21: Lessons Learned from Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

There are many people I’ve never met in real life, but whom I consider to be mentors that I’ve learned so much from. Greg McKeown is one of those people, and this week, I’m so excited to bring you the first book review episode as I dive into lessons learned from his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. 

If you often find yourself pursuing more than you can actually manage, reacting to what seems most pressing or urgent in any given moment, and saying yes to everything, even when you don’t want to, Essentialism might be the framework you need. It’s the key to focusing on what matters most to you and cultivating a life that’s truly satisfying, so as I share Greg’s brilliance, I invite you to think about where you fall on the spectrum of Essentialism.

Join me this week as I pull out some of the most powerful ideas from Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism. I’m showing you what becomes possible when you practice Essentialism in your day-to-day life, and how to integrate the hallmarks of this framework into every aspect of your life and your habits. 

Habits on Purpose | Lessons Learned from Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

There are many people I’ve never met in real life, but whom I consider to be mentors that I’ve learned so much from. Greg McKeown is one of those people, and this week, I’m so excited to bring you the first book review episode as I dive into lessons learned from his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

Habits on Purpose | Lessons Learned from Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

If you often find yourself pursuing more than you can actually manage, reacting to what seems most pressing or urgent in any given moment, and saying yes to everything, even when you don’t want to, Essentialism might be the framework you need. It’s the key to focusing on what matters most to you and cultivating a life that’s truly satisfying, so as I share Greg’s brilliance, I invite you to think about where you fall on the spectrum of Essentialism.

Join me this week as I pull out some of the most powerful ideas from Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism. I’m showing you what becomes possible when you practice Essentialism in your day-to-day life, and how to integrate the hallmarks of this framework into every aspect of your life and your habits.

Enrolment for the current round of Habits on Purpose for Physicians (HOPP) CME Small Group Coaching Program is closed. If you’re a female physician who wants to better understand your habits and learn to apply pragmatic tools to create new ones, click this link to learn about the program and click here to sign up for the waitlist for the next round.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • 6 lessons learned from Essentialism that have shifted my perspective in meaningful ways. 
  • The difference between an essentialist and non-essentialist. 
  • How to integrate the hallmarks of Essentialism into your life. 
  • What the essentialist aims for in their day-to-day life. 
  • How to evaluate where you fall on the spectrum of essentialism and non-essentialism. 

 

Listen to the Full Episode:

Featured on the Show:

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  • Enrolment for the current round of Habits on Purpose for Physicians (HOPP) CME Small Group Coaching Program is closed. If you’re a female physician who wants to better understand your habits and learn to apply pragmatic tools to create new ones, click this link to learn about the program and click here to sign up for the waitlist for the next round.
  • Join the Habits on Purpose Facebook group!
  • Click here to send me any questions that you would like addressed on the podcast!
  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
  • Bronnie Ware

Full Episode Transcript:

Welcome to Episode 21: This is Kristi, and you’re in for a treat, today as I cover ideas and lessons learned from Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

Welcome to Habits On Purpose, a podcast for high-achieving women who want to create lifelong habits and feel as good on the inside as they look on paper. You'll get practical strategies for mindset shifts that will help you finally understand the root causes of why you think, feel, and act as you do so you can learn to create habits that give more than they take. And now, here's your host physician and Master Certified Life Coach Kristi Angevine.

Well, hello, everyone. I am so excited to bring you the first book review podcast episode. But before I get into the book, I want to share with you two things.

Number one, the latest round of the Habits on Purpose for Physicians, Small Group Coaching has just gotten started, and I couldn't be happier with a group of women who've signed up. I could seriously gush about them all day long. But it's suffice to say they are incredibly intelligent, thoughtful and extremely kind women. And it's so inspirational to see the level of commitment they have to show up for themselves.

Over the next six months, they are going to be working on things like; impostor syndrome, ruminating, ruminating over difficult interactions, ruminating over past stressors, ruminating over mistakes. They're going to be working on habits like; negative self-talk and self-criticism, spending too much time on their phone, clutter at their house, comparison and craving external validation.

They're going to be working on the inability to prioritize their own needs or state their needs to others. They're working on stepping into leadership roles and getting rid of the idea that they don't belong. They’re working on overthinking, second guessing, imagining the worst, people pleasing, perfectionism, overeating, overworking, social anxiety.

So, if you ever needed to know that you are not alone in your habits; you are not alone. And, for those of you who are interested in a coaching space that's not vocation specific just for physicians, one is in the works.

