“But the way of the Essentialist isn’t just about success; it’s about living a life of meaning and purpose.” Essentialism by Greg McKeown.
The Book: “Essentialism” in a Nutshell
Essentialism by Greg McKeown is a phenomenal book; I’d strongly recommend it for those of us who usually find ourselves “too busy,” “hanging in there,” “overwhelmed,” or “somehow managing.”
Essentialism is one of the few books which helped me find calm during times when I was gasping for breath in an endless cycle of daily timelines. The book starts with a profound quote by Lin Yutang: “The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials.”
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Key Message of Essentialism for a Stress-free life: “The way of the essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better.”…”It means pursuing it [of less] in a disciplined way.” In a nutshell, I took the following message from the book: To lead a meaningful life, we should continuously identify the important from the many other trivial things. Once we have the important identified, we must execute it.
Five Takeaways from Essentialism for a Stress-free life
In this post, I share five things that I took away from the book as a parent and a corporate professional. I’ve also shared critical learnings that I have translated into actionable items in my life. Each section has (a)a summary of the takeaway, (b) quotes from the book, and (c) actions and changes in the routine that have helped me. I sincerely hope they help you too.
1. Give Yourself a Space to Escape
To understand the big picture of our tasks, or life in general, escaping and stepping back is essential. Escaping creates a space that helps us discern the crucial tasks from the many that can line up quickly every day. Therefore, it is critical to pause and think.
A Space to Escape – Quotable Quotes
“In order to have focus, we need to escape to focus.”
“setting aside distraction-free time in a distraction-free space to do absolutely nothing but think”…
“Whether you can invest two hours a day, two weeks a year or even just five minutes every morning, it is important to make space to escape your busy life.”
A Space to Escape – Essentialism-Inspired Actions
(a) Setting aside time on our calendars for thinking can help us identify our bigger “why” and understand what our priority should be.
(b) Before the family wakes up, going for a walk works great to gain clarity of purpose.
2. Cut down the Trivial from the Daily Life
By cutting out all trivial activities, we can get the time to execute the important few. Greg calls us to “edit” our lives. Interestingly, the Latin root of the word decision- cis or cid -literally means “to cut” or “to kill.” So, to make decisions, we need to cut out things that can confuse us. An essential part of cutting out trivial activities is the skill and ability to say no with grace.
Cut down the Trivial – Quotable Quotes
- “We have good reasons to fear saying no.”… “We can’t bear the thought of disappointing someone we respect and like “… Its a natural part of being human.”… “Yet as hard as it can be to say no to someone failing to do so can cause us to miss out on something far more important.”
- “denying the request is not denying the person.”
- … “it is especially easy to fall into the nonessential trap of telling ourselves we can get it all done. We can’t. A graceful “no” grows out of a clear but unstated calculation of the tradeoff.”
- “Being vague is not the same as being graceful, and delaying the eventual no will only make it that much harder and the recipient that much more resentful.”
Cut down the Trivial – Essentialism-Inspired Actions
(a) We need to learn to say a graceful “No.” I’ve improved a lot on this front by the alternate-phrase method. Some of these can be:
- “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” – Then think and provide a reasonable timeline.
- “Yes, What should I deprioritize?” – That makes the person requesting to think about the tradeoffs before making the request. Even better, we can share the tradeoffs ourselves.
- Practice the graceful “no but”: “No, but can we please attend to this at a later time?” Since we might be genuinely interested in attending to the request but might not have the time. In that situation, using the “no but” helps.
(b) We can make a place in our everyday schedules to help and support people. By doing this, instead of saying “yes” to everything automatically, we can provide a timeline to when we can perform the requested task. The benefit of thinking before committing is twofold: (a) it is a disciplined “yes”; therefore, we are not overwhelmed, and (b) we aren’t vague or non-committal.
3. Prioritize one (and only one) Task per Day
I’ve seen my dad make to-do lists every day, among which he prioritizes just one task every day. Inspired by him, I’ve also made to-do lists to be in control of my activities but never prioritized “just” one task.
When we had our first child, I had taken more responsibility at work. I would still make to-do lists, do many activities but felt un-accomplished at the end of the day. I have had more than ten things to do in a day of which I considered all of them necessary- each one of them!
