The last thing I want to do is be one of those people that writes about self-help books. But I'm going to write about this one, because it ties a ton of important concepts together. So I guess I'll have to deal with the fact that I'm one of those guys that writes about self help books - at least this once.
But I'll try to do it in a way that makes it not unbearable to read.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is a solid book - if you pay attention to what it's saying and try to adopt the mentalities that it outlines.
What is Essentialism?
Getting only the right things done. Ignoring what is non-essential and focusing on the things that matter the most for the results that you want to achieve.
It's not really a 'productivity system' or a 'life hack'. It's just a lens to view action through, one that aims to remove the actions that don't matter that much and spend more time on the actions that matter a lot.
After outlining what Essentialism is, the rest of the book goes into a bunch of different ways to figure out what actually matters.
This book's biggest strength is the way that it ties together a bunch of different elements that have all had their own books written about them into something that makes a lot of sense. It's the front cover to the puzzle box - with it, you can start to tie together a lot of the puzzle pieces that you may have read elsewhere or figured out on your own.
The Basic Framework
- Figure out what your essential activities are
- Figure out how to cut out the non-essential activities
- Figure out how to make executing the essential activities as smooth as possible
Part 1 - Essence
This chapter is about the power of a decision. Not a half-assed decision like "I'm going to try to run three times a week!!!", but a decision like, "I am never going to smoke another cigarette in my fucking life. I am NOT a smoker."
Decisions help you out in one major way: they cut off other paths of action for good. Let's say you're wondering how to build your brand on Instagram. The simple fact that you decided on Instagram immediately means that you're not going to focus your efforts on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social platform - you've cut them out of your decision tree.
The power of making a conscious choice is a critical step to thinking like an Essentialist.
Will Smith understands the power of choice very well. Aside from some of the ethereal nonsense about "The Universe," what he has to say here is spot on:
The main point of this chapter is that you need to look at the actions you're taking to get to a goal and figure out which ones don't matter. Sounds simple, but people trick themselves into thinking that a lot of unimportant things matter all of the time.
Take business for example. I can't tell you how many times I meet people that want to get started in a business or start making even a little income on the side, and their first thought is that they'll need a website, some business cards, or to start networking with people.
When I mention that they should probably focus on finding someone who will exchange money for their product or service, it's usually met with indignation. I don't say it to be a dick, or to lecture...I only say it because they're doing exactly what I did when I quit playing online poker and tried to start a business. And it was a complete and utter waste of my time.
Discerning what actions will truly drive you towards your goal usually requires you to think a few levels deeper about what the goal actually is, then working forwards from there. At Book in a Box, we call this reasoning from first principles.
An important question to ask yourself is, "Which problem would I rather have?" This is the lesson of the trade-off.
You hear stories about high-powered businessmen that have sacrificed their health or their families in order to hit their level of career success. Or people who have busked on the streets for years before breaking into super-stardom in the music industry.
These are extreme examples of trade-offs. It's clear that they've sacrificed heavily in one (or more) areas of their life to achieve something great in another area.
Ask yourself, "Which problem would I rather have?" when you're making a decision on what is essential and what is not. If growing your career is your focus, are you OK having worse health than you could? Or spending a little less time with family? Then flip the scenario and ask yourself the same questions.
Part II - Explore
This chapter is all about getting away from things that pull you away from essential actions. I have a friend that I met in Brazil who was building out his business, but also liked going out at night to clubs and bars...a lot.
His phone would be buzzing all day long with invites, texts from girls, or just general nonsense and he found it extremely hard to focus. Add that to the litany of online distractions and it was a non-starter for him.
Then he decided to put his phone into airplane mode from 9am-5pm.
This was a complete game changer for him. While he couldn't escape the nightlife scene (nor did he want to), he could temporarily remove himself from it by blocking everything that could distract him.
This is a big one. Spending time with friends, doing activities that don't relate to your SUPER IMPORTANT LIFE GOALS THAT YOU MUST ACHIEVE, and generally just messing around and having a good time is super important.
Just don't get into the weird mindset of scheduling time to play because it will help you optimize your life and maximize productivity. It's called play for a reason. You do it to have fun.
Remember being in 3rd grade and messing around with friends during the summer? That's the feeling you're going for here.
