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Focus on the Essential: 7 Helpful Ideas from Essentialism

I rarely read “productivity” books anymore. After you read a few of them, you’ve read them all. Most are just a tired repackaging of the same few ideas that could be easily summarized in a blog post or two.

Once in a while, however, I read a productivity book that impresses me, that exposes me to new ideas and ways of thinking. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is such a book.

Author Greg McKeown offers not just a few tips and strategies to help you be more productive, but an entirely different way of living and thinking. He calls this approach “Essentialism”.

Now that I’ve read the book, I’m excited to share its most interesting and useful ideas. I’ll start with a brief look at the general philosophy of Essentialism. Then, I’ll discuss some of the book’s more specific, unconventional suggestions for practicing Essentialism in school, work, and life.

What Is Essentialism?

The philosophy of Essentialism underlies everything in McKeown’s book. As he puts it, Essentialism “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” (6).

Someone who follows this way of life is called an Essentialist. And this is key to McKeown’s general argument — Essentialism isn’t just something you do sometimes, as you would with typical “productivity strategies.” Rather, it’s an entire way of being, a constant discipline that helps you decide what you should be doing (and, more importantly, what you should avoid).

But what does this look like in practice? To help you find out, the rest of the article will share some of the lessons and practices of Essentialism.

7 Helpful Ideas from Essentialism

Essentialism is a great read in its entirety. But for this article, my goal is to focus on some of the more unconventional and contrarian ideas that the author proposes. This way, I’m not just reiterating productivity ideas discussed in other books or elsewhere on this site.

Here are some of the most helpful (and at times surprising) ideas I found while reading Essentialism:

Success Can Be Its Own Undoing

We tend to think of success as a compounding, unstoppable force. Once you’ve become “successful,” things just get better and better.

Or do they? As McKeown argues, success can ironically be its own undoing. This is because the more successful you are, the more demands you’ll experience on your time and energy.

It’s not that when you become successful, people come up to you and say, “Here are more things that will take up your time and energy, harming your ability to excel.” No, it’s more insidious than that.

What happens is that as your success grows, so do the “options and opportunities” available to you (12). While it sounds like it would be ideal to have as many options and opportunities as possible, the increased demands these place on your time and energy can distract you from “focusing on the essential things that produce success in the first place” (14).

This is the “paradox of success,” and it’s part of what Essentialism aims to solve.

View Tradeoffs as an Opportunity

To make a choice, we must give up something else. This seems obvious, but the way we live is often based on the flawed assumption that we can “have it all.” As McKeown argues, however, “The reality is, saying yes to any opportunity by definition requires saying no to several others” (52).

And in many cases, it isn’t a choice between a clearly bad and clearly good opportunity. Instead, we often find ourselves choosing between a few good options and one great one. This can be a painful experience, as we fear what we’ll miss out on by giving up the good choices.

McKeown suggests that instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” you ask, “What do I want to go big on?” (56). View the tradeoff inherent in every choice as an opportunity to discern and then prioritize what’s really important.

For instance, let’s say you’re trying to choose a major. Most likely, you’ve ruled out some options that you dislike or wouldn’t succeed in. But that probably still leaves you with a few “good” options from which you must select the best.

Instead of worrying about what you might miss out on when you reject several “good” majors, focus on how picking one major will enable you to go deep and master the field. With this mindset, you can make your decision with conviction.

Make Better Decisions with the 90% Rule

Productivity advice is full of various “rules” with numbers in front of them (the 80/20 Rule, the 10,000-Hour Rule, the 5-Hour Rule, etc.). So typically, whenever I encounter yet another “rule” phrased this way, I’m skeptical.

The 90% Rule, however, is worth adding to your arsenal to help you make better (and quicker) decisions. To use the rule, take all the options you need to select from to make a decision. Consider the most important criterion for making the decision, and then rate each option between 0 and 100.

Now for the interesting part: discard any option you rated lower than 90%. The goal of this exercise is to force you to be ruthless, to avoid wasting time with options that are good but not great. As McKeown points out, “Think about how you’d feel if you scored a 65 on some test. Why would you deliberately choose to feel that way about an important choice in your life?” (105).

As an example, let’s say you’re trying to decide where to live. You have a list of potential cities, and you’ve decided that your most important criterion is opportunities for outdoor recreation.

With that in mind, you can use the 90% Rule to narrow down your choices. Go through your list and rank all of the cities from 0 to 100 based on their outdoor recreation opportunities. Anything that scores less than 90%, you can immediately reject.

This might still leave a couple of options for further analysis. But it will get you to the best answer much more quickly.

Make Time to Play

“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

– Albert Einstein (Essentialism, 87)

Playing is rarely something that comes up in discussions of productivity. The assumption is that play is antithetical to work, that it’s an indulgent luxury at best. As McKeown argues, however, this mindset is a mistake.

