038: Establishing the Essential with Greg McKeown

By July 20, 2016Podcasts

 

Episode-38-Greg-McKeown

Author Greg McKeown expounds the idea of essentialism–the disciplined pursuit of less, but better.

You’ll Learn:
1. The meaning of essentialism and why to eliminate non-essentials
2. How to use extreme criteria to determine priority
3. The power and importance of having some buffer time

About Greg
Originally from London, England, Greg McKeown is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” and the founder of THIS, Inc, a company with a mission to inspire millions of people to design their essential mission in life. Their clients include Adobe, Apple, Airbnb, Cisco, Google, Facebook, Pixar, Salesforce.com, Symantec, Twitter, VMware and Yahoo!

Items mentioned in the show:

Greg McKeown Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Greg, thanks so much for being here on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Greg McKeown
It’s great to be with you Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh boy. I’ve really getting a kick out of perusing your website and your book, and I’ve got some friends who are a huge fan of you. Maybe we could just jump right in, because I think we’ll run out of time before we’ve got all the goods. That’s a good problem to have. Could you share with us, how would you define essentialism? The less, but better, how would you frame or define or set up this conversation?

Greg McKeown
You have to begin not with essentialism but with the enemy, with the problem, with the disease. The disease is nonessentialism. That is this idea that we can have everything we want in life if we can just fit everything in. If we can just shove it all in, if we can do more, if we can do enough, if we can do it all efficiently enough and shove it together, that somehow this will be the equation for the success and significance that we desire to have.

The problem is that it doesn’t do what it says it will. It doesn’t answer on the promise on the packaging. What it actually produces, and see if you or those listening can relate to it, it leads to feeling busy but not productive. It leads to feeling stretched too thin at work and/or at home. It leads to feeling like your life gets hijacked by other people’s agenda via email or some other way. It leads to saying yes to please or to avoid trouble. It produces something completely different than it promises. People plateau in their progress as they make a millimeter progress in a million different directions.

The antidote to that problem is essentialism, or the disciplined pursuit of less but better. There’s really three parts to essentialism. It’s becoming an essentialist, it’s to create space, to figure out what’s essential. That’s number one. Number two, to eliminate the nonessential as gracefully as possible. Number three, to create a system or routine to make execution of what matters most as easy as possible.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well I’m convinced. I’ve experienced the disease. It comes and goes in terms of a bout of it, and then there’s a respite, and then it seems to come right back. I would love to chat through those three perspectives right here right now. How should we get started.

Greg McKeown
I think that a really practical way to begin is to make a list every day of the six things that you think are most important, the most essential things. Maybe rule of thumb might be three personal, three professional. You prioritize that list, and then you cross off the bottom five. Take that top item, focus on that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Greg McKeown
That’s the priority for the day. Here’s the thing you see, the word priority came to the English language in the 1400s and it was singular. What did it mean? The prior thing, the very first thing. It stayed singular for five hundred years, which means that nobody in the English speaking world even thought to pluralize that term for half a millennium, which speaks to an oddity that then took place, I believe, in response to the Industrial Revolution. All of a sudden everybody is thinking that the answer, because of manufacturing processes that were now taking off, they thought the answer to every problem is to increase efficiency. It’s to be always on all the time. That’s what will lead to greater productivity.

There’s a lot of truth to that in the factory system, but it’s not so great in the human system. This is where I think nonessentialism came in. Can you have priorities? Can you have very, very many very first before-all-other-things things?

Pete Mockaitis
No, I’ve seen that on my calendar before and it doesn’t work so well.

Greg McKeown
It doesn’t work so well because it’s not, by definition, possible. What we need to do, we need to get this list. I only half jokingly suggest the crossing off the bottom five. You take that first item, that’s the priority, that’s the most valuable thing. If you’ve done it thoughtfully, you’re really working on the right thing, and then you move on to the next item and that becomes your priority after you’ve either completed or done all you can on the first item. At any given moment, you’re trying to come back to what is essential. You get pulled off track of course, but you come back to the essential.