Now, the second thing that I want to tell you is, I want to do a quick shout-out to two listeners who recently left podcast reviews; Selena Clemens and Megan Melo, and I hope I'm pronouncing your names right. Megan says, “This is a truly wonderful podcast. I'm really enjoying Kristi’s podcast, her focus on habits, people pleasing, and perfectionism is spot-on and so helpful. I'm also a coach, and I love the spin she puts on tools that I'm already familiar with, and how she creates practical takeaways with each episode. A must listen.”

Selena titles her review, Awesome podcast for everyday women. “I honestly wasn't sure if this podcast would be as useful as it seemed to be geared toward women MDs. I'm a working mom of four and a veteran, but not a doctor. I started listening anyway, as I know Kristi from my prior employment and her treatment for a family member as a patient. I was always so impressed with her kindness. So, I started listening to her podcast. I think women and even men could benefit from listening. I've shared more than one podcast with my husband. Thank you.”

So, Selena and Meghan, thank you so much. I read every review, and they really mean so much to me, because I know it takes time and effort to stop, and write, and post them. If you're someone who enjoys listening, and you have left me a review, thank you so much. If you haven't, and you want to, it does help the podcast become discoverable. And it helps other people know if the podcast is a fit for them. So, if you haven't left one, I'd be delighted and so grateful if you did.

Now, let's book review time. There are many people that I haven't met in real life or spent lots of time with, but that I consider to be mentors and people from whom I've learned so much. Greg McKeown is one of those people. He's written a few books. But today's focus is on the book titled, Essentialism. I'm going to cover six ideas that really shaped my perspective in meaningful ways. It was from reading Essentialism that I was able to articulate my life purpose, which is to be deliberate about what is essential, one day at a time.

This book is devoid of fluff, so I really recommend that you read it in its entirety. Pulling out some of the most powerful ideas, is actually a challenge in a book that's already so distilled. But what follows are the six ideas that I found to be so impactful in my own life. And at the end, I'll offer some concrete ways you can integrate these ideas into your week and into your life.

Idea number one has to do with distinguishing between the vital few, and the trivial many. The foundational idea of the book can be found in the definition of an Essentialist, and how that compares to a Nonessentialist. Once you hear these definitions, you'll appreciate how Nonessentialist messaging is everywhere in our culture and our lives.

Here's how he defines essentialism: “The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better. It doesn't mean occasionally giving a nod to the principal, it means pursuing it in a disciplined way.

The way of the Essentialist isn't about setting New Year's resolutions to say “no” more, or about pruning your in-box, or about mastering some new strategy and time management. It's about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?”

There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial, and few are vital.

The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference- learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential.

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's about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at your highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.” End quote.

So, this means a few things: It means rejecting the premise that we can fit everything in. An Essentialist paradigm is basically one where there are, what he calls “tough decisions,” and grappling with real trade-offs. So, that instead of making reactionary choices, the Essentialist, “Distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many. And eliminates the non-essentials, removes obstacles, so that essential things have a clear smooth passage.”

Now, this alone, is quite powerful. But what really crystallized it for me was how he distinguished this from non-essentialism. In the book, there's a chart. And, in this chart, he succinctly compares the mindset, the actions, and the results of a Nonessentialist versus an Essentialist. You could stop reading the book after this chart alone, and it could change your entire life.

It's so succinct, that paraphrasing it is actually a challenge, but here it is. As I share his brilliance, think about where you fall on the spectrum of essentialism, and non-essentialism, in your day-to-day choices with work, in relationships, in what you say “yes” and “no” to, and in your level of agency.

Let's start with the mindset or the thinking of both of these camps. The non-essential, endeavors to be all things, to all people. And, has thoughts like: I have to. It's all important. And will muse, “How can I fit it all in?”

In contrast, the Essentialist aims for less but better. And thinks I choose to. Only a few things really matter. And instead of, “How can I fit it all in?” the Essentialist will ask, “What are the tradeoffs?”

Now let's talk about what Essentialist and Nonessentialist do; what are their behaviors? The Nonessentialist actions are characterized by the undisciplined pursuit of more. While the Essentialist represents the disciplined pursuit of less. While the Nonessentialist reacts to what's most pressing or urgent, an Essentialist pauses to discern what really, actually matters most. This means not saying “yes” to people without thinking, but rather saying “no” to everything, except that which is essential.

