The Antidote to Being Spread Too Thin
How do we spend our lives doing what matters most to us, with the people who are most important to us? And how do we cut out all the other nonsense that seemingly fills our days? These are the questions at the heart of writer, teacher, business thinker and consultant, Greg McKeown’s paradigm-shifting book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. McKeown explains that “everything”—the notion that we can do it all, perfectly, right now—is a great, big, self-sabotaging con.
That said, McKeown isn’t an advocate for saying “no.” At its core, he explains, Essentialism is about identifying what you truly want to say yes to, feeling empowered to pursue what’s essential to you, and making the small choices again and again that help you win big where it actually matters at the end of the day.
Here, he gives us Essentialist strategies that we can all implement for greater personal fulfillment, along with poignant lessons he’s learned from studying Silicon Valley (and beyond) for improving individual function at work, and even at the whole-company level.
A Q&A with Greg McKeown
Can you explain the paradox of success?
I noticed a predictable pattern when I was working with Silicon Valley companies. In their early days, the companies focused on what was essential and that focus led to success. Success brought with it an increase in options and opportunities. That sounds like the right problem to have, but it often led companies into what business researcher and author Jim Collins called “the undisciplined pursuit of more”: The companies started to lose the focus that had led to success in the first place.
This taught me that success can become a catalyst for failure. The challenge is: How do we become successful at success? That’s where Essentialism comes into play.
Why is it so hard for us to logically evaluate trade-offs?
The success paradox is true for companies and for individuals inside those companies—it’s true for all of us.
I realized that I myself fell prey to the same phenomenon: Several years ago, I received an email from my manager at the time, saying: Friday would be a very bad time for your wife to have a baby because I need you to be at this client meeting. Maybe the email was sent in jest, but as it turns out, my daughter was born Thursday night and we were still in the hospital Friday morning. Instead of being focused on what was clearly essential, I felt pulled in both directions. Instead of making a strategic trade-off, I thought, I can make everyone happy here, and I went to the meeting. I tried to do both.
“The question is: Do we want to make those trade-offs deliberately, strategically? This is what matters to me—therefore I’m going to pursue this. Or, do we try to do it all and then wake up one day and realize we’ve been making small amounts of progress in many directions that don’t really matter to us?”
At the meeting, it became clear to me I had made a fool’s bargain. I learned this simple lesson: If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. In other words, there really are trade-offs and we can’t pretend that there aren’t just because we want to try to keep everyone happy.
Non-essentialism holds that the answer to every situation is: Let’s do both. The Essentialist says that strategy is making trade-offs—and not in a negative sense, necessarily. They don’t say, I want to do everything, and do it perfectly, right now. They know that “everything” and “perfectly” and “right now” is not reality; it’s not possible. We’ve been sold a bill of goods—it’s a big con.
If you pursue doing everything, perfectly, right now, that’s truly the undisciplined pursuit of more. Every person reading this article is faced with many trade-offs. The question is: Do we want to make those trade-offs deliberately, strategically? This is what matters to me—therefore I’m going to pursue this. Or, do we try to do it all and then wake up one day and realize we’ve been making small amounts of progress in many directions that don’t really matter to us?
How do we better evaluate trade-offs—how do we tell what’s essential and what’s not?
Think about a bedroom closet, one that looks like the undisciplined pursuit of more—crammed, jam-full. We say, If only I had a larger closet, that would solve the problem. But we get a larger closet—and quickly see that’s not the problem. So what do we do? We should become more selective. Instead of thinking that we might, one day, wear all of things we haven’t worn in months, and keep everything we have just because we have it—we become more selective.
“In this way, our lives get consumed with good things, but not essential things.”
We might ask ourselves: Do I love it? Do I wear it often? Do I look great in it? Or, as Marie Kondo brilliantly put it: Does it spark joy?
Essentialism is of course not about tidying your bedroom closet, but instead tidying the closet of your life. The problem is that life gets full of good projects—projects to which we say: That’s a good idea; I might enjoy that; so-and-so is doing it, so I suppose I should, too. In this way, our lives get consumed with good things, but not essential things. A good activity might be 60 percent important, 40 percent unimportant. That’s where we get stuck—when things are sort of important, they can be argued for. But I’m suggesting we try to move toward the things that are 90 percent essential—really important. I call it the 90 Percent Rule, and it involves trading off the things that are 60, 70, and even 80 percent “yes.”
