After sharing my blog Leadership and the Art of Subtraction, I received emails from readers suggesting I write a book on what I call “skillful life-carving”. I began to look for existing resources and came across Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, which is a better book on the topic than I could ever write.

I love McKeown’s book because of what it’s not. It’s not yet another recipe for how to get more stuff done. Nor is it a guide to life balance. What Essentialism is about is how to make conscious choices about what to say “yes” and “no” to — maximizing your sense of fulfillment by deliberately choosing where to invest your time and energy in order to make your highest contribution.

Essentialism offers a concrete set of disciplines – habits of thinking, doing, and being – that foster clarity and courage, particularly in a world that bombards us 24-7 with information, opportunities, and requests. We need clarity to distinguish life’s noise from our true song. But clarity is not enough. We also need courage to grapple with real trade-offs, to make difficult choices, and to face our often unspoken fear of disappointing others, missing out, or no longer being the “go-to” person.

Essentialism offers three steps that sound simple but, as I am learning, are quite challenging in application.

Step 1 — Explore: Discerning the trivial from the vital few.
In a world that offers us so many choices, Essentialism invites us to systematically survey our options before we commit. This active approach is very different from simply letting opportunities come to us and saying ‘yes’ to as much as we can. Locating the “vital few” in a world of infinite possibilities lies at the intersection of these three questions:
What do I feel deeply inspired by?
What am I particularly talented at?
What meets a significant need?

Step 2 – Eliminate: Cutting out the trivial many.
Just as award-winning film editors learn to delete a great scene from a film in order to preserve the core story line, we must become skillful editors of our lives. McKeown wisely points out that saying “no” is not just a mental discipline. It’s an emotional discipline too. Saying “no” to the “trivial many” often means disappointing others. So, in my next blog, I’ll be sure to share some of McKeown’s insights about how to deliver a clear, diplomatic, and compassionate “no.”

Step 3 – Execute: Removing obstacles and making execution effortless.
While non-essentialists tend to force execution to get as much done as possible, essentialists use the time they saved by eliminating the non-vital to develop a system to let their efforts flow without friction. Basic disciplines in this step include:
Building in buffers for unexpected disruptions rather than assuming things will go as planned.
Working toward minimum viable progress rather than going for perfection out the gate.
Designing routines that enshrine what is essential rather than allowing counter-productive routines (e.g., checking email constantly) to take hold.
Focusing on what can be accomplished in the present moment rather than worrying about the future or rehashing what did not go right in the past.

If your default answer to “how are you?” is “really busy” but in truth, you don’t feel like you are getting anywhere, read this book. If you feel stretched beyond what’s reasonable and can’t figure out what to do about it, read this book. Applying even a few of McKeown’s strategies will move you toward greater calm and meaning in your work and personal life.

Photo credit: Alexander

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