Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Greg Mckeown

Ended: July 27, 2018

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.
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.
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 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.
If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
In his book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins explores what went wrong in companies that were once darlings of Wall Street but later collapsed.3 He finds that for many, falling into “the undisciplined pursuit of more” was a key reason for failure. This is true for companies and it is true for the people who work in them.
One paradox of Essentialism is that Essentialists actually explore more options than their Nonessentialist counterparts. Whereas Nonessentialists commit to everything or virtually everything without actually exploring, Essentialists systematically explore and evaluate a broad set of options before committing to any. Because they will commit and “go big” on one or two ideas or activities, they deliberately explore more options at first to ensure that they pick the right one later.
What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?
There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist: “I have to,” “It’s all important,” and “I can do both.” Like mythological sirens, these assumptions are as dangerous as they are seductive. They draw us in and drown us in shallow waters. To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.” These simple truths awaken us from our nonessential stupor. They free us to pursue what really matters. They enable us to live at our highest level of contribution.
John Maxwell has written, “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”
Harvard Business School professor Michel Porter terms “straddling” their strategy. In the simplest terms, straddling means keeping your existing strategy intact while simultaneously also trying to adopt the strategy of a competitor. One of the most visible attempts at the time was made by Continental Airlines. They called their new point-to-point service Continental Lite.
According to Porter, “A strategic position is not sustainable unless there are trade-offs with other positions.”
critical truth: we can either make the hard choices for ourselves or allow others—whether our colleagues, our boss, or our customers—to decide for us.
“We value passion, innovation, execution, and leadership.” One of several problems with the list is, Who doesn’t value these things? Another problem is that this tells employees nothing about what the company values most. It says nothing about what choices employees should be making when these values are at odds. This is similarly true when companies claim that their mission is to serve all stakeholders—clients, employees, shareholders—equally. To say they value equally everyone they interact with leaves management with no clear guidance on what to do when faced with trade-offs between the people they serve.
Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?”
To discern what is truly essential we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make.
Modern corporations were born out of the Industrial Revolution, when their entire reason for being was to achieve efficiency in the mass production of goods. Furthermore, these early managers looked to the military—a rather less-than-playful entity—for their inspiration (indeed, the language of the military is still strong in corporations today; we still often talk of employees being on the front lines, and the word company itself is a term for a military unit). While the industrial era is long behind us, those mores, structures, and systems continue to pervade most modern organizations.
Protecting the Asset The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies, and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution. One of the most common ways people—especially ambitious, successful people—damage this asset is through a lack of sleep.
In a Harvard Business Review article called “Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer,” Charles A. Czeisler, the Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, has explained how sleep deprivation undermines high performance. He likens sleep deficit to drinking too much alcohol, explaining that pulling an all-nighter (i.e., going twenty-four hours without sleep) or having a week of sleeping just four or five hours a night actually “induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.1%.
In a piece called “No More Yes. It’s Either HELL YEAH! Or No,” the popular TED speaker Derek Sivers describes a simple technique for becoming more selective in the choices we make. The key is to put the decision to an extreme test: if we feel total and utter conviction to do something, then we say yes, Derek-style. Anything less gets a thumbs down. Or as a leader at Twitter once put it to me, “If the answer isn’t a definite yes then it should be a no.” It is a succinct summary of a core Essentialist principle, and one that is critical to the process of exploration.
Here’s a simple, systematic process you can use to apply selective criteria to opportunities that come your way. First, write down the opportunity. Second, write down a list of three “minimum criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered. Third, write down a list of three ideal or “extreme criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered. By definition, if the opportunity doesn’t pass the first set of criteria, the answer is obviously no. But if it also doesn’t pass two of your three extreme criteria, the answer is still no.
opportunity What opportunity is being offered to you? minimum What are your minimum criteria for this option to be considered? extreme What are the ideal criteria for this option to be approved?
After all, there is still that nagging reluctance, that nagging fear that “what if” years down the road you come to regret giving away that blazer with the big shoulder pads and loud pinstripes. This feeling is normal; studies have found that we tend to value things we already own more highly than they are worth, and thus find them more difficult to get rid of. If you’re not quite ready to part with that metaphorical blazer, ask the killer question: “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?” Likewise, in your life, 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?”
Such vague, inflated mission statements may still be considered “best practice” in some quarters, but in many cases they do not achieve what they were intended to achieve: to inspire their employees with a clear sense of purpose.
When there is a lack of clarity, people waste time and energy on the trivial many. When they have sufficient levels of clarity, they are capable of greater breakthroughs and innovations—greater than people even realize they ought to have—in those areas that are truly vital.
An essential intent, on the other hand, is both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable. Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions. It’s like deciding you’re going to become a doctor instead of a lawyer. One strategic choice eliminates a universe of other options and maps a course for the next five, ten, or even twenty years of your life. Once the big decision is made, all subsequent decisions come into better focus.
