Book review: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

In Greg McKeown's Essentialism, he reveals that instead of trying to do more, we must train ourselves to do less better.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Courtesy Virgin Books
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Almost everything is noise, says Greg McKeown, and only “a very few things are exceptionally valuable”.

His Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is not a time management book – instead it's about doing less, better. It's not, he says, a way to do one more thing but a different way of doing everything.

Instead of the undisciplined pursuit of more, McKeown urges us towards the “disciplined pursuit of less”. And he means discipline. He calls it a mindset and a set of three actions – exploring, eliminating and executing – which need to be followed ruthlessly.

In George Orwell's Animal Farm, the author points out, Boxer the horse is loaded with more and more work so works harder and harder until, broken, he is sent to the slaughterhouse. Ultimately, someone who simplifies their life will instead feel in control, get the right things done and avoid "thankless busywork", a term so true for poor Boxer.

In another example, McKeown points to the restaurant El Bulli, which takes two million requests for dinner reservations each year but serves only 50 people per night and closes for six months of the year.

And Warren Buffett, he points out, owes 90 per cent of his wealth to just 10 investments, making big bets on the essential few and saying no to the rest.

Because it’s not about how to get more things done, it’s about how to get the right things done.

Probably the phrase that resonated most with me was: “If we don’t prioritise our life, someone else will. When we do not choose where to focus our energy and time, other people – our boss, colleagues, clients, family – will choose on our behalf. And that means you risk the unfulfilling experience of making “a millimetre of progress in a million directions”.

McKeown himself was studying law in the UK just to “keep his options open” and quit in his first year, once he realised this was non-essential to his own life goals.

He headed to California for a wedding and become a teacher and author, ultimately getting an MBA from Stanford and becoming chief executive of the leadership and strategy agency This Inc. A real-life example of doing less and better.


Should I be changing my terminology?

McKeown says a “non-essentialist” thinks “I have to”, “it’s all important” and “how can I fit it all in?” An Essentialist thinks “I can do anything but not everything”, “Only a few things really matter”, “which problem do I want to solve?” and “what are the trade-offs”?

But isn’t “yes” a good word?

Not according to McKeown. An undisciplined pursuer of more says yes to people without really thinking, he argues, while an essentialist says no to everything except the essential.

What are the key questions to ask myself?

Can I actually fulfil this request, given the time and resources I have? Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resource right now? Am I living by design or by default?

But what about when I have multiple priorities?

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s,” says McKeown. “It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next 500 years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralise the term and start talking about priorities.”

How much more productive could I become?

An example McKeown gives is Microsoft, where the former chief technology officer believed the best software developers were more productive than an average one not by a factor of 10x or 100x or even 1,000s, but by 10,000x. A productivity level worth some disciplined pursuit.

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