Essentialism - What Does it Mean?

February 24, 2018
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
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Today's post is a bit of a mashup between lifestyle and reading, and I genuinely want to hear what you think about it. Whether you've read or are interested in reading Greg McKeown's Essentialism or not, read through this post and leave a comment with your thoughts and opinions!

One of the most popular pieces of advice I've heard, especially going into college is to say yes to every opportunity (within reason) because it's important to gain new experiences and discover what life is about. I tried my hardest the first semester of college to do exactly that; I went to everything I was invited to, went to all of the information sessions that I got emails about, and applied for numerous clubs and internships. About 40% of the time it was worth it, I met new people and made friends and had a lot of learning experiences. But the other 60% of the time I felt was wasted. I didn't stop or reflect on how well this philosophy worked until I started reading Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

In a completely inadequate, condensed summary; Essentialism explains how it's much better for the quality of work and the quality of life to do less. Saying yes to everything all the time makes it impossible to give anything 100%. As the author says, "the result is that we have the unfulfilling experience of making a millimeter of progress in a million directions." This is the definition spread ourselves too thin! We should aim to get involved in experiences and activities that lead us to our end goal, but instead, it's common to we are "majoring in minor activities" that are slowing us down.

But how can we know what the right activities are if we don't try everything? Are we supposed to have the foresight to see that joining this club will be fun, but I won't connect with anyone or gain any relevant experience whereas this club seems a bit more serious, but I'll make a best friend and learn the skills I need to succeed in the future? Life is so unpredictable that it's futile to make a plan and expect everything to go as you imagined. Some of the best opportunities come from the most unexpected places. How do we know when to say yes?

Essentialism talks a lot about being deliberate in your choices and understanding that "saying yes to any opportunity by definition requires saying no to several others." McKeown's core mindset is "I can do anything but not everything" which can be hard to grapple with. Once we understand what we want to accomplish, it's necessary to understand that achieving our goal will mean foregoing a number of great opportunities along the way. Having choices means nothing unless you take action and make a decision. The moment you make a decision to pursue your goal, you must also make the decision to make your goal a the priority.

The concept of prioritizing and priorities is discussed in Essentialism. Apparently, the word comes from early English and means the very first thing; it's singular. In modern culture, it's so common to have multiple priorities - as many as ten - which has completely changed the meaning of the word. We often describe something as being our "first priority" but that phrase is entirely redundant. How can we have many "first" things? When we put a number of tasks or activities "first" we're degrading the quality and importance of each one and end up unsatisfied with the result.

So, again, how do we know what to say yes to or what to prioritize? McKeown says "to discern what is truly essential we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make." Making the choice of what to prioritize isn't an easy task and requires a lot more self-care (ooh buzzword) than we might be used to. In Lauren Graham's Talking as Fast as I Can, she explains how she was able to find time to sit down and write her memoir. She cites a technique that instructed her to sit down for a set period of time each day with her phone away, notifications off, and two blank documents: her journal and work in progress. During this time, all she can do is write whether it be journaling random thoughts that come to her mind or writing out the pages of her memoir. She does this each day, with no writing requirement, and having time to think and reflect brings the words directly from her mind to the page. Maybe this works for you or maybe not, but this technique allowed her to prioritize her book every day in a low-stress environment.

In my eyes, this is what essentialism looks like. But to be honest, I'm still a bit confused. Does prioritizing mean putting one thing first in that moment or in your life in general? How specific does your priority need to be, can it include your personal life and your professional goals? Is it too selfish to only say yes when you know the situation will benefit you? I'm only a quarter through the book, so I have a ways to go and hopefully my questions will be answered. What you do you think about essentialism vs. the 'say yes' philosophy? Shonda Rhimes' Year of Yes is on my "to read soon" list, so if you've read that please share your thoughts. Thanks for reading, xx Lauren


  1. Love this! I have been trying my best to live minimal. This is great!



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