I’m doing a 3-part series on how to overcome obstacles and achieve the real, significant and lasting change necessary to live the life you want, both now and in retirement. It’s a 3-part series, because we’re covering 3 big ideas. Idea #1 was minimalism: Deciding what doesn’t belong in your life—stuff, expenses, obligations, hassles, commitments, projects—and getting rid of it. Idea #2 is Essentialism: Deciding what IS important and DOES belong in your life and then doing it more often and better.
After simplifying and getting rid of things you don’t want, you have room to add more of the things (relationships, projects, experiences, possessions) that you do want. What’s the best way to do that? For me, the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown gives a good roadmap. I’ll summarize the key takeaways below. Many of the ideas in this post are straight from the book, so just pretend there are quotation marks around everything. You can buy a copy of the book here.
Most of what we do doesn’t matter. John Maxwell summarized this best when he said “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of almost everything.” It’s not that we’re idle. We’re all busy. We’re just busy with many things that don’t matter. Essentialism is about getting rid of the trivial many and focusing on the vital few. It’s not about how to get more things done, it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean doing less for the sake of doing less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy. It is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining what matters to you and then focusing your time and effort there.
When we’re unclear about our real purpose and highest values, we waste time and energy on nonessential things. As a result, our life becomes a hodge podge of the things we truly want and the unimportant things that are allowed in by default. Essentialism helps you define your highest ideals and priorities so you can live by design, not by default.
Essentialism is not about getting more things done. It’s about getting the right things done. To do that, you need to figure out what the “right” things are. The answer is different for everyone. Minimalism helped you decide what the wrong things were so you could remove them. Essentialism will help you determine what the right things are so you can add them. Here are some thoughts from the book on how to do that:
Step 1: McKeown says the first step is to get your mind right. Realize that you have a choice in these matters. You are the curator of your life. Understand that practically everything is unimportant and that every yes and no decision you make is a tradeoff. A yes means a no somewhere else. A no means you’ll have the ability to say yes somewhere else. Is your yes worth the no that it creates? Is your no justified by the yes it allows? The problem is that we think we can do it all. Who needs sleep? Just cram more in. The reality is, we can’t have it all and when we try we end up with mediocre results. An example I really connected with in the book was Dieter Rams who was the lead designer at Braun for many years. His mantra was “Less, but better.” In other words, the disciplined pursuit of doing fewer things, but doing those things really well.
Step 2: Give yourself time and space to think. The nonessentialist is too busy to even contemplate what things are important and where he should be spending his time. Schedule time to think. Start by asking yourself key questions: What do I feel inspired by? What am I talented at? What meets a significant need in the world right now? What makes me happy? What things am I most proud of? Journal about your life. Look for the lead in your story. The important things that matter. The things that actually excite you about your life. Begin to filter out the noise. Look for patterns or trends, both good and bad. Think about your life and what you want. Do this exercise with the understanding that you will eventually focus on fewer things, but you’ll do them better. Less, but better.
Step 3: As you contemplate those different things, they’ll probably fall into 3 categories: bad, good and best. The “bad” will be an obvious no. It will be clear that you shouldn’t be focusing future time on those things and you’ll be shocked that you’ve wasted any time on them at all. The second two categories will be harder. One will be a bunch of good things. On a scale of zero to 100, where 100 is awesome, you’ll have a bunch of 70s and 80s. They’re all things that you can justify, but they’re not great. Still, you’ll have a lot of them because it’s hard to say no when there is some obvious benefit. But remember, a yes to a 70 means a no to a 95, so the 70s and 80s should go as well. Then you’ll have a shorter list that are all 90s and above. Those are your essentials. Those are the things that are important to you. That is where you should invest your time, energy, resources and talents.
How to eliminate the good in favor of the better? Writer Derek Sivers uses the criteria: “Hell yes, or no.” That’s how he decides whether or not to pursue a new opportunity. He’s either totally excited about it and can’t wait to start or he turns it down. There is no “I guess so” or “maybe” or “why not.” It’s either hell yes or it’s no. Numerically, McKeown describes this as the 90% rule. If you’re evaluating an opportunity and you rate it 90% or up, you automatically switch that to 100% and do it. If instead, it’s some number below 90%–say 80%–you automatically switch that to 0% and cross it off your list.
Here’s something else that might help with your decision-making process. Write down the opportunity. Then write down 3 minimum criteria it would need to have for you to even consider saying yes. Then write down 3 ideal/extreme criteria that it would need to be a 90% type of opportunity. If it doesn’t pass the minimum, it’s an obvious no. And if it doesn’t pass at least 2 of the extreme criteria, it’s a no as well. If we’re going to have less, but better, we need to be tougher curators and have strict criteria. Said another way, essentialists only say yes to the top 10% of opportunities. It’s not about rejecting the bad in favor of the good. It’s about rejecting the good AND bad and in favor of the great (or best).
