First Published: July 9, 2021 | Last Updated: July 9, 2021

The gist: Essentialism is about eliminating the noise in your life to focus on what's important. Here's how you can get started with it.

I've often talked about a concept I call "ruthless prioritization."

I use it when it comes to email. When it comes to managing my spoons with chronic illness. And when choosing which projects to commit to without burning out.

It's been a savior for me as I try to detach from my former workaholism.

And since becoming familiar with Greg McKeown, I now know another word for this mindset: essentialism.

This short, easy to get through book can change the way you approach so many things.

Let's talk about it.

Note: Some of these links are affiliate links. So if you decide to buy anything, I'll receive a commission. Most creators say something like "100% of this goes back into the business," but I'm not most creators. Some months it goes into the business, others it will be used to buy inappropriate amounts of chocolate. Remember, working brighter is about balance!

before essentialism vs after essentialism

What is Essentialism?

The essentialist mindset is about creating a systematic way of figuring out your highest point of contribution, and eliminating the obstacles that can get in the way of that.

Sounds a lot like ruthless prioritization, right?

This essentialist way of thinking is based on 3 core truths:

  1. Recognizing our individual choice
  2. Knowing the prevalence of noise
  3. Accepting the reality of trade-offs

We'll talk about each more in a minute.

When you think like an essentialist, you replace the assumptions of "I have to," "It's all important," and "I can do both," with "I choose to," "Only a few things really matter," and "I can do anything but not everything."

The 3 Cores of Essentialist Mindset

Now let's look at those core truths of essentialism I mentioned earlier: that we always have choice, most things are noise, and trade-offs are unavoidable.

Choices are Verbs, Not Nouns

First, essentialism talks about how choosing is an action you do, not a thing you have or don't have.

It recognizes that we don't have control over our options, and we might not always have more than one. But even then, our reaction is a choice. It's a dangerous line to walk between recognizing this and spiritual bypassing, but the book seemed to handle it better than other works on minimalist mindsets.

The book also talks about how both action and lack of action are choices that we make. Because lack of action means choosing not to act.

The Prevalence of Noise vs. Signal

It's a well-known fact that certain types of effort yield higher rewards than others. Most people have heard of the 80/20 rule, even if they don't always know how or remember to apply it.

But embracing Essentialism teaches you to identify the higher yield things that fall into that 20%.

It requires being mindful of both your actions and their results. For high yield activities, the relationship between effort and results is a power law with an exponential curve.

Those activities are signal.

But everything else is noise, competing with it and drowning it out.

Essentialism wants you to work to build the discernment to identify the important through exploring all your options.

The Reality of Trade-Offs

Finally, Essentialists realize that every decision has trade-offs.

So instead of trying to avoid anything with downsides, they evaluate decisions and make trade-offs by asking, "which problem do I want?" instead of, "which option do I not want?" and, "What do I want to go big on?" instead of, “What do I have to give up?”

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

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The 3 Steps of Embracing Essentialism

So how do you actually become essentialist?

Like most things, it's a journey that never really has a finish line. It's more of a continual cycle-style journey.

The steps of honing your essentialism involve exploring your options, eliminating the trivial many, and making the vital few effortless.

Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking.  But their exploration is not an end in itself. The purpose of the exploration is to discern the vital few from the trivial many. - Essentialism, Greg McKeown

Step 1: Explore

You might think that essentialists "just pick something" and stick with the decision. But you'd be wrong. Essentialists actually explore more options than non-essentialists, but in a scanning way that lets them get just enough data to identify their point of highest contribution.

So Essentialism requires the space, time, play, and rest to explore your options, apply highly selective criteria to them, and choose the right one. Here are McKeown's tips for doing so.

Make yourself unavailable

First of all, you need to build in time for yourself to think and reflect on your day-to-day. It won't always be easy, but it's important to find that time to escape from the doing to reflect on what you've done.

Focus is something we do, not just something we have. 

But it requires the time for it.

Look for the real story

Essentialism also encourages approaching your life like a journalist approaches a story, always trying to:

  • Read between the lines
  • Dig deeper
  • Connect dots

One of the best ways to do this is to "report" on your life the way a journalist reports on a story. By this, he means journaling, which is a fantastic way of looking at the practice.

Find time to play

It's also important to find time to play (which is why working brighter is about specifically balancing work, rest, and play, instead of lumping everything non-work into "life").