Now, lastly, in this chart, are what the Nonessentialist and the Essentialist get or create from their thoughts and actions. So, the Nonessentialists live a life that does not satisfy because they take on too much. Their work suffers, they feel out of control, and they are unsure whether the right things got done. Ultimately, they feel overwhelmed and exhausted, most of the time.

When I read this, I felt like it perfectly described so many aspects of my life, and the life of so many of my friends and colleagues. In contrast, the Essentialist gets to cultivate a life that really matters. They get to choose carefully in order to do great work. They feel in control, they get the right things done. And, drumroll please, they experience joy along the way.

When I think of the philosophy of my business and of this podcast, I feel like I could add just a little asterisk that would say, “Please see the entire text of Essentialism.”

The thing is, none of us know how much longer we're going to be alive, or how much longer we're going to have our current level of health and abilities. Our time is finite. And given that, the way of the Essentialist is not just another way of saying carpe diem, but it is a set of common-sense instructions for an against-the-grain approach that will help reduce the chances of deathbed regrets.

With the Essentialist versus the Nonessentialist characteristics in mind; where might you be taking on too much, but perhaps you keep doing it because it seems like there's no other way? Could your burnout and emotional and physical exhaustion stem from the undisciplined pursuit of more? Could it stem from following the caffeinated hustle culture rulebook that posits that you can sleep when you're dead, rest is for wimps, and that the more you do, the better? Is your refrain, “How can I fit it all in?”

The dominant paradigm of our western American culture is distinctly a Nonessentialist one. So, to embody Essentialist hallmarks calls on you to go against the grain. But like all things worth doing, it's worth overcoming the inertia on this one.

Next is idea number two, the invincible power of choosing to choose. McKeown states, “We may not have control over our options, but we always have control over how we choose among them.” Yet this agency is something that's extremely easy to forget. McKeown goes on to say that the way of the Essentialist requires a heightened awareness of our ability to choose.

Now, it's a common approach to think things like I have to, and slowly over time, surrender our personal ability to choose. Such that, our life ends up feeling like the result of other people's or society's choices, and not our own choices. Making choices sounds easy on the surface. But in practice, it isn't necessarily easy.

To make choices, in service of something that really matters, means saying “no” to things that may not be easy to say “no” to, that may feel like a genuine loss. It might be something like declining a promotion that looks really good on your resume. Or, saying “no” to leading a committee that would help your colleagues, but is actually soul sucking work.

It might be saying “no” to working with a friend on a project that you like, but you don't adore. It might mean saying “no” to doing something with your in laws, or your sister's family when you had plans for rest. It might be saying “no” to contract work that you find to be fun, and gives you a guaranteed stipend, but that actually involves more time and energy than you truly want to spend.

When you have a heightened awareness of the ability to choose, you ultimately cultivate a habit of choosing choice, and you cultivate a practice of learning how to say “no” to a lot of things.

The way he eloquently states it is this; 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.

This statement summarizes the key points of this book, so I'm just gonna say it again; 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.

So, this brings me to idea number three, let's flesh out the idea of highly selective criteria for these choices. When it comes to criteria to use for what matters most, and what to spend time and energy on, the Nonessentialist will say “yes” to every request or opportunity. While the Essentialist says “yes” only to the top 10% of opportunities.

A Nonessentialist approach uses a broad implicit criteria for what they should be doing. So, for example, they will do things because someone asks them to or because someone else is doing it. And they will think that that means that they should do it. In contrast, the Essentialist has a very narrow and very explicit criteria to the tune of, “Is this exactly what I'm looking for?”

McKeown gets even more specific with what he calls, “the 90% rule.” This is a variant of the idea that if something isn't a clear hell yes, that lights you up for reasons you love, then it is a clear hell no.

Here's how he describes it: “As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criteria for that decision. And then, simply give the option a score between zero and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90%, then automatically change the rating to a zero and simply reject it. This way you avoid getting caught up in indecision, or worse, getting stuck with the 60’s and 70’s.

Applying selective criteria forces you to make decisions by design, rather than by default. It is immensely easy to populate your life with things that fall into that 60 to 70%. Think about this 90% rule, and imagine what it would be like if this were your default approach. What do you have in your current life, your current week, your current day that you would not rate as 90% or above?

Now for idea number four and five, I'm going to touch on the permission to sleep in the wisdom of play. If you've been socialized in Western society, with post-industrial, capitalist, patriarchal cultural ideas, where common messages are; your worth is tied to your productivity, play is frivolous, and you can sleep when you're dead, you are not alone. There is a good reason why you might furrow your brow a bit, when I talk about the importance of play and sleep.