I think this list of six and prioritizing it on a daily basis is a very simple, very practical step that won’t feel life changing when you hear me saying it right now, but you do it and it already will have an impact in one day. Here’s where the real magic is: You keep doing it, the cumulative effect over the long run is immense. I think in general we overestimate what we can complete in a day, but we underestimate what we can complete in a decade. It’s this daily habit that gets us off on the right track towards what I’m describing.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Could you share a little bit in terms of, what are the ideal practices or approaches for arriving at and determining that, “This is the priority”? You talk a little bit in the book about making your criteria more stringent, like you use an example associated with cleaning out the closet, what items stay versus what items go. Can you share a little bit of that perspective and how to feel great about your choice like, “Yes, in fact, that thing I said is a priority is indeed truly the priority. I got it right.”

Greg McKeown
The closet metaphor shows both the disease and the antidote. You think about your closet on an average day. For most people, it gets more and more cluttered over time, you can end up with quite a lot of stuff in there, but you can’t find anything. This is the undisciplined pursuit of more, and the alternative … You go in there and finally you’ve had enough, the clutter’s too much, it’s all too much, the noise in here, the mess, and you take an item off the shelf as if to give it away, you evaluate it, but in that moment something mysterious seems to happen as you hold that item up and you think, “Well, you know, it might come back into fashion again. It might fit me again. Could I possibly find this useful sometime again in the future?” That’s the world’s broadest criteria. The answer is, of course, yes to that. Of course you might, possibly.

The alternative is, if you really want to not just clear out your closet, but to be left with only the things that are great, you have to use different criteria. You have to ask questions like, “Do I love it? Do I wear it often? Do I look great in it?” Those are more criteria, suddenly there’s a lot fewer clothes that meet all those criteria. Then what if you went even further than that? Marie Kondo suggests the question, “Does it spark joy?” You hold up the item, “Does it spark joy?” The answer to that question of most things is, “No, it doesn’t,” so pass it along, get rid of it, move it on, and then what’s so magical about that question is that you’re left with only things that do spark joy. If you’re only left with things that spark joy, then you find yourself actually in a sense having less, but it’s better. You have a lot less in the closet, but it’s just those things that are great.

We’re not really talking about closets of course, although it is literally true there. We’re talking about the closet of our lives, in which we have the added challenge of people stuffing things into our closet all day long. The same problem exists if we have too broad a criteria. If the criteria is, “I will do anything that could remotely be good for anyone at any time in the future who asks or I otherwise think about,” then we’re going to be overloaded. We’re going to have so many, far, far too many. I don’t mean like we’ll end up with a bit too much, like, “If I had two more hours a day then I could do everything that’s expected and everything that’s coming my way.” No, it’s total time bankruptcy.

Somebody said to me recently, they said that when they were reading Essentialism they realized they had a problem because they estimated inside that if they had three hundred hours a day they would still not have enough time to get everything done, and that’s the level that I think a lot of people have got to, a lot of very well-intended, driven, capable, curious people. By the way, that is what I mean by a nonessentialist. A nonessentialist is certainly not stupid, certainly not unthinking. They’re driven, and they want to be successful, and they just believe that the way to success is to do it all.

Somehow that’s been taught, they’ve picked that up in the air, they’ve picked it up in school where they had to be a straight A student at everything, they had to be in many extracurricular activities, that you have to do everything if you want to go to one of the best universities. You have to do every kind of sport and every kind of … They’ve been taught this. Maybe they picked it up from the magazines that endlessly show the idea that the way to have it all is to do it all, that you have to be able to make this special kind of cake and be on this special kind of diet, and it’s on the same magazine cover on the same edition. They’re being told it’s all of it. All nonessentialism says is that you just have to do everything perfectly now. That’s it. That’s all it’s saying.

Pete Mockaitis
I can feel the stress from that sentence right away, and so I love that distinction. It’s like, “Does it spark joy?” Is the real question, not, “Does this produce any benefit whatsoever?”

