The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Essentialism by Greg McKeownEssentialism is the most important new book I’ve read in 2015.

Below are the most important notes/quotes I took from the book.

What is Essentialism?

Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.

It is a discipline you apply each and every time you are faced with a decision about whether to say yes or whether to politely decline. It’s a method for making the tough trade-off between lots of good things and a few really great things. It’s about learning how to do less but better so you can achieve the highest possible return on every precious moment of your life.

What is the core logic of an essentialist?

There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist: “I have to,” “It’s all important,” and “I can do both,” must be replaced with “I choose to”, “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.”

How Do We Forget Our Ability to Choose?

When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless. Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices—or even a function of our own past choices. In turn, we surrender our power to choose. That is the path of the Nonessentialist. The Essentialist doesn’t just recognize the power of choice, he celebrates it. The Essentialist knows that when we surrender our right to choose, we give others not just the power but also the explicit permission to choose for us.

One important insight into how and why we forget our ability to choose comes out of the classic work of Martin Seligman and Steve Maier, who stumbled onto what they later called “learned helplessness” while conducting experiments on German shepherds. Seligman and Maier divided the dogs into three groups.

  1. The dogs in the first group were placed in a harness and administered an electric shock but were also given a lever they could press to make the shock stop.
  2. The dogs in the second group were placed in an identical harness and were given the same lever, and the same shock, with one catch: the lever didn’t work, rendering the dog powerless to do anything about the electric shock.
  3. The third group of dogs were simply placed in the harness and not given any shocks.

Afterwards, each dog was placed in a large box with a low divider across the center. One side of the box produced an electric shock; the other did not. Then something interesting happened. The dogs that either had been able to stop the shock or had not been shocked at all in the earlier part of the experiment quickly learned to step over the divider to the side without shocks. But the dogs that had been powerless in the last part of the experiment did not. These dogs didn’t adapt or adjust. They did nothing to try to avoid getting shocked. Why? They didn’t know they had any choice other than to take the shocks. They had learned helplessness.

Power of Tradeoffs

Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?” The cumulative impact of this small change in thinking can be profound.

MAKE YOUR PEACE WITH THE FACT THAT SAYING “NO” OFTEN REQUIRES TRADING POPULARITY FOR RESPECT

When you say no, there is usually a short-term impact on the relationship. After all, when someone asks for something and doesn’t get it, his or her immediate reaction may be annoyance or disappointment or even anger. This downside is clear. The potential upside, however, is less obvious: when the initial annoyance or disappointment or anger wears off, the respect kicks in. When we push back effectively, it shows people that our time is highly valuable.

Charlie Munger feels the same way when he says, “If your new behavior earns you a little temporary unpopularity with your peer group, then the hell with them.”

Pick up a copy of Essentialism. You won’t regret it.

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