Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

by Greg McKeown

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Overview

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES AND WALL STREET JOURNAL BESTSELLER 

Have you ever felt the urge to declutter your work life?

Do you often find yourself stretched too thin?
 
Do you simultaneously feel overworked and underutilized?
 
Are you frequently busy but not productive?
 
Do you feel like your time is constantly being hijacked by other people’s agendas?
 
If you answered yes to any of these, the way out is the Way of the Essentialist.
 
The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done.  It is not  a time management strategy, or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter. 

By forcing us to apply a more selective criteria for what is Essential, the disciplined pursuit of less empowers us to reclaim control of our own choices about where to spend our precious time and energy—instead of giving others the implicit permission to choose for us.

Essentialism is not one more thing—it’s a whole new way of doing everything. A must-read for any leader, manager, or individual who wants to do less, but better, and declutter and organize their own their lives, Essentialism is a movement whose time has come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804137393
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/15/2014
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 26,322
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Greg McKeown writes, teaches, and speaks around the world on the importance of living and leading as an Essentialist. He has spoken at companies including Apple, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Salesforce.com, Symantec, and Twitter and is among the most popular bloggers for the Harvard Business Review and LinkedIn Influencer’s group. He co-created the course, Designing Life, Essentially  at Stanford University, was a collaborator of the Wall Street Journal bestseller Multipliers and serves as a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum. He holds an MBA from Stanford University. www.gregmckeown.com

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Essentialist

The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.

--Lin Yutang

Sam Elliot1 is a capable executive in Silicon Valley who found himself stretched too thin after his company was acquired by a larger, bureaucratic business.

1 Name has been changed.

He was in earnest about being a good citizen in his new role so he said yes to many requests without really thinking about it. But as a result he would spend the whole day rushing from one meeting and conference call to another trying to please everyone and get it all done. His stress went up as the quality of his work went down. It was like he was majoring in minor activities and as a result, his work became unsatisfying for him and frustrating for the people he was trying so hard to please.

In the midst of his frustration the company came to him and offered him an early retirement package. But he was in his early 50s and had no interest in completely retiring. He thought briefly about starting a consulting company doing what he was already doing. He even thought of selling his services back to his employer as a consultant. But none of these options seemed that appealing. So he went to speak with a mentor who gave him surprising advice: “Stay, but do what you would as a consultant and nothing else. And don’t tell anyone.” In other words, his mentor was advising him to do only those things that he deemed essential--and ignore everything else that was asked of him.

The executive followed the advice! He made a daily commitment towards cutting out the red tape. He began saying no.

He was tentative at first. He would evaluate requests based on the timid criteria, “Can I actually fulfill this request, given the time and resources I have?” If the answer was no then he would refuse the request. He was pleasantly surprised to find that while people would at first look a little disappointed, they seemed to respect his honesty.

Encouraged by his small wins he pushed back a bit more. Now when a request would come in he would pause and evaluate the request against a tougher criteria: “Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?”

If he couldn’t answer a definitive yes, then he would refuse the request. And once again to his delight, while his colleagues might initially seem disappointed, they soon began respecting him more for his refusal, not less.

Emboldened, he began to apply this selective criteria to everything, not just direct requests. In his past life he would always volunteer for presentations or assignments that came up last minute; now he found a way to not sign up for them. He used to be one of the first to jump in on an e‑mail trail, but now he just stepped back and let others jump in. He stopped attending conference calls that he only had a couple of minutes of interest in. He stopped sitting in on the weekly update call because he didn’t need the information. He stopped attending meetings on his calendar if he didn’t have a direct contribution to make. He explained to me, “Just because I was invited didn’t seem a good enough reason to attend.”

It felt self-indulgent at first. But by being selective he bought himself space, and in that space he found creative freedom. He could concentrate his efforts one project at a time. He could plan thoroughly. He could anticipate roadblocks and start to remove obstacles. Instead of spinning his wheels trying to get everything done, he could get the right things done. His newfound commitment to doing only the things that were truly important--and eliminating everything else--restored the quality of his work. Instead of making just a millimeter of progress in a million directions he began to generate tremendous momentum towards accomplishing the things that were truly vital.

He continued this for several months. He immediately found that he not only got more of his day back at work, in the evenings he got even more time back at home. He said, “I got back my family life! I can go home at a decent time.” Now instead of being a slave to his phone he shuts it down. He goes to the gym. He goes out to eat with his wife.