Greg McKeown
If you only ask the question, “Could this possibly … ” Not even, “Does it produce benefit,” “Could it possibly produce benefit?” The answer’s always yes. You’ll always say yes to way too many things. You can do that, you can be a nonessentialist with the purest of motives. It’s not a motive problem. I assume great motives of all nonessentialists, but I also want to preserve the idea that being an essentialist doesn’t mean you have bad motives, that you don’t have to suddenly become an unfriendly or unhelpful or self-centered person. That’s not essentialism. I don’t even know what you call that book. Maybe that book’s called Noism. I didn’t write a book called Noism or Selfishism, it’s Essentialism. It’s what is really important.

I think that an essentialist has the highest motives. They’re saying, “I want to make a contribution. I don’t just want to make any contribution, I want to make the highest possible contribution in my life. I don’t just want to be helpful, I want to be the most helpful I can possibly be. That means I must become selective. It must means apply extreme criteria over time if I want to continue to expand my sphere of influence for good.”

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. When you say “extreme criteria” one of them, “Does it spark joy?” It’s extreme because few thing do. Can you give us an example, what are some other real powerful questions that fit into that extreme criteria category?

Greg McKeown
I think that we can ask things like, “Is this something I can be … ” Jim Collins suggested a couple of questions for organizations that we can ask personally. His questions were, “Can I be the best in the world at this?” Not, “Do I want to be?” Not, “Would it be cool if I could?” “Can I be the best in the world at this?” That was one. Another he suggests is, “Am I truly passionate about this?” A third he suggests is, “Does it drive my economic engine?” He’s suggesting those three together. I think that’s true for organizations as he suggests, but I think it’s also true for individuals.

To those questions we can also ask, “Is this the very best use of me?” We can ask the question, “If I only had X amount of time left to live, would I be doing this? If I had a year left to live, would I be still invested in this? If I had a month left to live would I still be invested? A week? A day?” That starts to help force us into at least categorizing activities. It doesn’t mean we say no to everything, but we ought to start increasing our discernment between lots of good things. It’s like we’ve got to force clarity to come out by putting pressure on it, “No, they’re not equally important.” Let the true priority stand up. We have to increase that. We invest the time, we invest the energy, we keep coming back to the questions so that we can increase our discernment and even our sense of taste, our sense of, “Which thing here is the thing that matters?” Eventually it will reveal itself. Eventually, and then once it does sometimes it’s ridiculous.

Sometimes the right answer is so much more valuable than the second item that it parallels what I would call … Not what I would call, what has been called, a power law. A power law says that things on a given list of distribution will be massively unequal. For example, the richest person in the world will tend to be twice as rich as the second richest, who will tend to be twice as rich as the third richest. That’s not the way we would normally think about the world. Nonessentialism is teaching us an opposite lesson, it’s saying, “Everything’s important. You have to do it all, you have to want it all, and now.” Your job, it’s like you’re shoveling coal, “I’ve just got to get more of this out, that’s the way to be successful.”

The essentialist believes that almost everything is noise, that a very few things are superbly valuable. It’s like years of thinking you’re in a coal mine, waking up to the idea, “Oh, I’m actually in a diamond mine this whole time. Here I’m shoveling stuff out, but I’m really supposed to have been looking for the diamonds.” This is the perspective of the essentialist. The essentialist says, “It’s difficult to overstate the unimportance of practically everything.” You’re looking for the few, the vital few, over the trivial many.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m a big Pareto fan myself. I want to think a little bit about that, that prioritization within a team collaborative workplace environment. How does the game change when you’ve got a boss or a supervisor or someone who’s calling the shots? I saw we had a blog post, it’s like, “Set your priorities before your boss does it for you.” Could you speak a little bit about these notions?

