Life is complicated. Life is full of responsibilities and opportunities, planned duties and serendipitous possibilities. There is so much we could do, but so little we can do. Many of us battle our whole lives to focus on those few, significant items that we should do must do, and yet so few of us ever feel like we are even nearly succeeding.
Help is here in the form of Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism. While it is not a perfect book, and while it benefits tremendously from adding a good dose of Christian thinking, it is one of the most helpful I’ve read on that constant battle to focus my time and energy on the right things.
McKeown believes in what he calls Essentialism and describes the basic value proposition in this way: “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.” The Essentialist pursues fewer but better opportunities and is rigidly disciplined in rejecting the many to devote himself to the few. It is “not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.”
The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.
Now that sounds good! That sounds like what we all want—a clear design to our lives that simplifies decision-making and amplifies each of the opportunities we pursue.
McKeown leads the reader to Essentialism in four parts:
- Essence. He begins by looking to the essence of Essentialism and the realities that make Essentialism a necessary but difficult practice today.
- Explore. Here he describes the way an Essentialist needs to think so he can pursue the highest possible contribution toward the best goals.
- Eliminate. Having determined the best goals, the Essentialist now needs to begin eliminating anything that will compete with the pursuit of those goals. “It’s not enough to simply determine which activities and efforts don’t make the highest possible contribution; you still have to actively eliminate those that do not.”
- Execute. And then comes the heart of it all—living in such a way that you now execute on those few goals, and continuing to follow the discipline of it.
McKeown promises his book “will teach you a method for being more efficient, productive, and effective in both personal and professional realms. It will teach you a systematic way to discern what is important, eliminate what is not, and make doing the essential as effortless as possible. In short, it will teach you how to apply the disciplined pursuit of less to every area of your life.”
And I think it can do that. It is chock-full of excellent insights and quoteable phrases. It is the kind of book you can use to implement systems in your life, or the kind of book you can plunder for its big and important ideas.
Yet the Christian reader will want to read it with some discernment. This is a book that benefits from an infusion of the biblical ethos. As the book reaches its end, McKeown expands Essentialism to all of life and here he stops quoting business gurus and begins quoting religious gurus; the last chapter is easily the weakest and one that can be skipped without any great loss.