Play helps us mentally explore new ideas or options, hones our inquisitiveness and creativity, and decreases stress.

It's essential at all stages of life, but we're taught that it's for kids only. We lose our sense of it at some point as Hustle Culture takes hold of us.

To reconnect with your sense of play, Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play recommends thinking about the most fun and exciting ways you played as a child and how you can recreate that today.

Keep yourself rested

Finally, essentialism requires prioritizing rest, which you know we agree with here. It says to protect the asset, the asset being yourself.

The most common way ambitious people fail to do this is through lack of sleep. We believe if we sleep less, we can achieve more. But sleep is more about resting the brain than the body, and increases creativity and cognitive ability.

Create extreme criteria

You might've heard before that "If it isn't a clear yes, it's a clear no." Or even if it's not a hell yes.

But that's easier said than done.

To make it easier to be selective when you're evaluating options, extreme and explicit criteria can help.

Step 2: Eliminate

Once you've explored your options in step 1 of the essentialism journey, you want to eliminate the noise to help focus on the signal.

To do this, you want to:

Clarify your end game

You need to know what your end game is to figure out a strategy for game play. When we don't know this, we follow social conventions.

So instead, we need to know what we want and how we know when we're done.

To eliminate nonessentials means saying no to someone.  Often.  It means pushing against social expectations.  To do it well takes courage and compassion. - Essentialism, Greg McKeown

Learn to say "no" gracefully

Making room for the essential means saying "no" a lot.

It's awkward in the moment, but people respect it more than you think.

Also, a firm no is nicer than a noncommittal yes.

Get used to cutting your losses

Becoming an essentialist requires learning how to recognize sunk-cost bias, endowment effect, and status quo bias. They all cause us to continue doing things because we've mentally or verbally committed to doing them, even if we know they're not working.

So we need to figure out what and how to uncommit.

To evaluate where you might need to uncommit, try applying a zero-based time or commitment budget, where you clear your calendar and add each thing back one by one, justifying its presence there.

You can also test the consequences of uncommiting to something by running a "reverse pilot," where you remove or scale back a commitment to see what difference it makes.

And to prevent overcommitting from happening in the future, you need to get over the fear of missing out and learn to pause before saying yes to something.

Become an editor of your life

Editing is an essentialist craft because it's about eliminating everything but the most important thing, drawing focus to it.

Editors add through deliberate subtraction, make trade-offs, condense and conserve, need to know when to let things be, and more. They also need a thorough understanding of a piece's purpose in order to make it stand out.

Create boundaries

Boundaries are empowering in that they protect your time and give you more certain space to roam.

To create them, you can identify dealbreakers by thinking about requests that have left you feeling taken advantage of.

Step 3: Execute

Finally, it's time to easily execute. That's right, easily.

It's natural to want things to be easy. Instead of fighting that, Essentialists figure out ways to actually make things easier using systems and boundaries.

While Nonessentialists tend to force execution, Essentialists invest the time they have saved by eliminating the nonessentials into designing a system to make execution almost effortless. - Essentialism, Greg McKeown

Some that help include...

Build in buffer time

Essentialists expect the unexpected and prepare for it by building in a buffer. For example, they add time to how long they think something will take because they're aware of the planning fallacy.

It sort of comes down to risk management.

We can identify buffers by asking what risks we face, what the worst case scenario is, what the social effects of that would be, what the financial impact of that would be, and what you can do to either reduce those risks or increase your resilience to them.

Remove obstacles

Essentialists don't notice problems and slap a band-aid on them. They dig deep to find the most important obstacles to remove.

They ask, "What is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?"

Focus on small wins

Essentialists focus on small and simple wins in the most important areas, knowing and trusting that they'll snowball to bigger breakthroughs. For example, in setting up systems to reduce friction for execution in essential tasks.

They ask, "what is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential tasks we are trying to get done?" and prefer to start early and small rather than late and big.

Create routines to enable flow

Essentialists know that setting up the right routines makes essential action the default and helps them get into a state of flow. This is another area where setting up systems upfront makes things easier later.

Focus

Know that while you can multitask, you can't multifocus.

Essentialists are focused on the one most important priority, even if they are doing other tasks.

Final Notes on Essentialism

Essentialism in a society of excess is "an act of quiet revolution"

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

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