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How to become an essentialist, with bestselling author Greg McKeown (+podcast)

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript from a recent episode of “Therefore, What?” It has been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: Countless individuals feel overcommitted, overworked and overloaded. Many are exhausted by trying to do more. Guilt, comparisons and attempting to have it all weigh heavy on hearts, minds and souls. Could the solution be found in doing less? The author of New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller “Essentialism,” Greg McKeown joins us to explore the disciplined pursuit of less on this episode of “Therefore, What?”

I am thrilled to have joining us today Greg McKeown. Greg is a bestselling author, as we have mentioned, and I believe his book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” should be required reading for everybody. Full stop. Everyone should have to read this, from the president, a head of a company, a local community person — every individual. Because as we find the essential components to life, we can do more, we can be more, we can become more and we can solve a lot of the complex problems we face in the world today.

Greg, thanks so much for joining us.

Greg McKeown: Boyd, it’s a pleasure to be with you.

BM: All right. So let’s get right at it. I want to get right to the principles here, in terms of what essentialism is. And it might even be good to start out with what it is not, when we talk about essentialism.

GM: Well, the problem that essentialism lives to solve is nonessentialism. That is trying to do everything for everyone without really thinking about it. You may do it because you have a feeling of service. Nothing wrong with that. But if you combine that desire to serve and make a difference, with the idea that you have to do everything for everyone, you don’t get what you hope to get. You don’t keep everybody happy and accomplish everything you want. You just get spread too thin, at work or at home. You get busy but not productive, and you start to feel like your day and life is being constantly hijacked by other people’s agenda for you. That’s nonessentialism. Essentialism is the antidote to that problem.

BM: You hit something that I want to drill down on already. And that is, so many of us can’t say no. How do we do that? How do we get to the space where we can actually say no, say it positively, say it with confidence?

GM: Well, I think you have to remember that communication generally works on this continuum. Most people think of it as a continuum. And on the far side of it is the polite “yes.” And then the other end is the rude “no.” And people are trapped in that way of thinking. Because the trap is, as soon as you take even an inch from the polite “yes,” you’re on your way to the rude “no.” And people recognize if they just give rude “no’s” to everyone and everything, then they’re going to damage their relationships. They’re going to have career-limiting interactions. And so they’re actually trapped in this pretended harmony, this “I have just got to say yes to everyone — see, I’m just trying to be a good team player.” But as we’ve already mentioned, it doesn’t work.

BM: I think the worst thing we do is we get a request, we know we should say no, but we smile and we say yes anyway. But then we can’t actually deliver on a promise. And that has a compounding problem.

GM: Yes, that’s exactly right. And so, in a way, it becomes nice versus honest. In the feeling of nice and in the name of nice, we say yes, and we give the, “Oh, yes, I can do that. Yes, of course. I’ll add that to the list.” But you can’t really do it. So you can’t actually deliver on what you’re committing. You’re writing checks with your words that your actions cannot follow through on. So there’s a break of integrity if you live endlessly in this “polite yes” mode. What I’m arguing is that there’s a third alternative, that you don’t just have to be “polite yes” or “rude no.” You can step into negotiation, and that you can pause to explore, you can pause to ask a question.

This happened with my daughter not so long ago, my 14-year-old daughter, and I was trying to persuade her to read this book, to add this to her list, some important book that I thought she should do. And she was pushing back politely. She was negotiating. And then I went back to the office, I had a meeting or something. She slipped a note under my door. I’m going to read it to you.

She wrote, “I already expressed my unwillingness to read this book, but I’m willing to make a counteroffer. I am not willing to read it all in one day today, but I’d be happy to explore the possibility of reading it in the future, over the course of a few weeks. I believe it would be best to wait until the end of my literature assignment. If you would like me to read this book in place of a separate assignment, and over the course of a few weeks, I’m sure that can be made possible.”

BM: Oh, my goodness. And she’s 14?

GM: 14. And she understood that there is a third alternative, that you can negotiate. It’s not just “polite yes” or “rude no.” You can, for example, negotiate the trade-off, to be honest about the fact that saying yes is a trade-off. Every time she or you, I say yes, we’re saying no to other things. And when we pretend that’s not happening, we’re doing something that violates correct principles. And so it comes out later in uglier ways. What we want to do is create space to be able to have a conversation about what is most central so that we can also negotiate and have a conversation about what is less essential or completely nonessential. So the nonessentials, let’s call it the bottom 10%, should just be eliminated. And the top 10% gets your attention. And the middle 80%, it’s a conversation. Let’s work out whether that should be reduced or completely eliminated.

