Essentialism Book Review | Do Less and Accomplish More

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

Greg McKeown – “Essentialism”

Essentialism Book Review:

When Nicole developed her most recent quarterly schedule for Greatest Worth, we talked about a recurring series of book reviews. “You know,” I said while prepping dinner, “a brief summary of the good stuff, and how it’s affected you. I think your people will love that.”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes they will. When will you have the first one ready so I can put it on the calendar?”

“Me?!” I replied. It was classic Nicole and Sam. My offhand comment, offered into the air without intent beyond the idea of it. Her catching the idea and giving it not only intent, but structure. It wasn’t the first time we had talked about a potential for me to find a place at the Greatest Worth posting table, but, it was also the most overt and clear and reasonable ask she’d made to date.

“But… well… me? I don’t know, Love, I’m really swamped at work, and the kids have those things coming up, and the laundry is reproducing, and we’re having dinner with So and So on Friday and then those other folks on Sunday, and I need to work on that project for the team at church, and we’re still not finished with that newsletter for school, and I told my friend I’d have coffee, and I told my other friend that I’d go to lunch next week, and I told our neighbor I’d meet to hear about his new work project, and… and…” a breath, “and, I just don’t know. I’m not doing anything well right now, and I’m doing too much of that.”

Then, another breath. And, in that moment, listening to my own list of overwhelm and disjointed obligations, I realized that this was the moment.

This was the chance to bring an aggressive scouring to my schedule and begin again.

It was the moment to move away from the noise of my days and toward focus, giving my life to something I chose rather than to something chosen for me.

This was the moment to say ‘Enough.’

“When’s my deadline?” I asked her, feeling somehow empowered and quaking at the same time, choosing, over a pile of onions and carrots, that it was time to make a choice, realizing that I had the power and the tools to do so.

It always comes down to a choice, doesn’t it? What to pursue, what to release, what to offer my life to, what to walk away from, what to buy, what to give – choice after choice after choice.

As a people, we haven’t done a good job of helping ourselves, or each other, navigate those choices. Boundaries and limits are bad words in the modern American vernacular. “Enough” is a risky word, and requires making vulnerable choices, but risk and vulnerability are insufferable in the practice of much of our living.

With our cultural icons and structures shaped by comparison, and our economy and workplaces driven by endless extraction and production, we have little understanding for how or when or why to say enough.

Enough, after all, draws a line that places us with This and not That. It demands us to trust ourselves, a big ask in these days of feeds and notifications, with their back-lit reminders of where we’re missing out.

Our culture’s inability to draw the line has, I believe, contributed to a trove of financial messes (a $20 trillion in national debt, for instance, or the highest credit card debt in US history),  and psychological suffering – we’re not only told we can have it all, we’re told we SHOULD have it all.

Overwhelm is the inevitable and unavoidable byproduct of this American Dream built on the myth of endless capacity.

It’s making our lives scattered and incoherent, while leaving us dissatisfied, disconnected, uncertain and in a constant state of reaction. It’s difficult to focus, to choose even, when the prevailing practice is to have it all. Know it all. Be it all. Do it all.

Thankfully, the story is beginning to come apart at the bindings to reveal its empty underpinnings.

Greg McKeown’s book essentialism, is a slim but… well, essential part of the forces conspiring to deconstruct the myth. McKeown divides the chapters into the three components of practicing essentialism – EXPLORE, ELIMINATE, EXECUTE – and brings extensive examples of his work as a coach and adviser to executives and companies around the world, as well as scholarly examples from diverse studies, to support the framework.

This “disciplined pursuit of less,” he theorizes, is the antidote to the toxic impossibility of the modern American Dream.

Essentialism is a “systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.”

The process is not a manual in minimalism or even simplicity, per se (though, I am convinced that both flow from a practice of essentialism). It is, though, a rational, step-wise system that is focused on paring down, with ruthless efficiency, the distractions, obligations and unspoken expectations that consume, exhaust and overwhelm.

Sign me up.

As I read the book, though, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. A sense of excitement and peace would wash over me as I envisioned the shifts practicing essentialism would produce in my life.

A confidence and security built on trusting myself.

Space to pursue my passions instead of my assumed responsibilities.

Liberty from the dark hole of resentment that is so often tethered to obligation.

Soon, however, as the whirlwind of life swept across my day, I noticed I began to develop a subtle, skeptical doubt that McKeown was offering anything other than snakeoil.

How could I say no to this opportunity, or that friend, or this meeting? If I said no to this, surely I would miss out or disappoint someone. Sure, focus would be great, and, yes, I’d find so much meaning and joy pouring my energy into that intersection of Right Place, Right Reason and Right Time, but… but… but.

I’ve got a really big but for just about everything.

“The ability to choose,” McKeown writes, as he establishes the foundational mindset for the process, “cannot be taken away or even given away – it can only be forgotten.”

It always comes down to a choice. Choice, after choice after choice.

It’s not a new idea here at Greatest Worth. Value-based budgeting, the mindset shift required to transform your finances, heck, even (especially) a happy marriage all hinge on choices.

I’ve read these posts just like you. I’ve shouted “Amen, sister!” right along with you, feeling inspired, motivated and changed by the truth of Nicole’s clear-eyed vision.

Still, the opposing narrative – the one that says More, Now, All, Should – is a deep, steady, pervasive bass line. So low it’s barely audible but so loud it shakes our bones. It was that insidious myth that led to the kitchen counter overwhelm, feeling tapped out by my own inability to draw the line.

It is by grace that we don’t have to stay there. The bass line still beats, but we are finding a way, you and I, to turn it down. Mckeown’s book is an… well, again… essential tool to bring along with us.  

With grace and respect,

Sam

Essentialism Book Review | Do Less & Accomplish More

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