So why is it so hard in the moment to dare to choose what is essential over what is nonessential? One simple answer is we are unclear about what is essential. When this happens we become defenseless. On the other hand, when we have strong internal clarity it is almost as if we have a force field protecting us from the nonessentials coming at us from all directions.
A second reason why it is hard to choose what is essential in the moment is as simple as an innate fear of social awkwardness. The fact is, we as humans are wired to want to get along with others. After all, thousands of years ago when we all lived in tribes of hunter gatherers, our survival depended on it. And while conforming to what people in a group expect of us—what psychologists call normative conformity—is no longer a matter of life and death, the desire is still deeply ingrained in us.
the reality of the fact that either we can say no and regret it for a few minutes, or we can say yes and regret it for days, weeks, months, or even years. The only way out of this trap is to learn to say no firmly, resolutely, and yet gracefully. Because once we do, we find, not only that our fears of disappointing or angering others were exaggerated, but that people actually respect us more.
The more we think about what we are giving up when we say yes to someone, the easier it is to say no. If we have no clear sense of the opportunity cost—in other words, the value of what we are giving up—then it is especially easy to fall into the nonessential trap of telling ourselves we can get it all done. We can’t. A graceful “no” grows out of a clear but unstated calculation of the trade-off.
MAKE YOUR PEACE WITH THE FACT THAT SAYING “NO” OFTEN REQUIRES TRADING POPULARITY FOR RESPECT When you say no, there is usually a short-term impact on the relationship. After all, when someone asks for something and doesn’t get it, his or her immediate reaction may be annoyance or disappointment or even anger. This downside is clear. The potential upside, however, is less obvious: when the initial annoyance or disappointment or anger wears off, the respect kicks in. When we push back effectively, it shows people that our time is highly valuable. It distinguishes the professional from the amateur.
For example, if your manager comes to you and asks you to do X, you can respond with “Yes, I’m happy to make this the priority. Which of these other projects should I deprioritize to pay attention to this new project?” Or simply say, “I would want to do a great job, and given my other commitments I wouldn’t be able to do a job I was proud of if I took this on.”
Saying no is its own leadership capability. It is not just a peripheral skill.
A sense of ownership is a powerful thing. As the saying goes, nobody in the history of the world has washed their rental car! This is because of something called “the endowment effect,” our tendency to undervalue things that aren’t ours and to overvalue things because we already own them.
In one study demonstrating the power of the endowment effect, the Nobel Prize–winning researcher Daniel Kahneman and colleagues randomly gave coffee mugs to only half the subjects in an experiment.5 The first group was asked how much they would be willing to sell their mug for, while the second group was asked what they would be willing to pay for it. It turned out the students who “owned” the mugs refused to sell for less than $5.25, while those without the cups were willing to pay only $2.25 to $2.75. The mere fact of ownership, in other words, caused the mug owners to value the objects more highly and made them less willing to part with them.
In your own life, I’m sure you can think of items that seem to be more valuable the moment you think about giving them away.
Tom Stafford describes a simple antidote to the endowment effect.6 Instead of asking, “How much do I value this item?” we should ask, “If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?” We can do the same for opportunities and commitment. Don’t ask, “How will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity?” but rather, “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?” Similarly, we can ask, “If I wasn’t already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?”
Why are adults so much more vulnerable to the sunk-cost bias than young children? The answer, he believes, is a lifetime of exposure to the “Don’t waste” rule, so that by the time we are adults we are trained to avoid appearing wasteful, even to ourselves.8 “Abandoning a project that you’ve invested a lot in feels like you’ve wasted everything, and waste is something we’re told to avoid,” Arkes said.
Typically, when accountants allocate a budget they use last year’s budget as the baseline for the next year’s projection. But with zero-based budgeting, they use zero as the baseline. In other words, every item in the proposed budget must be justified from scratch. While this takes more effort it has many advantages: it efficiently allocates resources on the basis of needs rather than history, it detects exaggerated budget requests, it draws attention to obsolete operations, and it encourages people to be clearer in their purpose and how their expenses align to that project.
You can apply zero-based budgeting to your own endeavors. Instead of trying to budget your time on the basis of existing commitments, assume that all bets are off. All previous commitments are gone. Then begin from scratch, asking which you would add today. You can do this with everything from the financial obligations you have to projects you are committed to, even relationships you are in. Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.
Many people have been credited with coming up with this apt sentiment: “I must apologize: if I had more time I would have written a shorter letter.” It’s true that doing less can be harder, both in art and in life. Every word, every scene, every activity must count for more.
For example, one employee at a company I’ve worked with (one who was well enough established to not have to worry about being fired) routinely skipped the weekly meeting other people attended and would simply ask them what he had missed. Thus he condensed a two-hour meeting into ten minutes and invested the rest of that redeemed time getting the important work done.
