(I wrote this article several years ago but I think it's still highly relevant, maybe even more so today in our fast growing digital society)
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" - Mary Oliver, Poet
Some months ago, on a business trip to Florida, I had one of the best long-haul flights of my life. How come? It wasn’t the food, as good as that was. It wasn’t the service, though that was ace. It wasn’t even that this particular Boeing plane had one of the best flat-beds in the sky. What was it then? Well, after what had been a pretty intense and busy few weeks, I got to do some of my favourite things – read a book and write in my journal.
“Is that it?! What’s so amazing about that?” I hear you ask. Well, here’s the thing, not only was I making time for a bit of self-renewal, the book I was reading and journaling about was the New York Times Bestseller by Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Few books have had such a profound impact on my thinking since the day I read Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ in my teens.
In Essentialism, Greg sets out the premise that doing less but better is the key to maximizing our impact and success. This is more challenging than most people and organisations think. It’s certainly a major challenge for me.
I’ve got a very busy life. I’ve got a job I love, working with an amazing team of talented individuals, helping global clients maximize their performance and growth through engaging and developing their people and their leaders. It’s demanding, but I relish the day-to-day opportunity to do incredible work. I’ve got an amazing wife and three exuberant boys, all with equally vibrant schedules. I’ve got extended family that I want to connect with, friends to hang out with, and other hobbies that I strive to squeeze into my schedule and maintain some sort of balance in my life. Oh, and did I mention that my wife and I recently moved house? That brought with it its own host of challenges and decisions. What area? What school? Was this the right time to move our boys? The list goes on. As I consider the busyness of my life as a whole, I have come to realise and accept that I can’t do it all. I’m going to have to make trade offs. And this is where Greg’s book provides terrific insight and guidance on how to make those trade offs with intentionality and with wisdom.
Every day we make decisions about what to focus on and where to invest our time, energy and resources. This applies to individuals and organisations alike.
“Diversify our product offering or simplify our existing products?”
“Chinese or Italian for dinner?”
“Expand the team or develop an outsourcing model?”
“Spend time with the kids or work late?”
“Tidy the house or pay a cleaner?”
What makes things really interesting is that our decisions always require trade offs and this is why it is so important to be crystal clear about what matters most. Or, as Greg puts it, what is Essential. The danger, otherwise, is that we end up fitting so many things into our schedules or pursue a variety of organisational strategies and miss out on what is great and what will truly have an impact.
The key to being an Essentialist, Greg describes, is in the relentless pursuit of less but better.
For an organisation, that means asking, “Where can we add value like no other?”, and following through on the answer to truly drive and sustain their organizational growth and enhance their reputation in the marketplace.
On a personal level, that means asking myself the question, “What is it that only I can do?” Only I can be a loving husband to my wife, or nurturing father to my boys, or set out and role model a clear vision of excellence for the team I lead. Asking that question helps me work out what to delegate or even eliminate from my to do list or schedule altogether.
Why is any of this relevant?
In a world where being busy is a badge of honour and there’s always more on the to do list than can ever be accomplished, or more potential strategies than can ever be pursued, it turns out that the secret to success, operating at our highest point of contribution and having the greatest impact, is not cramming our schedules with even more or trying to do it all or trying to be all things to all potential customers. The secret is doing less not more, less and better. Not an easy feat, but one we must master if we want to maximise success, organisationally or personally.
"In a world where being busy is a badge of honour and there's always more on the to do list than can ever be accomplished... the secret to success is doing less not more, less and better."
So, on a personal level, what do you need to do to become an Essentialist?
Personally, here are some of my takeaways from reading the book:
Schedule a personal quarterly retreat to review my life plan and update goals for the next quarter
Live a life true to the voice within
Pause before saying “Yes” and say “No” more often, firmly, resolutely and yet gracefully
Recognise that with every decision I’m making a trade off
Consider what I want to go big on – where do I want to hedge my bets?
Build thinking and reflection time into my schedule – with key questions to support
Realise that respect is far more valuable than popularity in the long run
Practice extreme and early preparation, including 50% time buffers
I’m looking forward to reaping the benefits, personally and professionally. I hope you take up the challenge of becoming an Essentialist too!