Can you do it all? Essentialism

Essentialism for Success


For decades we have been fed the idea that we could “Do it all.” Well, we can’t – and Greg McKeown finally tells us that it is OK to say, “No” unequivocally and without guilt in his book Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.’ Instead, “Do the right thing for the right reason at the right time,” advises McKeown.

Do Less but do it Well

Essentialism is not one more thing to add to an already busy agenda, explains McKeown. It is a whole new way of looking at life, since essentialism is about paring your life down to the essence, thereby extracting the most from life by doing less but doing it better. In business this would equate to becoming a specialist in an area that requires deep knowledge in a narrow field and cutting extraneous activities that don’t add value.

An excellent example of essentialism at work in the pharmaceutical industry is the GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Novartis swap. Instead of both companies pursuing drugs for cancer and vaccines, Novartis now specialise in drugs for oncology and GSK handles vaccines. Each company can now advance further in deepening their knowledge in their specific area of healthcare.

Clarity of Purpose to Stay on Track


McKeown discusses establishing clarity of purpose for an organisation to achieve success, then being careful not to fall into the trap of success by taking up options and opportunities without considering them carefully. Many successful companies have lost direction as they expanded, leading to a fall in profits. McKeown explains that, like businesses, many successful individuals plateau because they are consumed with what they are doing and what they have done – leaving no time to actually plot where they are going next. Opportunities distract and derail us so that, in effect, success can become a catalyst for failure.

Taking back Ownership of our Lives


We need to become more discerning as by nature we have the tendency to seek what McKeown refers to as ‘the undisciplined pursuit of more.’ Instead, we can benefit from actively pursuing a simplification of our lives – which is not as easy as it sounds.

On a personal level, taking back your life involves not only paring down physical goods that hold you back but also philosophies that entrap the mind. By adhering to the principles of essentialism we regain control of our destinies instead of being at the whim of others who dictate what we should be doing, as well as when and how things should be done.

McKeown says, for him, the tipping point was reached the day one of his daughters was born and he was expected to leave the hospital right after the birth to attend a client meeting. He started to wonder how he had let control of his life slip away. Many of us have been in similar positions – torn between work and family or torn between what we are doing for a living when we really would like to take off and explore a different option.

Getting Rid of Clutter

In our personal lives, many of us tend to accumulate both physical and emotional clutter that we have great difficulty letting go. Once it is gone we don’t miss it, but instead can progress with a sense of freedom after being unburdened. The secret is in identifying what is non-essential in life, and once you start exploring the non-essential you will realise that very little is essential.

McKeown explains the endowment effect – when we own things, we tend to value them more than they are actually worth. This is why it is so hard to get rid of them! We also need to evaluate our overstuffed lives. Think of e-mail inboxes and to-do lists that seem to grow longer by the hour, never mind the wardrobe with clothes that no longer fit or are hopelessly outdated.

The Quarterly Offsite

If some of this is ringing true for you, why not take a quarterly offsite? This is where you take a whole day to evaluate your life, figure out what you want to do, and gain perspective. It’s a day for thinking, not a case of catching up on tasks you haven’t done. McKeown keeps a journal and reviews what he has written for the past 90 days, checking what is important and extracting the essential goals for his life to make sure he retains clarity of purpose.

By reducing our lives to the essential, we manage to create more space to think properly and actually ponder what we want from life. This way we are able to reduce our stress, instead of being ‘people pleasers.’ Most dying people’s regret is that they spent too much time pleasing others instead of doing what they really wanted – that which is essential to them.


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