Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is not exactly a time management/productivity book, and not exactly a minimalism book.  Rather–and I think the cover illustration nails this image–the book examines the way to unravel the Gordian knot of modern life and remake it into a more deliberate, coherent, focused existence.

The author notes that modern life is often chaotic, and that, in work or social life or with family concerns, nearly every aspect of our lives is not only subjected to information overload, but also opinion overload.  This makes for a tangled web in itself, but when you add in the stress of navigating opportunities and requirements on our time and resources, to say nothing of other people’s expectations and demands, it’s easy to drown out our purpose, productivity, and passion for life.

Essentialism, McKeown writes, is not about saying no, but about defining–for yourself–what your priorities and roles will be, and investing your time and resources into truly vital things, rather than frittering your life away on trivial things.  I got a lot out of McKeown’s perspective, but will note three things that impacted me particularly:

  • If you don’t define your priorities, other people will.  “Don’t allow your time to be hijacked by someone else’s agenda.”  This is something I’ve been thinking hard about in terms of balancing my work with homeschooling in the fall.  I value the flexibility I have, but I struggle to define clear boundaries of when I’m working and when I’m not going to pick up the phone or answer the email.
  • “Identify the slowest hiker.”  In any given problem situation, pinpointing the root of the problem and working on the worst or slowest aspect can help unravel the issue so you can manage it.  This concept, which is discussed at much more helpful length in the book, is giving me insight into some logistical and scheduling issues at our house.
  • When you’re feeling overwhelmed–especially when you can’t get to sleep–make a list of things on your mind and then ask yourself “What is most important this very minute?” or “What do I need to do in order to go to sleep peacefully?” so you can calmly decide how to triage your way out of the paralysis.  Often, when I’m overwhelmed, I go with “do the next thing,” and sometimes that helps me get moving, but it’s not a good way to prioritize.  I like the triage analogy better.  Rather than just spinning wheels, it reminds me to pause and calmly survey the scene so I can focus my efforts on the task that’s most important to my priorities.

Reading this book gave me plenty of other take-aways to apply to my work and family life.  Essentialism is not about maximizing your life in 15 minute increments, but more about how to untangle confusion, busy-ness, and triviality to get at what’s most important to you, and then how to protect your time and focus so you can really give your best efforts to those priorities.  I’ve read these concepts in other works, but McKeown’s take was original and insightful.  I’d recommend Essentialism to people who like the life management genre, but also to those who have a sense that they are not as focused as they’d like to be on important things.  

When you’re feeling stuck or swamped by your to-do list, how do you decide what to do first?


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4 thoughts on “Essentialism

  1. A long time ago I tried to do Fly Lady. She has a saying that is about starting with the kitchen sink. She encourages everyone to start with a clean sink. That doesn’t work so well for me. What does work for me is checking the laundry situation. Then I will set the kids to taking care of the dishes. I guess doing those things gets me moving enough that other stuff falls into place. I also keep a to do list to consult.
    I also work off of the triage assessment. I don’t know where I picked up that idea, probably a blog long, long ago.
    I think the idea of someone elses’ agenda needs a bit of adjustment. Frankly, it doesn’t bother me if the kitchen floor isn’t swept every day, but it is important to my husband. So I try to make sure it gets done.

    1. What you’re describing is actually essentialism spot on. You defined sweeping the floor as important to you (because it’s important to your husband, and making him happy is important to you), so you do that instead of scrubbing the sink, which is important to the Fly Lady but not to you. So if you said “Gee, honey, I couldn’t sweep the floor because I was busy cleaning the sink” that would be letting someone else’s agenda dictate your priorities, versus what you actually do, which is set your own.

      For me, household stuff is not as big a struggle anymore (Glory hallelujah, right? With four kids I have to have systems in place and decide what to do and what to let go, or there would be chaos), but protecting my priorities (and my family’s priorities) from outside activities, other people’s schedules for phone calls or what have you, and work project timelines are more at the forefront. But since I’m influenced a lot by order in my surroundings, I do sometimes decide that what really needs to get done is picking up the living room, so I can clear the space to think about other things.

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