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  • Writer's pictureLars Christensen

Essentialism by Greg McKeown

I finished this book in June 2024. I recommend this book 9/10.

Why you should read this book:

The only way you can survive an ever so more stressful world is to learn how to say no to things and get clear with your priorities. When you are clear on your priorities, and you can carve out quality time to focus on that, then you can accelerate. This is a great book to make you stop for a minute and consider where you have been dragged along in your busy life.

Get your copy here.

🚀 The book in three sentences

  1. Less is truly more. Don't get caught up in the speed and business of life.

  2. You own your time. You need to create the guardrails around it.

  3. Know your values, strengths, goals, and strategies, and form your life around them.

🎨 Impressions

This is a great book in partnership with Cal Newport's Deep Work. You learn in life that there is too much stuff. Be selective in what you want to work on, and find a way to dive deep into that area.

✍️ My favorite quotes

  • Peter Drucker said, "People are effective because they say 'no,' because they say, 'this isn't for me.'"

  • Josh Billings said, "Half of the trouble of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough."

  • Doug Firebaugh said, "Every day, do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow."

📝 My notes and thoughts

  • P4. 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.

  • P5. 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.

  • P12. It leads to what I call "the paradox of success," which can be summed up in four predictable phases:

  • Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it enables us to succeed at our endeavor.

  • Phase 2: When we have success, we gain a reputation as a "go to" person. We become "good old [insert name]," who is always there when you need him, and we are presented with increased options and opportunities.

  • Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, which is actually code for demands upon our time and energies, it leads to diffused efforts. We get spread thinner and thinner.

  • Phase 4: We become distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution. The effect of our success has been to undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the the first place.

  • P23. Peter Drucker said, "People are effective because they say 'no,' because they say, 'this isn't for me.'"

  • P26. What if society stopped telling us to buy more stuff and instead allowed us to create more space to breathe and think? What if society encouraged us to reject what has been accurately described as doing things we detest, to buy things we don't need, with money we don't have, to impress people we don't like?'

  • P52. In an insightful op-ed for the New York Times, Erin Callan, the former CFO of Lehman Brothers, shared what she had sacrificed in making trade-offs by default. She wrote: "I didn't start out with the goal of devoting all of myself to my job. It crept in over time. Each year that went by, slight modifications became the new normal. First, I spend half an hour on Sunday organizing my e-mail, to-do list, and calendar to make Monday morning easier. Then I was working a few hours on Sunday, then all day. My boundaries slipped away until work was all that was left." Her story demonstrates a critical truth: we can either make the hard choices for ourselves or allow others—whether our colleagues, our boss, or our customers—to decide for us.

  • P56. 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?" The cumulative impact of this small change in thinking can be profound.

  • P81. "What question are you trying to answer?" I asked them. Everyone paused awkwardly. Nobody had a response. Then, someone made a comment about something else, and again, the group went off on a tangent. I stepped in and posed my questions again. And again. Eventually, the team stopped and really thought about what goals they were trying to accomplish and what decisions really needed to be made to accomplish them. They settled on a plan of action, made the necessary decisions, and divided up responsibilities.

  • P104. You can think of this as the 90 percent rule, and it's one you can apply to just about every decision or dilemma. As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it. This way, you avoid getting caught up in indecision, or worse, getting stuck with the 60s or 70s. Think about how you'd feel if you scored a 65 on some test. Why would you deliberately choose to feel that way about an important choice in your life?

  • P107. Making our criteria both selective and explicit affords us a systematic tool for discerning what is essential and filtering out the things that are not.

  • P111. Write down a list of three "minimum criteria" the options would need to "pass" in order to be considered. Second, write down a list of three ideal or "extreme criteria" the options would be to "pass" in order to be considered. By definition, if the opportunity doesn't pass the first set of criteria, the answer is obviously no. But if it also doesn't pass two of your three extreme criteria, the answer is still no.

  • P128. It was from a slightly unexpected place: the actor/social entrepreneur Brad Pitt, who, appalled by the lack of progress in rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, had started an organization called "Make It Right" with the essential intent "to build 150 affordable green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward." That statement took the air out of the room. The concreteness of the objective made it real. The realness made it inspiring. It answered the question: "How will we know when we have succeeded?"

