According to author Greg McKeown, our inability to achieve our goals is not so much a lack of willpower as a lack of focus—focus on the essentials, that is.
Less but better
If you find that you’re busier than ever but still not making progress toward your most important goals, consider this explanation from McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less:
“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”
The point isn’t so much about upping your productivity to get more done (the familiar “work smarter, not harder” mantra), but instead about choosing what’s worth doing in the first place. It’s about continually asking yourself whether you’re investing your time, efforts, and energies in the things you have purposely chosen to commit to—or would, if you had time to think about it.
McKeown rightly calls this a discipline because there are so many good, deserving, meaningful things you could pursue that narrowing down to just your chosen essentials may mean disappointing people you care about, saying “no” more often than you’re used to, and passing up some cool opportunities. The benefit, however, is that you’ll actually be able to focus on the priorities you’ve identified as most important to you and accomplish them.
The four essentials
According to McKeown, the four aspects of a life or career based on essentialism are:
Essence: Understanding the core mind-set of an Essentialist
This involves choosing your essential priorities, emotionally (and logistically) relegating all those non-essentials to second-tier status in your life. In terms of your career, this could mean deciding which of several possible career paths to pursue, then laying the groundwork to focus all of your energies and professional development in that direction. (Keep in mind that you can always broaden your focus when you’re ready to set and achieve new goal priorities.
Explore: Making time to think though what is essential to you
McKeown suggests you take a time out from your everyday life to give yourself some thinking space. Start exploring what you deeply care about achieving and why – again, keeping in mind that what you choose for your priorities today doesn’t rule out other options in the future. This phase includes the selection process based on what the author calls “extreme criteria”—in career terms, if you’re engaged in lots of activities that don’t further your most important goals, now’s the time to weed out every non-essential commitment.
Eliminate: Cutting out the “trivial many”
This can be as challenging as it sounds, since most of our daily activities seem driven by that trivial many, also known as other people’s priorities for us. But by using McKeown’s strategies—clarifying your decisions (why are these your essentials?), learning the power of a graceful “no,” actively if gently disengaging from non-essential activities, and deploying the key life/career skill of setting boundaries—you’ll be able to move from the trivial to the essential with a minimum of drama (translation: guilt).
Execute: Make it nearly effortless
Like so many other personal efforts, one of the most important keys to achieving an Essentialist life and career is to design an environment and processes that support achieving your goals. Remove obstacles that will distract you. Focus on small wins. Create routines you can rely on to carry you forward. Keep your essentials front-and-center in your short-term and long-term decision-making. And when you’re ready, choose new essentials to keep your career heading in the right direction.
Although like any good business-coaching book, Essentialism makes its strategy sound a good bit easier to implement than it actually is for us mere mortals. Nevertheless, his approach makes sense, it can be learned through practice, and it’s well worth the effort. What better time to start practicing than the upcoming holiday season?
Esentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Greg McKeown, Crown Business, 2014. 272p. ISBN 0804137382.