The Art Of Essentialism

Apr 17 2014, 6:47am CDT | by

When I was at SXSW I learned about a discipline from author Greg McKeown called Essentialism. Essentialism is the art of discerning between external noise and internal voice. It’s not a task and time management tactical list. It’s more than that. It’s a mindset—a way of life. Unfortunately we live in a world where it’s considered a positive thing to take on more and more, thinking that the end result will be greater success. This is not the case.

The idea of Essentialism exposes some of my key challenges—I take on too much, underestimate completion times, and let all of this eat into other precious areas of my life. The Essentialism mindset is what I’m applying to smooth out these areas of my life.

As soon as I heard Greg at SXSW, I wanted to put together an article on his work. Greg’s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Doing Less expands upon the things one needs to keep in mind should they proceed down the path of Essentialism.

It’s a mad, mad world

Work. Work more. Say yes to everything. We recognize there’s so much we have to do, so we try to do it all. Greg says, “There’s a word for trying to do everything all the time. Madness! I truly feel like it’s this perverse disease of thinking and it has an absolute monopoly right now. Do more. Do more. Get more. Fit in more. More more more.” Before we can fix the way we behave, we have to understand how we ended up here. Greg believes that our society is consumed with wanting more and that’s why we consistently take on additional things. “We are facing an unholy alliance between social media, smart phones, and consumerism. It’s not all bad, but certain forces that have come together are producing an unintended result for all of us,” Greg said. “Our whole society has become consumed by the undisciplined pursuit of more. The only way to overcome this problem is to change the way we think—adopt the mindset of only doing the things that are essential—and do it now.”

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Greg advises that what has to come before the automation and practice of getting things done is having an Essentialist mindset. The essentialism mindset begs us to join in a movement. “This book is not about tactically straightening chairs on the Titanic. The purpose is to draw more attention to the mindset problem we have because of the period in which we live. Essentialism wakes you up and helps shift us into a whole new way of thinking.”

Know tradeoffs or trade what is most dear

Essentialists are eager to explore new opportunities but have an insanely selective criterion for what they’ll take on. Many Essentialists are born from becoming frighteningly aware of the enormous cost they have paid in trying to do it all. Essentialists train themselves on the “tradeoff” and live by it each day. Over time, a laminar flow for their life begins to establish itself naturally—the tradeoff discipline becomes real—the feeling that this is the life-blood for true execution and real value becomes more and more apparent. Essentialists are a highly discerning folk and are armed with the logic that less means more and more = mediocre. Be open and honest on the tradeoff and be ok communicating it to others—it benefits everyone.

Live by the delayed yes

“It’s a good idea to recognize the value of contemplation versus impulse.” Create pause with your decisions, even with your boss, and properly identify the essential. Make a decision based not on external pressure. Make it based on internal clarity of purpose,” says Greg. The pause is imperative to determining if something is truly essential—something many of us struggle with.

Practice makes perfect:

  • Remove the impulse to just say yes—remember that being impetuous can create unhealthy/non-essentialist decisions.
  • Learn the phrase, “Let me get back to you.” Being useful does not require an immediate answer.

Know the Joy Of Missing Out (JOMO) vs. Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO)

There’s a misconception that if you can fit something in, you should. This is the Fear Of Missing Out (commonly referenced as FOMO) and it’s relevant to all aspects of your life: social, career, and the entrepreneurial pursuit.  Most of us pride ourselves on taking advantage of all opportunities and think that having a packed calendar is valuable. Instead, relish in missing out on the non-essential, also known as the Joy Of Missing Out (or JOMO). Place value on making the decision to pass on something and understand that missing out can manifest opportunity in its own ways too. Greg says, “We’ve been oversold the value of more and undersold the value of less.”

Be an anti-endowmentalist

The Endowment Effect has tricked us all at some point. The Endowment Effect is the idea that we value objects and also opportunities higher if we own them versus if we don’t.

