1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Essentialism is a way of living that allows you to get the right things done – to prioritize your life instead of allowing others to prioritize it for you. 

2 Ways You Can Apply This

  • Select one of the five suggestions from the podcast and implement it today. 
    1. Identify What’s Important Now (WIN).
    2. Do less by starting a “said no to” list. 
    3. Make strategic trade-offs by asking, “Which trade-off am I going to make?”
    4. Create an Essential intent using the verb, population, outcome, date format. 
    5. Start a new routine around something essential.
  • Choose another suggestion and discuss it with or teach it to a friend.

3 Questions to Ask

  • What is the most important thing I need to do today?
  • What must I say no to in order to accomplish what’s most important?
  • If I could be truly excellent at one thing, what would it be?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • Greg’s “aha” Essentialist moment (3:05)
  • What is the priority at this moment? (4:33)
  • How the paradox of success can lead to failure (5:45)
  • The antidote to the undisciplined pursuit of more (7:06)
  • The power of making deliberate trade-offs (8:11)
  • How to know what to pursue and what not to pursue (11:46)
  • The easy formula for creating an essential intent (12:47)
  • Using routines to make success a natural extension of everything you do (14:33)

Greg McKeown (00:01):

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. And for those who are new here, I’m the author of two New York times bestsellers, Effortless and Essentialism, and the host of this newly minted Greg McKeown podcast, where I am on a journey with you to learn how to negotiate, what really matters when it really matters with the people who really matter. And this really dovetails with the core idea within Essentialism itself. Essentialism isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done. Have you ever found yourself stretched too thin? Have you ever been busy but not productive? Do you feel like your time is constantly hijacked by other people’s agenda for you? If you answer yes. To any of these, the way out is the way of the Essentialist. So by the end of this episode, you will be better able to eliminate the non-essentials from your life today. I’m going to share with you five specific things you can do right now, actionable advice, for how you can be more of an essentialist. By the end of this episode, you will be better able to eliminate the non-essentials from your life. So let’s get to it.

Greg McKeown (01:39):

If you want to accelerate your understanding of what I share with you today, here’s how to do it. Teach the ideas in this podcast to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours of listening. It will deepen your understanding. It will help you to implement the ideas faster yourself, and it will also help educate the people around you so that you are not the lone essentialist in the room. On a bright winter day, I visited my wife, Anna in the hospital. Even in the hospital, Anna was radiant, but I also knew she was exhausted. It was the day after our precious daughter was born healthy and happy at seven pounds, three ounces. Yet what should have been one of the happiest, most serene days of my life was actually filled with tension. Even as my beautiful new baby lay in my wife’s tired arms, I was on the phone and on email and I was feeling pressured to go to a client meeting.

Greg McKeown (02:38):

My colleague had written days before, Friday between one and two would be a bad time to have a baby because I need you to be at this client meeting. It was now Friday. And though I was pretty certain that the email had been written in jest. I felt pressure to attend instinctively. I knew what to do. It was clearly a time to be there for my wife and newborn child. So when asked whether I planned to attend the meeting, I said, with all the conviction I could muster. Yes. So to my shame, while my wife lay in the hospital with our hours old baby, I went to the meeting. What was I doing there? I had said yes to please. And in doing so I’d hurt my family, my integrity, and even the client relationship as it turned out, exactly nothing came from that meeting.

Greg McKeown (03:24):

But even if it had, surely, I had made a fools bargain. In trying to keep everyone happy. I had sacrificed what matters most. On reflection, I discovered this important lesson. If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. The word priority came into the English language. In the 1400s, it was singular priority. The very first or priorist thing. And according to Peter Drucker, it stayed singular for the next 500 years. So it wasn’t until the industrial revolution where people started using the term priorities, pluralizing the term. And yet, what does that even mean? How can you have very, very many very first before all other things, things, and yet haven’t you been to a meeting yourself where somebody said with no sense of irony at all, here are my 34 priorities. So one way back, one thing you can do now is to identify what the priority is in this moment.

Greg McKeown (04:27):

This first practice, I will simply call win because it’s a nice acronym. What’s important Now. That’s how to begin this journey to becoming an essentialist. Don’t overthink it, but ask the question what’s important now? So number one was win. And number two is less. Many intelligent, ambitious people struggle to figure out what is the priority for them in this moment. And for a perfectly good reason, a reason I call the paradox of success. It can be summed up in four predictable phases. Phase one. When we really have clarity of purpose, it enables us to succeed at our endeavor. Phase two. When we have success, we gain a reputation as a go to person. We become good old so and so who is always there when you need him. And we are presented with increased options and opportunities. Phase three, when we have increased options and opportunities, which is actually code for demands upon our time and energies, it leads to diffused efforts.

