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  • Writer's pictureJeff Matlock

Book Review - Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

I have spent far too many nights working late after my wife and kids go to bed. No matter how hard I try, I consistently fall into a trap of having more on my plate than I can handle. Leading up to the birth of my second daughter just a couple months ago, I had an increased focus on productivity. Nowadays, I seem to get fewer working hours per day with my increased family time and a growing business demanding a much greater amount of my time. Sound familiar?

Recently, I read Getting Things Done by David Allen, Free to Focus by Michael Hayatt, and Deep Work by Cal Newport – all with the goal of getting more out of every day and allowing me to check more things off my to-do list. I kept thinking that if I could stay disciplined long enough, I could get everything done.

While these books had a lot of good ideas, it started to create an unrealistic cycle, and my anxiety rose to the point where I needed a new outlook and way of thinking. These books only caused me to want to get more done per day, rather than efficiently getting through my list fast and shutting it down when it came time to spend time with my family. I would come up with new ways to be overloaded and try new commitments which I didn’t have time for. It got to a point after the birth of my second daughter where I had enough.

This endless productivity approach didn’t fit with what I was looking for, and I was burnt out. Enter: Essentialism.

Written by Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less explains how to focus my energy only on what’s essential by balancing commitments and learning when (and how) to say no. The book introduces a type of person known as an “essentialist”, who can remove obstacles and eliminate nonessentials.

Early in my career, I said “yes” to every opportunity or commitment, but over time I realized that being committed to so many different things affected my productivity negatively, thus disabling me to achieve my goals. As an essentialist, McKeown says one must listen, debate, question and think before committing to something. Evaluate every opportunity with the following criteria:

  • Think about the single most important criterion for the decision

  • Give it a score between 0 and 100 on that basis

  • If it’s below 90%, don’t do it

In more simple terms, if it isn’t a “hell yes” then it’s a “no.” By being selective with my choices and activities, I’m allowing only for the very best. The author suggests that the reader make a list of all the commitments in their life, and then cross off anything below the 90% threshold. I guarantee that the results will be shocking if you try this on your own – I have seen it first hand.

Only once you give yourself 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.

This book expands on the “jack of all trades, master of none” theory, in that if we want to be excellent at something, we have to be disciplined enough to focus on that one effort and say “no” to other distractions and nonessentials.

The concept of essentialism has also taught me to stop comparing myself to my peers - just because a colleague is pursuing something, it doesn’t mean that same pursuit is best for me or will help me achieve excellence. This can be applied to a wide range of scenarios, whether it’s a colleague expanding to include a new service, attending an industry conference, a friend enrolling their kids in a new sport, or a family member planning a lavish vacation. Just because other people are involved in different activities, we shouldn’t feel the pressure to do the same, unless it truly is essential.

It is still a work in process, but I am slowly working to eliminate nonessentials in my life. I am creating space and time to enjoy what’s most important. Although it seems counter-intuitive, by doing and committing to less, I am actually living with more joy and am able to spend more time being productive on the larger impact items that give me a greater purpose. As a result, this boost in productivity allows me to spend more time on the things that matter most, such as my family.

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