To his great surprise, there were no negative repercussions to his experiment. His manager didn’t chastise him. His colleagues didn’t resent him. Quite the opposite; because he was left only with projects that were meaningful to him and actually valuable to the company, they began to respect and value his work more than ever. His work became fulfilling again. His performance ratings went up. He ended up with one of the largest bonuses of his career!

In this example is the basic value proposition of Essentialism: only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.

What about you? How many times have you reacted to a request by saying yes without really thinking about it? How many times have you resented committing to do something and wondered, “Why did I sign up for this?” How often do you say yes simply to please? Or to avoid trouble? Or because “yes” had just become your default response?

Now let me ask you this: Have you ever found yourself stretched too thin? Have you ever felt both overworked and underutilized? Have you ever found yourself majoring in minor activities? Do you ever feel busy but not productive? Like you’re always in motion, but never getting anywhere?

If you answered yes to any of these, the way out is the way of the Essentialist.


The Way of the Essentialist

Dieter Rams was the lead designer at Braun for many years. He is driven by the idea that almost everything is noise. He believes very few things are essential. His job is to filter through that noise until he gets to the essence. For example, as a young twenty-four-year-old at the company he was asked to collaborate on a record player. The norm at the time was to cover the turntable in a solid wooden lid or even to incorporate the player into a piece of living room furniture. Instead, he and his team removed the clutter and designed a player with a clear plastic cover on the top and nothing more. It was the first time such a design had been used, and it was so revolutionary people worried it might bankrupt the company because nobody would buy it. It took courage, as it always does, to eliminate the nonessential. By the sixties this aesthetic started to gain traction. In time it became the design every other record player followed.

Dieter’s design criteria can be summarized by a characteristically succinct principle, captured in just three German words: Weniger aber besser. The English translation is: Less but better. A more fitting definition of Essentialism would be hard to come by.

The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better. It doesn’t mean occasionally giving a nod to the principle. It means pursuing it in a disciplined way.

The way of the Essentialist isn’t about setting New Year’s resolutions to say “no” more, or about pruning your in-box, or about mastering some new strategy in time management. It is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” There are far more activities and opportunities in in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital. The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference--learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential.

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

The difference between the way of the Essentialist and the way of the Nonessentialist can be seen in figure 1 above. In both images the same amount of effort is exerted. In the image on the left, the energy is divided into many different activities. The result is that we have the unfulfilling experience of making a millimeter of progress in a million directions. In the image on the right, the energy is given to fewer activities. The result is that by investing in fewer things we have the satisfying experience of making significant progress in the things that matter most. The way of the Essentialist rejects the idea that we can fit it all in. Instead it requires us to grapple with real trade-offs and make tough decisions. In many cases we can learn to make one-time decisions that make a thousand future decisions so we don’t exhaust ourselves asking the same questions again and again.

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

The way of the Essentialist is the path to being in control of our own choices. It is a path to new levels of success and meaning. It is the path on which we enjoy the journey, not just the destination. Despite all these benefits, however, there are too many forces conspiring to keep us from applying the disciplined pursuit of less but better, which may be why so many end up on the misdirected path of the Nonessentialist.


The Way of the Nonessentialist

On a bright, winter day in California I visited my wife, Anna, in the hospital. Even in the hospital Anna was radiant. But I also knew she was exhausted. It was the day after our precious daughter was born, healthy and happy at 7 pounds, 3 ounces.1

Yet what should have been one of the happiest, most serene days of my life was actually filled with tension. Even as my beautiful new baby lay in my wife’s tired arms, I was on the phone and on e‑mail with work, and I was feeling pressure to go to a client meeting. My colleague had written, “Friday between 1–2 would be a bad time to have a baby because I need you to come be at this meeting with X.” It was now Friday and though I was pretty certain (or at least I hoped) the e‑mail had been written in jest, I still felt pressure to attend.

Instinctively, I knew what to do. It was clearly a time to be there for my wife and newborn child. So when asked whether I planned to attend the meeting, I said with all the conviction I could muster . . .

“Yes.”

To my shame, while my wife lay in the hospital with our hours-old baby, I went to the meeting. Afterward, my colleague said, “The client will respect you for making the decision to be here.” But the look on the clients’ faces did not evince respect. Instead, they mirrored how I felt. What was I doing there? I had said “yes” simply to please, and in doing so I had hurt my family, my integrity, and even the client relationship.

