Confessions of a non-essentialist: Is it possible to achieve more by doing less?

Have you ever made a “priority list” and ended up with a very long list? Do you find yourself pursuing every available opportunity? Are you a non-essentialist?

I recently read Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less and discovered something truly devastating. I have been a quintessential non-essentialist. All these years I’ve been working overtime, grabbing every opportunity that came my way and always being there to help others in need. As the saying goes: if you need something done, give it to someone who is really busy. Yep, that was me. Always busy and happy to help. Yet while I was trying many different things and getting lots of stuff done, I will never know what might have been if I’d been focused on one clear path.   

Many of us, although we would rarely admit it, are caught up in the pursuit of the 'having it all'. But here’s the catch: when everything is essential, nothing is.

Science has proven the term ‘multi-tasker’ is a misnomer. In truth, the more divided our focus, the less competent we become and the less we actually achieve.

In small business, the urge to do everything is often overpowering. The temptation is to try a bit of everything and see what works. The problem with this approach is that you dilute your investment across multiple areas and end up with a diluted outcome, or worst – you find that nothing works.

The answer McKeown offers is, of course, to resist the urge to pursue multiple goals, and harness all your energy into achieving huge success in just one. You need to determine a single, clearly-defined strategy – whatever is the ‘essential’ one for your business – and then ignore everything else.

Choosing one priority, one focal point means your resources are concentrated in a solid and strong laser beam of energy. Success is almost guaranteed.

Being an essentialist requires discipline, to resist the urge to get side tracked and lose focus.

Here are 5 ways McKeown suggests to be a more disciplined essentialist:

Escape the busyness bubble Everyone seems to be extremely busy. If you don’t know why you’re so busy, maybe you have too many priorities. Perhaps your priorities are really someone else’s? According to McKeown, if you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will. Start by giving yourself more time and space to consider what’s really important to your business and identify what is unnecessary or offers less value.  Take a day or even a week out and dedicate this time to review your effort compared with your priorities and goals.

Ask yourself Why? Being an essentialist requires clarity and focus. The best way to achieve this is be guided by a clear and unambiguous business purpose. Put simply, your purpose is whatever is the right thing, for the right reason, at the right time. It will be distinct from others, it may be unpopular or unusual. Once you have this purpose, decisions become simple, as it eliminates a thousand other possibilities.

Choose your problems wisely. Making choices means there’s a trade-off. Every time we choose one thing over another we create a problem for ourselves. For example, focusing on one goal and saying no to unimportant tasks means we will disappoint someone or miss out on something interesting or exciting. Avoiding these disappointments is the reason why so many people find it easier to say yes to the non-essential. If we realise that every minute we are choosing one problem over another, it becomes a question of “which problem do I want to have”. The trade-off is deliberate.

Say No quickly and Yes slowly. Despite the pressure to make others happy, you can teach yourself to say no to the non-essential. The best way is to eliminate non-essential options quickly, and select the ones you do want slowly. Each time you have to make a choice ask “does this help me achieve the purpose” and you’ll find the answer is usually a clear and resounding No. If it could be a Yes, consider it carefully and only agree once you are confident it will achieve your purpose. 

Develop a Progress mindset. A non-essentialist wants it all, and wants it now. They have a fixed mindset that sees success and failure as absolutes and will give up and move on to the next thing quickly.  An essentialist recognises big goals take a long time to achieve and success and failure are just part of the process along the way. Seen in this light, failure can be just as valuable and motivating as a win. A progress mindset allows the essentialist to keep going and overcome obstacles.