“This is a classic heuristic trick—it’s a myth. The idea that you must own something to find value is not true. Not having something or letting go of something has real and sometimes the most value.” This is a tricky one. Two tips to make this stick: Ask yourself, “If I did not own this today, how hard would I be willing to work to get it?” and trick your brain by classifying things as if you don’t own them during the evaluation.

Stop making the fool’s bargain

Ever heard of The Planning Fallacy? It means almost all of us, all the time, underestimate the time it takes to get something done. “The planning fallacy has tricked all of us. Things inevitably take longer, doing fewer things and choosing more carefully is essential,” says Greg.

Lose the popularity contest/>/>

Do not attend meetings that are not important—when people question your absence, apologize and ask what they need you to contribute. Be okay with what you lose short-term from a drop in popularity. The long-term respect you gain from real results, real work, real contributions, and real tangible value free of politics outweighs the loss in popularity votes. Real results are where the rewards lie. Do the real work, let the non-essential fall away.

Priority vs. priorities

Not everything is important. Life is not a set of almost equal activities. This is where we are being conned. The con of “busy-ness” is that things always start to feel of about the same importance. That’s not the world we live in. “Life is not an all you can eat buffet. It’s amazingly great food. Essentialism is about finding the right food. More and more is valueless. Staying true to my purpose and being selective in what I take on results in a more meaningful, richer, and sweeter quality of life.”

Protect against rampant moment erosion

I don’t need to convince you of the importance of being in the moment. Now more than ever it’s easy to have almost every moment of our day consumed by something and it’s eroding the ability to be in the moment. “Our phones for example have great utility but there is a downside. As a result we need to put in place seatbelts—ways to limit the downside. One seatbelt is just turning it off.” The world will go on without you. “We are experiencing not just data overload, but also opinion overload with the data.”

One way to live in the moment is to reduce the impulse to always have something to do. Many have no idea what to do without outside stimulation—downtime is when imagination gets engaged and true creativity happens.  Greg asked a thought provoking question, “Remember when you were just bored? What will it be like to live in a world and society that no longer has time to ponder?” The subconscious needs to talk to the conscious and this cannot happen with constant, digital preoccupation.

In the end, what truly matters?

Greg brings up something powerful from the article, The Five Regrets of the Dying. The article states that the number two regret of the dying is working too much.  “There is an unspoken hierarchy in our society about what is valuable; higher on that hierarchy are career success, fame, and wealth. Lower on the list is family, health, wisdom, and personal fulfillment.” When you have an Essentialist mindset, you’ll find that ones career is important—but as it relates to how you are able to provide for your family and gain true fulfillment.  It should not be an end in and of itself.

Keep these top of mind and loop them in your head all day

  • Reduce yourself to zero—we have only enough time in each day to fulfill our essential missions; be consumed in your purpose.
  • Learn the art of saying no and be okay with it—place value on this as well. Be particular.
  • The planning fallacy—remember there’s real science on why you have to do less.
  • Implement the life test mantra—ask yourself, “If I had a week left to live would I value this?”
  • Implement a rating scale to measure true value and effectiveness. Evaluate where each thing falls on a 10pt scale. Give yourself space for the 8-10s. Drop anything lower.
  • Discern more and do less. Elevate value and get the real results.
  • Don’t misinterpret pressure for purpose.
  • Don’t mistake effort with output.
  • Don’t comment. Join fewer calls. Attend fewer meetings.
  • Newness may not be news—do you really need to give your brainpower to everything that pops up? Stay on the primary contributions and real results.

The “little” will cause you to lose a lot
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Not adapting an essentialist mentality may detract from what you really want. You may get a little bit of this and a little of that, but the meaningful and most essential things you want will be threatened. Knowing what you really want, and staying true to it, is up to you. Greg stresses the fact that there is just not enough time. “There’s no wiggle room—just enough to complete the essential purposes in our life, so what are yours?  What are you here to do? Essentialism will give you richer, sweeter results and put you in real control, giving greater precision to the pursuit of what truly matters.”  I’m excited about Essentialism helping me get closer to what I truly want in life and I hope it helps you, too. Here’s to the disciplined pursuit of less.

Most of these topics are expanded upon in Greg’s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Doing Less.

 
 

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