Essentialism addresses this very problem of not prioritizing and then burning out. The solution is to prioritize wisely and reprioritize most of the activities.
Prioritize – Quotable Quotes
If “our energy is divided into many different activities”…, “we have the unfulfilling experience of making a millimeter of progress in a million directions.”
“Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.”
“the word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing”.. “Somehow we would now be able to have multiple first things”!
Prioritize – Essentialism-Inspired Actions
(a) Modify the to-do lists to capture the essential items and then prioritize just one thing for the day that adds value to our bigger goal. Getting the most important thing done gives a sense of accomplishment and calm.
My modified to-do list today captures the action items, categorizes them as urgent, important, or none. I then identify the most important among all the important ones. Below, you can download the modified to-do list template and the worksheet that I’ve created, which had a tremendous impact on my productivity. I hope it helps you!
(b) In any meeting, it helps to think about the most important task (one thing) that we’d like to discuss.
Download the To-Do List Template and Worksheet
4. Play and Sleep are Crucial for a Sharp Mind
Engaging in Play is critical to be more alert, curious, and most importantly, stress-free! Engaging in a sport or Play can help us understand what is essential or in the author’s words “explore.”
We can aspire to have a clear mind only when we rest well. That is when we can prioritize well and be productive. Trading off Sleep for work or home is a loss in the long run. The book “How to Make Disease Disappear” by Rangan Chatterjee puts Sleep as one of the four crucial things to be healthy.
Play and Sleep – Quotable Quotes
- …stress increases the activity in the part of the brain that monitors emotions”… “the result being, simply, that we really can’t think clearly.”
- “Play expands our minds in ways that help us to explore: to germinate new ideas or see old ideas in a new light.”
- “The real challenge for the person who thrives on challenges is not to work hard.”
- “If we underinvest in ourselves, “…” we damage the very tool that we need to make our highest contribution.”
- “Sleep will enhance your ability to explore, make connections, and do less but better throughout your waking hours.”
Play and Sleep – Essentialism-Inspired Actions
(a) Prioritize Sleep and don’t trade it for work or cleaning up the home. At work, if we feel strained or exhausted, I’d prioritize a quick nap instead of tilting towards caffeine. Again, this will not affect our productivity but enhance it.
(b) If there is an off-hour meeting or a late-night call that we need to attend, we should make it an exception.
(c) At home, please ask for help: family members or hired help. Asking for help will ensure that we don’t spread ourselves too thin and eventually burnout.
(a) Being more mindful and involved with our kids when we play with them helps not only the child to grow but also us in maintaining our healths.
(b) Playing a sport even for a little time can be extremely helpful during times when we feel exhausted.
5. Build a Routine – Avoid Decision Fatigue
The profound message here is that a routine doesn’t deter our creativity and innovation. On the contrary, if we have most of our daily activities planned and built into a routine, we can have a lot of Space to think. This very Space can help us to innovate and make the highest levels of contribution.
Routine helps beat “Decision Fatigue.” Decision Fatigue implies that if we have a series of decisions to make, we can get exhausted, and that can impact the quality of our decisions. For our hectic lives, decision fatigue can easily take over and burn us out. Planning and building a routine instead of needing to decide every day have acted as an antidote to decision fatigue for me.
Build a Routine – Quotable Quotes
With a routine, “…mental space is freed up to concentrate on something new.”
“… the right routines can actually enhance innovation and creativity…”
“… Instead of spending our limited supply of discipline on making the same decisions again and again, embedding that discipline into our routine allows us to channel that discipline toward some other essential activity.”
Build a Routine – Essentialism-Inspired Actions
(a) Join a group, a colleague, or a friend to build an exercise routine. I cannot emphasize the benefits that I’m reaping from joining a group for exercising.
(a) Use checklists and routines to let the mundane be on auto-pilot. Here is a post on meal-preparation where I’ve shared with a recommended list for meal-prep ingredients which we can prepare every week. There’s another list of everyday healthy-foods. Following these checklists is an excellent way to build a routine and avoid decision fatigue. In the posts, I’ve shared these editable checklists in PDF – I hope you find them useful.
Watch the author, Greg McKeown speak about the essence of Essentialism.