Pursue What Matters
Episode 33: Essentialism Book Review
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
This podcast is all about pursuing what matters. But I’ve got a question for you, how do you get clear about what matters most? That can be a big challenge. There are so many demands competing for your attention. Join me today because I have the perfect book to help you answer that question. I love this book so, so much. I’ve already read it twice this year.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:26
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So let’s say you’re on board with the commitment to pursue what matters. But how do you get clear about what matters most? This can be one of the greatest challenges for busy leaders who are juggling so many demands, and not just busy leaders. I mean, everyone, all of us, you might think I’m just trying to get through my to do list Don’t ask me to try to pursue what matters. But here’s where most of us get it exactly wrong. We believe that once we get through our to do list, we’ll slow down and figure out what matters most and get on our path to pursuing purpose. But of course, the to do list never ends, the demands don’t stop. And if you’re not careful, you wake up one day to discover that your life has been directed by someone or something other than your highest priorities. Let’s not let that happen to you.
Dr. Melissa Smith 1:57
Okay, so this book really is one of my top favorite books that I’ve read this year. You know, I’ve read it twice this year. But I think it’s going to my top 10 leadership books. It’s really that good. Like I got, I got I got to have multiple lists, because I just I’m such a geek when it comes to books. But this is a really good book. I love it. This is the book that Brene Brown had her team read this last quarter, and she was raving about it at the training I did with her in September. Of course, I had already read it once this year when she was raving about it in September. So I was just like nodding my head. She was preaching to the choir because I was like, yeah, amen. Cuz I love that book. So when she was talking about I was like, yep, yep, I totally agree. Because it’s so good. And it is the perfect book for you to read as you end 2019 and prepare for 2020. I mean, it’s really good anytime, but it is perfect for reflecting on this last year and preparing for 2020 you will help you get your mind and your heart right. So you can take care of first things first, as Stephen Covey has taught us so well. So what’s the book? It is Essentialism, the Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. I think that’s how you pronounce it. I think it’s Greg McKeown in typical fashion. Before I do a proper introduction of the book, let’s hear what others have to say about the book and the author. So from Arianna Huffington, “an essential read for anyone who wants to regain control of their health, well being and happiness.” From Adam Grant from Wharton, who is of course one of my favorite leadership, authors and thinkers. And he’s, of course the author of Originals and Give and Take. He said, “Essentialism holds the keys to solving one of the great puzzles of life. So drop what you’re doing and read it.” So this is from Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, “in Essentialism, Greg McKeown makes a compelling case for achieving more by doing less, he reminds us that clarity of focus and the ability to say no, are both critical and undervalued in business today.” I really like that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 4:31
Okay, so let’s, let’s learn a little bit about Greg McKeown. I won’t say too much about him, except I do have a link to his website. So you can definitely read up about him. But he’s an incredibly popular writer, speaker and consultant and has many of the most well known corporations as his clients. So he did his graduate work at Stanford but is originally from London. So if you happen to listen to the audio version of his book, you will hear his lovely English accent and then of course He’s got a lot of videos, which I’ll also link to one of his videos, you can of course hear his lovely accent. So I’ll link to his website where you can read up on him and learn a bit more about him. But you know, he really speaks widely on the topic of essentialism. He’s a very popular speaker. And it really just thought leader on these topics. So Essentialism is way bigger than a time management book. So so this is not time management. It certainly includes time management principles, but it’s it’s way bigger than that. So essential ism really represents a shift in your approach to work in life. And McKeown invites you to question the status quo. So many of us have adopted the stance of do more and do it faster. And of course, it’s left us weary, burned out, and you know, resentful. And we know that the work harder approach to love and work actually doesn’t work very well. Of course, if you need a reminder of this, be sure to check out my recent Podcast, where I reviewed the book Great at Work by Morton Hansen, which, of course, is based on a five year study of what makes us great at work. So I’ll link to that podcast in the show notes. Because it’s such a great review of what of the work smart practices, so working smarter rather than working harder. But guess what, it’s not working harder. It’s working smarter that helps us to be most effective. And of course, the very first work smart practice from Hansen’s study was to do less but obsess. And of course, this practice is really consistent with McKeown’s argument here in Essentialism. And so McKeown starts with several key questions to help you think about your work and your life. So I want you to think about these questions as I share them. So first of all, have you ever found yourself stretched too thin? Do you simultaneously feel overworked? And under utilized? Are you often busy, but not productive? Do you feel like your time is constantly being hijacked by other people’s agendas? So McKeown argues that if you answered yes to any of those questions, the way out is the way of the essentialist. And so the way of the essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time, which is kind of the traditional approach for many of us, like find a way to cram more in less time, but it’s about getting only the right things done. So really a shift in focus. And as I mentioned, right, it’s not a time management strategy or a productivity technique. But it’s a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not so that we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:25