As it turned out, exactly nothing came of the client meeting. But even if it had, surely I would have made a fool’s bargain. In trying to keep everyone happy I had sacrificed what mattered most.

On reflection I discovered this important lesson:

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

That experience gave me renewed interest--read, inexhaustible obsession--in understanding why otherwise intelligent people make the choices they make in their personal and professional lives. “Why is it,” I wonder, “that we have so much more ability inside of us than we often choose to utilize?” And “How can we make the choices that allow us to tap into more of the potential inside ourselves, and in people everywhere?”

My mission to shed light on these questions had already led me to quit law school in England and travel, eventually, to California to do my graduate work at Stanford. It had led me to spend more than two years collaborating on a book, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. And it went on to inspire me to start a strategy and leadership company in Silicon Valley, where I now work with some of the most capable people in some of the most interesting companies in the world, helping to set them on the path of the Essentialist.

In my work I have seen people all over the world who are consumed and overwhelmed by the pressures all around them. I have coached “successful” people in the quiet pain of trying desperately to do everything, perfectly, now. I have seen people trapped by controlling managers and unaware that they do not “have to” do all the thankless busywork they are asked to do. And I have worked tirelessly to understand why so many bright, smart, capable individuals remain snared in the death grip of the nonessential.

What I have found has surprised me.

I worked with one particularly driven executive who got into technology at a young age and loved it. He was quickly rewarded for his knowledge and passion with more and more opportunities. Eager to build on his success, he continued to read as much as he could and pursue all he could with gusto and enthusiasm. By the time I met him he was hyperactive, trying to learn it all and do it all. He seemed to find a new obsession every day, sometimes every hour. And in the process, he lost his ability to discern the vital few from the trivial many. Everything was important. As a result he was stretched thinner and thinner. He was making a millimeter of progress in a million directions. He was overworked and under-utilized. That’s when I sketched out for him the image on the left of figure 1.

He stared at it for the longest time in uncharacteristic silence. Then he said, with more than a hint of emotion, “That is the story of my life!” Then I sketched the image on the right. “What would happen if we could figure out the one thing you could do that would make the highest contribution?” I asked him. He responded sincerely: “That is the question.”



1. A version of this story was published in a blog post I wrote for Harvard Business Review called “If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will,” June 28, 2012, http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/06/how-to-say-no-to-a-controlling/.

Table of Contents

Part I Essence: What is the core mind-set of an Essentialist?

1 The Essentialist 1

2 Choose: The Invincible Power of Choice 33

3 Discern: The Unimportance of Practically Everything 41

4 Trade-Off: Which Problem Do I Want? 49

Part II Explore: How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?

5 Escape: The Perks of Being Unavailable 63

6 Look: See What Really Matters 73

7 Play: Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child 83

8 Sleep: Protect the Asset 91

9 Select: The Power of Extreme Criteria 103

Part III Eliminate: How can we cut out the trivial many?

10 Clarify: One Decision That Makes a Thousand 119

11 Dare: The Power of a Graceful "No" 131

12 Uncommit: Win Big by Cutting Your Losses 145

13 Edit: The Invisible Art 155

14 Limit: The Freedom of Setting Boundaries 163

Part IV Execute: How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?