  • P136. Ducker's response was interesting enough to Mihaly that he quoted it verbatim: "I am greatly honored and flattered by your kind letter of February 14th—for I have admired you and your work for many years, and I have learned much from it. But, my dear Professor Csikszent Mihaly, I am afraid I have to disappoint you. I could not possibly answer your questions, I am told I am creative—I don't know what that means...I just keep on plodding...I hope you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe, whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours—productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one's time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and do it well."

  • P145. Josh Billings said, "Half of the trouble of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough."

  • P149. Tom Stafford describes a simple antidote to the endowment effect. "Instead of asking, "How much do I value this item?" we should ask, "If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?" We can do the same for opportunities and commitment. Don't ask, "How will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity?" but rather, "If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice to obtain it?" Similarly, we can ask, "If I wasn't already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?"

  • P153. In a reverse pilot, you test whether removing an initiative or activity will have any negative consequences. For example, when an executive I work with took on a new senior role in the company, he inherited a process his predecessor had gone to a huge effort to implement: a huge, highly visual report on a myriad of subjects produced for the other executives each week. It consumed enormous energy from his team, and he hypothesized that it was not adding a great deal of value to the company. So, to test his hypothesis, he ran a reverse pilot. He simply stopped publishing the report and waited to see what the response would be. What he found was that no one seemed to miss it; after several weeks, nobody had even mentioned the report. As a result, he concluded that the report was not essential to the business and could be eliminated. A similar reverse pilot can be carried out in our social lives. Are there commitments you routinely make to customers, colleagues, friends, or even family members that you have always assumed made a big difference to them but that, in fact, they might barely notice? By quietly eliminating or at least scaling back an activity for a few days or weeks, you might be able to assess whether it is really making a difference or whether no one really cares.

  • P162. Becoming an editor in our lives, also includes knowing when to show restraint. One way we can do this is by editing our tendency to step in. When we are added onto an e-mail thread, for example, we can resist our usual temptation to be the first to reply all. When sitting in a meeting, we can resist the urge to add our two cents. We can wait. We can observe. We can see how things develop. Doing less is not just a powerful Essentialist strategy; it's a powerful editorial one as well.

  • P168. I am not saying we should never help people. We should serve, and love, and make a difference in the lives of others, of course. But  when people make their problem our problem, we aren't helping them; we're enabling them. Once we take their problem for them, all we're doing is taking away their ability to solve it.

  • P170. Make a list of your dealbreakers—the type of requests or activities from that person that you simply refuse to say yes to unless they somehow overlap with your own priorities or agenda. Another quick test for finding your dealbreakers is to write down any time you feel violated or put upon by someone's request. It doesn't have to be in the some extreme way for you to notice it. Even a small "pinch" (to use a description I think is helpful to describe a minor violation of your boundaries) that makes you feel even twinge of resentment—whether it's an unwanted invitation, an unsolicited "Opportunity," or a request for a small favor—is a clue for discovering your own hidden boundaries.

  • P170. When we first got together I made it a point to lay out my priorities and what extra work I would and wouldn't be willing to take on over the life span of the project. "Let just agree on what we want to achieve," I began. "Here are a couple of things that really matters to me..." And I asked him to do the same.

  • P183. One way to protect against this is simply to add a 50 percent buffer to the amount of time we estimate it will take to complete a task or project (if 50 percent seems overly generous, consider how frequently things actually do take us 50 percent longer than expected). So, if you have an hour set aside for a conference call, block off an additional thirty minutes. If you've estimated it will take ten minutes to get your son to soccer practice, leave the house fifteen minutes before practice begins.

  • P184. When Erwann works with national governments to create their risk management strategies, he suggests they start by asking five questions: (1) What risks do we face and where? (2) What assets and populations are exposed, and to what degree? (3) How vulnerable are they? (4) What financial burden do these risks place on individuals, businesses, and the government budgets? (5) How best can we invest to reduce risks and strengthen economic and social resilience? We can apply these five questions to our own attempts at building buffers. Think of the most important project you are trying to get done at work or at home. Then, ask the following five questions. (1) What risk do you face on this project? (2) What is the worst-case scenario? (3) What would the social efforts of this be? (4) What would the financial impact of this be? and (5) How can you invest to reduce risks or strengthen financial or social resilience? Your answer to that fifth question will point to buffers—perhaps adding another 20 percent to the project's budget, getting a PR person on board to handle any potential negative press, or calling a board meeting to manage shareholder expectations—that you can create to safeguard you against unknowable events.

