Essentialism: Prioritize Your Life or Someone Else Will

June 6, 2014

essentialismGreg McKeown will always recall the day of his daughter’s birth: how, even exhausted from the birth, his wife was radiant; how, as his beautiful new baby lay in his wife’s arms, he was on the phone and on email with work, feeling pressure to go to a client meeting; how he left the hospital to go to the meeting and saw the look of “what are you doing here?” on the clients’ faces (instead of the appreciation for his dedication that he had promised to his colleagues). The vital life lesson he learned from that day: If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, McKeown, a writer, speaker and Harvard Business Review blogger, offers both a manifesto and a manual on how to deliberately focus on the vital few priorities that really count and dispense with the rest. This is the age of the Nonessentialist, McKeown writes: over-busy and over-committed, we continue to say yes to even more commitments and deadlines without asking ourselves, “Is this truly essential? Is this very important to me? Is this really how I want to choose to spend my time?” These are the questions, McKeown argues, that Essentialists ask and answer before accepting any task, commitment or responsibility.

Step by Step to a Better Life

McKeown’s step-by-step methodology makes the seemingly impossible task of slicing through the chronic chaos of our lives eminently possible.

The first step is to explore and evaluate. Paradoxically, Essentialists explore more options than Nonessentialists. “Because they will commit and ‘go big’ on one or two ideas or activities,” McKeown explains, “they deliberately explore more options at first to ensure that they pick the right one later.”

The next step, according to McKeown, is to eliminate. Identifying the most essential activities is not good enough; you have to have the courage and emotional discipline to eliminate the activities that don’t make the list. For example, it doesn’t matter what the client thought or how important the meeting felt (in actuality it all led to nothing), his place was by his wife and newborn baby. Cut out the “trivial many” to stay focused on the “vital few.”

The final step is to execute. For most people, execution means pushing hard to get something done. Essentialists create a system that removes obstacles and makes execution easy. For example, Essentialists will always build in buffers, recognizing that in life, the unexpected happens; they will also engage in “extreme preparation,” planning for all contingencies. They build routines and transfer the triggers from their old habits to the new Essentialist routines. For example, he writes, “If your alarm clock going off in the morning triggers you to check your email, use it as a cue to get up and read instead.”

For each of these three steps, McKeown presents the five or six actions required. To explore successfully, for example, you need to escape so you can focus; look to see what really matters; play to broaden your perspective and drive creativity; sleep to operate at your highest level of productivity and performance when awake; and select opportunities based on narrow, explicit criteria.

Essentialism is an eloquent slap in the face, telling us to wrest back control of our lives by making the tough choices that will clear out the mass of non-essentials clogging our time and attention.

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