What’s the best way to avoid committing to those 80-percent yes projects?
The first thing we should do to avoid commitment traps is pause. I’m not advocating that we always say no to people—but it’s okay to pause.
I knew someone who was a real go-to person who was frequently asked: Will you do this? Could you do that? Instantly, without thinking about it, she’d say, yes, yes, yes to all the requests. Eventually, she realized that the closet of her life was getting filled with thoughtless activity.
“For many people, there seem to be only two options: One is the polite yes, and the other is the rude no.”
So, just pause. If someone asks you for something, you might say, Hm, that sounds really interesting to me, let’s explore it. Or, let me think about it. You don’t have to start just saying no abruptly to people, and in fact, I don’t recommend that you do.
For many people, there seem to be only two options: One is the polite yes, and the other is the rude no. So people say yes a lot more than no, because they don’t want to be rude. I try to encourage people to realize there are a lot of alternatives—and they all begin with pausing.
You can pause and later come back and say no, or yes. You can come back and suggest an alternative. You can pause and just have a discussion with someone. Creating space to have a conversation is actually easy to do. If someone emails you, just don’t email them 5 seconds later. Pause. If someone catches you in the hallway, you can be enthusiastic—That sounds exciting, let me just think about it, and get back to you. Or, I can see so many reasons to do that, just give me a minute and I’ll text you. You can ask a question: What makes you think about doing that? Interesting, what’s the thinking behind this? How would you go about doing it? Where would you put this on the priority list?
This is enough. If you’re someone who never pauses, start by pausing for just three seconds—it’s still so much better than no pause.
You also talk about the importance of pausing yourself (not just other people)—how does that work?
Another important part of pausing lies with ourselves. When people think about becoming an Essentialist, the first thing they often bring up is, How could I say no to my boss’s boss? Which seems to me not the place to begin—you can start with yourself.
Many of us generate ideas and tasks without even realizing that we’re doing so. Oh, we should do this. I should try that activity. Before we even get clear on whether we actually want to do the activity, we’ve emailed or texted someone, and interrupted our day—and theirs. There often seems to zero space between a thought we have and an email we send to someone else.
So, we can start by pausing ourselves, and not creating more work. Ask yourself: Is that essential? Do I really need to respond immediately?
When you have an idea, write it down in a journal. I keep a paper journal with me almost 24/7 (it’s my favorite technology). Instead of immediately emailing someone a thought, I’ll write it down, make a list, and come back to it.
What’s the one thing anyone can do to be more essentialist?
Hold a personal, quarterly offsite where you pause in a bigger way. For one day, every ninety days, you stop, look at the successes of the last 90 days, and why they matter to you. Look at all the commitments you plan to pursue over the next 90 days—take all the items of the next 90 days out of the closet and identify what is the highest priority. You might have one personal and one professional priority for the next 90 days. Then you say, What trade-offs am I willing to make in order to pursue that “yes” that I just identified as really important? What am I willing to give up for that breakthrough project?
“If you’re going to do one thing, schedule your next offsite now.”
If you do that every 90 days, you’ll still get pulled into nonessentials—of course, no one is perfect—but you can get back on track. Throughout each 90-day period, keep looking at what’s essential. You have a North Star to help you readjust.
If you’re going to do one thing, schedule your next offsite now. If you hold a personal offsite every 90 days, you will change your life.
In your own life, what have you found to be the biggest pro of being an Essentialist?
The cumulative impact it has made on my family. When I was writing Essentialism, I spent the majority of a year consumed with thinking about what is essential and how to pursue what is essential (a pretty good thing to spend a year doing). I had two clear takeaways that are so obvious they won’t sound profound—and even though I could have said these words before, I learned them in a deep way that felt profound to me.
The first insight: Life is pathetically short. Absurdly short. There’s a cognitive heuristic called the planning fallacy, which means that humans are really bad at estimating how long things will take in one predictable way: We tend to underestimate. As I was working on the book, I understood that was true for the whole of my life—not just for a new project I said yes to. Throughout my life, I’m going to underestimate the time everything takes.