Greg McKeown (05:37):

We get spread thinner and thinner, which leads to phase four. We become distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution. The effect of our success has been to undermine the very clarity that led to success in the first place. Overstating the point in order to make it, the pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure, especially if it leads to what Jim Collins has called, the undisciplined pursuit of more. And the antidote to that is the disciplined pursuit of less. What I would encourage you to do right now is to start a “said no to” list that is in addition to your to-do list, write down the things that you’ve actually said no to this will have a couple of benefits to you first. It will be empowering to discover. You can say no many of us are novices at the idea.

Greg McKeown (06:33):

We just don’t even say the word. We don’t use it. We could, but we don’t. The second is as your list accumulates, you’ll be able to evaluate whether you are pleased with that decision, because I’m not advocating you start saying no to everyone in everything, without really thinking about it. That would be a different sort of book, a book called “No-ism” or something. But the idea of Essentialism is to say yes to the essentials, but also no to the non-essentials so that you can reinvest that time resource, your attention, your energy, to the things that really are most important. Number three is trade off. Imagine you could go back to 1972 and invest a dollar in each company in the S and P 500, which company would provide you the largest return on your investment. By 30 years later, like 2002. Would it be GE, IBM, Intel, McDonald’s, Berkshire Hathaway? The correct answer, and almost nobody ever gets the answer, right.

Greg McKeown (07:42):

Is Southwest airlines. It’s pretty startling answer because the airline industry is notoriously bad at generating profits. Yet Southwest, led by Herb Kelleher, has consistently year after year produced amazing financial results. Did they do it by trying to be all things to all people or did they do it through a disciplined pursuit of less? Rather than fly to every destination, they deliberately chose to offer only point to point flights. Instead of jacking up prices to cover the cost of meals, they decided they would serve none. Instead of assigning seats in advance, they would let people choose them as they got on the plane. Instead of upselling their passengers on glitzy first class service, they offered only coach. These trade offs weren’t made by default, but by design and each and every one of them was made as part of a deliberate strategy to keep costs down.

Greg McKeown (08:41):

Did they run the risk of alienating customers who wanted the broader range of destinations? Yes, but Kelleher and his executive team were totally clear about what the company was, a low cost airline, and what they were not. And their trade offs reflected as much. Kelleher explained it this way. He said, you have to look at every opportunity and say, well, no, I’m sorry. We’re not going to do a thousand different things that really won’t contribute much to the end results we are trying to achieve. At first, Southwest was lambasted by critics, naysayers everybody. Yet after years, it became clear that Southwest was onto something and competitors in the industry took notice of Southwest’s soaring profits and started trying to imitate their approach. But instead of adopting Kelleher’s essentialist approach carte blanche, they instead chose a straddled strategy. In the simplest terms, straddling means keeping your existing strategy intact while simultaneously also trying to adopt the strategy of a competitor.

Greg McKeown (09:47):

And one of the most visible attempts of that at the time was continental airlines. They started a program called continental light and in the end, it confused everybody involved so much that they set records in the airline industry for complaints per day, they lost 150 million and they fired the CEO. The moral of the story is ignoring the reality of trade offs is a terrible strategy for teams, and of course, for individuals as well. Trade offs are real and they should be embraced and even celebrated because they’re the essence of what great strategy are all about. One thing you can do immediately is to ask the question, what trade off am I going to make? When you’re faced with two options of what to do in this moment, don’t say, I’m just going to do both. Say which trade off am I going to make? What do I need to say no to, in order to say yes to this? Number four is intent or more particularly to create an essential intent.

Greg McKeown (10:52):

Most teams that I have worked with most companies and most individuals have a challenge when it comes to creating clarity about what they want in the future. Most vision statements and mission statements and value statements are so ambiguous, even though they’re meant to inspire, they often leave people, none the wiser about what to actually pursue and what not to pursue. They are therefore not fit for purpose. But when I coach individuals and ask them, okay, what is essential to you to achieve over the next two to three years? If there’s only one thing that you could do, what is it? I am almost always faced with a blank stare or a list of many, many different things. What would the power be, If you could identify a single essential intent that could help you to navigate everything else along your journey? There is a structure that can be really useful in helping you identify an essential intent.

Greg McKeown (11:53):

It’s the following verb, population, outcome, date. It’s a bit like a Madlibs exercise. Verb, what is it that you can uniquely contribute? What is it that you do better perhaps than anyone else? Population. Who are the most important people in your life? Who are the most important customers in your business? Outcome. What is the benefit to them? What is the priority benefit to them? There may be many benefits, but what’s the priority benefit? And then date. To be able to turn your intent into a specific metric, add a date by which you want to achieve it. As you start to whittle away at your essential intent, be careful to stop wordsmithing and start deciding. When developing statements of purpose, whether it’s for your company, your team, or for yourself, there’s a tendency I’ve noticed where people start obsessing about trivial stylistic details. Should we use this word or that word? But this makes it all too easy to slip into meaningless cliches and buzz words that lead to vague meaningless statements. An essential intent doesn’t have to be elegantly crafted.

