“It’s about pausing to constantly to ask, ‘Am I investing in the right activities?’”
In Essentialism, Greg McKeown wants you to line up all the the work you do in business and life, the things that are painful and pleasurable, and the stuff that makes you feel great and feel sick. Line it up like a series of bowling trophies or a grocery list and begin to think about what purpose those things serves, and whether you like them in your life.
This doesn’t sound easy (and it’s not) so McKeown organizes the book around four big areas with specific tips for each one. His suggestion is to find the essence of each idea, explore to differentiate the essential from trivial, eliminate the stuff of no consequence, and execute the things we really want to be doing.
The first section asks us to find the essence of each thing we do. In all of our choices, we face trade-offs between things that are our choice and thnigs that are not our choice. The essential, as McKeown states, “…remembers that almost everything is nonessential.”
McKeown writes about Southwest Airlines, one of the best NYSE performers since their inception and why they are the leading low-cost carrier and why other, bigger airlines couldn’t compete in that segment of the market. His case is that no one was willing to go as far as Southwest did. Southwest succeeded because they made all the trade-offs essential to being the lowest-priced carrier. Southwest was guided by the essence of being safe and cheap.
The next stage is to explore to “discern the trivial many from the vital few.” How can we dive deeper into the weeds to see what is and isn’t essential in our lives? Is driving the kids to school an essential part of life? What if we are driving them to school so we can have a few minutes to talk to them when they aren’t reading things on their smartphones? What about sleep, which seems like something slackers stock but go-getters give up? McKeown suggests that getting enough sleep is important, because it maximizes your productivity during the day.
After we find the essence of each idea and explore to discover the trivial and the essential, we can start to eliminate. The first two stages are established to be a “deep dive” into what’s important so that the elimination stage can be severe and final. Like the carpenter’s mantra to “measure twice and cut once,” this stage allows us to make the big choices that will remove distractions from our lives. Cutting seems like it is removing things, but it’s actually removing things you don’t want. Imagine rather than cutting things out of your life, you were doing it to your home or apartment. Gone is the broken thermostat, cloudy windows, and rattling refrigerator. Now you don’t have to worry about those things and can focus instead on the stuff you want to do – the stuff you enjoy doing.
after all of the above stages are complete, we can execute the big ideas. What’s left to double down on? What can we dive deeply into and develop? Just because we have eliminated other things, doesn’t mean that they will magically become easier to accomplish. We’ve only put the blinders on a horse, now the horse must get to work plowing the field. Just like the horse doesn’t plow a whole field in single moment, neither will we get everything done at once. We should embrace the small steps taking us forward and focus on what is important in just that moment.
Essentialism is more of a mindset than a task. You don’t do essential, you be essential. Like anything else, you will oscillate between doing and being. But the more you practice, the more you will likely be able to spend time in that mindset.
Essentialism was good, but not as great as it could have been. I found that McKeown leaned too heavily on reporting from the Harvard Business Review (where he is a contributor) in this book. I was also taken aback by his examples of Hermione Granger and Mary Poppins, in addition to a chapter built around a business analogy. The ideas in Essentialism are good, just not as polished as it had the potential to be. If you like B.E.T. thinking from Do Cool Sh-t or Switch by the Heath brothers, then you may like this book.
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