Greg McKeown on essentialism6 min read

The Short Version

Modern life is packed with things (we think) we should do. From work to our social lives, we are constantly trying to pack more things in, never quite able to do all the things we want to do, as well as we want to.

Essentialism is a new way. It is a daily discipline that asks us to cut out everything that’s not essential. Ultimately, Essentialism not only helps us lead healthier, more sustainable lives, but allows us to focus more of our time and energy to the things that truly matter.

Going deeper

Westerners in the 21st Century typically operate on a core assumption that doing more is doing better, that they are more valuable when they pack as many things as they can into their schedule, not only in their work lives, but in their social lives as well.

If you’re reading Kindling, there’s a good chance that you have some insight into the flaws of this assumption. Under this assumption, we push, push, push, and burn ourselves out until we crash or come down with an illness. We pack our schedules so tight that we don’t have enough time to actually do it all, let alone do it well to the fullest of our abilities. We value doing over being.

But even those of us who have questioned this mindset for some time now may still struggle in practice to forge a new way, to bring simplicity and spaciousness into our lives.

That’s where Essentialism -as defined by author Greg McKeown – comes in. Essentialism is the daily discipline of cutting out the unessential so we can re-focus on the essential. It’s both incredibly easy – it’s actually about doing fewer things after all – and incredibly challenging. To do less is to go against the grain of our socialization and existing social pressures. It takes discipline, commitment, and a willingness to disappoint people over and over again. It takes truly believing that what is most important to you is important for the world.

“Only once you give yourself the permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” – Greg McKeown

Effectively practicing Essentialism requires a few foundational building blocks:

  1. Define your purpose. Without understanding your reason for being, your reason for the work you do or the relationships you cultivate, you can’t possibly define what’s essential. So practicing Essentialism begins with defining for yourself what’s essential, what you must have to live the life you want and enact the kind of change you want.
  2. Identify the few things that most serve your purpose. Next, you have to actually identify just a few things that are most essential to your purpose. Note: you’ll have to cut out many things that feel important, but unessential. That painful feeling of loss and doubt is actually when you know you are doing the work. What are the things you truly can’t live without?
  3. Build a sustainable daily routine. Next, you have to go about actually incorporating the most essential items into your daily life, making sure there is room every day to address the things most important to you. Equally important is that your daily routine is sustainable. Can you fit it all in while getting the sleep you need and the time you need to restore and reflect? If you can’t then keep cutting things out.
  4. Re-evaluate every day. Lastly, re-evaluate what’s essential every day of your life. Is what was essential before still essential? Has your purposes changed, thus making something new thing essential? Where might there be opportunities to further hone and simplify your life? How can you be more focused on what is truly essential?

Next steps

The lesson of “Essentialism” that I find most helpful and actionable is simply saying “no.”

There are a lot of pressures that make saying “yes” to new opportunities feel not only necessary, but good and ethical. Our boss asks us to take on a new project, so of course we say “yes.” A friend we’ve been meaning to connect with asks us to dinner, so of course we say “yes.” In the perfect world, we would have time for these things. And if we say no, we will be disappointing someone. So of course we say “yes.” But too often we say “yes” when we know there is no time for it.

The most impactful change agents learn to say “no” to nearly every opportunity that comes their way. “No” is their default answer. This is not because they are uncaring, uncooperative, or selfish. It’s because they are laser-focused on their primary purpose, the endeavor that is directly in front of them that they have the most ability to influence.

The best thing you can do right now is to change your orientation toward saying “no.” Saying “no” is not another reason to feel bad about yourself. Saying “no” is an opportunity to feel good about your commitment to your chosen change path. Let yourself bask in the spaciousness and possibility that “no” affords.

Recommended reading

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

by Greg McKeown 

The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done.  It is not  a time management strategy, or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.

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author avatar
Peter Schulte is the founder and editor of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA with his partner Sara, child Owen, and cat Winnie.

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