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Essentialism by Greg McKeown - Talent Folks' Book Brief

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

"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)."

Don't you yearn to focus your limited time on those things where you will yield the highest return - both at work and in your personal life, pinpointing exactly where you should spend your time and with rigor decline or eliminate all the other activities and commitments to stay focused? If only life were so clear cut.

Greg McKeown's approach in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less aims to help us with that focus.

"Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless (p 7)."

I am challenged by the concept of essentialism because my natural go to is "Yes, we should do all of these things. They are all wonderful ideas and will improve the employee experience / teamwork / customer experience / our home life." My husband is fond of saying, when making a choice between this or that, "I don't really do 'or'". Most of us have a hard time narrowing down our options and focusing our attentions on those "vital few" things that will make the biggest impact.

I enjoyed reading Essentialism a few years ago and in reviewing my notes for this Book Brief, identified three of his ideas that I hope help us better juggle our priorities and create capacity. Time management and creating capacity for ourselves was one your requests in the 2021 content survey. This Book Brief is in our series, Pace Yourself.

As a quick note, Talent Folks' Book Briefs offer talent development-specific application from business, leadership and sundry books. Not a review. Not a synopsis. A few bullets that you can apply to your daily TD life.

McKeown's systematic process consists of three steps:

1. Explore

"Essentialists systematically explore and evaluate a broad set of options before committing to any. Because they will commit and 'go big' on one or two ideas or activities, they deliberately explore more options at first to ensure that they pick the right one later (p 21)."

So basically, visiting every store to evaluate the couches available then going back for the one that fits our space and needs the best is the right strategy. Noted.

2. Eliminate

Saying no to opportunities and honing in on our essential priorities.

3. Execute

Removing obstacles and doing your thing really well.

Three Ideas for Aspiring Essentialists

McKeown offers four to five concepts within each of the above process steps to build essentialism skills. We're going to focus in on three of them that I think will help us with our ongoing challenge to juggle priorities and get it all done.

1) Select

Within the Eliminate step, McKeown urges us to be very, very selective. In fact, we're going to turn down 90% of the opportunities or options that come our way to say "Yes!" to only the top 10% of them. 10% - yikes!

The goal is to understand an opportunity so well that if it's not a clear yes, it's a clear no (p 109).

This will be a challenging one. We are not used to saying no to customers. We want to be relevant and helpful. We want to please our customers so that they continue to seek our support. Can we apply this concept to help us whittle through the needs that customers pop up with into the vital few that will make a striking impact?

What if we asked…

  • What will I not be able to deliver on to say yes to this request?

  • Will this significantly further the goals this customer has set?

  • What will I have to give up to complete this request with excellence?

  • Is this a task that only I can do per my skillset?

  • Does this work bring me joy?

  • *Do I absolutely, 100% think this is the right solution for the customer?*

McKeown urges us to consider the most important criteria for evaluating an opportunity and give it a score between 0 to 100. If your answer is less than 90, it's a no (p 105). This takes guts, as you will be declining opportunities or turning away customers who don't fit your criteria. It also requires that you define your criteria super clearly so that you can be tough with decisions. This is a no waffle zone. I will find it challenging.

The next two ideas are in the Execute step.

2) Buffer

The first concept McKeown introduces within the Execute step is the buffer. The buffer is planning ahead. It's also creating space for the unexpected, mishaps, murphy's law or winter storms that take a week out of your plans. Things come up - they just do. Creating a buffer in your day, your plans, your project plans for a program implementation will give you the ability to launch Plan B with less stress.

McKeown suggests tactics like "extreme preparation," where you tap into your inner type-A to plan well in advance and for every possible scenario (p 180 - 181), along with adding 50% to your time estimates for how long it will take to complete a task. You know the typical amount of time it takes you to complete said task, and go ahead and pack in an additional 50% of time in case you run into a delay or unforeseen situations. I appreciate this one a lot, and it will be a stretch for me. I don't like being early. I like squeezing every possible task into the few minutes before I'm supposed to be somewhere - pressure prompted friends, you know exactly what I mean. But, it often causes me to be a few minutes late and sometimes I run into issues logging into a conference call, for example, because I didn't plan a few minutes of leeway.

Finally, he suggests five really good questions to both prepare for projects and build in needed buffers:

  1. What risks do you face on this project?

  2. What is the worst-case scenario?

  3. What would the social effects of this be?

  4. What would the financial impact of this be?

  5. How can you invest to reduce risks or strengthen financial or social resilience?

The last question especially will help you think critically about the buffers you can build into the plan, whether additional time, expertise or resources that will support project success (p 184).

3) Progress

In change management, we learn that celebrating the small and early wins are important steps in supporting people through changes. Essentialists take joy in progress, because they know that it's the small wins that create motivation and excitement. It generates belief in our progress and that we can reach the finish line. Momentum is key here. One small win leads to other small wins that over time lead to great progress (p 193 - 197).

To create progress, McKeown suggests targeting the minimal viable progress - the simplest possible solution that is viable to your customer (p 199). Also consider the minimal viable preparation that you can do now to make incremental progress on your project. For example, invest 10 - 30 minutes on a project each week way before the deadline versus waiting until the last minute to complete the whole thing. He also suggests showing progress visually. Our inner elementary school kid likes seeing the bars on the reading ruler fill up as we finish a book. We like digital leaderboards and badges. Make progress on your goal visually so that you can see and enjoy your progress.

We didn't discuss the concepts of clarity, play, uncommit, substract and focus. They are other concepts that may help you refine your priorities and focus in on those that are most essential. I know, I'm a big tease. Essentialism is worth your time and gave me plenty of food for thought as I narrow in my focus and tame my inner procrastinator.

With this review, McKeown's guidance helped me clarify and settle in on the three priorities that I'm going to tackle with my team this year. During my first three months in a new role, I've identified a full list of to dos for us in HR. But McKeown reminds me to go big on the vital few to make an impact. So, I've honed in on three priorities that will drive the majority of my time. All three strengthen our employee value proposition, which is our overall goal.

I hope you add Essentialism to your TBR list.* Your action - make a list of your priorities at work. Be selective and whittle them down. If getting down to the top 10% is scary, start by cutting the list in half. Create a buffer plan for those that remain on the list and celebrate when you make incremental progress. You need that and your customers will appreciate it. Finally, sign in and leave us a comment. Let's give each other a positive boost as we learn to pace ourselves this year.


McKeown, Greg. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. New York: Crown Business, 2014.

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