  • P186. Instead of trying to improve every aspect of the facility, he needs to identify the "Herbie": the part of the process that is slower relative to every other part of the plant. He does this by finding which machine has the biggest queue of materials waiting behind it and finding a way to increase its efficiency. This, in turn, improves the next "slowest hiker's" efficiency, and so on, until the productivity of the whole plant begins to improve. The question is this: What is the "slowest hiker" in your job or your life? What is the obstacle that is keeping you back from achieving what really matters to you? By systematically identifying and removing this "constraint," you'll be able to significantly reduce the friction that keeps you from executing what is essential.

  • P192. Removing obstacles does not have to be hard or take superhuman effort. Instead, we can start small. It's kind of like dislodging a boulder at the top of a hill. All it takes is a small shove; then, momentum will naturally build.

  • P193. Doug Firebaugh said, "Every day, do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow."

  • P201. A colleague in New York uses a simple hack: Whenever she schedules a meeting or phone call, she takes exactly fifteen seconds to type up the main objectives for that meeting, so on the morning of the meeting, when she sits down to prepare talking points, she can refer to them. She doesn't need to plan the whole meeting agenda. Just a few seconds of early preparation pay a valuable dividend.

  • P216. Instead of getting caught up rehashing the last play that went wrong or spending their mental energy worrying whether they are going to lose the fame, neither of which is helpful or constructive, Larry encourages them to focus only on the play they are in right now. Second, the question "What's important now?" helps them stay focused on how they are playing. Larry believes a huge part of winning is determined by whether the players are focused on their own game or on their opponent's game. If the layers start thinking about the other team, they lose focus. Consciously or not, they start wanting to play the way the other team is playing. They get distracted and divided. By focusing on their game in the here and now, they can all unite around a single strategy. This level of unity makes execution of their game plan relatively frictionless.

  • P222. Getting the future out of your head enables you to more fully focus on "what is important now." In this case, my next step was to sit down and list those things that might have been essential—just not right now. So, I opened another page in my journal. This time, I asked myself, "What might you want to do someday as a result of today?" This was not a list of firm commitments, just a way to get all of the ideas out of my head and on paper.

  • P223. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk who has been called the "world's calmest man," has spent a lifetime exploring how to live in kairos, albeit by a different name. He has taught it as mindfulness or maintaining "beginner's mind." He has written: "Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have. Happiness comes. This focus on being in the moment affects the way he does everything. He takes a full hour to drink a cup of tea with the other monks every day. He explains: "Suppose you are drinking a cup of tea. When you hold your cup, you may like to breathe in, to bring your mind back to your body, and you may become fully present. And when you are truly there, something else is also there—life, represented by the cup of tea. In that moment, you are real, and the cup of tea is real. You are not lost in the past, in the future, in your projects, in your worries. You are free from all those afflictions. And in that state of being free, you enjoy your tea. That is the moment of happiness and of peace." Pay attention throughout the day for your own kairos moments. Write them down in your journal. Think about what triggered that moment and what brought you out of it. Now that you know what triggers the moment try to re-create it. Training yourself to tune into kairos will not only enable you to achieve a higher level of contribution but also make you happier.

  • P231. Once you become an Essentialist, you will find that you aren't like everybody else. When other people are saying yes, you will find yourself saying no. When other people are doing, you will find yourself thinking. When other people are speaking, you will find yourself listening. When other people are in the spotlight, vying for attention, you will find yourself waiting on the sidelines until it is time to shine. While other people are padding their resumes and building out their LinkedIn profiles, you will be building a career of meaning. While other people are complaining (read: bragging) about how busy they are, you will just be smiling sympathetically, unable to relate. While other people are living a life of stress and chaos, you will be living a life of impact and fulfillment. In many ways, to live as an Essentialist in our too-many-things-all-the-time society is an act of quiet revolution.

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