg. 98) Would you show up to work drunk? Then why do we choose (we make the choice) to deprive ourselves of adequate rest?
  • Select – An Essentialist will only say yes to a limited number of opportunities. “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.” (pg. 109)

Part 3: Eliminate

The next step to becoming an Essentialist is answering the question: How can we cut out the trivial many? “The killer question when deciding what activities to eliminate is: “If I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?” (pg. 117) If you’d rather not do it, then it may be time to walk away. Heck, it would have been better to say “No” to the opportunity in the first place. And it is essential to learn the  graceful “No.” It can make all the difference in the world – just ask Rosa Parks. Here are eight ways to say that dreaded two-letter word:

  1. The awkward pause. When an opportunity comes, own the silence that follows. Wait before giving your answer.
  2. The soft “no” (or the “no but”). Say “no” but then offer a reason: “No I can’t, but I will next time.”
  3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” It gives you time to pause and make a good decision.
  4. Use e-mail bounce backs. The auto-response email when you’re busy or on vacation gives a non-offensive “No” every time you wish not to be disturbed.
  5. Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritize?” Especially if it’s your boss asking you to do more, respond by asking: “I want to do what you ask, so which of these other tasks would you like me to not do to make time for the new task?”
  6. Say it with humor. Just straight up say “Nope!” and then chuckle.
  7. Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to do Y.” Example? “You are welcome to borrow my truck for your moving day. I am willing to leave the keys in the mailbox.” Meaning, “I’ll help you, but no, I won’t be there.”
  8. “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.” You’d like to help, but can’t, so you’re helping them find the help they need.

Sometimes, when you’ve said yes, there are times you need to uncommit. Stop trying to force it, ask for advice, and recognize that you’ve overextended yourself. Facing your failure and backing out of a commitment is far better than destroying your life because you failed to graciously decline an opportunity that seemed good in the moment; thus you chose to manage your time unwisely. In the future, keep from over-extending yourself by setting boundaries. Here are a few suggestions when setting them:

  • Don’t rob people of their problems. Enabling another’s poor behavior doesn’t help them or you. Our problems have a way of making us stronger – so don’t be a “problem thief.”
  • Boundaries are a source of liberation. You can go crazy when you can safely play football within a grassy field. But move the game to the top of a skyscraper with no barriers and, if you’re not careful, you can kill yourself.
  • Find your deal breakers. Determine ahead of time when you will give a hard “No” when opportunity comes knocking. Are you willing to give up family time? Vacation? Income? Spiritual growth?
  • Craft Social Contracts. Let others know, “Here are a couple things that really matter to me…” (pg. 170) Let them know up front what you are and are not willing to do.

Part 4: Execute

The final question McKeown answers is: How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless? One of the biggest takeaways I have from essentialism is the idea of buffers. When planning your scheduled events, leave room for unexpected circumstances. McKeown writes, “One way to protect against this is simply to add a 50 percent buffer to the amount of time we estimate it will take to complete a task or project.” (pg. 183) When I first read this, I stopped and reflected upon how often a 50 percent buffer would have been enough. For example, driving to an appointment, I might expect it to take 10 minutes when in reality it took me 15 mins – a 50 percent increase. In the end, essentialism requires that we start with what we have – it may be small, but our small wins can grow into big momentum. Once an Essentialist gets into the right rhythm of thinking, the right habits begin to form. Thus, Essentialism becomes second nature, allowing you to focus on the important task that is presently in front of you.

Beware the barrenness of a busy life. –Socrates

General Information:

  • Title: essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
  • Author: Greg McKeown
  • Published: 2014
  • Pages: 260

Personal Ratings (1-10) 

  • Applicability: 7
  • Readability: 5 – The stories weigh down the importance of the ideas.
  • Originality: 6 – Many of the ideas can be found in other works.
  • Recommendation: I would pass on this one unless the ideas of the book really resonate with you. If you’re interested in a more concise book on time management I would recommend Time Management Magic by Lee Cockerell. CLICK HERE for a brief summary.
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One thought on “essentialism | Greg McKeown

  1. Thanks for the essential elements I “essentialism!” I was thinking about getting the book but your info was perfect. Thanks for taking the time to share the meat of all these books!

    Like

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