Stacy’s Book Note on Essentialism

As soon as I read the back cover, I knew I would be writing a Stacy’s Book Note on Essentialism. If you read my blog, you’re likely to answer yes to more than one of four questions from Greg McKeown‘s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less:

  • Have you ever found yourself stretched too thin at home or at work?
  • Have you ever felt both overworked and underutilized?
  • Do you ever feel busy but not productive?
  • Do you ever feel like you’re constantly in motion but never getting anywhere?

The book is “lightweight” in a lovely way — easy to carry and easy to read. It succinctly recaps a lot of wise reminders, but notably “less is better.”

McKeown provides 20 steps, with a short chapter devoted to each, as part of a “systematic way to discern what is important, eliminate what is not, and make doing the essential as effortless as possible.” Of these, here are just three of my favorite insights.

Main take-away for the smart and talented

McKeown argues that successful individuals are given more opportunities to do things. As a result, they can easily becoming a “Non-essentialist” because they have a hard time saying “no.” (Do you need 10 tips for saying no?) It is therefore important to create the time and space to simply “explore, think and reflect.” Yet…

One paradox of Essentialism is that Essentialists actually explore more options than their Non-Essentialist counterparts. Non-Essentialists… react to virtually everything. But because they are so busy pursuing every opportunity and idea they actually explore less. The way of the Essentialist, on the other hand, is to explore and evaluate a broad set of options before committing to any. Because Essentialists will commit and “go big” on only the vital few ideas or activities, they explore more options first to ensure they pick the right one later.

Main take-away for parents

Parents, of course, want what’s best for their children. Sometimes, however, I find that the fear of our children “missing out” on anything important compels us to squeeze in as much as we possibly can. The problem is that humans have the tendency to underestimate how long tasks take. As a result, our schedules easily become a constant source of stress.

McKeown uses driving cars as an analogy to explain the importance of building buffers:

The only way to keep from crashing was to put extra space between our car and the car in front of us. This space acted as a buffer. It gave us time to respond and adapt to any sudden or unexpected moves by other cars. It allowed us to avoid the friction of stops and starts…. Essentialists accept the reality that we can never fully anticipate or prepare for every scenario or eventuality; the future is simply too unpredictable. Instead, they build in buffers to reduce additional effort caused by the unexpected.

Main take-away for managers struggling with “office politics”

The problem is, when people don’t know what the end game is, they are unclear about how to win, and as a result, they make up their own game and their own rules as they vie for the manager’s favour…. They put all their efforts into games like attempting to look better than their peers, demonstrating their self-importance, and echoing their managers’s every idea or sentiment…. Decide on an essential intent… both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable. Done right an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions.

How are you an Essentialist?

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