Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown (Quotes & Thoughts)

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I like to highlight sentences and passages when I read a book on the Kindle app. Over time, this builds up a nice collection of quotes that I can reference. Unfortunately, I haven’t been as disciplined about revisiting the highlights. So, in an effort to get myself to revisit books and ideas that I found useful, I decided to pick a few quotes and write a few sentences on why I found the material worth highlighting and how I found them impactful.

The first book is Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. It’s a quick read with a simple, yet powerful message: that by being mindful and deliberate (and even protective) of our choices and how we spend our time, we can be more effective, better focused, and happier in living our lives. Here are some quotes and my thoughts:

Essentialists are powerful observers and listeners. Knowing that the reality of trade-offs means they can’t possibly pay attention to everything, they listen deliberately for what is not being explicitly stated. They read between the lines… Nonessentialists listen too. But they listen while preparing to say something. They get distracted by extraneous noise. They hyperfocus on inconsequential details. They hear the loudest voice but they get the wrong message. In their eagerness to react they miss the point.

I find this especially relevant when it comes to conversations with clients or employees. Rather than reacting to everything being said, which can often be distractions or misleading signals, taking the time to carefully observe and parse what’s being said and not said can reveal valuable insights. A good example is when we conduct interviews for prospective employees. It’s easy to get caught up on the details of where they worked and what they did, but if you pay closer attention, it’s possible to spot certain patterns or omissions that may reveal untapped strengths or raise big flags. One thing this part of the book made me think about was how a good listener doesn’t just sit back and passively take in information. A good listener continually probes and connects the dots, asking thoughtful questions that provide new data points and help piece together a clearer view of who the other person is or what the other person thinks.

For the last ten years now I have kept a journal, using a counterintuitive yet effective method. It is simply this: I write less than I feel like writing. Typically, when people start to keep a journal they write pages the first day. Then by the second day the prospect of writing so much is daunting, and they procrastinate or abandon the exercise. So apply the principle of “less but better” to your journal. Restrain yourself from writing more until daily journaling has become a habit.

I love this quote. I started keeping a physical journal a couple months ago. I write in it almost every day, but I prescribe to the principle of writing less than I feel like writing. Sometimes, I just write one or two sentences. I might comment on the weather. I might congratulate myself on a nice morning run. Other times, I might write a paragraph about a quote from a book that really struck me. By not “maxing out” on my writing, I’ve never felt journalling to be a taxing activity. It’s just a small thing that I can do everyday without dread or a sense of obligation.

We should serve, and love, and make a difference in the lives of others, of course. But when people make their problem our problem, we aren’t helping them; we’re enabling them. Once we take their problem for them, all we’re doing is taking away their ability to solve it.

I reflected on this a bit because I could distinctly remember times at work when, seeing someone struggle with a certain task or assignment, I would swoop in to “do it for them”. This is terrible behavior and one that erodes the confidence, competency, and trust within an organization. The right way is to pause, take the time to listen to the problem, and, in a non-prescriptive way, offer guidance or resources that can assist in the completion of the task or assignment. A Nonessentialist, constantly reacting and playing defense, would only be focused on “fixing” what doesn’t seem to be going right. An Essentialist would take the long view and address what’s truly important–making sure the other person builds the capacity within themselves to take care of their own problems.

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 the friction caused by the unexpected.

Another piece of advice that McKeown offers up is to build a lot of buffer to the things you do. For example, projects should have time and budget buffers because there are always uncertainties that will pop up and require additional work. Personally, I’ve taken to the idea of having buffers when it comes to my schedule. When possible, I try not to book too many meetings in a given week. I space them out and say no where appropriate. By giving myself the space, I can have some time to focus on what’s really important–exploring ideas on the future of the business, thinking through an especially complex challenge for a client, or crafting messaging on a way to position our business to prospective clients. Space allows me to be proactive rather than reactively going from meeting to meeting and emails to emails. It also enables me to work on the business rather than exclusively in the business.

An Essentialist understands that clarity is the key to empowerment. He doesn’t allow roles to be general and vague. He ensures that everyone on the team is really clear about what they are expected to contribute and what everyone else is contributing.

I love the idea of clarity, and it’s something that’s taken me a long time to better understand. I used to equate clarity with transparency, but just because you tell everyone about everything doesn’t mean the message is any clearer. Clarity comes from a thoughtful distillation of ideas into simple messages that everyone can understand and embrace. It’s also something that needs to be repeated many times. A one-time email to the team with a “clear message” can quickly be forgotten or misremembered. Repetition and tie-ins with daily discourse are a must. I saw this in action in the past year with the core behaviors that we established at work. We’ve tried our best to bring them up at interviews, new employee on-boarding, one-on-one performance reviews, monthly team meetings, and emails to the team. I still think we can do more, but I’m also very pleased to see that people are using the same words to recognize each other and describe what we do as a company.

Essentialism shows that there’s beauty and many benefits to living a simple life. But creating a simple life takes work and discipline. It’s about saying no, taking care of yourself, and being clear about what’s important. I’ve continued to reflect on ways to simplify my life and identify what’s absolutely essential for me. It’s a worthwhile exercise that’s helped me quickly shed trivial worries and annoyances that ultimately matter very little. Instead, I’ve found many things to be grateful and optimistic about on a daily basis.

Recently, I listened to an interview of legendary Coach John Wooden by self-help guru Tony Robbins. This was a recording from some years ago when Coach Wooden was alive. In it, Coach Wooden shares a 7-point creed for life that his father shared with him when he was a boy. He had kept a sheet with the 7 points in his wallet all his life. Listening to this, I thought that Coach Wooden was definitely an Essentialist of the first order. I hope to check out some of Coach Wooden’s books later this year, so I’m sure I’ll bring this up again, but here are the seven points:

  1. Be true to yourself.
  2. Make each day your masterpiece.
  3. Help others.
  4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
  5. Make friendship a fine art.
  6. Build a shelter against a rainy day.
  7. Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

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