To start, the act of play helps us to see new possibilities and broaden our minds (86). It encourages the kind of diffuse, open-minded thinking that’s so vital for cultivating creativity. Without play, it’s easy to become trapped in fixed ways of thinking.

Furthermore, play serves as an antidote to stress. Citing research published in the Journal of Neuroscience, McKeown describes how stress “increases the activity in the part of the brain that monitors emotions (the amygdala), while reducing the activity in the part responsible for cognitive function (the hippocampus)” (87). And when activity in the hippocampus is reduced, we literally cannot think clearly.

Finally, play goes beyond reducing the stress that can prevent us from thinking clearly. Play also, according to psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, “has a positive effect on the executive function of the brain” (87). This means that play helps to improve our brain’s ability to plan, prioritize, analyze, and decide. All of which are helpful in school, work, and life.

But how do you add more play to your day? McKeown cites the advice of Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play: “What did you do as a child that excited you? How can you re-create that today?” (90).

Respect and Protect Your Sleep

Sleep, McKeown argues, is something that successful and ambitious people often neglect in the pursuit of achieving more (94). As we’ve discussed on this blog before, however, sleep is not something you can give up if you want to perform your best. Sleep is non-negotiable.

What I found interesting, in particular, were the examples McKeown gave to refute the common sentiment that “sleep is for the weak” or “sleep is a waste of time.”

First, he points out that many people are so chronically sleep-deprived that they’ve “forgotten what it feels like to be fully rested” (95). These are the people who will argue that they can function “just fine” on six, five, or even four hours of sleep per night.

But the point isn’t to merely function, to just get by. The point is to perform at your best. And you can only do this when you’re well-rested.

Still think you’re the exception? Consider that pulling an all-nighter or getting just 4-5 hours of sleep per night for a week is equivalent to having a blood alcohol level of 0.1%. Which, in effect, is the equivalent impairment of being drunk.

As Charles E. Czeisler of Harvard Medical School put it, “we would never say, ‘This person is a great worker! He’s drunk all the time!’ yet we continue to celebrate people who sacrifice sleep for work” (98).

Learn to Say “No” (Gracefully)

“Make your peace with the fact that saying ‘no’ often requires trading popularity for respect” (138)

When you’ve chosen to focus on only the most essential things in your life, you’ll have to say “no” to lots of opportunities and requests. Saying “no” can be both painful and awkward, so we often default to “yes” because it’s easier in the moment.

Part of the reason it’s so hard to tell someone “no” is that “when people ask us to do something, we can confuse the request with our relationship with them” (135). This is false, however. Telling someone “no” might upset them a bit in the moment. But overall, saying “no” will make others respect you more.

When you have the courage and conviction to say “no,” it means you’re clear about what’s essential in your life (135). Furthermore, saying “no” shows that you’re a professional who highly values your time (138). So you should work to make “no” a more regular part of your vocabulary.

If this sounds difficult or unpleasant, be aware that you don’t have to explicitly say the word “No” to get the point across. Consider softer, politer phrases such as:

  • “Let me check my calendar and get back to you”
  • “I can’t do it, but [NAME OF ANOTHER PERSON] might be interested”.
  • “Yes. What should I deprioritize?” (This one is especially helpful when you need to tell your manager or boss “no”).

The above phrases convey that you’re saying “no” while still showing respect for the other person’s request.

Practice “Minimal Viable Preparation”

The last lesson I want to share from Essentialism is the idea of “minimal viable preparation”. As McKeown explains, there are two ways you can approach an important goal or deadline. Either you “start early and small” or “start late and big” (200).

“Late and big” is the way many of us tend to approach projects. Consider the classic college scenario of writing a paper the night before it’s due. In this circumstance, you have no choice but to make “big” progress, completing the project in one caffeine-fueled all-nighter. While this approach will get the project done, the process is stressful and the outcome is less than optimal.

Minimal viable preparation offers an alternative approach. With this method, you start early and small.

Returning to our example of the paper, you would start working on it a couple of weeks before it was due, perhaps even when it was assigned. This long lead time lets you start very small. Maybe all you do at first is open a document and write down a few topic ideas.

It seems like a small act, but the point is that you’ve at least started thinking about the project and preparing for it long before it’s due. Even if you end up doing most of the work in the few days before the deadline, your minimum viable preparation helps create momentum.

Embrace the Essential, Reject the Rest

I hope this article has given you a taste of the Essentialist philosophy, as well as some ideas you can start applying to your life right now. If you want to learn more, I’d highly encourage you to read the full book.

For more lessons from another unconventional productivity thinker, check out this article on The Dip.

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