In this example is the basic value proposition of Essentialism: 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.
If you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will.
Once an Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware, who cared for people in the last twelve weeks of their lives, recorded their most often discussed regrets. At the top of the list: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
Think of Warren Buffett, who has famously said, “Our investment philosophy borders on lethargy.”5 What he means is that he and his firm make relatively few investments and keep them for a long time. In The Tao of Warren Buffett, Mary Buffett and David Clark explain: “Warren decided early in his career it would be impossible for him to make hundreds of right investment decisions, so he decided that he would invest only in the businesses that he was absolutely sure of, and then bet heavily on them. He owes 90% of his wealth to just ten investments. Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.”6 In short, he makes big bets on the essential few investment opportunities and says no to the many merely good ones.
Think of Sir Isaac Newton. He spent two years working on what became Principia Mathematica, his famous writings on universal gravitation and the three laws of motion. This period of almost solitary confinement proved critical in what became a true breakthrough that shaped scientific thinking for the next three hundred years.
Think of a journal as like a storage device for backing up your brain’s faulty hard drive. As someone once said to me, the faintest pencil is better than the strongest memory.
For the last ten years now I have kept a journal, using a counterintuitive yet effective method. It is simply this: I write less than I feel like writing. Typically, when people start to keep a journal they write pages the first day. Then by the second day the prospect of writing so much is daunting, and they procrastinate or abandon the exercise. So apply the principle of “less but better” to your journal. Restrain yourself from writing more until daily journaling has become a habit.
To use the pods at Google there is a calendar sign-up. How many people used it the week I was there? I wondered. Of the fifty people who work on the floor where it is situated, I imagined at least ten or twenty. Wrong. According to the calendar, just a single person had taken this opportunity to recharge brain and body with thirty minutes of midday sleep. Nevertheless, even the presence of the pod is important in signalling to employees that sleep is a priority.
Have you ever felt a tension between what you felt was right and what someone was pressuring you to do? Have you ever felt the conflict between your internal conviction and an external action? Have you ever said yes when you meant no simply to avoid conflict or friction? Have you ever felt too scared or timid to turn down an invitation or request from a boss, colleague, friend, neighbour, or family member for fear of disappointing them? If you have, you’re not alone. Navigating these moments with courage and grace is one of the most important skills to master in becoming an Essentialist – and one of the hardest.
As it happens, Cynthia’s father was the management thinker Stephen R. Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) who had passed away only weeks before Cynthia told me this story. So it was with deep emotion she recalled that evening in San Francisco. His simple decision “Bonded him to me forever because I knew what mattered most to him was me!” she said.5 One simple answer is we are unclear about what is essential. When this happens we become defenceless. On the other hand, when we have strong internal clarity it is almost as if we have a force field protecting us from the non-essentials coming at us from all directions. With Rosa it was her deep moral clarity that gave her unusual courage of conviction. With Stephen it was the clarity of his vision for the evening with his loving daughter. In virtually every instance, clarity about what is essential fuels us with the strength to say no to the non-essentials.
productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”
MAKE YOUR PEACE WITH THE FACT THAT SAYING “NO” OFTEN REQUIRES TRADING POPULARITY FOR RESPECT When you say no, there is usually a short-term impact on the relationship. After all, when someone asks for something and doesn’t get it, his or her immediate reaction may be annoyance or disappointment or even anger. This downside is clear. The potential upside, however, is less obvious: when the initial annoyance or disappointment or anger wears off, the respect kicks in. When we push back effectively, it shows people that our time is highly valuable. It distinguishes the professional from the amateur.
A case in point is the time the graphic designer Paul Rand had the guts to say no to Steve Jobs.10 When Jobs was looking for a logo for the company NeXT, he asked Rand, whose work included the logos for IBM, UPS, Enron, Westinghouse, and ABC, to come up with a few options. But Rand didn’t want to come up with “a few options.” He wanted to design just one option. So Rand said: “No. I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution. If you want options go and talk to other people. But I will solve the problem the best way I know how. And you use it or not. That’s up to you.” Not surprisingly, Rand solved the problem and created the “jewel” logo Jobs wanted, but the real lesson here is the effect Rand’s “push back” had on Jobs, who later said of Rand, “He is one of the most professional people I have ever worked with: in the sense that he had thought through all of the formal relationship between a client and a professional such as himself.” Rand took a risk when he said no. He bet a short-term popularity loss for a long-term gain in respect. And it paid off.
Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritise?”
Only when we admit we have made a mistake in committing to something can we make a mistake a part of our past. When we remain in denial, on the other hand, we continue to circle pointlessly. There should be no shame in admitting to a mistake; after all, we really are only admitting that we are now wiser than we once were.
One cure for the status quo bias is borrowed from the world of accounting: APPLY ZERO-BASED BUDGETING Typically, when accountants allocate a budget they use last year’s budget as the baseline for the next year’s projection. But with zero-based budgeting, they use zero as the baseline.