BM: That is such a critical principle, because so often and in so many areas of life, we just go to these false choices. It’s either this or this. But there is that third way, that third alternative, and I think many of us don’t think about that. We think, well, I’ve either got to be the workaholic, I got to stay here until 8 p.m. tonight to get this done, or I’m a slacker and I’m accepting mediocrity. But neither of those are true, and often that creates undue stress, frustration. You often refer to the motion sickness as opposed to forward movement or momentum. Tell us a little bit more about that.

GM: As soon as you say anything less than “here is a clear boundary,” in today’s world, there won’t be any boundaries. Because your phone, your laptop, it carries with you everywhere, goes everywhere. If you aren’t careful, you’ll work until 6, 7, 8, 9. Every day becomes like this. And what you’re trying to do in this environment is you’re saying, “if I have no boundaries, if I try to do everything, then I’ll get everything I want.” But in fact, this isn’t what you get. It’s a bill of goods. We’ve been conned. And so we want really good boundaries that are healthy.

I’ll give you one from my own life that I’ve adopted recently. I want to be complete with my workday at 5 p.m. And so here’s how I’ve learned to do it, is that I will walk out of the office — I have a home office — and I walk out to the family room to the kitchen area, and I announce the time. I do it loud, so the whole house can hear. This helps me to be accountable for doing it. Hopefully it’s 4:59. Most of the time it is. The latest it’s been since this last experiment was 5:23 when I go out. But here’s what happens: when you know that there’s actually an end time, when you say “this is it,” you are requiring yourself to prioritize. Instead of just saying, “well, I’ll solve this by more hours,” you have to solve it by thinking more clearly, by actually discerning the vital few from the trivial many. And that’s far more valuable than spending an extra hour or two, past five o’clock, on things that are arguably of low value.

BM: That is fantastic. And I think that’s becoming even more important as more and more people are working from home. And as you mentioned, the the digital age allows us to be forever connected, even when we should be disconnected. So I want you to take us on a little journey here, in terms of the essentialist, and that it is about doing less, but better. But the back end of that is what really intrigues me, and that is so you can make the highest possible contribution. Shed some light on that for us.

GM: Well, I am of the conviction that we have an essential mission in life, each of us. And I can’t possibly live yours for you, and somebody listening to this can’t live it for me and vice versa. And I also believe that there’s always enough time, but perhaps just enough time, to fulfill that mission. We’ll give you just enough time to do it. And if we do it, if we focus our energies on those essential things, then we will operate at this higher point of contribution. We will do what we came here to do. We will fulfill the measure of our creation. But if we get distracted, every time we invest on something that’s maybe just 80, or 70, or 50% important, it takes away from the time that we have to do what’s essential.

So there’s always this trade-off. And so it’s not just less for less’ sake. It’s the disciplined pursuit of what is essential that will actually help us to break through to the next level of contribution again and again in our lives. And then we get to be more selective at each new level of contribution, therefore allowing us to focus on even more essential. And so on, as we go up layer after layer of contribution.

BM: I love that. And it’s so interesting because we often think, for those in the corporate space, that as they move up the corporate ladder, so to speak, then as they take on more responsibility, that they’re going to do more and more and more and more. When, the reality is, it should be the reverse. They should be choosing that focus precedes success. That focus has got to get sharper, the more responsibility you have.

GM: Well, what I’ve learned is that your level of selectivity will define your level of contribution. And it’s simply this: that as we are focused, we have an increase of success. And as we have an increase of success, we gain an increase of options and opportunities. And all of that sounds like the right problem, but we will plateau at that level if we simply say yes to all the opportunities and options at that level of success because we’ll just be consumed responding to those options and opportunities. We won’t even be able to create space to think about what the 10x contribution level might look like. And so we have to keep increasing our selectivity, so that things we would have said yes to a year ago, we’re now saying no to.

I remember I had a desire, a goal to be a faculty member at Stanford in the design school, and I co-created a class there, and it was well-received. They made the offer. Well, that took about a year, that process from when I had set the goal. And by the time the offer was made, I realized, “well, this is no longer the right thing to say yes to. There’s another level I need to get to.” And so I was in the relatively uncomfortable position of negotiating away from the thing that I had once said I wanted to go after. This is true in all sorts of ways for all of our lives. We must keep becoming more extremely selective about what gets our attention, our energies, our resources, our time.

