Book Review: Essentialism

This time, I wanted to share with you another book from my quest to regain some work-life-balance: Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, NY 2011. McKeown mainly challenges one quite fundamental assumption about our time: the illusion that we could just do it all.

 

Have you ever found yourself struggling with information overload? Have you ever felt both overworked and underutilised? Do you ever feel busy but not productive?

Priorities

The word priority used to be singular only. Which makes sense because actually, it is not possible for two things to be “the most important thing” at the same time. It is this introduction of a plural for priorities which shows how we use language to lie to ourselves.  It means not acknowledgeing the fundamental truth that you just can’t have it all. This is especially revelevant for myself because I am really bad at accepting this. When asked to choose something, I always decide to do both. But this is not ‘being super-human’. This is acutally being stupid and naive.

We perceive countless things around us. Yet our greatest power is the power to focus, which means of making the choice to ignore most of the noise in order to get to the message. This is what ‘essentialism’ is about. To not ‘do more’, but to do ‘less but better’. To ignore most things in order to value the important things.

 

Trade-Offs

We often think that we’re just not good at saying no. But saying yes to something always means saying no to something else. So ultimately, we are constantly saying no by saying yes. We might as well choose which thing to say no to directly. Because you just can’t have it all.  Yet, it is understandable why people have difficulty saying no in a society which encourages you to say yes. Saying no is not the nice thing to do. It is uncomfortable. Saying yes is what is praised in the moment. People who say yes seem productive, seem like they ‘have it all’ and ultimately, most bosses do actually expect you to say yes to everything. Even if this massively hurts your overall productivity. 

Another hallmark of the subconscious unability to say no is the act of constantly cramming in “just one more thing”. Like I do. McKeown even makes the example of this one annoying colleague who foolishly doesn’t accept they just can’t have it all and thus ends up answering “just one more” email before they leave for a meeting they would already have been late to before they even started writing that last email. Let me introduce you to this colleague. It is me.

Essentialism is the deliberate pursuit of ‘less but better’.

Delusional thinking

Like I said, McKeown brings the example of people who know they have 10 minutes left to get somewhere, it takes 10 minutes to get there and yet they still sit down to answer an email before they go – thinking they could just “fit it all in”. The result is that they are guaranteed to be late and thus, still miss one of the two things. Or, at worst, both. All because they are afraid to make conscious decisions to reject something. If you don’t know this from personal experience, you have just gotten to know me. This is who I am. I am not proud, but that’s the way it is. If you don’t make this choice (of what to do with the time you have), somebody else will make it for you. This is kind of like with digital addiction.

We are ever only aware of the decisions we actively make. That these imply that we also automatically (and perhaps unwillingly) say no to other things, we often don’t want to see. At least I don’t. Before saying yes, we should ask ‘What would I give up to do this?’ rather than ‘Can I fit it in?’ which is what societal pressure tells us we should do. McKeown introduces the concept of trade-offs, i.e. the fact that when you decide to do something, you simultanesouly also reject something else. Because you just can’t have it all. When you meet person A, you secretly have rejected spending your time with person B. Only that you are not aware of this fact. Essentialism means becoming aware and accepting of this reality of trade-offs.

 

The unimportance of practically everything

Essentialism is about the unimportance of practically everything. By that, McKeown means that not all actions are useful or effective. Many are a complete waste of time compared to others. He brings the example that bosses feel one really good employee doesn’t create results twice as good as another but 10.000x as good. McKeown learnt in his own childhood that delivering papers was a poor use of his time. He had to trade one hour of his time against one pound. Being able to afford something nice would be a gigantic pursuit with countless hours of toil. He then realized that washing cars on Saturdays would be able to get him a six pound per hour return and thus, was a incomparably more effective use of his time. This is the sort of thinking he suggests we should do when he tells us to do ‘less but better’.

 

Philosophy and practice

The book is splitted in a more ‘theoretical’ part explaining the ‘philosophy’ behind essentialism and some more practical parts. These contain tips not unlike those time management tips from all of the other books I looked at so far, be it in the Digital Detox experiment oder Rest.

  1. Part two (“Explore”) suggests you ‘escape’ and save time by being unavailable (ruthlessly avoid going to useless meetings, etc.); you see what really matters, make time for (serious) play, get enough sleep and select what you spend your time with using ‘extreme criteria’. 
  2. Part III (“Eliminate”) suggests you clarify decision making, dare to say no and learn how to do it gracefully without offending people, uncommit from non-essentials and gain freedom by setting boundaries for carefully ‘edited’ amount of meaningful activities.
  3. Part IV (“Execute”) praises using a “time buffer” between commitments, removing things which hurt your effectiveness most rather than starting some new quick fix technique on top of everything, progressing with small wins, using routine to get in the flow, focusing and being in the moment by asking (“What’s important now?”).

 

So that’s it from me today and from Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. And remember: You can’t just “have it all”. Do less, but better.

Best and until next time,

yours,
Sarah

 

 

 

 


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