You can apply zero-based budgeting to your own endeavours. Instead of trying to budget your time on the basis of existing commitments, assume that all bets are off. All previous commitments are gone. Then begin from scratch, asking which you would add today. You can do this with everything from the financial obligations you have to projects you are committed to, even relationships you are in. Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.
A similar reverse pilot can be carried out in our social lives. Are there commitments you routinely make to customers, colleagues, friends or even family members that you have always assumed made a big difference to them but that in fact they might barely notice? By quietly eliminating or at least scaling back an activity for a few days or weeks you might be able to assess whether it is really making a difference or whether no one really cares.
Thinks that making things better means subtracting something
Clayton Christensen, the Harvard business professor and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, was once asked to make just such a sacrifice. At the time, he was working for a management consulting firm, and one of the partners came to him and told him he needed to come in on Saturday to help work on a project. Clay simply responded: “Oh, I am so sorry. I have made the commitment that every Saturday is a day to be with my wife and children.” The partner, displeased, stormed off, but later he returned and he said: “Clay, fine. I have talked with everyone on the team and they said they will come in on Sunday instead. So I will expect you to be there.” Clay sighed and said: “I appreciate you trying to do that. But Sunday will not work. I have given Sunday to God and so I won’t be able to come in.” If the partner was frustrated before, he was much more so now. Still, Clay was not fired for standing his ground, and while his choice was not popular in the moment, ultimately he was respected for it. The boundaries paid off. Clay recalls: “That taught me an important lesson. If I had made an exception then I might have made it many times.”2 Boundaries are a little like the walls of a sandcastle. The second we let one fall over, the rest of them come crashing down.
A mother I know learned a similar lesson when preparing to go on a holiday with her family. In the past, when they went on holiday she would leave the packing until the night before. Inevitably, she would end up staying up late, losing steam, getting too little sleep, finishing the packing in the morning, forgetting something, leaving late, and having to “push through” the long drive to compensate. This time, however, she started packing a week in advance. She made certain the car was fully packed the night before so that in the morning the only thing she had to do was wake up the children and get everyone in the car. It worked. They got off early, with a good night’s sleep, nothing was forgotten, and when they hit traffic it wasn’t stressful because they had a buffer for that possibility. As a result they not only arrived on time but enjoyed a frictionless and even pleasant journey.
When I was a graduate student at Stanford I learned the key to receiving top grades was extreme preparation. The moment we received the syllabi for our classes I would make copies of them and paste together a calendar for the whole semester. Even before the first day of class I knew what the big projects were and would start on them immediately. This small investment in preparation reduced the stress of the entire semester because I knew I had plenty of time to get all the assignments done even if my workload suddenly got heavy, or if a family emergency forced me to miss some classes, or if any other unexpected event should happen.
In filtering out 7 companies from 20,400, the authors found that the ones that executed most successfully did not have any better ability to predict the future than their less successful counterparts. Instead, they were the ones who acknowledged they could not predict the unexpected and therefore prepared better.
TO ATTAIN KNOWLEDGE ADD THINGS EVERY DAY. TO ATTAIN WISDOM SUBTRACT THINGS EVERY DAY. —Lao-tzu
In the business parable The Goal, Alex Rogo is a fictional character who is overwhelmed by the responsibility of turning around a failing production plant within three months.1 At first he does not see how this is possible. Then he is mentored by a professor who tells him he can make incredible progress in a short time if only he can find the plant’s “constraints.” Constraints, he is told, are the obstacles holding the whole system back. Even if he improves everything else in the plant, his mentor tells him, if he doesn’t address the constraints the plant will not materially improve.
Aristotle talked about three kinds of work, whereas in our modern world we tend to emphasise only two. The first is theoretical work, for which the end goal is truth. The second is practical work, where the objective is action. But there is a third: it is poietical work.2 The philosopher Martin Heidegger described poiesis as a “bringing-forth.”3 This third type of work is the Essentialist way of approaching execution:
In his 1968 Harvard Business Review article entitled “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” among the most popular Harvard Business Review articles of all time, Frederick Herzberg reveals research showing that the two primary internal motivators for people are achievement and recognition for achievement.
More recently, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer gathered anonymous diary entries from hundreds of people and covering thousands of workdays. On the basis of these hundreds of thousands of reflections, Amabile and Kramer concluded that “everyday progress – even a small win” can make all the difference in how people feel and perform. “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work,” they said.
A popular idea in Silicon Valley is “Done is better than perfect.”10 The sentiment is not that we should produce rubbish. The idea, as I read it, is not to waste time on non-essentials and just to get the thing done. In entrepreneurial circles the idea is expressed as creating a “minimal viable product.”11 The idea is, “What is the simplest possible product that will be useful and valuable to the intended customer?”
There is something powerful about visibly seeing progress towards a goal. Don’t be above applying the same technique to your own essential goals, at home or at work. When we start small and reward progress, we end up achieving more than when we set big, lofty, and often impossible goals. And as a bonus, the act of positively reinforcing our successes allows us to reap more enjoyment and satisfaction out of the process.
ROUTINE, IN AN INTELLIGENT MAN, IS A SIGN OF AMBITION. —W. H. Auden