Part (1): here.
EXECUTE: How to Make Execution Effortless
There are two ways of thinking about execution. While Nonessentialists tend to force execution, Essentialists invest the time they have saved by eliminating the nonessentials into designing a system to make execution almost effortless.
Once you’ve figured out which activities and efforts to keep in your life, you have to have a system for executing them. You can’t wait until that closet is bursting at the seams and then take superhuman efforts to purge it. You have to have a system in place so that keeping it neat becomes routine and effortless.
BUFFER: The Unfair Advantage
GIVE ME SIX HOURS TO CHOP DOWN A TREE AND I WILL SPEND THE FIRST FOUR SHARPENING THE AXE. —Attributed to Abraham Lincoln
The reality is that we live in an unpredictable world. Even apart from extreme events such as famines, we face the unexpected constantly. We do not know whether the traffic will be clear or congested. We do not know if our flight will be delayed or canceled. We do not know if we’ll slip on a slick road tomorrow and break our wrist. Similarly, in the workplace we do not know if a supplier will be late, or a colleague will drop the ball, or a client will change his or her directions at the eleventh hour, and so on. The only thing we can expect (with any great certainty) is the unexpected. Therefore, we can either wait for the moment and react to it or we can prepare. We can create a buffer.
The Nonessentialist tends to always assume a best-case scenario. We all know those people (and many of us, myself included, have been that person) who chronically underestimate how long something will really take: “This will just take five minutes,” or “I’ll be finished with that project by Friday,” or “It will only take me a year to write my magnum opus.” Yet inevitably these things take longer; something unexpected comes up, or the task ends up being more involved than anticipated, or the estimate was simply too optimistic in the first place. When this happens, they are left reacting to the problem, and results inevitably suffer. Perhaps they pull an all-nighter to make it happen. Perhaps they cut corners, hand in an incomplete project, or worse, fail to get it done at all. Or perhaps they leave someone else on the team to pick up the slack. Either way, they fail to execute at their highest level.
The way of the Essentialist is different. The Essentialist looks ahead. She plans. She prepares for different contingencies. She expects the unexpected. She creates a buffer to prepare for the unforeseen, thus giving herself some wiggle room when things come up, as they inevitably do.
Essentialists accept the reality that we can never fully anticipate or prepare for every scenario or eventuality; the future is simply too unpredictable. Instead, they build in buffers to reduce the friction caused by the unexpected.
SUBTRACT: Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles
TO ATTAIN KNOWLEDGE ADD THINGS EVERY DAY. TO ATTAIN WISDOM SUBTRACT THINGS EVERY DAY. —Lao-tzu
A Nonessentialist approaches execution in a reactive, haphazard manner. Because the Nonessentialist is always reacting to crises rather than anticipating them, he is forced to apply quick-fix solutions: the equivalent to plugging his finger into the hole of a leaking dam and hoping the whole thing doesn’t burst. Being good with a hammer, the Nonessentialist thinks everything is a nail. Thus he applies more and more pressure, but this ends up only adding more friction and frustration. Indeed, in some situations the harder you push on someone the harder he or she will push back.
Essentialists don’t default to Band-Aid solutions. Instead of looking for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, they look for the ones slowing down progress. They ask, “What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?” While the Nonessentialist is busy applying more and more pressure and piling on more and more solutions, the Essentialist simply makes a one-time investment in removing obstacles. This approach goes beyond just solving problems; it’s a method of reducing your efforts to maximize your results.
Produce More by Removing More
Aristotle talked about three kinds of work, whereas in our modern world we tend to emphasize only two. The first is theoretical work, for which the end goal is truth. The second is practical work, where the objective is action. But there is a third: it is poietical work. The philosopher Martin Heidegger described poiesis as a “bringing-forth.” This third type of work is the Essentialist way of approaching execution:
An Essentialist produces more—brings forth more—by removing more instead of doing more.
PROGRESS: The Power of Small Wins
EVERY DAY DO SOMETHING THAT WILL INCH YOU CLOSER TO A BETTER TOMORROW. —Doug Firebaugh
The way of the Nonessentialist is to go big on everything: to try to do it all, have it all, fit it all in. The Nonessentialist operates under the false logic that the more he strives, the more he will achieve, but the reality is, the more we reach for the stars, the harder it is to get ourselves off the ground.
The way of the Essentialist is different. Instead of trying to accomplish it all—and all at once—and flaring out, the Essentialist starts small and celebrates progress. Instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter, the Essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.
FLOW: The Genius of Routine
ROUTINE, IN AN INTELLIGENT MAN, IS A SIGN OF AMBITION. —W. H. Auden
The way of the Nonessentialist is to think the essentials only get done when they are forced. That execution is a matter of raw effort alone. You labor to make it happen. You push through.
The way of the Essentialist is different. The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position. Yes, in some instances an Essentialist still has to work hard, but with the right routine in place each effort yields exponentially greater results.
FOCUS: What’s Important Now?
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
Nonessentialists tend to be so preoccupied with past successes and failures, as well as future challenges and opportunities, that they miss the present moment. They become distracted. Unfocused. They aren’t really there.
The way of the Essentialist is to tune into the present. To experience life in kairos, not just chronos. To focus on the things that are truly important—not yesterday or tomorrow, but right now.
Essentialists live their whole lives in this manner. And because they do, they can apply their full energy to the job at hand. They don’t diffuse their efforts with distractions. They know that execution is easy if you work hard at it and hard if you work easy at it.
At this point you might expect me to start talking about the evils of multitasking—about how a true Essentialist never attempts to do more than one thing at a time. But in fact we can easily do two things at the same time: wash the dishes and listen to the radio, eat and talk, clear the clutter on our desk while thinking about where to go for lunch, text message while watching television, and so on.
What we can’t do is concentrate on two things at the same time. When I talk about being present, I’m not talking about doing only one thing at a time. I’m talking about being focused on one thing at a time. Multitasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can “multifocus” is.
How to Be in the Now
What can we do to be fully present on what is in front of us? Below are some simple techniques to consider.
1- FIGURE OUT WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT RIGHT NOW
When faced with so many tasks and obligations that you can’t figure out which to tackle first, stop. Take a deep breath. Get present in the moment and ask yourself what is most important this very second—not what’s most important tomorrow or even an hour from now. If you’re not sure, make a list of everything vying for your attention and cross off anything that is not important right now.
2- GET THE FUTURE OUT OF YOUR HEAD
Getting the future out of your head enables you to more fully focus on “what is important now.” In this case, my next step was to sit down and list those things that might have been essential—just not right now. So I opened to another page in my journal. This time, I asked myself, “What might you want to do someday as a result of today?” This was not a list of firm commitments, just a way to get all of the ideas out of my head and on paper. This had two purposes. First, it ensured I wouldn’t forget about those ideas, which might prove useful later. Second, it alleviated that stressful and distracting feeling that I needed to act upon them right this second.
After this I prioritized each list. Then I worked on each item on the “what is essential now” list one at a time. I just calmly worked through the list and erased each item when it was complete. By the time I went to sleep I had not only done all the things that needed to be executed at that moment, but I had executed them better and faster, because I was focused.
BE: The Essentialist Life
BEWARE THE BARRENNESS OF A BUSY LIFE. —Socrates
There are two ways of thinking about Essentialism. The first is to think of it as something you do occasionally. The second is to think of it as something you are. In the former, Essentialism is one more thing to add to your already overstuffed life. In the latter, it is a different way—a simpler way—of doing everything. It becomes a lifestyle. It becomes an all-encompassing approach to living and leading. It becomes the essence of who we are.