The modern world is a frantic place. From the moment we wake, to the moment we return to our beds, we are bombarded with information, expectations, responsibilities, and deadlines. It has come to pass that the busier we are, or at least appear to be, the more we are perceived to be “successful”. It is a perception we even have of ourselves. Rather than lament our hectic schedules, we proudly display them like battle-worn armour.
It is an absurd reality that is exposed in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, the New York Times Bestseller, penned by keynote speaker and corporate mentor, Greg McKeown. In it, and with the aid of real-life examples, McKeown explains how we have come to lead professional and personal lives that often feel out of our control, the reasons we have allowed this to become the norm, and critically (or essentially) how we break this destructive cycle to become happier, more productive versions of ourselves. All by doing less.
Here, we discuss some of the key lessons Essentialism expounds and how, by moving towards an Essentialist mindset ourselves, we have experienced first-hand the successes it can deliver.
What is Essentialism?
The fullness of the answer to this question depends on the extent to which you are prepared to go into it. Be warned though, a deep dive into Essentialism will demand you approach it from a metaphysical perspective, have you locking horns with the likes of Plato and Aristotle, and ruminating over such sub-topics as the ancient Greek hylomorphic understanding of the formation of the things.
It’s meaty stuff, but for the purposes of this piece we are going to discuss Essentialism simply as the act of pursuing only those activities and endeavours that produce real end-results, thus better business performance and true personal fulfilment. It sounds obvious, but as we all know, life is littered with obstacles which prevent this from happening. Essentialism teaches us how to edit out these obstacles and create a simpler, a more productive and – crucially – a happier life.
How did Non-Essentialism become the norm?
McKeown begins his book by contextualising contemporary working practices. It’s an important place to begin a study of Essentialism, because it forces us to confront the reality so many of us exist within and how this reality prevents us from becoming the best version of ourselves.
Even though they have become infused with cutting-edge technologies and innovative management styles and techniques, McKeown explains that the way we carry out our roles today remains a hangover from the industrial revolution. Within this period of human history, the focus was on mass production and success was measured and rewarded more by scale of assembly than quality of end-product. This was reflected in the punishing work schedules of those on the factory floor whose lives were both dominated and blighted by hard labour. Technology, political movements, and market forces have since changed the face and nature of work, but the expectation on the individual to do more, has persisted.
Though we may no longer be scrambling under looms and spinning jennies for 12 hours a day, the din of such machines has merely been supplanted with a daily battery of meetings, phone calls, video conferences and an array of stringent, time-limited projects. This had led, as McKeown analogises, to the modern-day executive making a millimetre of progress in a million directions, instead of real progress in just a handful.
Moreover, greater diversity within modern professional roles, invites an abundance of opportunities which many leaders have never learnt to adequately process, thus precipitating existential anxieties as to which we should capitalise on.
The result of all of this, are leaders who take on too much, and though “successful” on the surface, live a life of stifled potential, unfulfillment and ultimately, unhappiness.
The revelation of choice
To clarify the concept, McKeown categorises people in his book as being either Essentialists or Non-Essentialists. The exhausted, over-stretched executive described above accounting for the latter. So determined are they to impress by taking every opportunity, committing to every project, attending every meeting, and agreeing to every task, that they end up with working lives that are dictated to them by others. They have little control and little focus. Amidst the cacophony of these relentless agendas, these Non-Essentialists forget they have a have access to a powerful word - no.
Saying ‘no’ is anathema to the modern professional and yet it is a word which has the power to carve out the space to concentrate on real, value-adding endeavours. Unlike their Non-Essentialist counterparts, Essentialists take a moment before agreeing to a request and consider whether the end-product and the time it would take would be genuinely valuable, whether the investment is essential. Of course, there’s more to this than simply rejecting commitments you don’t feel like doing, as there are also ways of saying no in more tactful, emotionally intelligent ways.
