I recently came across Greg McKeown’s new book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.  This book was just published on April 15, 2014, and it’s philosophy that couldn’t be more timely.  I discovered McKeown’s blog as suggested content for me on LinkedIn.  In an era of more, more, more, it’s incredibly refreshing to read a coherent philsophy promoting “less but better.”

McKeown argues that his ideas are nothing short of a movement, and I couldn’t agree more.  However, far too many people, organizations, and leaders currently think that the opposite it true.  But by trying to “do it all,” they can actually undermine their best efforts to make a difference in their jobs, organizations, families, etc..  The time has come to consider whether doing “less but better” could actually yield far different results.

Definition of essentialism.

So what is essentialism as defined by McKeown?

“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.” (p. 5)

This idea of our highest point of contribution is key. Few of us stop to consider if what we’re doing each day is really out highest point of contribution rather than just checking things off an unending and ever growing to do list.

Priority vs. Priorities.

McKeown goes on to point out that even the etymology of the word “priority” tells us a lot about how much has shifted over time.

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400’s. It was singular.  It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next 500 years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.” (p. 16)

Even the idea of having a singular priority rather than multiple priorities challenges our sense that in choosing one priority we’re leaving too many things undone.  But this bit of discomfort can help catalyze a new mindset.  Maybe everything isn’t as urgent or as important as we are conditioned to think.

Choice, noise, and trade-offs.

McKeown also goes into great detail on three realities that are the core of an essentialist mindset:

1. Individual choice: We can choose how to spend our energy and time.

2. The prevalence of noise: Almost everything is noise, and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.

3. The reality of trade-offs: We can’t have it all or do it all. (p. 20)

The power of truly acknowledging that we do have individual choice in each moment is really liberating.  Sure there are consequences to our decisions, but when we are conscious that we can exercise individual choice, we are endowed with the power of that choice.  The idea that most things are just noise also helps us keep the “urgent but not important” (to reference Steven Covey) in check.  Many of us are unwilling to really consider what trade-offs we’re making at any given moment, but every moment we spend on one thing, we’re choosing not to spend on countless other possibilities.  Instead of thinking of trade-offs as inherently negative, McKeown suggests thinking of trade-offs this way.

Ask yourself: “Which problem do I want to solve?”

“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?‘” (p. 20)

The shift from the burden of trying to make it all work to choosing what problem to solve may seem subtle, but it’s incredibly empowering. What I love is that it’s a man who wrote this book, while women of my own and other generations have been operating under the burden that we have to make it all work, all the time. Enough already. It’s time to acknowledge as as society that we as individuals can’t do it all or something gives: our health, our marriage, our sanity, our job performance, our relationship with our children, etc.  So, why not choose what problem I really want to solve at any given moment rather than thinking that I need to solve lots of different problems all at once?  While this makes sense rationally, the trick is really putting it into practice when we feel tugged in opposite directions.  McKeown has another great suggestion for re-framing trade-offs.

Ask yourself: “What do I want to go big on?”

“Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, ‘What do I have to give up?’ they ask, ‘What do I want to go big on? (p. 56)

Asking “What do I want to go big on?” is the core strategic question that every person and every organization MUST ask. By knowing where we want to go big, we are freed from the shackles of expectations that tether us to the urgent but not important.

So now let me ask, “What do YOU want to go BIG on?”  

Your honest answer just might be the start of a brave new way path. Remember, the word priority was meant to be singular, not plural.


PS–If you want to watch hear Greg himself speaking on some of these concepts, check out this Talks at Google link on YouTube.






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Stephanie Blackburn Freeth is the creator of The Strategy Tango.


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