Given the world is currently in a pandemic and people are having a lot of choices made for them with regards to how they spend their time, many are left deciding what to introduce back in to their lives, once allowed to do so. This book, written by Greg McKeown in 2014 has become a useful guide to help increase focus on what’s important. 

On the face of it, it looks like a bit of an obvious idea that, if you try and do too many things you spread yourself too thin and end up doing nothing well. Which we all know, but it can be hard to create a level of discipline that allows us the clarity of thought to mindfully choose what we do with the time we have. We are always making choices about how to spend our time, even when we don’t realise. But the book really does make you examine your own thought process of where your time is used. It provokes you to ask yourself questions such as, What is the most important thing I could be doing with my time right now? Only a few things really matter, so what are the trade offs? And mantras like, ‘if you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will’.

Essentialism, Greg McKeown

A lot of the other things mentioned are things that are simple to say, but much harder to do in practice. They’re things which require a fair amount of practice before they stop being an uncomfortable habit, such as, cutting out trivial activity (seems obvious). But also having the ’emotional discipline’ no to people, which has come up in many similar books before (if it’s not a clear yes, then it has to be a no). However, reading about it over and over doesn’t make it any easier to do. 

It goes over how unimportant so much of life really is, the importance of play (play sparks exploration), the importance of sleep (sleep is for high performers and breeds creativity), of automating your routine (helps create a sense of flow, mentioned yet again!), of setting boundaries (much like in design, constraints are really your friends) and the importance of the ability to focus to help you choose where your time should be spent and find out truly what gives you purpose (‘In order to have focus we need to escape to focus’). All of these things help us have the energy to prioritise: 

Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritise.

Everything written about boils down to the simple principle of ‘less but better’. Which is a good principle to keep in mind next time you have that choice of what to do with your precious time. This also includes being intentional with the choices – being deliberate about the time spent. It also mentions the ancient, but ever applicable Pareto Principle, or 80/20 rule which comes up in many management or productivity books – 20% of our efforts product 80% of our results. 

To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to”, “Only a few things matter” and “I can do anything but not everything”.

One of the anecdotes I enjoyed the most was this idea of ‘Identifying the slowest hiker’ – the idea that if you have a set of hikers it’s usually the weakest link that is slowing down the entire team. The fictional hiking leader reorganises the group from slowest to fastest (instead of having the slowest at the back) so that they can all keep up and it makes it easier for him to analyse their speed. If you can pinpoint exactly why the front hiker is slow and find a way of speeding them up (in his example, leaning on the other hikers in terms of load) then the whole team of hikers’ speed will increase, then on to the next slowest. This is about finding the obstacles and systematically eliminating them. Again, it seems like an obvious thing to do, but takes a level focus in order to be able to identify and then remove the obstacles. This idea coupled with ’subtracting’ – the idea of producing more with removing more – is at the core of Essentialism:

This approach goes beyond just solving problems; it’s a method of reducing your efforts to maximise your results.

It is quite timely as I was recently reading a Guardian article on secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life by Oliver Burkeman that echoed some of these sentiments:

The upside is that you needn’t berate yourself for failing to do it all, since doing it all is structurally impossible. The only viable solution is to make a shift: from a life spent trying not to neglect anything, to one spent proactively and consciously choosing what to neglect, in favour of what matters most.

This was a great book and at a time like this, more than any, devoting the time you have to purpose and deliberate choices does seem like a fruitful way to focus.