The primary reasons as to why so many professionals feel obligated to accept every opportunity and request that comes their way is a combination of FOMO (fear of missing out) and losing the respect of peers.
However, taking every opportunity means none can be enjoyed to their fullest and, as for losing respect, the opposite is found to be true. In those circumstances where rejections are met with resentment, it is brief, and those making the requests quickly learn that you operate within boundaries and come to admire your assertiveness.
Essentialism for the business leader
It is worth demonstrating how Essentialism can work for the contemporary business with real, practical examples, so at this point, let us share with you some of the ways we’ve implemented Essentialist ideals to shape our own business practice.
Like many businesses, Konductor started life hungry for custom and so prepared to offer its services to any organisation, regardless of the sector it operated within. There’s nothing unusual about this. In the early years of any company, the objective is growing the customer-base to the point sustainability can be achieved.
However, once a business has found its footing and its particular strengths become clearer, it approaches a crossroads. Does it carry on servicing anyone and taking on any project? Or, does it build on those identified strengths and evolve to become something more streamlined, and able to provide a more comprehensive and expert service to a narrower audience? In other words, does the business become Essentialist?
Having reached this crossroads in our journey, Konductor found that our skillset, experience and passion lay within three distinct sectors: technology, finance, and professional services. It’s important to stress that we didn’t disregard other sectors as being non-essential, but true Essentialism involves acknowledging that there must be trade-offs in designing a proposition that facilitates deeper personal and commercial development. It was simply the case that is was within these three arenas of business that we could provide the most powerful returns. And it’s working.
Though the diversity of our client-base has reduced, this newfound focus has meant the results we are delivering have improved dramatically. This in turn has meant our reputation within these three sectors continues to flourish. The results are evident in the levels of personal fulfilment within the team and the financial performance of the business as a whole. This isn’t intended in anyway to be self-congratulatory, our journey is far from over, rather it is presented to you the reader, as real evidence that an Essentialist approach works.
A leading consultant speaks
Founder and Managing Partner of The Tallent Partnership, Andrew Tallents, is another advocate of the Essentialist approach. Andrew leads a team of consultants who work with leaders across the globe. In a recent podcast recorded with Konductor, he refers specifically to Essentialism and why he believes it to be such a powerful tool in any leader’s inventory.
Speaking of their typical working week, he says that it is common for a leader’s diary to be loaded with tasks and commitments that are not essential to their role. To illustrate this to clients, Andrew asks them to keep a diary of every activity they engage in during a designated week and, on the Friday afternoon, put ticks next to those activities that were essential to the fulfilment of their role, and crosses next to those that weren’t. In his experience, the number of crosses dwarfs the number of ticks.
Following on from this exercise, Andrew then encourages the client leader to delegate those tasks that are non-essential (the crosses) and focus their energies on those that are essential (the ticks). The result of this is a leader who is able to manage teams and businesses with much greater efficiency and teams who flourish with their new responsibilities and freedoms. It is a simple but highly effective and proven strategy.
Is Essentialism for me?
Yes, in a word. For those who believe they already practice Essentialism, studying the concept further will create a feeling of vindication for having developed those habits which keep you composed in a hectic world, yet which might sometimes attract scorn, such as not agreeing to every, single task that comes your way or getting enough sleep. For those who feel bogged down by a relentless battery of commitments, it could change your life.
You see, what Essentialism teaches, as deftly exposed by McKeown, advocated by Tallents, and experienced by ourselves, is the futility of Non-Essentialism. A complex life, consumed by the requests and demands of others, is not and cannot ever be a productive one. Nor can it ever be genuinely happy. By purging our lives of the non-essential, we reclaim clarity and control and begin to derive a joy from the journey that is often painfully absent.
Essentialism though, is not a menu of techniques from which you choose those you like the look of, it is a state of mind. You do not doEssentialist things; you arean Essentialist. You build a life where you do less, but you achieve so much more.