Okay, so one of the things that I most appreciate about this book, is that McKeown is not focusing on time management, very few of us need one more time management book. I mean, honestly, we really don’t need that what we need is clarity of purpose. That is exactly what I mean, when I talk about pursuing what matters. But most of us have not taken the time to clarify our purpose, right. And so what happens is that we’re pursuing too many things. we’re pursuing someone else’s agenda. And so, you know, we’re running all over the place. And so we get caught in believing that time management is the is the solution. And it’s not, it’s a solution for the wrong problem. And so, then McKeown teaches us that we need a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, right. And so this is where it can get really painful, because it requires us to eliminate everything that is not absolutely essential. You have to start making some hard decisions, so that you can then make the highest possible contribution toward the things that really matter. I love that because that’s exactly what we’re talking about. You can’t do everything. And in order to pursue what really matters. And what matters most, you’re going to have to say no to most everything else. And most of us don’t have the discipline to do that. We either we have poor boundaries, and we can’t say no. Or we think we can do it all. And so are our dreams, our purpose becomes hijacked by other people’s agendas, or by our own poor boundaries. I think the other thing to pay attention to with this is when you are very competent, and when you are high achieving, you will always have more demands on your time, then you can say yes to and you’re going to have to be you’re going to have to learn to be very selective, because certainly not all of those requests fit with, with what truly matters to you. And yet saying, Yes, feels really good in the moment, right? Like there’s a dopamine hit, that comes with saying yes, because we like to make other people feel good, especially if you’re a people pleaser, that feels good. But then, you know, when you’re undermining your own commitments, it feels really bad. And we start to feel pretty resentful about that. But in the moment, it feels good to say yes. But this is why you’ve got to eliminate everything that is not absolutely essential. And you’ve got to have really good boundaries with yourself so that you’re not justifying, taking on some projects, or saying yes to some commitments, that don’t serve your highest purpose. Because, I mean, this is where you can lie to yourself and say, oh, like I’m helping them out. And it’s like, No, actually, I’m just, I’m just making myself feel better. Because I like to be, you know, maybe the white knight that comes in and rescues this person, because, you know, I can solve their problem, when really, you need to stay in your lane and focus on what you need to be doing. So I think we really need to be honest with ourselves in those moments, and it can be painful to do that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 12:25
Okay, so key to Essentialism is this idea that it does force you to be highly selective about what is essential, so that you can reclaim control about your choices in terms of how you spend your time and energy. So instead of allowing others to make those choices for us, and this is this is what’s true, not making the choice for yourself, is in itself a choice. So this is from the book, if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. If you’re not serving your own agenda, you will absolutely be serving someone else’s agenda. So the subtitle is the disciplined pursuit of less. And it really is about doing less, but doing it better. Do what you can uniquely do. So you know, I coach entrepreneurs and business leaders and high achieving leaders. Often a question that I ask them is, what can only you do? Right, what can only you do? Because for a lot of these leaders, they have an incredibly difficult time, delegating, sometimes that’s the control issues, you know, difficulty with trust, that sort of thing. But you’ve got to learn to delegate, and you’ve got to get really clear on, you know, what are the things that only you can do? What are the unique contributions that only you can make, and then start to kind of separate all the other tasks, all the other things on your to do list, so that you can make your most meaningful contribution. And so that others can also support you, and so that you can also support others. So this is a book that definitely practices what it preaches. It’s very well organized, it doesn’t have any fluff. It’s streamlined, it’s easy to follow. It’s well organized. It highlights key points, making them easy to find throughout the book, and uses headings well to keep you tracking with the content. So I really liked that about the book. So you could easily go back and reference it very easily. And there are four parts to the book. So I’m going to review each of them briefly and give you a good overview of what’s covered. But then I’m going to highlight a few of the ideas that I believe can be most helpful for you in love and work and kind of just give you a sense for the book. So you can follow up on it in more detail if you choose to. And like I said, this would be a really great book as you gear up for 2020.
