Habits Productivity

The Philosophy of Essentialism, Part 1 – The Essentials

By Jon Rumens on 28 August 2019

Once in a while, you come across a book…

…and while you’re reading it, you find yourself nodding your head all the time. For me, one such book was ‘Essentialism’ by Greg McKeown. I found myself nodding my head because what was written there were many ideas that I had thought of myself.

Great minds obviously think alike.

The essence of the book is that you should limit yourself to one or two essential things, don’t spread your attention thin, don’t try to do everything at once. A focus on the few moves things forward, being drawn toward the many keeps you floating in place.

So here I am going to do a quick book review, explain all the key points, and then direct you to read the rest of the book yourself.

Here goes…

Let’s start with the essential

The writer starts his book with a definition: ‘what is the mindset of Essentialism?’ The definition is important, for it serves as a foundation for all the rest that is to come.

Essentialism is defined as a way of thinking. It is a way of doing everything. At the core, there are three non-Essentialist convictions that stand in the way of becoming an Essentialist.

  1. ‘I have to’ (you don’t)
  2. ‘It’s all important’ (it isn’t)
  3. ‘I can do both’ (you can’t)

The above assumptions are seductive, and they make you think you can do anything and you’re some kind of all-knowing, all powerful, multitasking productivity robot. Unfortunately, you’re not.

Essentialism is a philosophy that acknowledges your limits and makes you more productive because of it.

It replaces the above three non-Essentialist tenets with it’s own three part creed:

  1. I choose to
  2. Only a few things really matter
  3. I can do anything, but not everything

By implementing agency, choice and focus, we’re free to pursue the things that really matter and do them well.

Choice – you get to pick what you want to do, nobody else

At many times in our lives, we have to make a choice. This implies two things.

First of all, it means we have a choice. We have a certain freedom to pick the road we’re going to follow. This can be a blessing (not everyone has the privilege of having lots of choices), but can also be a curse, because choosing can be hard and even heartbreaking at times. Imagine your parents separating as a child, and having to choose who you’re going to live with (if you have that choice at all).

Talk about first world problems

This brings us to the second element of a choice: it is not just something we have, it is something we do. It is an action, and unfortunately, too many options to choose can actually lead to inaction.

But that’s nothing. What’s worse, is that sometimes we can even forget we have a choice, that we can make one.

The author attributes this to ‘learned helplessness’, at some point in their life, people become convinced that whatever they do in life, it doesn’t make a difference at all. Somebody studies real hard for a test but they fail anyway. If this sort of thing happens often enough, they start to think that their actions and their choices make no difference whatsoever.

This leads to two different outcomes. Someone who acquires a sense of learned helplessness will start to do one of two things.

  • First option: they stop trying and do nothing at all
  • Second option: they do the complete opposite. They accept every opportunity that is presented to them, and they try to tackle every possible challenge. In other words, they try to do everything.

At first glance, the latter does not seem like learned helplessness. After all, would someone try to do all that stuff if they really believe nothing will come of it?

Here’s the catch: these people act this way because they don’t believe they have a choice in the matter. Whatever opportunity, assignment or challenge comes their way: they believe they have to do it all. They can’t choose not to. They’re literally helpless. Their actions and their choices do not matter at all. The outcome is always the same.

Let’s be honest, choices are scary. Whatever you choose, you always feel like you lose a bit. Let’s say you get to go to college. It’s a pretty big privilege, even if we don’t always realize it.

But you have a ton of options. You can go to law school, but that means you lose your chance to become a surgeon, someone who saves lives. Or an architect, who designs magnificent buildings.

Saying no to something is hard, but at the same time, being able to say no is also incredibly liberating. It allows you to free up time to spend on things that matter more. It’s hard to say no when people ask us to do them a favor, because we want to help them and not be an asshole. It feels like you have no choice. You’re helpless to say no.

But in reality, you do, and this is a core element of what it means to be an Essentialist. Becoming one means that you have to become aware of your ability to choose, so you can regain the power of control over your own life and achieve success.

A non-Essentialist feels he has to. An Essentialist knows he can choose to.

Be able to figure out what’s important and what’s not

Even if you’ve established the fact that you get to choose what you, that you have the power to say no or yes, you’re still not completely in tune with being an Essentialist.

Being an Essentialist also requires you to figure out what’s essential (it’s in the name) and what’s not.

Imagine wanting to become a novelist. How do you go about getting your first book on paper.

Some people start by getting the best computer to write on, downloading the ideal word processing software, figuring out the best environment to work in, reading books about writing, following creative writing courses.

What they don’t do is just sit down and getting their daily word count on paper. And in the end, that’s the only thing that counts.

Or imagine this scenario: someone wants to start an online business. They spend an insane amount of money and time on their website, optimizing the design, getting the perfect logo, starting Twitter and Facebook accounts (that no one cares to join or follow), optimizing their website for SEO, getting their page to load 0.1 second faster. That kind of stuff.

What they don’t do, is actively go after leads to turn into customers. They don’t spend time creating and refining a great product. In the end, these are the things that really matter. All the rest is ‘nice to have’, but not essential.

This is what the economist Vilfredo Pareto called the 80/20 rule: 20 percent of our efforts produce 80 percent of all results. The author Tim Ferriss described this in his book ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’: he found that 80 percent of his business came from about only 20 percent of his customers.

