Quick question: Do you want to be scattered, running around like a chicken with your head cut off or do you want to be able to focus on the most fun, Essential parts of your work?

Yeah that’s a softball — pretty much everyone is going to choose to focus on work that’s Essential.

With that out of the way we’re going to look at Essentialism by Greg McKeown. The subtitle of this book is ‘The Disciplined Pursuit of Less’ which may not, on the face of it, remind you about the book Deep Work I wrote about a while ago, but once you dig into Essentialism you’ll see that both books revolve around the same concepts.

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.

This pursuit of less and the need we have for it is what McKeown is stressing throughout the book. It’s his purpose for writing it. By the end of the book we should agree with his basic premise, that doing more is not the goal. That simply doing less just to do less is not the goal. We should be striving for doing the right things.

I always think about this as being effective, not productive. Productive has come to mean doing more things where effective means doing the right things. Doing that which is the best use of your time and skills and produces the most effect in your work.

[Tweet “Productive is doing MORE things but effective is doing the RIGHT things.”]

McKeown breaks his book up into four broad sections starting with a definition of the core mindset of an Essentialist. From there, in the next section, he tries to present tools to find what really matters. Once you have learned to find what really matters, McKeown starts to give you some tools to eliminate that which does not matter. He finishes up by providing ideas on how to automate the doing of the Essential things, which he calls ‘the vital few’ things.

Here are my three big takeaways from Essentialism.

Play More

Play, which I would define as anything we do simply for the joy of doing rather than as a means to an end — whether it’s flying a kite or listening to music or throwing around a baseball – might seem like a nonessential activity. Often it is treated this way.

Years ago I worked for a web development agency that said it valued creativity and learning. It also said it valued eight-hour days for clients, which is what it tracked. If you’ve ever really tried to put in eight-hour days for clients — where every minute of that eight hours is billed to clients — you realize that you’re going to put in a 12-hour day at the office.

Despite saying they wanted us to be creative and learn new things, they really were saying that they wanted us to be creative and learn on our own time, not on their time at all. Sure we could bring the new stuff to the table and use it for their clients, but we had better learn it all some other time, because what we were accountable for was the eight hours billed a day to clients.

True, some companies and executives give lip service to the value of play in sparking creativity, yet most still fail to create the kind of playful culture that sparks true exploration.

The business values are conveyed by how employees are urged/allowed to spend their time. You show what you value by where you spend your time. If you value learning, then make sure you schedule time to learn. If you value time with your kids, then make sure you give them that time.

Don’t be the person that lets themselves say they value one thing, and then never follow through on it. That person is destined for an unhappy, unsuccessful life.

Choose the important

Many capable people are kept from getting to the next level of contribution because they can’t let go of the belief that everything is important.

You’ve heard the old saying that ‘when everything is important nothing is’. The Incredibles illustrates this in the scene where Dash tells his mother that if ‘everyone is special then no one is’.

Rarely do we actually put that mantra into practice in our work though. Some new idea comes along and we pursue it with the same gusto that we pursue everything. Many times we even pursue it to the detriment of other projects on our plate. Then months later we sit back and wonder why some projects are failing while others succeed.

True focus on a single important project does not guarantee it will be successful. It does mean that you’re more likely to finish it, and with your singular focus on that item that matters, you’re likely to do a better job than if you were splitting your focus.

Survey the projects you have and decide what you’re truly going to do. Leave off the stuff that doesn’t matter, the stuff you haven’t gotten to in months. Put all your focus on the projects that matter, that inspire you.

With that focus you’re going to go much further.

The reality of trade-offs: We can’t have it all or do it all. If we could, there would be no reason to evaluate or eliminate options. Once we accept the reality of trade-offs we stop asking, “How can I make it all work?” and start asking the more honest question “Which problem do I want to solve?”

Don’t work

…for a type A personality, it is not hard to push oneself hard. Pushing oneself to the limit is easy! The real challenge for the person who thrives on challenges is not to work hard.

While many of us don’t remember school with much fondness, it set a great rhythm for our lives. We spent a season working on the work of school then had some enforced time off at Christmas and some time off in the spring. Then came summer, where we got two (or three) months to do what we wanted.

Sure some of us worked full-time, or part-time, but even with that I remember my later high school summers being filled with mountain biking and hanging out with friends. It was a break from much of the responsibility I had at that time in my life.

Now we work every day, every week, every month, every year for years. While some of us may take the four weeks’ vacation we are offered in a year, many of us don’t. We go full speed ahead for years with no rest and wonder where our creativity goes.

I plan at least a month off around Christmas. This year we welcomed our third child into the family and I planned four weeks off to help get everyone acclimated to the new life joining us.

Even after that, my time in the office is about half of my normal office hours. My summer is a season of lighter work, less responsibility, and rest.

In your work, plan times of rest. Plan seasons of recharging so that when you have the season of long days, you’ve got the energy for it. Don’t plan to work 100% year round for decades — that’s planning to burn out.


I mentioned Deep Work at the beginning of this look at Essentialism, and that’s because I was continually reminded of Deep Work as I read Essentialism. The thing is, where Deep Work feels well researched and interesting, Essentialism feels more like the opinion of the author.

Even more than that, Essentialism doesn’t feel very essential in the content it covers. Many times during the book I was struck by the overlap of content across the chapters. I’d flip back and forth reading slightly different sentences that seemed to say the same thing.

If you’re looking at a further exploration of the ideas in Essentialism, I’d read Deep Work. In fact, just read Deep Work. Be Essential and only read Deep Work, since it covers the same ideas better.

Get Essentialism on Amazon

photo credit: mliu92 cc

2 responses to “What is Essential in your life?”

  1. John Locke Avatar

    Fully agree with this, Curtis. It isn’t about doing more. It’s about doing the right things.

    No is not a curse word, because always saying Yes will fill your calendar with things that are not that important.

    I also dug what you said about paying lip service to creativity (and the expectation that you must have a whole second job learning in order to do your first job).

    We’re knowledge workers, so constant learning is necessary. But it is difficult to learn anything new when there is absolutely no margin in our work or our lives.

    Time is a finite resource. Our mental energy is also finite. And factory floors come in all shapes and sizes.

    1. Curtis McHale Avatar
      Curtis McHale

      You should look in to Einstien ‘time’ vs Newtonian ‘time’ as it comes to making time in our lives for work. I’ll have a little bit coming out on it on October, but I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped the concepts.