Dr. Melissa Smith 15:09
So Part one is essence. And it’s kind of looking at what is the core mindset of an essentialist. So it’s kind of this idea of choose, discern, and trade off. And this idea that we have choice, that we have this power to choose how we will pursue our lives, and also this importance of discernment. And we’ve got to get good at discerning what matters, and what doesn’t. And he kind of, he argues the unimportance of practically everything, that very few things matter that much, and that we’ve got to use discernment to be able to tell the difference. And then this idea of trade offs, and I really like this, that trade offs inherently acknowledge that you’re trading off between two good things. You know, and if if, you know, when you when you think about leadership, and we, when you think about making choices, I mean, often you have to choose between good and good. I mean, a lot of times, you have to make really difficult trade offs. And that’s exactly what they are, they’re kind of painful to choose between. But this is where discernment is so important to be able to say, okay, which choice helps me to progress on my path towards purpose. And if you’re, you know, if you’ve been successful, and if you’ve, you know, if you’re a competent leader, which I assume most of you are, you’re going to have a lot of opportunities, and you’re going to have good choices to choose between, that is the best sort of problem to have. But you are going to have to use a lot of discernment, to be able to make those choices. And if you don’t learn to use discernment and make those choices, you’re going to overwhelm yourself, you’re going to stress yourself out, and you’re going to be left floundering, like you’re not going to make progress, because you’re just going to be trying to do too much. And that it’s, it’s gonna, you’re just gonna be weighed down by all of it. Okay, so just a couple other things I wanted to say about this. So he says, almost everything is noise. And a very few things are exceptionally valuable. And so, you know, he says, Take the time to figure out what is most important, because right, most things are not important. And this really makes the case for taking time to reflect, to quiet yourself. He talks a lot about that in the book, and I think there’s so much value in that. So having these built in spaces and times in your life on a regular basis, where you are quieting yourself so that you can realign and recalibrate and be really clear on what is it that matters. And what in your life has values has value.
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:23
Okay, and then part two of the book moves into the steps. Okay, so there are there are three steps that make up the essentialism model. And step one is explore. So how can we discern the trivial many from the vital few? Okay, and so he talks about, first of all, escape the perks of being unavailable, which I love that don’t make yourself available all the time. And a quote from Pablo Picasso, “without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” So in order to have focus, we need to escape to focus. And so he talks about taking time to read, to learn and to grow. And this is exactly what I was talking about just a minute ago, having built in space and time in your life on a regular basis, where you set yourself apart from the demands of your daily life, your daily schedule, to be unavailable, to reflect, to quiet yourself, so that you can really connect to what is most vital, what connects you to purpose to vision and to your values. Included with that or the next point with that is look, and that is see what really matters. And with this, he encourages journaling. You know, that’s something that I’ve talked a lot about on the podcast journaling can be a straight shot, to self awareness and reflection. With that he has reflect right? So reflect on your progress perspective, give yourself opportunities to see the big picture. Ah, so if we think about nature, water experiences, whether it’s with spirituality with faith, religion, opportunities that inspire in your life, get out in the field is something that he talks about, whether that is at work, whether that is plain, that step out of your regular routine. And then look for unusual details. Look for anomalies, look for differences, look for things that don’t add up. And so look to see what really matters. The next part of exploring his play, and he encourages us to embrace the wisdom of your inner child, and he has some great, great thoughts on that. And, and I will reference my podcast on play in the show notes. So I did an entire podcast that covers the research on play, and a great book by Stuart Brown, on this topic, and McEwen also documents, a fair amount of that same research. So you can definitely check out that podcast if you’d like a deeper dive on play. And then McEwen talks about sleep, and protect the asset. And I like that you are the asset. And so you need to protect yourself. So all about self care, and especially the importance of sleep, I will also link to my podcast on sleep, there’s a great freebie with that podcast as well. So it kind of goes over the the basics of sleep and sleep hygiene. But of course, the message is, you know, you’re not going to be able to perform at your best if you are undermining your sleep and your self care.