 

Greg McKeown
As soon as you start talking about extreme criteria and prioritizing and being really thoughtful about what it is, somebody will inevitably say, “What happens if my boss or my coworkers or my clients or my partner’s internal or external have a different focus to me?” I always want to say, “Well, I appreciate you asking me that, but don’t you already have that problem?” The answer of course is yes.

Talking about essentialism just draws attention to the problem that’s already there. I’m saying, “Yes, you do have a problem. That is a problem. That’s something worth talking about, so talk about it.” Now you have to have a negotiation about it. Now you have to say, “What is it you’re trying to get done, and what am I trying to get done? Let’s see where this aligns.” Now, if it’s your boss or your boss’s boss, you can’t just say no. That’s career limiting of course.

With them, you still need to have the conversation though, but the conversation might go something like, “Yes, I’m very happy to do the thing you’ve asked me to do. That will take away resources from this other initiative that I think might be serving you better, so let’s talk about that. Would you like me to do the big thing that we’ve already talked about, or do you want me to do this thing that you’ve just given to me?” That seems like a reasonable conversation to have, and in fact one has a fiduciary responsibility to have those conversations, to be able to say, “Let me see if this is the best way to serve you.”

I have somebody who’s doing work for me, and every so often I say to him, “Could you help me out with this project? I’ve got this thing.” He always starts with, “Yes, I’d be happy to do that,” then he says, “but do you want me to take the time and resources around this project that we’re working on, the big project? That’s what I need to do.” Every time I’m snapped out of my reactivity and I say, “No, you just stay focused on the prize. Let’s not do that little thing. That was just a spontaneous thing for me.” That’s valuable.

It’s valuable when somebody pushes back, not their agenda against mine. That’s not helpful. That’s not more helpful, and that’s not essentialism, but it is helpful if they have thought more deeply through what value I’m trying to create, more deeply than I have. That’s always useful. That’s always relevant.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely, very good. That makes great sense, and I think sometimes when I train and coach people it’s almost just encouraging them to have the courage to break from a prior habit of always saying, “Okay, yes,” and then feeling the stress, as opposed to finding that courage to have that conversation there.

Greg McKeown
We can start in a very simple place by saying something like, “Yeah, I’m happy to do that. Let me check my calendar and I’ll get back to you.” Something that creates even the smallest degree of buffer between the request and the answer, what we might call the “slow no” or the “slower no” or the “slower yes” even. It’s just saying, “Can I just create a little space between the request and the commitment?” This is a big step towards eventually increasing that space and that creative freedom to do the things that we think actually matter most.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. I’d love to hear a little bit more about the concept of the buffer and other, I guess verbiage or scripts that work well in delivering that message that you want your time and then ultimately you’ve decided no.

Greg McKeown
First of all, the idea of buffer. My sense is that a lot of us are driving down the street of our lives an inch behind the car in front of us. We’re going at whatever speed we’re going, but let’s say we’re going fast, and we’re an inch behind. It means that when somebody puts on the brakes unexpectedly, we’ve got nothing. That is a very stressful way to drive. There’s no ability for us to be flexible. In the name of agility, “I’m going to go fast, see? I’m agile, I’m going fast.” Actually, we’re not agile at all because we’ve got no buffer with which to respond or to adapt to changing circumstances ahead of us.

My children and I sometimes play a game when we’re driving where we have to get from point A to point B without the car ever stopping. It’s kind of a fun game, I don’t know how we quite got into it, but you have to do all sorts of things to do that. Basically what you have to do is create buffer. There’s got to be a lot of space between you and the person in front of you in case you’re going to go through a red light. The only way you never stop is that you have twenty yards, thirty yards of space, so you’re going very slowly now but you’re still moving til the light changes and go. You can do this for a long way, that’s what we’ve found, if you create the buffer.

That’s the game, what’s the practice? The practice is, put on your calendar periods of buffer. Put on appointments which you don’t know how you’re going to use that time, but it’s just there, because you know that there will be unexpected things. We don’t know what they are, but we know they’re coming. You’ve got to allow for that in the schedule. I know an executive who puts two hours every day on their calendar of buffer time. They don’t know what it’s going to be, they just put it there because they don’t know. If every minute is already spoken for, then they’re going to be perpetually stressed and perpetually behind.

