Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Published on Author Zach Ware

A good reminder (and catchy name) for a disciplined focus on seeking quality in life over quantity of things.

August 2015

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the pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure. Put another way, success can distract us from focusing on the essential things that produce success in the first place.

We are unprepared in part because, for the first time, the preponderance of choice has overwhelmed our ability to manage it. We have lost our ability to filter what is important and what isn

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality.

We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.

most often discussed regrets. At the top of the list: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”6

Instead of forcing execution, Essentialists invest the time they have saved into creating a system for removing obstacles and making execution as easy as possible.

As poet Mary Oliver wrote: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”12 I challenge you to pause more to ask yourself that question.

Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?

I am not here to suggest that living the way of the Essentialist requires us to decide between our families and our health and our work. What I am suggesting is that when faced with a decision where one option prioritizes family and another prioritizes friends, health, or work, we need to be prepared to ask, “Which problem do you want?

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.

If they had raced into this as simply a cost problem, they would have produced an inexpensive electric incubator—a seemingly reasonable solution but one that, as it turned out, would have failed to address the root of the problem.

hand. Eventually Jane and three other teammates launched a nonprofit company called “Embrace” and created the “Embrace Nest,” which uses a waxlike substance that is heated in water, then placed in the sleeping bag–like pod, where it can warm a baby for six hours or more. By getting out there and fully exploring the problem, they were able to better clarify the question and in turn to focus on the essential details that ultimately allowed them to make the highest contribution to the problem.

You can think of this as the 90 Percent Rule, and it’s one you can apply to just about every decision or dilemma. As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it.

In fact, this example is used by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen to demonstrate why some companies have thrived under extreme and difficult circumstances while others have not. In filtering out 7 companies from 20,400, the authors found that the ones that executed most successfully did not have any better ability to predict the future than their less successful counterparts. Instead, they were the ones who acknowledged they could not predict the unexpected and therefore prepared better.5

(1) What risks do we face and where? (2) What assets and populations are exposed and to what degree? (3) How vulnerable are they? (4) What financial burden do these risks place on individuals, businesses, and the government budget? and (5) How best can we invest to reduce risks and strengthen economic and social resilience?11

The question is this: What is the “slowest hiker” in your job or your life? What is the obstacle that is keeping you back from achieving what really matters to you? By systematically identifying and removing this “constraint” you’ll be able to significantly reduce the friction keeping you from executing what is essential.

An Essentialist produces more—brings forth more—by removing more instead of doing more.

Let’s say your “slowest hiker” turns out to be your desire to make the report perfect. There may be dozens of ideas you have to make the report better, but in this case your essential intent is to send off the draft. So to remove the obstacle you need to replace the idea “This has to be perfect or else” with “Done is better than perfect.” Give yourself permission to not have it polished in the first draft. By removing the primary obstacle you have made every other aspect of the job easier.

As John Lasseter, the chief creative officer at Pixar and now Disney, said, “We don’t actually finish our films, we release them.”12

LIFE IS AVAILABLE ONLY IN THE PRESENT MOMENT. IF YOU ABANDON THE PRESENT MOMENT YOU CANNOT LIVE THE MOMENTS OF YOUR DAILY LIFE DEEPLY. —Thich Nhat Hanh

Kairos is different. While it is difficult to translate precisely, it refers to time that is opportune, right, different. Chronos is quantitative; kairos is qualitative. The latter is experienced only when we are fully in the moment—when we exist in the now.

Multitasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can “multifocus” is.

The list goes on, but the point I want to make here is that focusing on the essentials is a choice. It is your choice. That in itself is incredibly liberating.

comparison. The second is the pathetically tiny amount of time we have left of our lives. For me this is not a depressing thought but a thrilling one. It removes fear of choosing the wrong thing. It infuses courage into my bones. It challenges me to be even more unreasonably selective about how to use this precious—and precious is perhaps too insipid of a word—time.

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This post originally appeared at Zach Ware's Notebook.