Dr. Melissa Smith 22:21
Okay. And then the last one in this section, which is explore, is select. And he talks about the power of extreme criteria, I think this one is so good because decision making can be a really hard one. And he, he introduces the 90% rule. So when you evaluate an option, consider the single most important criterion for that decision, and then give the option score between zero and 100. So if you rate it any lower than 90%, then change the rating to a zero and simply reject it. So this is if you’re hiring someone, this is if you’re you know making a decision about a product line, that marketing decision and anything. It is extreme, it’s definitely extreme criteria. But he says this really helps you to avoid indecision, and keeps you from mediocre selections. And he says with this approach, you really have to trust that a good a good fit will come along, whether that’s with a job hire, whether that’s with, you know, a product line you gotta trust in your abilities. And his quote here is that if it isn’t a clear, yes, then it’s a clear No. And how often does that happen that we either indecision leads us down a path that really doesn’t serve us well. Or we settle for something that is mediocre, because it’s like, oh, well, I guess this is okay, like we we take a candidate that’s maybe a six or a seven because it’s like, well, I guess this person will do and, you know, ultimately, like they’re not a good fit. And we spend a lot of time and energy trying to get them up to like a nine or a 10. And really, we we would have been better off being short handed and waiting for a better candidate to come along. So that is really his argument with using extreme criteria. And you know, there’s there’s a lot of wisdom that backs up that extreme criteria, but it is extreme. It can scare a lot of people but i think i think it’s actually a really great approach.
Dr. Melissa Smith 24:50
Okay, and then part three of the book which covers step two, which is eliminate and that is how can we cut out the trivial are many. And so I wanted to share a couple thoughts on this one eliminate is this can be get painful for people, right? So we say yes to things because we’re eager to please. And remember I talked about this before, like, it feels good to say yes. But this is where we have to really get clear about boundaries and learn to have emotional discipline and resist social pressure. And so this is, this is kind of your emotional work, this is your internal work, to really get clear about why you’re doing what you’re doing and why you’re not doing what you’re not going to do. And so there are several aspects to step two, including clarify. So he talks about one decision that makes 1000. So this idea of like, make one decision, so you don’t have to keep making it over and over. So make the decision, make the decision one time, and then be done with it. He also talks about dare he talks about the power of a graceful No. And, you know, you can have a simple No, without any explanations without any justifications or anything like that. And especially for women, I think saying no can can feel really painful. We’ve really been socialized to, to too, to connect. And one of the ways that we connect is by saying yes, and being socially pleasing. And so it can feel very painful to learn to say no, and yeah, that’s exactly what we need to work on. Men and women alike. But for women, especially it can feel really challenging to develop that skill. And then, you know, the other real key with eliminating is the freedom of setting boundaries. And so he really covers some really great pieces of boundary setting, in this section, and so good stuff there to pay attention to.
Dr. Melissa Smith 27:16
And then the last part of the book, which is step three, execute, how can we make doing the vital few things, almost effortless. And this is really where you get your consistent habits in place every day. So you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel all the time. Because if you can get the good habits in place, over time, they just start to replicate easily. And the wave the essentialist becomes your way of life much more naturally. And anyone who has developed a habit can can attest to that right at first it, it’s very difficult, but over time, you can do it with really without much thought at all. And so that’s what we want to do with execute. So you want to you want to kind of make that effortless. So he says whether our goal is to complete a project at work reach the next step in our career, or you know, plan a birthday party, we tend to think of the process of execution as something hard and full of friction, something we need to force to make happen. But the essentialist approach is different. instead of forcing execution, essentialists invest the time, they have saved into creating a system for removing obstacles and making execution as easy as possible. So the three elements explore, eliminate, execute, are not separate events as much as a cyclical process.