Buffer’s an extremely powerful idea. It’s like the unfair advantage. I actually sort of want to go even bigger, broader about this, and talk about this at a societal level. Tainter is a historian, one of the great historians. Arguably, his most famous work is called The Collapse of Complex Societies. This is what he’s noticed. He has studied every major societal collapse, and there’s a lot of them in history. Of course, there will have been a lot more than he’s covered, because we only have the ones that collapsed but did so in a way that we have historical record of them. Then he studies them.

This is the pattern. I think this is truly fascinating. You’ve got a society that’s very simple at the beginning, and they have certain problems. The group or the leaders of the group make some decisions to solve that problem, whatever the problem is. When they solve the problem, in almost all circumstances they increase the complexity of the society in solving the problem. You can see that now. Then they do it again. Here’s the next problem. Okay, let’s be good problem solvers and let’s take that on, and we come up with some solution. The solution adds more societal complexity, and so it goes until there is a sort of tipping point where the cost of maintaining the complexity equals the total resources available to the society.

When you reach that point, your society becomes really fragile, because if a new big internal or external threat occurs, you can’t respond to it anymore. Suppose you have a massive plague internally? That’s not an external threat, it’s an internal threat, but you’ve got no resources to respond to it. You’ve got no additional financial, emotional resources there, maybe even spiritual resources. You’ve got none, because you’re using everything up. There’s no buffer in the system. That’s what kills you. It’s not the plague exactly, it’s not the threat exactly, it’s your inability to respond to it because of the level of complexity that you’ve committed to previously.

Same happens if you have an external threat. Suddenly you have invaders coming your way. Yes, that is a threat, but that’s not what kills you. What kills you is that you have no buffer to respond to it. Let’s ask that from a really big perspective for a second. How is the Western world doing on this?

Pete Mockaitis
It’s terrifying as you lay this out for me. I’m just imagining, “Uh-oh.”

Greg McKeown
Right, we have a serious challenge. Basically all the Western countries are living beyond their means just to maintain the level of current complexity. Living with deficits isn’t making us better, it’s just sort of maintaining our current position. It means that if you have a massive new threat, where are the resources to do it? Compare this with Norway as a counter example. When they found North Sea oil, when they had this sudden good luck, they don’t just use it all. They could’ve used all of those resources to build the most amazing whatever, right? To get the best roads, to get the best everything in the world. They haven’t done that.

The United Kingdom found oil at the same time in the North Sea and they share that oil between Norway and the UK. UK used it all, and Norway hasn’t. Actually, hasn’t used any of it. They have the largest sovereign fund in the world now. It’s over a trillion dollars. A five million person country with a trillion dollar surplus that just grows every year. It grows on average in the ten percent plus range in the various ways that it’s invested, and they’re only allowed to use about half of that increase per year to improve the country, and they don’t even use all of that.

That is a pretty powerful reshaping of how we think about problem solving. They are not solving all the problems they could solve. That is a powerful implication of Tainter’s work, that just because something is a problem and just because you can solve that problem doesn’t mean you should.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so good. That’s so good. Tell us, what do you think are some of the optional things professionals are doing all the time that can be stopped, eliminated, without really missing them right now?

Greg McKeown
I don’t know that I can answer that for individuals. Essentialism is a process program, not a content program, meaning that I’m not telling people what they should and shouldn’t do, but I am saying that if they follow a nonessentialist process they’re going to get nonessentialist results, meaning they’re going to feel worn out, burned out, they’re going to make only a millimeter progress in a million directions, and so on.

