After seeing several recommendations for the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, I borrowed a copy from the Melbourne Library Service recently – and then read the book from cover-to-cover over only a couple of sittings. This is a sign of how much I enjoyed reading it and the messages in the book resonated strongly with me, on both a personal and professional level. The parallels between what Greg McKeown writes about here and the Agile movement in software development are also (perhaps surprisingly) strong and this helped make the book even more contextually significant for me.
The fundamental idea here is “Less but better.”
The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better… 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 your highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.
Greg argues that we have forgotten our ability to choose and feel compelled to “do it all” and say yes to everything:
The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away – it can only be forgotten… 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.
It’s all too easy in our busy, hyper-connected lives to think almost everything is essential and that the opportunities that come our way are almost equal. But the Essentialist thinks almost everything is non-essential and “distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many.”
Greg makes an important point about trade-offs, something again that it’s all too easy to forget and instead over-commit and try to do everything asked of us or take on all the opportunities coming our way:
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?” The cumulative impact of this small change in thinking can be profound.
The trap of “busyness” leads us to not spend the time we should reflecting on what’s really important.
Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking. But their exploration is not an end in itself. The purpose of their exploration is to discern the vital few from the trivial many.
The topic of sleep comes next and this seems to be a hot topic right now. A non-Essentialist thinks “One hour less of sleep equals one more hour of productivity” while the Essentialist thinks “One more hour of sleep equals several more hours of much higher productivity.” This protection of the asset that is sleep is increasingly being demonstrated as important, not only for productivity but also for mental health.
Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize.
Prioritizing which opportunities to take on is a challenge for many of us, I’ve certainly taken on too much at times. Greg’s advice when selecting opportunities is simple:
If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no
Of course, actually saying “no” can be difficult and a non-Essentialist will avoid doing so to avoid feeling social awkwardness and pressure, instead saying “yes” to everything. An Essentialist, meanwhile, “dares to say no firmly, resolutely and gracefully and says “yes” only to things that really matter.” This feels like great advice and thankfully Greg offers a few tips for how to say “no” gracefully:
- Separate the decision from the relationship
- Saying “no” gracefully doesn’t have to mean using the word no
- Focus on the trade-off
- Remind yourself that everyone is selling something
- Make your peace with the fact that saying “no” often requires trading popularity for respect
- Remember that a clear “no” can be more graceful than a vague or non-committal “yes”
The section on subtracting (removing obstacles to bring forth more) resonated strongly with my experiences in software development:
Essentialists don’t default to Band-Aid solutions. Instead of looking for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, they look for the ones slowing down progress. They ask “What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?” While the non-Essentialist is busy applying more and more pressure and piling on more and more solutions, the Essentialist simply makes a one-time investment in removing obstacles. This approach goes beyond just solving problems, it’s a method of reducing your efforts to maximize your results.
Similarly when looking at progress, there are obvious similarities with the way agile teams think and work:
A non-Essentialist starts with a big goal and gets small results and they go for the flashiest wins. An Essentialist starts small and gets big results and they celebrate small acts of progress.
The benefits of routine are also highlighted, for “without routine, the pull of non-essential distractions will overpower us” and I see the value in the routines of Scrum, for example, as a way of keeping distractions at bay and helping team execution appear more effortless.
This relatively short book is packed with great stories and useful takeaways. As we all lead more connected and busy lives where the division between work and not-work has become so blurred for so many of us, the ideas in this book are practical ways to help focus on what really matters. I’m certainly motivated to now focus more on a smaller number of projects especially outside of work, a decision I’d already taken before reading this book but reading it also validated that decision as well as providing me with good ways of dealing with whatever opportunities may arise and truly prioritizing the ones that matter.