15 Buffer: The Unfair Advantage 175

16 Subtract: Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles 185

17 Progress: The Power of Small Wins 193

18 Flow: The Genius of Routine 203

19 Focus: What's Important Now? 215

20 BE: The Essentialist Life 225

Appendix: Leadership Essentials 239

Notes 247

Acknowledgments 257

Index 259

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Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
clahain1 More than 1 year ago
Corporate cog, small business owner, artist, or harried stay-at-home parent--we all have big goals we'd like to pursue if we could just find enough time in the day. The number one piece of advice offered by teachers, mentors, life coaches and time management gurus? Prioritize. Sounds great. But how does one do that when faced with a never-ending list of must-dos?  According to author Greg McKeown, the first thing to dump is the list. A "priority," he says, is ONE thing. The First thing. Discovering what your First thing is--and how to structure life so that you're able to focus on it--is what ESSENTIALISM: THE DISCIPLINED PURSUIT OF LESS is about. The concept is simple enough: Do less but do it better. Yet, as we know, simple doesn't mean easy. There's nothing easy about admitting to your boss that you cannot possibly do justice to project he's set on your desk when there are three other ones demanding your attention. It isn't easy to give up your bowling league, your online gaming group, and your book club to finally finish that novel you've been "writing" since college. And it's downright excruciating to say to your kids: will it be karate, soccer OR drama? Because mom and dad need their time, too. What McKeown proposes is a radical re-think of how we design our days and focus our attention. ESSENTIALISM is directed to the corporate world, but the ideas and suggestion are easily adaptable for those in public service, the self-employed, students or those looking to make the most of a hobby they're passionate about. It really is up to each of us how far we want to take this philosophy--from solving a particular problem (How do I plan a wedding for 500 AND sleep AND not lose my job?) to a total life makeover that strips our days down to the barest and most meaningful essentials. The book provides a framework for individual readers to explore, adapt and build upon. I do wish Essentialism was a bit longer and included more case studies of people in varying life/work situations. I guess that would undermine the premise--that our lives are OUR lives and only we know what our priority (in the singular!) should be. Nevertheless, it  would have been helpful for McKeown to delve a bit more into the problem of competing demands--as a father of small children, he must have plenty of experience with the challenge of balancing family and work. Also, some might say that his view of how bosses will take take an employee's decision to skip time-wasting meetings or reject new projects is overly optimistic, especially in our still-recovering job market.  I borrowed my copy of ESSENTIALISM from the library, but I'm going to buy my own. It looks to be one of those books that become more and more useful as you put its ideas to work. It'll be something to turn to when, invariably, I find myself allowing the trivial to hijack my  "one wild and precious life."  
Asispeak More than 1 year ago
I didn't complete Chapter 1 before I paused, set the book down, and immediately began to simplify my office space. This book has become a way of life for me. Greg McKeown's statement "Separate the vital few from the trivial many" has helped me to become disciplined not MORE disciplined. Think you are disciplined now? You will find out quickly that, in fact, you are not. You will breathe a sigh of relief as you enjoy the "disciplined pursuit of less". This book is not just for the CEOs and corporate executives in the world, it is for anyone desiring to make the highest contribution they can to the world in which we live. I love this book!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Practical explanations, contrasts, and recommendations for filtering out all the things that impede progress, growth and success in those things that truly matter.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yup
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It helps you rethink your priorities.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dr_James_Scott More than 1 year ago
The business world worships at the alter of multi-tasking, and it's leaders are heralded when they can figure out how to do more with the same or less amount of time. Individuals think they don't have a choice but to become proficient at multi-tasking because there's always so much to do! And therein lies the problem ... the thought that we have to do all that stuff that could possibly be done. Greg McKeown wants to rock your world by teaching you there's another way to think, live, and work. That other way revolves around doing "less but better," based on the concept he's an evangelist for called "Essentialism." McKeown does an effective job teaching this concept in his book, "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less," published by Crown Business. The book is more than an explanation of "Essentialism" followed by filler. The author does an intelligent yet understandable job of explaining and making an argument for Essentialism, and then walks the reader through the essential core-mindset of an essentialist, and how to go about developing a lifestyle that pursues doing "less but better" by focusing on what is essential. Many readers may initially be tripped up by the very concept. Life is stuffed with so many things to do and so many choices to make; aren't we supposed to see how many of them we can take on and get done? No. But that's not what we've always been taught, and it's certainly not what has been modeled for us or expected from us. What would your life look like if you purposely, thoughtfully started saying no to options and choices that were not essential to how you have decided to live your life, both personally and professionally? Chances are, your life would be very different, but the result would likely be your doing "less but better." We've developed as the norm the idea of life being about doing a lot, and only some of those things being done very well. But life could be about doing less --- just the essential things --- extremely well and saying no to the rest. Building such a lifestyle requires changing one's thinking and being disciplined in the application of this new mindset. McKeown lays out the essential elements of essentialism with a smooth writing style, easy-to-understand terms, and relevant stories to illuminate his teaching. Applying what McKeown teaches could result in a more unencumbered, more fulling, and even more productive life. For that reason, I recommend you read this book and let it challenge you to assess whether you're really spending your time and resources on the essential things in life, or if you're packing your life full of every option made available to you, no matter how unimportant it might be. The contrast might just motivate you to make some changes. I received this book free from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was really good.