Greg McKeown (13:08):

It’s the substance, not the style that counts. So instead ask the more essential question that will inform every future decision you will ever make. If we could be truly excellent at one thing, what would it be? An essential intent done, right is one decision that makes a thousand. Number five is flow or the genius of routine. For years before Michael Phelps won all those goals. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he followed the same routine every race. He arrived, two hours early. He stretched and loosened up according to a precise pattern, 800 mixer, 50 freestyle, 600 kicking with the Kickboard 400 pulling a boy and more. After the warmup, he would dry off, put on his earphones and sit, never lie down on the massage table. From that moment, he and his coach, the rather remarkable Bob Bowman, wouldn’t speak a word to each other until the race was over. At 45 minutes before the race, he would put on his race suit.

Greg McKeown (14:22):

At 30 minutes, he would get into the warmup pool and do 600 to 800 meters there. With 10 minutes to go, he’d walk to the ready room. He would find a seat alone, never next to anyone. He liked to keep the seats on both side of him, clear for his things, goggles on one side towel on the other. When his race was called, he would walk to the blocks. There he would do what he always did. Two stretches first, a straight leg stretch. And then with a bent knee left leg first, every time then the right earbud would come out when his name was called, he would take out the left earbud. He would step onto the block, always from the left. He would dry the block every time. Then he would stand flap his arms in a Phelpsian way. Phelps explains, “It’s just a routine.”

Greg McKeown (15:10):

“My routine, it’s the routine I’ve gone through my whole life and I’m not going to change it now. And that is that.” But his coach, Bob Bowman, who designed this physical routine with Phelps said, that’s not all. He also gave Phelps a routine for what to think about as he went to sleep. And first thing, when he woke up, he called it watching the video tape. There’s no actual tape. Of course the tape was just a visualization of the perfect race in exquisite detail and slow motion. So Phelps could visualize every moment from his starting position on top of the blocks, through each stroke, until he emerged from the pool victorious with water dripping from his face. He didn’t do the mental routine occasionally. He did it every day before he went to bed. And every day when he woke up for years. When Bob wanted to challenge him in practices, he would shout, put in the videotape and Phelps would push beyond his limits.

Greg McKeown (16:11):

Eventually the mental routine was so ingrained that Bob barely had to whisper the phrase, “Get the videotape ready” before a race. And Phelps was always ready to hit play. When asked about the routine. Bob said, if you were to ask Michael, what’s going on in his head before the competition, he would say, he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program, but that’s not really right. It’s more like his habits have taken over. When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan. And he’s been victorious in every step. All the stretches went like he had planned. The warmup laps were just as he visualized. His headphones are playing exactly what he expected. The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension. All of us know that Phelps won the record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, but I was always fascinated by how he’d done it in a way that made it look so effortless.

Greg McKeown (17:13):

And of course, practice is part of it. But routine is embedded in all of that practice in making it appear to be as effortless as it appeared. I talked to Bob Bowman just recently, and he talked me through his experience in the final race of those eight gold medals after it was done. And he himself said it had surprised him at how effortless it had actually been. When visiting Beijing years after Phelps breathtaking accomplishment, I couldn’t help, but think how Phelps and the other Olympians had all made their feats look so effortless. It’s certainly a testament to the genius of the right routine. The way of the non essentialist is to think that essentials only get done when they are forced. That execution is a matter of a raw effort alone. You labor to make it happen. You push through, you even force it through, but the way of the essentialist is subtly different.

Greg McKeown (18:11):

The essentialist designs, a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential. The default position. My suggestion to you is to tackle your routines one by one. It would be unfortunate, a little ironic, even if you become so taken with the genius routine that you’re tempted to try to overhaul lots of routines and all at the same time. What I’ve learned is that if you start slow and small routines, you can layer them on one after another, in order to utterly change the results and the performance of your life. Once we master routines, things become automatic and that’s an enormous victory. Once you put the routines in place, they are gifts that keep on giving. Let’s go back to the questions I asked at the beginning. Have you ever found yourself stretched too thin? Have you ever been busy but not productive? Do you feel like your time is constantly hijacked by other people’s agenda? The way out is the way of the Essentialist. I’ve covered five specific things you can do right now to become more essentialist and therefore to be able to operate at a higher point of contribution. If you have found this episode useful, please subscribe to the Greg McKeown podcast. Also my newsletter, gregmckeown.com/1MW. Read essentialism, read effortless because I didn’t just write them. I wrote them for you.