Becoming an editor in our lives also includes knowing when to show restraint. One way we can do this is by editing our tendency to step in. When we are added onto an e-mail thread, for example, we can resist our usual temptation to be the first to reply all. When sitting in a meeting, we can resist the urge to add our two cents. We can wait. We can observe. We can see how things develop. Doing less is not just a powerful Essentialist strategy, it’s a powerful editorial one as well.
In the working world, people try to use our sprinklers to water their own grass all the time. This may come in the form of a boss who puts you on a committee for her pet project, a colleague who asks for your input on a report or presentation or proposal she hasn’t taken the time to perfect yet herself, or a colleague who stops you in the hallway and talks your ear off when you have an important meeting to get to or a vital phone call to make or critical work on your desk. Whoever it is that’s trying to siphon off your time and energies for their own purpose, the only solution is to put up fences. And not at the moment the request is made—you need to put up your fences well in advance, clearly demarcating what’s off limits so you can head off time wasters and boundary pushers at the pass. Remember, forcing these people to solve their own problems is equally beneficial for you and for them.
boundaries they can rarely do it. They know they have some, but they cannot put them into words. The simple reality is, if you can’t articulate these to yourself and others, it may be unrealistic to expect other people to respect them or even figure them out.
While Nonessentialists tend to force execution, Essentialists invest the time they have saved by eliminating the nonessentials into designing a system to make execution almost effortless.
Curiously, people will admit to having a tendency to underestimate while simultaneously believing their current estimates are accurate.
Of the variety of explanations for why we underestimate the amount of time something will take, I believe social pressure is the most interesting. One study found that if people estimated anonymously how long it would take to complete a task they were no longer guilty of the planning fallacy.9 This implies that often we actually know we can’t do things in a given time frame, but we don’t want to admit it to someone.
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 (if 50 percent seems overly generous, consider how frequently things actually do take us 50 percent longer than expected). So if you have an hour set aside for a conference call, block off an additional thirty minutes.
Often just ten minutes invested in a project or assignment two weeks before it is due can save you much frantic and stressed-out scrambling at the eleventh hour. Take a goal or deadline you have coming up and ask yourself, “What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?” One leader who is an exceptionally inspiring speaker has explained that the key for him is to start to prepare his big speeches six months before he does them. He isn’t preparing the entire speech; he just starts. If you have a big presentation coming up over the next few weeks or months, open a file right now and spend four minutes starting to put down any ideas. Then close the file. No more than four minutes. Just start it.
the right routines can actually enhance innovation and creativity by giving us the equivalent of an energy rebate. Instead of spending our limited supply of discipline on making the same decisions again and again, embedding our decisions into our routine allows us to channel that discipline toward some other essential activity.
What this means is that if we want to change our routine, we don’t really need to change the behavior. Rather, we need to find the cue that is triggering the nonessential activity or behavior and find a way to associate that same cue with something that is essential. So, for example, if the bakery you pass on the way home from work triggers you to pick up a doughnut, next time you pass by that bakery, use that cue to remind you to pick up a salad from the deli across the street. Or if your alarm clock going off in the morning triggers you to check your e-mail, use it as a cue to get up and read instead. At first, overcoming the temptation to stop at the bakery or check the e-mail will be difficult. But each time you execute the new behavior—each time you pick up the salad—strengthens the link in your brain between the cue and the new behavior, and soon, you’ll be subconsciously and automatically performing the new routine.
But what really enables Ray to operate at his highest level of contribution is that throughout the day, his routine is governed by a single rule: “Focus on the hardest thing first.” After all, as Ray said to me: “We already have too much to think about. Why not eliminate some of them by establishing a routine?”
While other people are complaining (read: bragging) about how busy they are, you will just be smiling sympathetically, unable to relate.
But in reality one wrong hire is far costlier than being one person short. And the cost of hiring too many wrong people (and one wrong hire often leads to multiple wrong hires because the wrong person will tend to attract more wrong people) is what Guy Kawasaki called a “Bozo explosion”—a term he uses to describe what happens when a formerly great team or company descends into mediocrity.
Without clarity of purpose, Nonessentialist leaders straddle their strategy: they try to pursue too many objectives and do too many things. As a result their teams get spread in a million directions and make little progress on any. They waste time on the nonessentials and neglect the things that really matter (see chapter 10 on the importance of purpose and essential intent). These days there is a lot of talk in organizations about “alignment,” and indeed the more a team is aligned, the greater their contribution will be. Clear intent leads to alignment; vague direction produces misalignment every time.
An Essentialist understands that clarity is the key to empowerment. He doesn’t allow roles to be general and vague. He ensures that everyone on the team is really clear about what they are expected to contribute and what everyone else is contributing. One CEO recently admitted that he had allowed ambiguity on his executive team to keep the whole organization back. To repair the damage, he said he went through a huge streamlining process until he was down to just four direct reports, each with a clear functional responsibility across the whole organization.