BM: Now I want to pin you to some specifics, in terms of application. We always talk about education, inspiration, application and accountability. I want to look at some specific application right now, as it relates to the current pandemic. A lot of people, as they have been working from home, some of them, as we’ve been talking about, are just working around the clock. And so they’re really exhausted. Some people have taken the opportunity to start looking at essentialism and what is most important, what does matter. So walk us through — if we’re working from home, if we’re working through this pandemic, and suddenly we find ourselves thinking, maybe this is the time to do a real life assessment or a career assessment or relationship assessment, walk us through some steps that we should be taking.

GM: Can I turn this around for a second and do something a little unusual?

BM: Always. Absolutely.

GM: Great. Let’s talk about you, Boyd.

BM: Uh oh. Have you been talking to my wife, Greg?

GM: This whole thing today is a facade. It’s really just an intervention for you.

BM: I knew it. Here we are. All right, I’m game. Intervention on.

GM: What is one thing right now — first thing that comes to your mind, Boyd — that is really essential to you, but in this environment, in this climate, you’re underinvesting in it? First thought, go.

BM: Family, no question.

GM: OK. And tell me more about that. What is it that you’re not investing in with your family that comes to mind, beyond the word itself?

BM: It’s the time factor. It is the 24-7 nature of a new cycle. Everything that’s happening from pandemic to civil unrest. And everything appears urgent, and so everything’s begging for attention. And so that walk around the block with my wife, that little extra time with my son, those are all things that are, it’s the forever tug-and-pull. And I know that’s an area where I’ve got a clear space to make that happen.

GM: What you just told me was that in this endless, infinite, exploding story that is news today, it just consumes you, body and soul, really. It just absorbs everything. And you know that if you could do just even a few things consistently, it would make a big difference in family.

BM: Absolutely.

GM: Specifically, you talked about going on a walk around the block. Give me a couple of other things that would represent to you success in this area. I don’t mean perfect, but I mean, you’d say, “look, the balance is much better now.”

BM: I think it’s everything from making sure we’re guarding and protecting the dinner table, that we’re not taking the electronics to the table there so we can have presence. Sometimes my presence is there as we eat, but I’m not really present. So that’s a big area. And just the forever distraction in the middle of a conversation. You’ve got that beep or buzz going off of something you’ve got to react to. Or even simple things. I found myself over the weekend, we were watching a movie as a family, and something popped up. And so I stepped out of the movie to deal with an issue. And even that, I stopped and thought, “OK, 10 years from now, really? Am I going to be really glad that I chased this thing at the office for an extra 10 minutes, instead of being present with the family, just for the whole movie?” Because I think that says something.

GM: You’re describing these micro-trade-off moments. And you’re telling me, “I’m less concerned about the number of hours I’m putting in with my family as I am present hours.”

BM: Definitely.

GM: I’m there, but I’m not really there. I’m at dinner, but I’m not really with them. I’m in the movie, but I’m not really experiencing it together. And you know it makes a difference to them, and you know it makes a difference to you. That’s what you’re telling me.

BM: Absolutely.

GM: Why does it matter so much to you, to be really present?

BM: Because they are the essential component. All this other stuff will be water under the bridge, some of it before the next news cycle begins. Some of it before the next board meeting happens. But they’re the ones that are the long-term investment, for sure.

GM: What you just told me is that they are way more important, those relationships are way more important, to you than this other stuff. So you know it’s a violation of your own prioritization when you make these trade-offs. And you can see one is really high. It’s 90%-or-above important. The others, really, some of these are 10% or lower. You know that that’s not the right thing, and you don’t like where that takes you down the road. Give me one more level of why. Why does that matter so much? Getting that trade-off wrong, why does it matter so much to you?

BM: Because it almost, while I react to it and churn through it, that’s just exhausting in and of itself. So that becomes its own cycle of failure or exhaustion. Because then, at the end of the day, you’re too tired to have a meaningful conversation with a spouse, or you’re just too spent to engage with the grandchildren on a FaceTime call, or tell a story or whatever. And so it’s part of that downward spiral, I think, in terms of losing control of the essential, the priorities.

GM: Yeah, I heard what you said just now, I think. You’re not just saying kind of academically, it’s wrong to put the nonessential before the essential. You’re saying, I’m probably already in the pattern, and every time I’m absent, every time I’m emotionally not there, when I’m physically there, it has a cost. It takes some of the oil out of the emotional engine of my relationships. So, first, it doesn’t matter much the oil’s going down. You can hardly tell on a car the oil’s a little lower. You don’t know. But there comes a point where the relationships start to grind on each other. And you know you’re not showing up well, and you can feel a bit of a negative cycle taking place. That’s what I heard you saying.