Dr. Melissa Smith 28:58
So that’s the way to think of those three steps. And when we apply them consistently we are able to reap greater and greater benefits. And so the analogy that he uses for these three steps of the of the way of the essentialist so explore eliminate and execute he he likens it to cleaning your closet that you know you need to kind of go through your closet and see what that see what doesn’t fit. And then so that’s explorer and then second you need to kind of eliminate, get rid of clothes and you know, take them to Goodwill, organize your closet, that sort of thing. But then step three is execute like you’ve got to keep that up. It’s not a one and done you’ve got to maintain that closet and if you if you do steady efforts every day, then it it becomes pretty seemless over time. And so. So the the focus really with execute is, is all about removing obstacle and progress, which is the power of small wins, right? We’re, we’re talking about small consistent progress over time, the genius of routine. So I think this is a big one that that many of us overlook, and routine is magic. So if you decide, okay, I’m going to exercise. So maybe exercise is something that you want to work on, it’s a habit that you want to form. You’re like, I’m going to exercise. You know, most mornings. First of all morning, exercisers are more consistent, they usually are more successful with their goals. And one of the biggest reasons for that is because there are fewer interruptions in the morning. Right in the evening, there tend to be parties, gatherings, work runs late, that sort of thing. There are very few interruptions at 5am 6am 7am, that sort of thing, except that mattress or the alarm clock. But assuming you can get yourself out of bed, which is a big one for some people, there are going to be very few interruptions to you getting your workout in. And so you you make the decision once to say the morning is my exercise time, this is my routine, the genius of routine, this is just what I do. I’m not I don’t have to, I don’t have to make this decision. A new every single day, I just know, this is what I do. You know, on these weekdays, I go to the gym, I know what time I go to bed, I know what time I get up. I know in general what the routine is. And so it really, it lessens the cognitive load on your brain. And that frees you up that frees you up in really powerful ways. And helps you to be much more successful in your life. And and so that frees you up to focus in other ways to be able to say what’s important now, which is one of the keys that McEwen talks about. And so we really want to pay attention to that. And to not overlook the power of habit and the genius of routine because it will make your life so much easier. But if you are having to make this the big decisions every day and the small decisions, like am I going to eat healthy today? Am I gonna get enough sleep today Am I going to exercise today? Did I mean think about all of the cognitive demands that you’re putting on yourself, it’s going to make it really hard for you to consider higher order functions such as goal setting, and planning and that sort of thing. So let’s not make life harder than it needs to be.
Dr. Melissa Smith 33:16
So finally, I just want to wrap up with some of the key components of the model. So I just kind of want to talk about the differences between the non essential list and the essential list. So this is what the non essential list thinks that I’m all things to all people I have to it’s all important. How can I fit it all in? Whereas the essentialist things less but better? I choose to only a few things really matter? And what are the trade offs? Okay, so when we think about what the non essentialist does, it is the non essentialist. It does the undisciplined pursuit of more. He or she reacts to what’s most pressing says yes to people without really thinking and tries to force execution at the last moment. Does that sound familiar?
Dr. Melissa Smith 34:24
Okay, whereas the essentialist is the disciplined pursuit of less. The essentialist pauses to discern what really matters, says no to everything except the essential and removes obstacles to make execution easy. And then finally, let’s look at what each one gets. So the non essentialist lives a life that does not satisfy takes on too much and work suffers, feels out of control. is unsure of whether the right things got done, feels overwhelmed and exhausted. The essentialist lives a life that really matters. chooses carefully in order to do great work, feels in control, gets the right things done, experiences joy in the journey. And that’s what it’s all about right there to be able to experience joy in the journey. So I hope you will check out this book. It’s such a good one. And I think it’ll really put you on the right path for the new year ahead.
Dr. Melissa Smith 35:50
Okay, make sure you head on over to my website to check out the show notes with all the great resources for this episode at www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-33. One more time, that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-33. And there you can find a link to Greg McEwen website. And there are some great videos where you can check him out, and some of his discussions on this topic. And also, I’ve got some links to some of the other podcasts mentioned here, including greater work and the power of play and the benefits of sleep. So I hope you’ll take the time to check those out if they can be helpful. And then also, you can find us on iTunes and Spotify. And if you’ll take the time and review. Give me a review on iTunes. That’s really helpful. It helps other people to find me I sure appreciate it. I’m also on Instagram, @dr.melissasmith, so I’d love to interact with you there. I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care
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