What I’m advocating is that they put in a routine, a process that will enable them to get the results that really matter to them. For example, I think that people can put on their calendars right now, ninety days from now, a personal quarterly offsite. Every ninety days they take, even if you start with just a couple of hours at first. It’s not a whole day, eventually it becomes a whole day. You just use that time to reflect on your life. Not just living life, but learning from living, looking at the bigger picture, doing really what people already do in executive offsites, but doing it for themselves.

They’re reviewing and they say, “Look, what’s really valuable? What do I need to do over the next ninety days? What are two or three things that are really game changers? If I work on those and get those done, it will really make a difference.” Then from that list, you start to remove things. Then that’s really the personalized criteria you need to be able to evaluate all these other requests that come your way, all these good things that aren’t actually helping you get to what you’ve now identified. I think that this is a really important adjustment we need to make in the culture that we’re in, because without putting space on the calendar, there won’t be any space. You have to put thinking time on there.

I was at Twitter recently and one of the people there said, “Do you remember what it was like to be bored?” That’s a clever question. A little ironic given that they were the ones that did it to us, but nevertheless when somebody now has a moment, they’re on their phone. You don’t have to think, and the reality is that it’s easier to face your phone than it is to face your life. We’re going to tend to check email over thinking about, “Okay, where am I? Where do I want to be? How will I get there?” Those are the core simple questions of strategic decision making. “Where am I? What’s the news in my life? Where do I want to be long-term thinking? What’s the path to achieve it?” This is what one needs to do, at least one day in every ninety days to make sure we don’t get too far off track from the things that really matter most to us.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Thank you. I got three more for you in five minutes, let’s see what we can do. Answer me this: Some fans were wondering, it’s essential to focus in on the key things and to say no often, but how do you think about squaring your personal vision while serving others? Either to build rapport so they return favors, or just due to a moral imperative to serve?

Greg McKeown
I did a joint piece, maybe it was a Q&A, but it was a joint article of some kind with Adam Grant who wrote the book Give and Take. His whole argument is that there are two kinds of ways of giving. One group is the group that becomes most successful, and one group is the group that becomes least successful. That’s interesting. Both want to give, but the way you choose to give will determine which group you’re in.

The most successful group is disciplined givers. They’re thoughtful about it. They’re not just saying yes to everyone and everything. That’s the bottom group. One of the reasons that I suggested doing this piece together was because I believed there wasn’t a contradiction between his approach in Give and Take and Essentialism, even though they come at questions of decision making from different narratives. “How do I become a disciplined giver, a thoughtful giver instead of just doing anything just because somebody is requesting it?” A disciplined giver will give even when people aren’t asking them to give, but they’ll be giving in a very particular way, the way that they feel most uniquely able to make a contribution.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Can you tell us, where would be the best way to find you? Your website or Twitter? If folks want to learn more about you and your book, where would you point them?

Greg McKeown
Gregmckeown.com is the website, my Twitter handle is @GregoryMcKeown, and there are gates in both locations so you can continue to be part of the conversation in this ongoing adventure to live a life that really matters.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Could you give us one favorite challenge or call to action that you’d issue forth to folks seeking to become more awesome at their jobs?

Greg McKeown
I think that one needs to try to negotiate a single thing that really will move the needle over no more than a year, but up to that level, and to negotiate it until you say, “Yes, that’s the big thing,” so that once it’s done, once you achieve it, people don’t say, “Man, what has that person been doing?” They go, “Oh, they killed X, and that X was really valuable.” It’s very easy for people hoping to be recognized and to move up in their careers, to make the career tent higher, while they’re putting in tent poles of the same length. They’re not going to go any higher because they just keep doing more and more of the same stuff. What I’m arguing is that you think really deliberately about, “What is that thing that will progress the whole thing forward?” I think that is a materially important way to be recognized and to be promoted.

Pete Mockaitis
That is fantastic, and a beautiful visual I’m reflecting on right now. Greg, this has been a real treat. Thanks so much for making the time, and I wish you tons of luck as you’re disciplined in pursuing the vital few things that you’re pursuing over there.

Greg McKeown
Pete, it is my pleasure. Thank you.

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