I just finished reading the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown.
The core idea of the book is to do less, but better. Say no to things that aren't essential, so you have room to focus on what is truly essential to you.
The book leaves room for you to define what's essential in a way that's personal to you. It does suggest that you probably want to be contributing in a highly effective way to whatever you're a part of, or successful by some definition of success that matters to you. But it's not strictly career-based; it also focuses on the importance of family life as something that is essential for the author and perhaps will be essential for you, too.
In that way, Essentialism is an interesting blend of a business book and a self-help book. A lot of examples are drawn from the business world - executives at big companies or management consultants or business school professors. But, I found the book quite useful in thinking through my own commitments.
Where it fell flat for me was the near total lack of examples that felt relevant to my role as a mother - I am starting out as unlikely to take a client call the day my first child was born, like the author did (triggering a wake-up call that eventually lead to him writing this book), considering I'd be the one in the hospital. And many of the things on my to-do list are commitments I don't feel I can easily just "say no" to or ignore entirely; our cleaning list is already at the bare minimum of what we need for function and health. And there's still too much to do, it seems! The book didn't really discuss this aspect at all. A friend recommended the book Needy by Mara Glatzel as perhaps a useful follow-up that addresses some of these shortcomings; I am eager to read it next!
Essentialism, to the author, means constantly asking "Am I investing in the right activities?" It strikes me as a very mindful practice, in the sense of living in the moment, and being very intentional about the way that you fill up your time. It pushes back on the idea that one can "have it all". (And again, here this hits differently coming from a white, American man in a straight relationship who works as a business strategy consultant than it might from a person of a different background! But the point stands nonetheless.)
But when we try to do it all and have it all, we find ourselves making trade-offs at the margins that we would never take on as our intentional strategy.
our lives get cluttered as well-intended commitments and activities we’ve said yes to pile up. Most of these efforts didn’t come with an expiration date. Unless we have a system for purging them, once adopted, they live on in perpetuity.
Though it's really a metaphor for purging other life commitments, there's a nice little bit about decluttering one's closet that resonated for me.
Instead of asking, “Is there a chance I will wear this someday in the future?” you ask more disciplined, tough questions: “Do I love this?” and “Do I look great in it?” and “Do I wear this often?”
The broader life version of these questions might be “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” and “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?”
Essentialists acknowledge trade-offs and make deliberate choices instead of trying to do both well and probably failing, or getting overwhelmed with stress. Choice is emphasized here - our options may not be in our control, but our choice among them is always an action we can take deliberately. There's resonance here with the core takeaway I had from reading "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck" several years ago - we can't just not have problems, but we can choose (to some extent at least, which isn't acknowledged fully in the cishet white male perspective of that author, either) which problems we'd like to have.
There's also some resonance here with the personal finance strategy of Ramit Sethi - you may not be able to "have it all" - so what do you want to say no to, so that you can "go big on" the things you are saying yes to?
One section talks about the importance of figuring out what your "essential intent" is - like a mission statement for your life. The intent needs to be both inspirational and concrete, meaningful and measurable. It's not just a slogan; it's a tool that you will use to make other decisions by figuring out which option matches your pre-determined essential intent the best.
# Relation to Decluttering
In addition to the closet metaphor above, there were a few other things that might be helpful if you're looking to declutter or downsize. (Though this certainly wasn't the main focus of the book)
One is a mention of the "endowment effect" - the tendency to undervalue things we don't have yet and overvalue things we already have. Items seem more valuable the moment you think about giving them away, which definitely resonates with me!
“If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?”
Don’t ask, “How will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity?” but rather, “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?”
“If I wasn’t already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?”
# Risk Assessment
A section on risk assessment piqued my interest - and as someone who thinks a lot about preparing for disasters of all kinds, I'd like to spend more time thinking through these questions for some major upcoming life changes. Here are the questions - just writing them down is making me think of more questions I'd add to my assessment!
- What risks do you face on this project?
- What is the worst-case scenario?
- What would the social effects of this be?
- What would the financial impact of this be?
- How can you invest to reduce risks or strengthen financial or social resilience?
# Setting Up Systems
The book talks about the importance of making the default choice the one that you want to be making anyways. This reminds me of strategies I've heard of for dealing with ADHD and reducing decision fatigue - setting up systems and routines. In our household one simple system like this is "the toddler's shoes go on the high shelf immediately", so that when we leave the house next, we don't have to run all over the house looking for where she relocated them to (or where we took them off her). The rule makes the routine, which makes it a default behavior that lowers stress getting out the door later.
# Removing Constraints
There was a metaphor pulled from another business-y self-help book called The Goal, where a business guy took some pre-teens on a long hiking weekend. And the group kept getting separated, because the slow hikers would fall way behind and the fast hikers would go too far ahead. So then the guy said, okay, the slowest hiker has to be the front of the pack, and you can go as fast as you want, but don't get ahead of the slowest guy. After that, it was easy to see that if they wanted the group to get to the campsite faster, they needed to make it easy for the slow guy to go faster - so they took some weight of his backpack and distributed it to the others, and then the whole group was able to speed up.
What is the “slowest hiker” in your job or your life? What is the obstacle that is keeping you back from achieving what really matters to you?
Careful, the book warns; there can only be one slowest hiker. Identify what is truly the harshest constraint on what you want to accomplish, and tackle that first, rather than other things that might be easier to address but don't make as big of a difference in the final outcome.
# Think About Stuff
The book emphasizes that it's up to you to decide what's essential for you, and what your goals are. There's honestly not a ton of direction on that front, which is maybe good - I probably don't have all the same values or goals as the author, and that's okay. Exploring different options and making an informed choice instead of rushing into something is the ideal. The author has a longstanding journaling habit, and recommends that practice to others, too.
One suggestion from the appendix that kind of delighted me is "schedule a Personal Quarterly Off-Site to explore what is essential". I like the framing; in businesses an off-site is a big group meeting that happens with some regularity where you often will talk through broad company or team strategy or goals. It's "off-site" as in not in your usual, routine place of work. And it's got an agenda, which someone has deliberately thought through to craft meaningful spaces for discussion and reflection.
My partner and I have been meaning to set aside some time to talk through our parenting values and maybe even if we have a specific goal for this season of our lives. (Other than the ones that well, we have talked through! More high-level reflection on it basically) Maybe we need to plan a Family Off-Site one of these days!
Overall, I liked this book and found it useful to read. Sometimes self-help books can get too "fluffy" and feel repetitive, but I thought this book was pretty well paced and full of a lot of different ideas supporting the "less but better" framework without making feel like I was spending time reading the same thing over and over. There are definitely some shortcomings in terms of intersectional analysis (and some biases/oversimplifications that made me laugh or roll my eyes at times), but the principles overall and practical tips for implementing them in your life felt helpful.
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@cassey Nice review. I have not read it, but I loved your review of the “slow hiker” part. It stimulated my thinking about the slow hiker on some projects I’m either working on or considering. source