Step 4: Once you’ve eliminated the nonessential and determined what is essential, the goal is to make the execution of those essential things almost effortless. We’ll save that discussion for Part 3 in our series.
Benefits of Essentialism
Below are some of the benefits of essentialism. Some I experienced first-hand. Some are taken directly from Greg’s book Essentialism.
- We live by design, not by default
- Less stress and floundering
- Easier decision making. When you have ultra-selective criteria, it makes decision making easier in life. If it has to be a 90, anything less is an automatic no. If your criteria are too broad, you end up evaluating too many things. That leads to either analysis paralysis or over commitment.
- Better results on more important things.
- Greater satisfaction in life and retirement
- A feeling of significance and purpose
- More time for the people and projects that matter
- More clarity
- More control
- More joy
- Less regret
Throughout the process, I’ve learned all sorts of lessons. I’ll list some of those below along with several more taken directly from Greg’s book (have I mentioned you should read it).
- You have a choice about what comes into your life and doesn’t. You’re a curator.
- Clarity equals success. When you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, all change is arbitrary.
- Every yes and no decision is a trade-off. A yes means a no somewhere else and vice versa.
- Beware of Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). We let too many mediocre opportunities in our life because we’re afraid of missing out if we say no.
- Beware the tyranny of the good. Saying yes to a bunch of good things pretty much guarantees that you won’t be able to focus on the best things.
- Once you have identified your essentials, have metrics that allow you to measure how you’re doing with them. That which gets measured gets managed.
- Stop making casual commitments. These creep in and overwhelm kind of like the frog that slowly boils as the water gets gradually hotter.
- Say no fast. Say yes slow.
- Sometimes it’s hard to say no because we don’t want to disappoint someone or miss a potential opportunity. Just realize that if you say no to something that isn’t essential, you will regret it for a few minutes, but if you say yes to something that isn’t essential, you will regret it for days, weeks, months or years.
- Beware of the status quo bias. We tend to continue doing things simply because we have always done them. That’s not a good reason to keep doing something.
- Use zero based budgeting with your time. Rather than allocating time to things because you’ve previously allocated time to them, start from zero each year and only allocate time to things that you can justify based on essentialism.
- Be a good editor. Use deliberate subtraction to enhance the results. Less, but better.
- Pause constantly and ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” Are you doing what you want to do? Are you doing it as efficiently and excellently as possible?
- Once you get clarity and start saying yes based on a certain mission or set of principles, you will start to reap the benefits of making that consistent set of choices.
- Grapple with the tough decisions. Making one tough decision will often make a thousand future decisions automatically. Said another way, clarity is the action that makes thousands of future actions unnecessary.
- Work to remove obstacles. The nonessentialist will pile on pressure and solutions. The essentialist will make a one-time investment in removing obstacles.
- When we don’t have our own metrics for success, we waste time trying to look good in comparison to other people’s priorities and according to other people’s yard sticks. Know what you want and how you will measure success in those areas.
- Make sure the essential things get the resources they need (time, attention, money) and allow the non-essential things to just fall out of your life.
How to say no
Saying no is sometimes hard because we don’t want to let down our friends, family or co-workers. Here are some thoughts from the book that can help.
- When you must say no to someone, separate the decision from the relationship. You’re not saying no to your friend or coworker. You’re saying no to an opportunity that doesn’t match your priorities.
- Focus on the tradeoff. Focus on what you’d have to give up if you said yes. Saying yes to a nonessential means you need to say no to one of your essentials. Not worth it.
- Ask yourself, “What is the consequence of saying no?” Sometimes we’re in the “have to” mindset and we don’t look at the consequences of saying no. Sometimes the consequences are not that big a deal. And yet, we default to “have to” and worry that we’re causing problems if we say no. Honestly look at what the consequence of saying no is.
- Remember that saying no often means trading popularity for respect.
- Pause or delay before you say yes. Tell them you need to check your schedule and get back to them. Anything to give you some real time to truly evaluate the opportunity rather than just succumbing to the pressure of a quick yes.
- A clear no can be better than a vague or noncommitted yes. Don’t string people along.
- Saying no is often in the asker’s best interest as well because they’re not bringing someone onto their team who is uncommitted and not 100%.
- Be gracious, but don’t always feel compelled to justify or explain yourself. As Anne Lamott said, “No is a complete sentence.”
Subtract, Add, Execute
Once you’ve gotten rid of things you don’t want (minimalism) and identified the things that you do want (essentialism), it’s time to set up systems that help you execute those things effortlessly. That’s what we’ll cover in Part 3.
Have a great weekend!