So, idea number four has to do with shattering the sleep stigma. And, this is how McKeown states it, “In order to discern what matters most you have to be able to filter all the things that seem equally important. In reality, there are only a few things of exceptional value, with almost everything else being of far less importance. The problem with being sleep deprived is that it compromises our ability to tell the difference, and thus compromises our precious ability to prioritize.”

I won't go into all the research on high quality rest, but sleep is really, really important, and lack of rest can have real repercussions. Listen to how the Nonessentialist thinks of sleep. The Nonessentialist thinks: One hour less of sleep equals one more hour of productivity. Sleep is for failures. Sleep is a luxury. Sleep breeds laziness. And finally, sleep gets in the way of quote, doing it all.

Now, listen to how the Essentialist view sleep. The Essentialist knows that one hour more of sleep equals several more hours of much higher productivity. Sleep is for high performers. Sleep is a priority. Sleep breeds creativity and sleep enables the highest levels of mental contribution.

I would click that little circular back arrow, that gets you back about 30 to 45 seconds, and really listen to those different aspects of sleep. Think about which one of those describes your view of sleep. For most of my adult life, I definitely had a Nonessentialist perspective on sleep.

Let's talk about idea number five, which has to do with the wisdom of your inner child and the power of play. Play, as McEwen defines it, is anything that we do for the joy of doing it, rather than as a means to an end. Without getting into all the research on play, the nuts and bolts are this; play has the power to significantly improve things, all the way from relationships to personal health, to creativity, to the capacity to innovate, and to adaptability.

McKeown says that, “Play doesn't just help us explore what is essential, it is essential in and of itself.” How so? This passage explains it so well. The word school is derived from the Greek word scholē,” (I'm not sure how to pronounce that), “meaning leisure. Yet our modern school system, born in the industrial revolution has removed the leisure and much of the pleasure out of learning.

Sir Ken Robinson, who has made the study of creativity in schools his life's work, has observed that instead of fueling creativity through play, schools can actually kill it. Sir Ken Robinson says, ‘We have sold ourselves into a fast-food model of education. And it's impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies. Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement. It's the one thing that, I believe, we are systematically jeopardizing in the way we educate our children and ourselves.’” That's the end of the quote from Sir Ken Robinson, as well as Greg McKeown.

The Nonessentialist thinks play as trivial. And thinks play as an unproductive waste of time. While the Essentialist knows that play is essential, and knows that play sparks exploration. So, with your work on your habits, deliberately bringing in play may seem frivolous, but is actually really useful and really practical.

If you want to take this idea really seriously, this might mean that you intentionally add more pure play to something that you're already doing. Or, you might try to incorporate in pure play, in addition to what you're already doing in your life.

Now, the sixth and final idea I'm going to leave you with, is that of subtraction. The idea of subtraction is that the Essentialist brings forth more by removing more instead of doing more. So, what's this mean? Here, McKeown uses a metaphor that is really great, so I'm just going to pass along what he uses, and he gives a story about the slowest hiker.

The story is: One man is a scout leader, and he is going on a hike with a group of kids, and his job is to get them to a campsite before the sun goes down. In his group of kids, there are a bunch of different paces, and the gap between the faster and slower hikers just perpetually grows and grows and grows.

This man tries a bunch of different things to try to get everybody to walk at a similar pace. At one point, he tries having the faster group wait for the slower hikers. But that only works temporarily and then the group’s stretched way out, and separate from one another all over again. So instead, the scout leader arranges the kids in order from slowest to fastest, with the slowest ones in the front. The slowest hiker of all, in the story, his name is Herbie.

By doing this, he ensures that each kid can keep up with the one in front of them. Then he goes about making it easier for the slowest hiker, Herbie, to go faster. He does this by taking weight out of Herbie’s pack and distributing it to the faster hikers.

So, the way this story connects to habits and your life, is that once you know what your specific goal is, once you know what matters most to you in your life, your task is to identify your slowest hiker and to remove obstacles.

To do this, you can't just be willy-nilly about it and start removing things left and right in this haphazard way. Instead, you have to thoughtfully ask; what exactly is getting in the way of me doing what is most essential? Your slowest hiker could be a deeply ingrained desire to make something perfect, or to be as perfect as possible, in all you do. So, removing this obstacle might sound like giving yourself explicit permission to not do a perfect first draft.

