What ‘Essentialists’ Do Differently

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Author and business adviser Greg McKeown believes that each of us falls into one of two groups: essentialists and non-essentialists. Essentialists are men and women who make wise investments of their time and energy in order to “operate at their highest points of contribution,” he writes in his forthcoming book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. They constantly ask themselves, “Am I focused on the right activities?”

Non-essentialists, on the other hand, live like McKeown once did, back when he assured a colleague he’d find a way to attend a meeting the day after his baby girl was born. They are individuals who are capable, driven and action-oriented, but who take on too much and say “yes” without thinking. And this is their heyday — a “non-essentialist era” when mobile technology, social media and extreme consumerism have pulled us all in a million different directions. We are, he told The Huffington Post, getting “tricked by the trivial.”

But (thankfully!) there’s a better way. As part of our new “Letting Go” series celebrating people who seek lives that are “simpler, saner and more fulfilling,” McKeown shared a few tenets from his book that he believes can help us all move in the right direction. Here are six reasons to consider embracing essentialism.

1. Essentialists explore.

man exploring
You might assume that essentialists push back against the noise and overwhelming choices that define our modern world by simply ignoring the myriad possibilities available. But as McKeown writes, a paradox of essentialism is that essentialists explore more than their non-essentialist counterparts — they’re just systematic about it.

“Essentialists are incredibly selective about what they commit to,” he told HuffPost. “In the interim period, they can be curious about lots and lots of things. They just don’t go deep until they find something that’s a total 10-out-of-10 ‘Yes! This is the thing I should be doing.'”

2. They don’t ‘have to.’ They ‘choose to.’

“The first and most crucial skill you will learn on this journey is to develop your ability to choose choice,” McKeown writes, “in every area of your life.” Exercising the power of choice, he believes, means you no longer see your life as a series of “have tos” (I have to stay in this job, I have to take on this extra project, I have to respond to that email today), but instead as a series of calculated decisions about the things you most value, and are therefore willing to spend time and energy on.

3. They say no. Gracefully.

pat on the back

Part of celebrating choice is learning to say no. Or, looked at another way — learning to say yes, but only to select opportunities. “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no,” McKeown writes. One way to do that at work, he said, is to say yes to an assignment or project, but to then ask your colleague or boss what you should de-prioritize so you’re not completely swamped.

4. They know they can’t please everyone all the time.

Thinking that you can say “yes” and keep everyone happy is a false premise, McKeown says. “When you try and say yes to everyone, is everyone happy? No! You will make a millimeter progress in a million directions, which will frustrate you and everyone else.”

When you say “no” you may be sacrificing an ounce of popularity in the moment, but you’re trading up for a longer-term respect, McKeown said.

5. They embrace the self-examined life.

woman looking in mirror

One of the trademarks of essentialism is stopping and constantly asking, “Am I investing in the right activities?” As McKeown writes, it’s a shift from wondering “how can I make it all work?” to “which problem do I want to solve?”

6. They know the power of pausing for reflection.

McKeown suggests taking 30 minutes, once a week, to focus on three questions: Where am I? Where do I want to be? And what are the six things I need to do this week to try and get there? Put those in order of priority, said McKeown (who does this exercise religiously himself), then immediately cross off the bottom five. Focus only on the one that matters most, whether it’s a step you’re taking on a project, or something you’re doing to invest in your relationship with your child or spouse. Voila. Essentialism in action!