I have a friend who says that every time estimate we make, we should multiply by pi, and I have come to believe that this is not an exaggeration. That insight writ large means I have a third less time remaining in my life than I am planning on.
“There’s a cognitive heuristic called the priming fallacy, which means that humans are really bad at estimating how long things will take in one predictable way: We tend to underestimate. As I was working on the book, I understood that was true for the whole of my life.”
The second insight: My family wasn’t just more important than my professional pursuits. It wasn’t 10 percent more important than work. It was ten times more important.
Putting these two together, I had strategic insight into what was essential to me—an inflection point. It became my work to make additional changes to my life not just once, not one big adjustment, but again and again and again. The effect of making small trade-offs with that insight in mind—prioritizing my family—day after day, for several years, has been cumulative, and it’s resulted in a completely different life and lifestyle.
As I’m doing this interview, I’m at home, in a new house that we chose because it reflected the kind of environment and lifestyle our family wanted. I’m sitting outside. I can see my son on the hammock, and my daughter on the patio, reading. If it were a commercial, someone would be saying, “This moment is brought to you by a personal quarterly offsite…” It’s come out of identifying what’s really essential.
What’s tough about being Essentialist?
Designing a life around the things that really matter to me has meant making key trade-offs, saying yes when other people say no, and vice versa.
I think of becoming an Essentialist as an act of quiet revolution. It doesn’t have to be unkind or harsh. You start with yourself and the changes you can make in your own sphere of influence. Over time, it is tremendous to see how your mind can become rewired, how your habits shift. It’s not about doing or thinking less, but making your quality of life better.
“You could say there are two kinds of people in world: people who are lost and people who know they are lost.”
I still struggle with this—I still grapple with nonessentials—but I’ve seen enough positive change to believe Essentialism is possible.
You could say there are two kinds of people in world: people who are lost and people who know they are lost. These moments I’m describing, a sort of awakening or discovery, are when I’ve moved into the second category. As soon as I realize, I don’t know what I should be focused on today, I go back to what matters in the long run, what I identified as essential to me at my last offsite, and I trust that. I can see where I went off track. A good measure of humility is necessary to be an Essentialist. I have to keep working on humility. It is a disciplined pursuit, not something that just arrives or happens.
How do you kick-start Essentialism at the company or group level?
Start with one person who decides in their own life that they want to pursue the Essentialist way of thinking, living, being. They are focused on what is essential that they can control, which is the important ignition—the match (what’s essential) and the match box (something they control).
You’ll start to increase your Essentialist influence. You might literally start in your closet. Then, you might say, Okay, I can control the first 5 minutes of my day. You might decide to wake up and pause, meditate, pray, read, do something that centers you and helps increase discernment for the rest of your day.
What’s not necessarily obvious is that if a person starts doing that, they’ve already changed the company they work for. That company is already more Essentialist than it was the day before.
“The point is: Don’t start big.”
The next day, you might decide you have too many apps on your phone and do a clean-up. The company didn’t transform, but it’s slightly more thoughtful than the day before. You might decide to read a chapter of Essentialism with a coworker. The company culture won’t be different after, but now you have two people talking about Essentialism. You’ve got a language to talk about it with and you have an alternative to non-essentialism: the idea that you don’t have to be a slave to the latest reactive thing can spread. Next, there could be a company workshop, a day to brainstorm and learn.
The point is: Don’t start big. Start with things that matter that are in your realm of influence. A single change can happen overnight, but nothing is going to suddenly transform culture. Culture is cumulative—it’s composed of all previous decisions made by a group of people. Bit by bit, a company can make different trade-offs, and over time, this is how culture turns around.
Can companies be successful if they aren’t Essentialist?
Companies can be successful while falling into the undisciplined pursuit of more. Indeed, that is what makes non-essentialism so appealing: At the height of our success, we start doing things that undermine our success but we don’t see the impact immediately. Once the results of non-essentialism start to suffocate the company, people tend to become Essentialists because it’s do that—or watch the company fail.
The challenge is to be an Essentialist before you have to be. It’s harder, but important, to say in the successful times: Hold on, I know we can do a million things, hire a lot more people, and so on—but what’s essential? The Essentialist is already wary: We want to do great things, therefore we must be more selective.
“Once the results of non-essentialism start to suffocate the company, people tend to become Essentialists because it’s do that—or watch the company fail.”