If your slowest hiker is fearing mistakes, you might decide that for the first year of learning a new skill, your one and only job is to be a true beginner, so that you not only anticipate a learning curve, but you see mistakes and imperfections as actually critical to your learning.

Your slowest hiker might be a thought like, “I should be able to do this by now.” Your slowest hiker could be another person or a department. It could be a committee that you're on that isn't in service of your highest values. Or, you might feel like you're constantly going from one task to another. Maybe you're going 60 miles an hour at work, and then you're going to after-school activities, and to social events, and to laundry, and there's no time to fill up your own cup to reflect to plan.

Or, if you'd like cardiac analogies, there's no time to have diastole in the midst of a life that feels like tachycardia or atrial fibrillation. In this case, removing your slowest hiker could mean carving out time for non-negotiable, uninterrupted time for yourself every week. So, when you reflect; what might be your slowest hikers?

As we approach the end of this episode, I'm going to leave you with a quote about the importance and courage required to live your life based on what actually matters most to you. McKeown quotes Bronnie Ware, the renowned researcher who documented the most common deathbed regrets of dying patients, who she spent a lot of time with during their last 12 weeks of life. Near the top of the list was, “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, and not to the life others expected of me.”

McKeown goes on to say, “This requires not just haphazardly saying “no” but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the non-essentials. And not just getting rid of the obvious time wasters, but cutting out some really good opportunities, as well. Instead of reacting to the social pressures pulling you in a million directions, you will learn a way to reduce, simplify, and focus on what's absolutely essential by eliminating everything else.”

For me, I channeled Essentialist hallmarks when I stopped my full-time clinical practice. I loved my work, I loved my partners, I loved my patients. It took a lot of courage to make a career change, that was 12-plus years in the making in the less than 90% category, in order to prioritize other things.

I've since learned how to prioritize sleep, rest, saying “no” and play. And let me tell you; it has not been easy. But it has felt in alignment. I'll say, “I'm always on the lookout for identifying different slowest hikers.” I'm recategorizing things as essential and non, as best I can.

I hope that for you, hearing about these ideas, will help you like it has helped me. So, how might all of this impact your life? These ideas can have ramifications in how you conduct yourself in every area of your life. Consider how you might approach things differently if you use the 90% rule.

What would you stop doing if you considered sleep as productive as work? What would change if you saw play as essential as showing up to work on time? What would happen to your perfectionistic drive if you had a very clear sense of what was essential? And what was non-essential?

What if, for example, making an email go from great to perfect was non-essential? What would you start saying “no” to without having any drama? And what would the tenure impact of all these changes be?

Now, for some concrete steps that you can take. My recommendation is you just pick one of these four options. If you want to do more than one that's totally fine, but make sure that you don't fall into the trap of dabbling with ideas but not actually doing any of them.

Number one, identify one thing that you currently do, or one thing that you have in your life right now, that belongs in the category of non-essential, meaning it's not essential to what matters most to you. And then, ask yourself, “How can I take steps to removing this?”

Number two, write down all the ways in your life, at work, at home, in your business and relationships, that you are “trying to fit it all in.” Then, put this away for two or three days. Revisit the list with fresh eyes later, and consider what you will change and how.

Number three, recall the ways you enjoyed playing in the past, and make time for 30 minutes of pure play this week. Now keep in mind, this may be very, very uncomfortable. Your inner productivity manager, in your mind, might freak out a little bit, but that's okay.

Number four, identify one proverbial, slowest hiker in your life and take one tiny step to change it. That is where we're going to stop today. If any of this material for McKeown resonates with you, please go read the book. It is chock-full of great examples and ideas for implementation that I think you'll find super helpful.

Until next time, talk to you soon. Bye-bye.

If you want to learn more about how to better understand your patterns, stop feeling reactionary, and get back into the proverbial driver’s seat with your habits, you’ll want to join my email list which you can find linked in the show notes. Or, if you go to www.HabitsOnPurpose.com you’ll find it right there.

If you’re serious about taking this work deeper and going from an intellectual understanding to off the page implementation, I offer coaching in two flavors: individual deep-dive coaching with the somatic and cognitive approach, and a small group coaching program. The small group is currently for women physicians only, and comes with CME credits. You can be the first to learn more about both the individual or group coaching options by getting on the email list.

Thanks for listening to Habits On Purpose. If you want more information on Kristi Angevine or the resources from the podcast, visit www.HabitsOnPurpose.com. Tune in next week for another episode.

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