BM: Yeah, no question. And that even extends beyond the relationships. It extends into the creative part of work. You become so fragmented with all of these different things that you’re either saying yes to — or saying yes to by responding to that text or that email — that suddenly your mind is so fragmented, that the thing that you love the most or the thing that you feel has the biggest impact on others, is suddenly diminished as well.

GM: You said something fascinating, which is that ironically, by reacting to more and more work, you’re actually doing less quality work itself. There’s less space for creative work. There’s less space for actually taking it up to the next level. And so there’s this paradox, I’m doing more and more nonessential, and it produces more and more nonessential. It just keeps on going, personally and professionally. That’s what you’re saying. So let me just suggest one way of thinking about this, maybe the world’s simplest idea. We’ve imagined three concentric circles. The outside circle is “other.” That’s the email. It’s the latest social media update. It’s the reactive thing at work. It’s all this stuff out there. And what I find is that a nonessentialist starts there. Whatever’s left over is given to the second circle — the next circle inside — which is family, and often, just in the way that we’ve been talking, it’s sort of short-tripped, because there’s not much left of you. By the end of the day, you’re pretty exhausted. You’re pretty worn out. You’re pretty fed up and really don’t have the energy to engage, and so the interactions can become a bit more negative, a little more fragmented. And then the third circle, the most inner circle, is what I call “protect the asset.” And the asset is you. But it’s not just you. It’s you at your most discerning level — your highest, most intuitive place, where you really can see clearly what’s essential and what’s not. And see, the idea is that a nonessentialist is so full of the other and so little is left for the family, that by the time they get to the “protect the assets” stuff, it looks like one person who told me, “well, at midnight, when I should be going to sleep, I spend two hours more scrolling through Zillow, looking at different properties I could or maybe buy.” That’s their “protect the asset.” It’s not protecting the asset. It’s not helping. It’s a desperate attempt at it.

BM: You see that again in so many different places and spaces, that it does, it becomes that false protection of the asset, right? You think, “Oh, I’m just kind of disconnecting.” But you’re not doing anything that is going to either reenergize, renew, recharge or refocus in terms of, what is that highest, best use of me?

GM: Yes, it’s such a pretended version of protecting the asset. And so, the simplest idea in the world that I promised here is that the essentialist just reverses the order. That’s it. Instead of this outside-in — “other” then “family” then “protect the asset” — you start with protecting the asset. Then you invest in family, then you try to figure out what the most important projects and contributions you can make out there. The order is everything. If you invest first in protecting the asset — If you say, for example, I was mentoring somebody recently, who said for years, they didn’t eat lunch because they thought even that was being selfish. And they just were doing all the “other.” They were doing work, work like it was a black hole, it never ended. And of course, it never does end. They were doing that first, so they couldn’t even eat lunch.

So they started eating lunch. Almost every day, they now eat lunch. And they just create a little space. They did a few other things to protect the asset. They they said, “OK, I’m going to move my meetings to the afternoon, as many as I can, because I want to create space for deep work at work. I want to spend the morning, as much as I can, on the creative work, on writing, on thinking, on strategy, the stuff that will contribute down the road.” They try to create some space Friday, late afternoon, to review the week, to look at how it’s done, and to be able to get clear before they enter into the weekend and then the next week. If they made these changes, and of course there’s others that we could make — somebody could make sure they’re sleeping well. I think my goal, my project within “protect the asset” this month — this is literally true — is to nap. To take a nap every day.

BM: I like your thinking.

GM: That’s my project in that area. So you choose one or two projects within protect the asset. And that’s first. And then you say, “OK, what are one or two projects that I’m going to have this month in the family area?” You don’t take on everything. You can’t take on everything. It’s such a con. You can do anything but not everything. So you choose one or two things that you think are really important. And for me this month, it’s been inculcating a new habit where I go every day, my wife and I go for a walk, a pretty long walk. We get to really listen to each other and spend that time together. We did it sometimes before, but not in this everyday way. So that’s why it’s a habit I’m building into my project plan for the month. And so, just one or two in that area.

And then when you come to “other,” which is all the work things, all the community things, everything, you choose another — I mean, for me this month, it’s probably another three or four things. I sort of have, as a rule of thumb, about seven projects per month, seven or eight. You don’t have to be religious about this. You just choose the right number that feels about right. I do that myself. My wife does the same thing. We bring them together. We talk about them. We say, “OK, do these seem realistic? Do we need to stretch in some area here?” And we try to talk about those, so that we’re then aligned, and we can help each other make trade-offs throughout the month.