For example, Apple could have simultaneously worked on the iPhone and the iPad. But they knew they couldn’t do them both the best, so they asked what what was most important. (They decided the phone first.) That was the most important decision Apple made in the past decade. It’s that sort of tradeoff that enables a successful company to continue to be successful.
Why do you think purpose statements are important, but that most fail?
Most mission and vision statements inside corporations don’t serve their stated purpose in that they don’t provide clarity. When I ask someone what their organization’s mission statement is, the response is often funny—something like: Oh, we have one…it’s, um, on the website, I think? Sometimes, people are unsure even when we’re sitting in a room with the statement painted across the wall.
The test of a mission statement is this: If I’m a new employee at the company and I read the statement, would I be able to make an educated guess about what trade-offs to make between essential things as opposed to good things? If the statement does not give strategic guidance, why have one?
So many statements are weighed down by non-essentialism—people saying yeah, that’s a good idea, and we want to do that and that and that. The statement becomes more and more general. It sounds inspirational, but it doesn’t inspire essential behavior or important work.
How do you come up with a statement that works?
What I recommend is a single statement, an essential intent, which is a precise description of what we’re really doing.
In a Stanford class I took on strategic management (taught by business advisor and professor Bill Meehan), we were studying non-profit vision statements. We were reading statements aloud and everyone was laughing. Some were so grandiose sounding that they meant nothing. Other mission statements encompassed so much that you knew a non-profit of a few people couldn’t possibly execute on them. Then, someone in the class said, “Oh, I have a mission statement from Brad Pitt’s nonprofit Make It Right,” which he’d founded after Hurricane Katrina.
Brad Pitt’s statement took the oxygen out of the room: We are going to build 150 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward. The class fixated on this—it was an essential intent. It was clear what was important to the non-profit. If I had been hired that day, I would know how to evaluate whether something I was doing was moving us toward our goal, or if it was a distraction.
“Brad Pitt’s statement took the oxygen out of the room.”
I recommend that companies’ come up with their essential intent, and then identify what trade-offs they will make to achieve it.
How can leaders empower Essentialism in others? Why would they want to?
No leader/manager/boss wants a no-ist—someone who just says “no” all the time. But I think every leader wants an Essentialist on their team—someone who is able to figure out what is most valuable and important. Do managers want their employees working on the most important things or trivial tasks?
An essential intent is a win-win: It means you’re properly aligned, everyone knows what direction the group is headed in, and employees can largely and effectively manage themselves. Everyone is working toward the goal and can make trade-offs based on the agreed-upon essential intent.
This essential agreement becomes an alternative point of authority to the hierarchy structure. You still have to pay attention to your manager, what your customer wants, and you have to adapt. But you don’t just have to react. Even a junior person can say to a senior person, hold on, that’s a good point, but isn’t this our essential intent? In an essentialist company, that’s not being a no-ist. That’s focusing on what’s most important.
What if you have a non-essentialist for a boss?
If you have a leader who is a reactive non-essentialist, who changes their position on anything and everything, who texts or tweets a different thing every day—it can be tempting to react to them. But if you spend your time distracted by the latest thing, you can get into an immensely disempowering and dangerous cycle: Your whole life can become a product of the non-essentialist’s nonsense, and you give up your ability to discern, choose, and make tradeoffs.
Instead, we need to avoid the temptation to shout into the wind, to complain about the last thing the non-essentialist did or said. This takes maturity, but in a non-essentialist environment, it’s all the more important to be an Essentialist. When a leader is a non-essentialist, we need to focus on what we can control and on what matters most.
“If you have a leader who is a reactive non-essentialist, who changes their position on anything and everything, who texts or tweets a different thing every day—it can be tempting to react to them.”
While good for the group, Essentialism is still self-interested behavior. You want to make the best contribution. You want to move the needle on something that matters. Who is my most important customer? What do they want? What do I want? What is my win-win out of this? Those are the essential questions you should still, and always, be asking yourself.
Greg McKeown writes, lectures, and advises individuals and organizations around the world about living and leading as an Essentialist, and the disciplined pursuit of less. He has spoken at companies including Apple, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Salesforce, and Twitter. McKeown co-created the course Designing Life, Essentially at Stanford University (where he received his MBA), and is the author of Essentialism.