Being an essentialist is an essential tool

Arvo MM
Friday 9 August 2019

We love to say yes all the time. An exciting new project? Let’s do it! Want to grab coffee with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time? Monday’s good! Should you catch up with that comedy series you really enjoy? Of course! Want to see the latest spider-man film? Why not! Should you read that interesting article your cousin told you about? Absolutely! And what about that brilliant novel that won that prestigious fiction prize last year? Can’t wait! But… unfortunately, this all comes at a cost. 


What we don’t realise is that by saying yes to all these things that life brings to the table, we are saying no to thousands, millions of other things. Time is in many ways our most valuable asset and what we do with it and how we do it ends up being the life we live and turning us into who we are. 

However active, energetic and ambitious we might be, we can never do it all. It simply cannot happen. So we have to choose, and there are better and worse ways of going about this. A very common one, and we are all guilty of this more often than not, is saying yes to whatever is in front of us. Not that essay we know is very important, not that important phone-call to our grandmother we’ve been putting off for days. We instead constantly run into things and people that quickly take over our to-do lists and fill up our calendars.

Some parts of this idea are already widely known and tackled by the ‘important vs urgent’ matrix, which is a widely used leadership and management tool. But we need to go further. We need to see not just what is important or urgent, at the end of the day, it might all be to a certain extent, the book, the series, the old friends, the films, staying on top of the news… We need to reflect as seriously as we can and narrow down the things that really matter in our lives. And then, we need to act on it, pay our undivided attention and, this is key, learn to say no. We must learn how to say no to all those cool things we just cannot afford doing because saying yes to them would unavoidably mean saying no to some of what’s essential to us.

Author Greg McKeown has long been interested in answering: What is it that holds capable, driven people from breaking through to the next level? And he found that, ironically, it might have to do with success. With one’s success comes more options, and this, more often than not, ends up diffusing one’s focus that led to that success in the first place. To combat this he came up with the notion of essentialism: the disciplined pursuit of less.

As I mentioned, we need to explore which are the critical things we want to pursue and be willing to get rid of the rest. Moreover, McKeown believes in lowering the barrier to doing these things. He wants our default position, and not the rare occasion, to be working on them. He refers to it as the process of building a platform for ‘effortless execution of the essential’. Moreover, he believes that people, when given the appropriate space and time, can easily discern which things truly are important and essential. Whether his positivism here is a sensible position or not, one thing is certain, being caught in the middle of our daily noise and impulsively filling up our days cannot lead to us being productive in the same way.

I have come to believe that, however difficult it might seem, being an essentialist might be one of the most important tools we can learn in order to become better leaders (of ourselves and others) and, more generally, a tool that serves us to be better at doing anything we set out to do.


Image source:*1pULlk7afwfQhCZOrX0tDw.jpeg

I would like to thank my supervisors, Dr Fenner Tanswell and Prof. Franz Berto for their patience and constant support, and Lord Laidlaw and everyone else who has made my scholarship possible. It has truly shaped me and changed the way I see the world.

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