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Essentialism - By Greg McKeown



Essentialism is based on the idea that ‘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’.


In the pursuit of success, a non-essentialist may constantly develop new obsessions. In failing to identify and work towards her priorities, she spreads herself thin and makes ‘a millimetre of progress in a million directions’. The problem with the non-essentialist mindset is that it robs us of our ability to live intentionally. In forfeiting our power to choose, we are making a choice. Through refusing to deliberately decide where to focus our efforts, we give the power to colleagues, bosses, and friends to decide for us. As McKeown argues, ‘if you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will’.


The essentialist embarks on the ‘disciplined pursuit of less’. Whilst a non-essentialist believes she can do it all, an essentialist accepts that we face cognitive and temporal constraints. These constraints require us to make important trade-offs. The essentialist designs her life such that it becomes easy to act in line with her highest contribution. ‘Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.’ McKeown highlights a number of ways that we can implement essentialism in our lives, here are some of my takeaways:

Give yourself space to think

‘Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.’ – Pablo Picasso.

This is based on the idea that to reach our highest point of contribution, we need to be free from distraction. In ‘Deep Work’, Cal Newport argues that, to fulfil our cognitive potential in professional activities, we need space to think without distraction. If we find our days consumed by email correspondence, project meetings and web surfing, we do not give ourselves the opportunity to work productively on the tasks that we find most meaningful. We can see that Newport and McKeown’s ideas seem to overlap here.


McKeown also recommends that we set aside a block of time in our day exclusively for thinking. This may seem like a near impossible task in our constantly distracted world. Before the rise of social media, waiting for the bus would have been an opportunity to stare into space and think. Now we do not have the opportunity to be bored. But giving ourselves uninterrupted stretches of time to think is crucial to allow us to connect the dots and see the bigger picture. Whilst the non-essentialist is solely concerned with completing the tasks on her to-do list, the essentialist takes the time to decide what the ‘right’ tasks are.

Dare to say no

Courage is grace under pressure.’ – Ernest Hemmingway.

The essentialist must master the art of saying no graciously. We may have determined where our priorities lie. But if we are unable to decline invitations to partake in non-essential activities, we cannot execute our disciplined pursuit of less. There are good reasons to have a fear of saying no. One is that it will necessarily entail declining some good opportunities. However, this gives us the space to focus on the unbelievable opportunities. We also feel a physical discomfort associated with rejecting an offer. But it is important to realise that we are declining an invitation, not rejecting the person. Further, we should be conscious of the trade-offs we are making. When we partake in a non-essential activity, we incur an opportunity cost. We could have spent this time working towards our highest contribution.



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