The decision he made when learning of this was drastic yet effective: he decided to cut out the other 80 percent of customers, those that accounted for only 20 percent of his profits. Doing so, he freed up a massive amount of time, at only a relatively small price.

Warren Buffett, commonly seen as the greatest investor of all time, applies a similar logic: he only chooses a few businesses that he is completely sure of, and invests in those companies, even if there are many other ‘good’ opportunities.

How to become a multi-billionaire. Step 1: become an Essentialist.

This mindset creates a major difference between those who fail and those who succeed.

The non-Essentialist thinks almost everything is essential, and thinks all opportunities have equal merit. The Essentialist, on the other hand, knows that almost everything is non-essential. He spends his time distinguishing ‘merely good’ opportunities from ‘truly great’ ones.

By distinguishing the ‘vital few’ from the ‘trivial many’, it’s easily possible to increase your output by a factor of 10, 100, or even 1000.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too

If you hadn’t noticed yet, we are big fans of cake here

The final element of what makes an Essentialist is the knowledge that you only have limited resources. As we said earlier, you have a choice, but you have to make it too.

Businesses usually have something they call ‘unique selling points’. This is a specific trait that they use to distinguish themselves from their competitors, to make them stand out in the marketplace.

An example: a chain of clothing stores might opt for having the lowest prices. This is how they advertise themselves: you’re never going to be able to buy cheaper clothes than at our stores.

This choice will have consequences. They’re going to attract a certain type of customer: most likely the low-income segment, or those that are really stingy with their money.

But that also means there are trade-offs. If they want to have the lowest prices, they’re not going to be able to sell classy luxury clothes. They’re not going to sell 2000 dollar Armani suits or other expensive clothing brands. They will forego another segment of the market, who will most likely not shop with them: the fashionista’s, the CEO’s, the movie stars.

Still, their strategy is sound. By having a unique selling point, they achieve their goal: being the lowest cost and having a loyal customer base that is likely to buy with them.

Either aspire to be Arnold…

Imagine the alternative: the store tries to sell luxury clothes, but at moderately lower prices. By cutting costs and overhead, they’re able to sell the 2000 dollar Armani suits at only 1500 dollar.

Let’s be clear: this is a strategy that is doomed to fail. They will not attract the lower income customer, because he still doesn’t have that much money to spend on a suit.

They’re not going to be able to attract the high income customer either. For these people, 500 dollars isn’t a really a big difference. They have loads of cash to throw away. And because the store tries to cut costs, this is to the detriment of the shopping experience. The store isn’t decorated as nice as the luxury stores, instead, it’s some poorly lit warehouse far from the city center.

That’s a problem, because it’s exactly this experience what fashionistas, movie stars and executives gladly spend money on. They want a glass of champagne while shopping, they want personalized styling advice from the store clerks, all things that the low-price store doesn’t offer.

In economics, there’s also something called the Veblen effect, where the demand for luxury goods rises as its price increases, and vice versa. These types of goods are also called Giffen goods. In this case, by lowering the price of the suit, you’ll also lower the demand for it, thereby reducing your profits.

So what happens here is that the store doesn’t really cater to anyone’s needs. Maybe there are a few people who would really like an Armani suit but don’t want to spend too much on it. Still, it’s a very small demographic and not a sound foundation for a viable business model.

…or try to win the US Open. But don’t do both.

Or take an athlete, for example. Imagine someone trying to be a world-class tennis player and a top bodybuilder at the same time. Trying that strategy will only make you moderately good at both, but won’t make you win the US Open, and you’ll never be Mr. Olympia either.

The big idea behind all this, is that you have to be willing to make trade-offs. There should be no such thing as ‘priorities’, only ‘a priority’, singular.

Only by making a trade-off and going all-in on one option can you achieve the big wins.

This principle isn’t merely limited to business. The same goes for your personal life. You can choose to dedicate your life to making money and building a career, or choose to have an amazing family and social life.

Spending 50 % of your time on each of them won’t make you a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and at the same time you won’t be Superdad who’s able to spend lots of time with family and friends.

This does not mean that you have to decide between either having a family and a great job. But at some point in your life, you’re going to face choices that will force you to prioritize one over the other. Are you going to your son’s birthday party or attend a meeting with an important client? You can’t be at two places at the same time, that’s for sure.

A typical non-Essentialist way of solving this problem would be to spend an hour at the birthday party and then leaving for the meeting, causing you to be fifteen minutes late.

Let’s be honest: choosing this route is not going to score you a lot of points with either your boss or your child. In fact, your boss might even lose respect for you because you don’t seem to care for your family a lot.

A non-Essentialist thinks he can do both, and tries to figure out a way to do it all, but the Essentialist knows better. He makes a trade-off and goes all-in on the choice he makes.

Cut the fat and move forward

In this article, we talked about what it means to be an Essentialist, and covered the basics.

Applying the philosophy in practice, in truth, will be hard. It’s hard to choose, it’s hard to make trade-offs and it’s hard to be honest about what is essential and what is just fluff.

But making those choices really pays off. Choosing to be an Essentialist will help you free up your time, relieve you of stress, and allows you to get better results in whatever you do.

So give it a go.

Until next time,