One of the great struggles of modern life is the intense complexity, chaos, and exhaustion of activity and reactivity. We have a tendency to take on too much, become accountable to too many people, and say ‘yes’ to too many demands on our time and our energy.
As I mentioned in my world’s shortest course on time management, the merits of ignoring the trivial many and focusing on the vital few is often overlooked. The need for essentialism—less responsibility, less fame, less money, fewer possessions, less mess—is something that’s easy to identify with, but requires abundant self-discipline to put into consistent action.
Business consultant Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (2014) is an excellent reminder that a rich, meaningful life entails the elimination of the non-essential:
Essentialism is more than 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 toward the things that really matter.
McKeown’s wide-ranging discussion covers insightful get-a-hold-of-your-life principles—frugality, sufficiency, moderation, restraint, minimalism, and mindfulness—reframed in the essential-avoidable dichotomy. Here are prominent insights from Essentialism:
- Get to grips with selectivity—whenever you can, judiciously select which priorities, tasks, meetings, customers, ideas or steps to undertake and which to let go. “The basic value proposition of Essentialism [is,] 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.”
- Most top performers have one thing in common: they accept fewer tasks and then fixate on getting them right. “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.”
- If you don’t arrange your life, someone else will. “When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless. Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices-or even a function of our own past choices. In turn, we surrender our power to choose. That is the path of the Nonessentialist. … The Essentialist doesn’t just recognize the power of choice, he celebrates it. The Essentialist knows that when we surrender our right to choose, we give others not just the power but also the explicit permission to choose for us.”
- Pop out at least once a year to reflect and ask questions about what you’re doing and why. “The faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule. And the noisier things get, the more we need to build quiet reflection spaces in which we can truly focus.”
- Pursue a well-lived, joyful, meaningful life. “The life of an Essentialist is a life lived without regret. If you have correctly identified what really matters, if you invest your time and energy in it, then it is difficult to regret the choices you make. You become proud of the life you have chosen to live.”
Recommendation: Speedread Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. It will remind you of the wisdom to think through—and act upon—what really matters. Essentialism is chockfull of useful instructions on how to say ‘no’ gracefully, exercise your freedom to set boundaries, discover the power of small wins, and harness the power of routines to evade the pull of nonessential distractions that can subsume you easily.