There are some things that we know are essential...we just don't seem to care enough to prioritize them in our lives.
My cousin is a prime example of this. He's running a tech startup up in San Francisco and lives in SoMa in a three bedroom place. He has the loft bedroom, meaning it's not enclosed.
He gets woken up by the sun as soon as it's up, or manages to stay asleep a little longer in a sunlit room. After years of running on low sleep and feeling not 100% there, he built a weird bed-tent hybrid based off of some picture he saw on Pinterest.
It allows him to sleep in complete, pitch-black darkness until his alarm goes off.
After just a week of sleeping in his bed-tent creation, his energy levels have never been higher and he's feeling like he's mentally 'there' again.
Bottom line: protect the asset. Sleep is a massive force multiplier on your waking hours, so it's one of the most essential activities you'll ever 'do'. So do it right.
Part III - Eliminate
Spend time up front to figure out exactly what you want to achieve. Drill down to the absolute heart of the matter and gain as much clarity as possible.
A fitness example: wanting to 'get in better shape' isn't a clear goal. Neither is 'get a six pack', although it's a bit closer.
I'll share my fitness goals for Q2 of 2015:
- Sub 12% bodyfat
- 15 strict pullups in a row
- 300lb deadlift
- 225lb squat
- 200lb bench
Those are very clear goals that I will know if I hit or not by the end of this quarter. Having goals this clear also makes it very easy to figure out what actions I should take to accomplish them.
Clear goals help you remove hundreds of future decisions by virtue of their clarity.
This chapter was a big one for me. It's about learning how to say no to things that aren't essential to you. If you're someone who likes to be happy and make the people around you happy, you've probably got an issue with this as well.
In fact, I have a friend that's building her design business out right now that's running into this issue. She closed down her design agency and is setting up shop selling assets like resume templates, video introductions, and backgrounds but running into issues spending time on her work.
Not only is she having a hard time focusing on essential activities because she doesn't know what they ARE, she's over-committed to too many social events and causes which fragments her focus into a million little pieces.
Learn to say 'no' in a firm but respectful way.
Don't get distracted by sunk costs. Spending a lot of time and money on something doesn't make it an inherently essential activity.
Seth Godin goes over this concept far better than I ever could in his book The Dip, so you should probably just buy it and read it (it's quick) if you want to know more about this chapter.
Limit the scope of your activity to breed creativity and inspire yourself to act.
When I work with my clients on marketing projects, the first few meetings are all about figuring out what we are not going to focus on. In other words, I'm limiting the scope of the project to only the things that I think are essential and going from there.
That forces me to be more creative with my solutions to their problems and not get into overwhelm when thinking about all of the potential ways to help them out.
Part IV - Execute
Figuring out what to remove from your life is just as important as figuring out what to add.
Tim Ferriss' "Not To Do" list is a great example of a list of activities that - when they are NOT done - result in a massive increase in productivity.
James Clear writes about this one pretty well in his post about marginal gains. The main point is this:
If you make small, incremental gains on a daily basis, pretty soon they will multiply on each other and you'll see incredible improvement.
If you're confused about this, look up compound returns in investing, which Einstein called "the eighth wonder of the world."
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a man who has made it his life's mission to have the least user-friendly name on Earth, wrote a very good book that expands on this entire chapter. So read that book if this interests you.
The basic principle here is that you should look to create routines that allow you not to think about things that are repeatable. Like your morning routine. Or what you eat for breakfast. Unless you highly value variety in your diet or are a chef, you can make your life a hell of a lot easier by just eating the same breakfast every day.
What does this do for you? It frees up that mental energy to focus on things that are more important.
Figuring out what the most important action is in the moment can be hard to do. Focusing on that action once it's figured out can be even harder.
In a pattern that is becoming quite clear, someone has already written more about this chapter than I could possible write myself. The guys at Asian Efficiency wrote a solid article on how to focus on one thing long enough to get it done that I refer to often when I'm feeling out of it.
Hopefully you got something out of this post, even if it was just one tidbit from one of the chapters. If the general concept of this book seems interesting, it's definitely worth a read.
Pick up a copy and crush it over a weekend or a long flight. Then make an effort to actually adopt some of these mental models in your life and you'll be well on your way to a more essential outlook on things.