ESSENTIALISM by Greg McKeown

I became familiar with this book through Tim Ferris. I have heard him talk about it a few times. Unbeknownst to me then, the writer and I attend the same church. We are both latter-day saints. As I was reading the book, I got to a part where he said as part of his morning routine he reads religious text. Among other books mentioned was the Book of Mormon. This piqued my curiosity. I decided to do a little background check on him. Voila! He is a Mormon. 

He mentions other writers or management thinkers who although I knew, didn’t know they were Mormons. Clay Christensen wouldn’t work on Sunday for his consulting firm; that is a very Mormon thing to do. Clay is the writer of the Innovator’s Dilemma, which I have not read, although I’ve got lying around somewhere. I recently read his How Will You Measure Your Life, a powerful book that puts what is essential in perspective. The other thinker Greg McKeown mentions in the book, who is a Mormon, is Steven Covey- of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People- another book grounded in the logic of essentialism.

Who is an essentialist?

An essentialist is someone who believes in essentialism. Such a person would believe in the disciplined pursuit of less, as the book’s subtitle goes. 

Essentialism is to focus on what is important. In the long run, most things we focus our energy on are not important. This is the Pareto principle in action. Sometimes this may not be a problem because the non-vital tasks we perform might help us to perform vital ones. Although doing laundry and cooking may not directly contribute to your output at work, in some sense you realize that they are tasks which have to be done. So one can conclude that they are vital in the grand scheme of things. However, there are other things that do not contribute to wellbeing at all. You could even say they have negative utility. Like a life revolving around video games when you are not a professional gamer. Thus, a complete waste of time.

It’s this problem of negative utility that the book Essentialism tries to address. I would throw light of four concepts I either learnt or was reminded of as I read the book.

Doing few things. Priority

Greg remind us of the mistake we make when we mention the word priorities. It is a misnomer. Our recent use deviates from the historical use of the word. You can have a priority, not priorites. Well, at least reduce the number of things you want to do- have few priorities. Focusing on too many things means you aren’t really focusing on anything. Doing that leads to fatigue. You spread yourself so wide that you can’t concentrate your effort. The best way to make gains is to focus on a few things, rather than spread yourself thin.

Avoiding things

This point isn’t very different from the one I mention about doing few things. This involves a deliberate effort to avoid things. Why? Because almost everything isn’t important. Doing this helps you focus on the few that are important. It means you need to have a very high filter. I have been experimenting with having as little social media engagements as possible. I try not follow stories. I realized that I end up spending hours following what’s going on in other people’s heads. Finding what’s going on in other people’s heads isn’t a bad thing, except that I have to really look hard to find how doing that has profited me in any way. I could use that time to read or ride a swing- things that make me feel productive or happy. 

Again, I try to minimize my news consumption. I don’t have access to radio or TV so doing this is rather easy. There is a good case to be made for distillation. Sometimes you get better quality information by restricting information that comes to you. Information can contain a lot of noise. When you only follow what is important and disregard everything else, you increase your capacity to make better decisions. 

Avoiding things is another way of saying no. The management guru Peter Drucker once declined participation in someone else’s book project. His reason was that he didn’t participate in other people’s business if it didn’t benefit his work. Although that is quite extreme, the underlying logic is correct. If you keep saying yes to others you, you would have less time to focus on your own projects. You wouldn’t be able to do what God created you on earth for to the utmost of your ability.

Avoiding things is a habit that I think is important to have especially before one becomes wealthy. It is sad. There are all sorts of vendors trying to sell stuff to rich people. Almost all the time these things are useless or may actually be harmful. Avoiding such things will help you not to become a sucker. 

Not wanting things also kind of makes you happier. I have this theory that people like to buy stuff because of an underlying problem. Most often it’s not that they need what they buy, but they buy it to fill a void in their soul. This could be to make them look better, have higher status, or happier. So they are always on the lookout for the next thing that can meet these needs. We need to be suspicious of such desires which cannot ultimately be satisfied. It is an illusion to think an object can satisfy you. To be satisfied we need to do some self work. Please don’t take my idea too far. It isn’t too bad to have things. It is bad when they begin to rule you. It becomes dangerous when you forget about their utility and get them for their own sake. This leads us to the problem rich people face, being pestered by the vendors we’ve already talked about. I have come to the conclusion that is it better to hide your money where possible. It is better for people to think you are poor when you are actually rich than the opposite. Trying to do the opposite- trying to look rich- is what often leads people into debt. The sad thing is that people will go into debt in order to impress people they don’t like. 

I fear debt. When I have no choice but to borrow, I return the money quick. I almost never borrow. The times I have borrowed were when say I was in town with a friend to buy something but my money wasn’t sufficient. I borrow in situations like that. Having lived with a few mortals, I realize that most people are liberal about incurring debt if it is an option. It is a dangerous and addictive habit. If you are like that please stop.

Essentialism can be applied to several facets of life. One such facet of life I can’t wait to apply it to is renting. More precisely house renting for a young bachelor like me. In my undergraduate days, I visited a friend’s apartment. I thought he had too many things in his tiny room. He had a large comfortable mattress, two laptops and a fridge. I highlight these ones because I don’t think a bachelor needs them. Maybe one laptop. I am not saying these things are always unnecessary, except that they might be when one is just starting out in life. Everything should be done to keep expenses to the barest minimum when one is trying to find his feet. In that case, you don’t buy yourself a wardrobe like my friend did, you live from your suitcase.

A point I would want to emphasize- instead of acquiring things it would be better to have meaningful experiences.

Buffer

The lessons I have already mentioned, I was familiar with. This one is different. An original idea. It is a simple but powerful one. It has saved me from a few heart aches from unfulfilled goals. I am not sure if I am to use the word as a noun or a verb. The idea is to allocate more time to tasks you want to perform than you actually envisage. I think it is proper to say create a buffer. Let’s have an example. If you want to complete an essay in two hours, you might want to allocate three hours to it. Such a one hour buffer gives room for flexibility. You can relax and do your best work. Your can also readjust your schedule if something else comes up. This idea is helpful if you have an appointment to keep. It will save you from the risk of running late. The strength of a buffer is that it cushions you to an extent from uncertainty in the future. It is also true that most things end up taking more of our time than we initially thought.

The only draw back to a buffer maybe Parkinson’s Law which states that tasks tend to fill the time allotted or perhaps more. The right perspective, it seems to me, is to focus on being productive, rather than just working. In that case, when the task is completed you move on to another thing.

Routines

Following routine is the way to build habit. This is one of the central points in the book. Focus on few things, do them consistently and you will get pretty good at them. In the spirit of essentialism I will keep this section short because I have nothing else to add.

Thank you for reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s