Review: Essentialism by Greg McKeown

A life designed, not default.

Essentialism is one of those books that nearly every person I have been reading recently has referenced, so with a surplus of audible credits I finally made the time to listen to it. Succinctly put, you could sum the whole book up in just a few words: Define your purpose in life, then save your "yes" for only that which serves that essential purpose. To use Mr. McKeown's words, your life should be "designed, not default."

As someone who tends to drift through life and drafts in the wake of other people's decisions, this book is a wake up call. I have not enjoyed making decisions, saying no to people... these crucial skills I had abdicated saying "I just want to help" or "that's not my personality." This idea of "design rather than default" challenges that laziness and hits me right in the gut.

The book begins by arguing that no matter what, we will face this quandary through something the author calls "The Paradox of Success." The more successful we are, the more options we have. The more options we have, the more we feel distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution. The sheer momentum of success can carry us (by default) into a situation where we are unable to be successful. This trap feels very familiar.

The book does a good job of mixing a mental framework with practical suggestions. In a world where "kondoing" has become a verb, the act of cutting down on what McKeown calls the "trivial many" may seem like old advice, but I really like the way he handles thinking about cutting down on decisions and opportunities. I learned that a choice is not a thing I possess, it's an action I take. That small twist of mindset has set me free to stop hoarding my "choices" and opportunities. By holding my cards too long, I often end up letting the universe choose for me by default.

There's also some excellent counsel and discussion of the power of discernment... especially on the topic of identifying trade-offs. McKeown says that the faulty logic of what he dubs the "non-essentialist" claims that "I can always do both." This fallacy certainly is reflected in my calendar of late... I don't choose, I just fly between commitment to commitment until I collapse.

There is also a stern warning in this section to leaders and businesses... if you don't provide clarity in values and direction, your team won't be able to discern what's important and can't make a decision as to what problem they ought to "go big on". You'll end up a thousand miles in every direction, and making no progress.

There's a fair amount of discussion on creating margin to do these activities. As McKeown says, "If you are too busy to think, you are too busy." As such, there follows advice on sleep, creating space to think, read, plan, and play. Sleep deprivation is nearly identical in effect to blood alcohol content. We would never say "He's a great worker, he's drunk all day!" however McKeown wryly points out that it's not uncommon for people to brag about staying up all night to finish an assignment. How is it different?

There's some excellent advice in the final section about how to live this life. Setting boundaries for yourself to make "no" easy. Uncommitting yourself from non-essentials that you have embroiled yourself in. Constantly analysing what commitments and activities are in your life, and whether they line up with your life purpose and values. Creating a maintainable routine to make execution effortless. Padding your estimates to maintain margin... it's all great and I'm sure I will revisit it over the next few years.

I really got a lot out of the section on routine and subconscious decision making. The book references a study that claims we make 40% of all decisions subconsciously. This is the real trojan horse of "life by default." What gets to decide that default? Our family history, the entertainment we subject our minds to, the social pressures around us, our expectations of ourselves... so much of our lives are driven by a world that doesn't value our values.

It seems to me that being intentional and designing our subconscious habits, creating boundaries and routines that reinforce our highest values, is incredibly important. In fact I'm starting to think it's a very practical way to "take every thought captive" or "demolish strongholds." Make it easy to do what is of utmost importance.

There is a certain amount of "zen" philosophy in the book. The author seems to take an almost religious satisfaction in living an essential life, comparing it to great religious leaders in history. While I do agree that this sounds very much like a purposeful and virtuous life, I don't think it'll give you purpose and joy to the extent that the author claims.

What I've changed.

I only finished the book a week ago, but I've been reading it slowly for a few months. Here's what I am trying out or committing to try:

I want to bring clarity to personal and family life with clearly stated goals. I tend to set really broad, generic goals because it's easy. I want to set more specific goals to set a vision for our family, so we can decide with ease whether a commitment or activity moves us closer to those goals or not.

Less goals per week. I'm trying a thing in my bullet journal where I limit the amount of big rocks to three a week. It could be three work things, two work things and a big weekend... there's some freedom there, but so far it's been very freeing and I'm actually getting more done.

Say no. Historically, I've been rubbish at saying no to things. I love helping people, answering questions, being available to coach and cheer folks on. This isn't a bad thing, but in my home my family need me to do my most important things... not help random people on the internet. Same at work.

The essential few.

I think the book was quite worthwhile, and I'm probably going to have to re-read it sometime in the future after more success or progress starts to distract me from that which is most essential.


My full notes as I was listening

  • 2022-06-08 11:31:29 -0500
    Rename articles

  • 2020-06-18 14:26:02 -0500
    Move everything to CST

    Don't know why I didn't do that before. It caused _no_ end of

  • 2019-11-14 19:33:21 -0600
    Auditing the tags in the site...

    Many removed, cleaned up, or renamed.

    Tags with only one child got yanked.

  • 2019-09-01 15:29:06 -0500
    Include booknotes

  • 2019-09-01 15:26:37 -0500
    Post review: Essentialism