Author Interviews
5:11 pm
Sat July 26, 2014

Lessons In 'Essentialism': Getting More Out Of Life By Doing Less

Originally published on Sat July 26, 2014 7:29 pm

Greg McKeown doesn't believe in having it all or doing it all. In his new book Essentialism, he argues that we should pursue only those things that are truly important — and eliminate everything else.

"In the bigger picture essentialism is about fighting this nonsense that we have been sold ... that if we can fit it all in then we can have it all," he tells NPR's Eric Westervelt.

McKeown provides advice and real-life examples from people who revised their do-it-all approach. He says you don't have to say yes to everything in order to be successful.


Interview Highlights

On becoming an essentialist

What we need to do is, before we absolutely have to, decide that we are going to become an essentialist — that we are not going to get caught up in that furor of the frenzied, frenetic nonsense — and instead pursue those things that really matter most to us.

In the end it's to create enough time to think and ask ourselves what is really essential and with that space and with those answers then we are able to navigate what we should be saying yes to and what we should be saying no to.

On the value proposition of essentialism

I think we have to come back to the reality of trade-offs. There is an executive that I interviewed for the book based in Silicon Valley who was doing excellent work in one company. But then that company got purchased by a larger, more bureaucratic firm and so when he went to the company he thought, " I have to be a great citizen. That means I have to say yes to almost everyone and everything without really thinking about it."

So every meeting he's invited to he goes to, every e-mail chain he responds to ... what he found is that his stress was going up ... [and] quality of life was going down. And so he almost thought he would quit the company and then somebody suggested, "No what you need to do is retire in-role, that is, become far more selective about what you would do."

Well he did it, he didn't get fired. What he actually got — his performance reviews went up and he ended that year with one of the largest bonuses of his career. That is the value proposition of essentialism.

On the intended audience for the book

[It's] for people who feel that they don't have the power to push back and so they've given up the right to negotiate non-essentials. And as soon as you give up that right then you lose a lot of power.

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Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

Pursue only those things that are truly important and eliminate everything else. That's the message of Harvard Business review writer, Greg McKeown in his new book, "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less." Greg, welcome to the program.

GREG MCKEOWN: It's great to be with you.

WESTERVELT: So Greg let's be clear, when you talk about creating the space and having the disciplined pursuit of less, you're not talking about, you know, cleaning out your email inbox or talking about a New Year's resolution to say - no more off. You're talking about something else. A commitment to sort of weeding out, carefully, these sort of nonessential time-sucking things in everyday life.

MCKEOWN: Well, it's even more than that in a sense. I think that in the bigger picture, essentialism is about fighting this nonsense that we have been sold - that if we can fit it all in, then we can have it all. This is what I think is like a busyness bubble in the world. And we've had our different bubbles before. We've had the Silicon Valley bubble, the real estate bubble. What I think is that society at large is in a busyness bubble now, and we're almost at a tipping point. And at some point, it will burst as well and we'll think we were just crazy to get caught up in all of this euphoria. What we need to do is, before we absolutely have to, decide that we are going to become an essentialist - that we're going to get caught up in that furor of the frenzied, frenetic nonsense and instead pursue those things that really matter most to us.

WESTERVELT: Well, how do you sell making do with less, Greg, in this sort of hyper consumerist hyper connected age? I mean, we're sending messages all the time to buy, to consume, to be digitally connected - some would say digitally distracted every day.

MCKEOWN: I think we have to come back to the reality of trade-offs. There's an executive that I interviewed for the book based in Silicon Valley, who was doing excellent work in one company. But then that company got purchased by a larger, more bureaucratic firm. And so when he went to the company he thought, I have to be a great citizen. That means I have to say yes to almost everyone and everything without really thinking about it. So every meeting he's invited to, he goes to. Every email he responds to. Every conference call, even if it's only a few minutes of value for him, he's there and commenting. And what he found is that his stress was going up at the same time of his quality of life was going down. And so he almost thought he would quit the company. And then somebody suggested - know what you need to do is retire in role. That is, become far more selective about what you would do. Well, he did it. He didn't get fired. What he actually got was one of his performance reviews went up, and he ended that year with one of the largest bonuses of his career. That's the value proposition of essentialism.

WESTERVELT: But he was the CEO, Greg. I mean, he had in some ways the power and the privilege of choice. I mean, that's a very first world luxury. What about the millions who don't have the luxury of choice? Their essentialism is, sort of, survival.

MCKEOWN: Well, he was an executive, not a CEO. So he certainly had people to answer to. So it wasn't that easy. But to your real point, this is who I wrote the book for - were for people who feel that they don't have the power to push back. And so they've given up the right to negotiate nonessentials. And as soon as you give up that right, then you lose a lot of power. I mean, I learned about this from a personal experience in my life when one of my daughters was about to be born. And I got an email from my manager at the time, and they said, you know, Friday would be a very bad time to have a baby because I need you to be at this client meeting. Well, Friday came, and that is when our daughter was born - healthy - my wife looking radiant. But I, instead of being able to have joy in this moment, I felt completely torn - pulled in every direction, trying to do both - straddle it. And because I had studied what I now call essentialism for years, I knew just what to do. And so with all a conviction I could muster I said yes, and I went into the meeting. And afterwards, I remember my manager said, the client will respect you for the choice you made. And I don't think that was what I saw on their faces when they knew why, you know - what I'd been doing. But even if they had, surely I had made a fool's bargain.

WESTERVELT: You went to the meeting after your daughter was just a few hours old. I mean, that moment sort of changed and shaped your thinking and you started to put your essentialist philosophy more into practice after that painful experience?

MCKEOWN: Yeah. How does it happen? How do smart, capable people get tricked by the trivial? It's not just about making a to-do list in the morning. It's not about time management. It's much more complex than that. It's a human dynamic. This is about social pressure. You know, we talk about the problem of information overload. But for at least the last 10 years, it's not been information overload that's the problem - it's opinion overload.

WESTERVELT: So creating the space to think, explore, and focus - it sounds like you're calling for a kind of digital detox, in a way. Is that correct?

MCKEOWN: It could be a detox of all sorts of things - of all sorts of expectations. But in the end it's to create enough time to think and ask ourselves what is really essential. And with that space and with those answers, then we are able to navigate what we should be saying yes to, and what we should be saying no to. One other thing that I suggest that people do is, first thing in the morning, instead of reaching for your phone, you take 20 minutes and write a journal - ask the hard questions, maybe read wisdom literature, maybe meditate. But to siphon off that first point of the day to anchor into what really matters so that we aren't just immediately pulled into other people's agenda.

WESTERVELT: Greg McKeown. The book is "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less." Greg, thanks for coming in.

MCKEOWN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.