When things come along, when I have an idea, I’m so guilty of this, “oh, I’ve got a good idea! Let’s go after this thing.” She can say, “well, let’s just look at the project list. Is that more important than what’s on the list?” And you’re looking and becoming aware of the trade-offs, and so on. And so this is really what I’m encouraging for you, as well, is let’s change the order for you, so that you don’t wait to drink the ocean before you get to family and protecting the asset. Because you’ll never get there. Instead, let’s start with protect the asset and move on from there. How does that sound to you?

BM: That is wonderful. And I think everybody listening can follow right along with me on this one, as we take the steps. We’re going to have to do a follow-up, so I can come back and be accountable for what I’ve done over the next month here.

GM: Well, I think that’s true, because we haven’t really got to the specifics of what it is would be on your project plan. And maybe that’s not fair to do live in this conversation, anyway. But I really want you to do it. And I think other people can do it as well. Choose an accountability partner. I can be yours, that’s fine. I’m happy to come a month from now. It’ll give you an excuse to really do this. And everyone else can do it, as well. They get a sheet of paper. They break it into those three areas we just talked about — “protect the asset,” then “family,” then “other.” Look through all the projects and all the things you want to get done. You can make a list 100 things long, but for this month, you’re just going to choose, you know, I say seven is sort of the magic number that you’re going to really focus on here in that order. And it’s perhaps to just push out the nonessential swamp of our lives, where we’re just trying to swim in all this debris of stuff. Some of it’s trivial. Some of it’s important. Some of it’s crazy urgent. Some of it feels important but isn’t. And we just say, “this is our little go-to. This is going to be our practical compass for this month.” And I’d be happy to have that conversation again with you 30 days from now.

BM: As we come down the homestretch today, give us an essential of essentialism, as our “therefore, what?” That is the program. People been listening to my therapy session — no, I actually hope, I really hope our listeners saw things in their own life, listening to me go through those things. And I really appreciate that approach, Greg. It’s so helpful. But what do you hope people will think different or do different, just after the last 25 minutes?

GM: First of all, Boyd, they will have been applying it to them. You’ve done us a service by being open, by being vulnerable about this. We all relate to this. We’re all struggling to try and figure out what’s essential and do it. So I thank you for doing that.

The big idea behind essentialism is that it’s difficult to overstate the unimportance of practically everything. We’re not in a coal mine, where it’s productivity, get as much stuff from point A to point B. Rather, as we are waking up, as we put on the lens of essentialism, we wake up to the discovery that the whole time we’ve been in a diamond mine. Most of the stuff doesn’t matter, but a few things are so vital, so important, they’re going to matter till the end of time. And we want to design a life around those things — that protects them, that enthrones them and makes them as easy to do as possible. That’s a subject we didn’t even get to today: how do you make it easy, so that you can do it on an ongoing basis? That, to me, is the big idea. And really, as soon as you get that idea on, you start to act differently, spontaneously, naturally, because you can see what you couldn’t see before.

BM: Fantastic. Greg, thank you so much for joining us today on “Therefore, What?” We will do this again in 30 days and have some more there. And, again, follow the Essentialism podcast coming up. Greg, where can they see that?

GM: “Essentialism with Greg McKeown,” is the name of the podcast, and you can find it anywhere that you listen to podcasts. I’m so excited about this. I just relistened to the first episode — you know, it hasn’t come out yet — but I was just listening to it myself. And I wasn’t listening to it, like, evaluating it. I just listened to it to try and apply it to me. And I realized how much I need a weekly dose of essentialist thinking. And I just felt so thrilled for the opportunity to have this conversation with some really amazing people that already signed up, I’ve already interviewed. I’m probably going to launch a few episodes all at once when it comes out on June 22.

I can just see the opportunity for people to find a design partner, to listen to this conversation each week, every Monday, and to be able to carry that conversation into their lives. And bit by bit, tilt away from this dominant, gravitational pool towards the nonessentialist life towards the essentialist life. And I’m telling you, I am sure, Boyd, that you and I are probably going to regret some things at the end of our lives. But being an essentialist is not going to be one of those regrets. That’s not going to be it. “I should’ve spent more time on Facebook. For goodness sake, I can’t believe I spent that much time with my grandchild.” That’s not going to be it!

I’m thrilled to be able to extend this conversation that I’ve had many times with people, but now in a broad way every week and people can really get to be part of it. So I’m so looking forward to to what this can be, and I hope that people listening today can join us, come and subscribe, and just be part of this ongoing essentialist conversation.

BM: And you’re just going to want to lock into that, set it on your favorites, get the alerts and be ready to roll for that. Much, much more to come in this conversation. Greg, thanks again for being with us today.

GM: Thank you, Boyd.

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