David Burkus is an award-winning podcaster and author of Under New Management: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business as Usual. He recently hosted Greg McKeown, founder and CEO of THIS, Inc. and author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less for a conversation about stepping back, attending to the essentials, and refusing to buy Stormtrooper outfits.
David: I was relieved to find that, as much as I struggle with this idea of a disciplined pursuit of less, you struggled with it too, for a very long time.
Greg: That is absolutely right. I remember receiving an email from my boss that said, “Friday would be a very bad time for your wife to have a baby because I need you to be at this client meeting with me.” Friday was, in fact, when my wife went into labor. We’re in the hospital, and my daughter’s born. She’s healthy, everybody’s fine. [But] instead of being focused on what was clearly the most important thing, I felt torn. To my shame, I went to the meeting. Afterwards, I remember my boss said, “The client will respect you for the choice you just made.” Even if they did, I had made a fool’s bargain.
This is where I learned the basic idea that if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. That became an impetus to return to certain principles, and also to do further research and thinking as to why we do what we do. The outgrowth of that, ultimately, was essentialism.
David: There are a lot of books on how to get more done. There are a lot of models and productivity tools, etc. [But] this is not that. This is a manual for a personal journey.
Is less really more? Have you found it to be true?
Greg: I don’t ever say “less is more.” What I say is “less, but better.”
This is quality over quantity. Do I want better relationships with the right people in my life? Do I want a better relationship with my wife? The disciplined pursuit of the essential gets richer as you proceed. I’m not saying it gets easier, because I’m not sure that’s true. In a way, it becomes harder. [But] it becomes more valuable over time.
Not every so often, saying, “What’s important? Let me remove the things that aren’t important,” but constantly, perpetually doing it is powerful.
David: It’s one thing to go through that process once, but as you progress, lots of new trivial [things] keep popping up. How does one create a regular habit of analyzing these things and eliminating them, or is it about not allowing them in your life to begin with?
Greg: In today’s world, you have to have a new set of skills, a new set of habits. Essentialism has the power of relevancy, because we live in an era where culturally, the undisciplined pursuit of more is ubiquitous. This “you can have it all,” busy-ness epidemic is so normal, nobody even notices it. Essentialism is the antidote to that, and it’s the most relevant approach to leadership right now.
David: For those who are beginning the journey, how do we determine the “less” we’re going to pursue? What are the vital few?
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
Greg: I recommend scheduling one personal quarterly offsite to think about the bigger picture and review the last 90 days. What happened? What are the good things? What are the bad things? Celebrate the wins, then come up with the two or three big goals for the next 90 days.
Secondly, you can hold twenty-minute, weekly planning sessions, in which you’re saying, “What are the top three to six things that I need to do?” Maybe three things personally, three things professionally. You treat each week like a prototype for living the life that you want to live.
It’s about the cadence. It’s a disciplined pursuit. You’re not going to get it right. You’re going to mess up. One week you do it and the next week, you don’t. You get back on. You get right again.
Then, I recommend creating an essential list each day. Take a piece of paper and say, “The first item, the most important item, on my To Do list of six,” (limit yourself to around that number) “is going to be significantly more important than the next item.”
I take an old piece of paper and I make the top third of the sheet [devoted to] the top item. By visually showing that it’s the most important thing, I keep coming back to that item instead of treating it as [having] equal importance as the other tasks.
If you spend a whole day doing all the little not important things, you make some progress, but those small things often do not add up to the importance of that one [big] thing.
So, the first third of the piece of paper is one item, the second third is two items and then, the final third of the piece of paper is three items. These are the six essentials, the big rocks of the day. It motivates me to keep hitting on the thing that maybe I don’t really want to be doing, but I know it’s the essential thing.
David: Do you find that these are mostly recurring tasks?
Greg: It grows out of the personal quarterly offsite. That’s why this cadence of prioritization, becoming disciplined in creating that process and committing to a schedule is so important. It’s about adjusting your focus, day to day, week to week, quarter to quarter. This is what makes sure that overall, despite getting lost along the way, we get to where we really want to get to. We invest in the right things over time because we keep adjusting.
The metaphor I love for this is the idea of going on a plane. A plane, from point A to point B, from San Francisco to New York, for example, is off track 90% of the time. The reason it gets to where it’s supposed to is that it keeps coming back on track.
David: It’s really interesting to hear from the essentialist himself that you’re always going to be making these course corrections. That’s why it’s a disciplined pursuit, instead of just a discipline.
“You’ve got to make tradeoffs, so that you can put energy into and see tremendous progress in the few things that matter most.”
Greg: This is why it’s this willingness to admit all the time, “I don’t know.” What’s the right thing to do next?
Figuring out what’s essential is only the first piece of the equation. The second piece is to eliminate what’s not essential, or to make the tradeoff. To say “I want a priority relationship with my wife” is cheap if I don’t make the second step, like not going on a trip that sounds exciting to me. Saying “[I value] my relationship with my children” is all very well, but am I willing to make tradeoffs? To play tennis with them in the morning, for example? The tradeoffs give teeth to what we’re identifying as most important.
After spending so long writing, researching, and thinking [about my] book, I have come to the conclusion that [writing another book] isn’t the thing I should do next. It took me a while, a couple of years, to make that tradeoff. [But] it was when I decided not to do the book, not try and do both, that suddenly, the thing I’m really working on had a breakthrough.
That doesn’t mean I’ll be successful, but I know it’s the right path. Essentialism is not about saying no for the sake of it. It’s saying yes to the most important contribution. It’s getting to the point.
To use a business example, it’s Steve Jobs saying, “I’m going to stop work on the iPad so I can do the iPhone first.” Most companies [try to do] both. HP created the touch interface PC, but they were doing so many other products at the same time that even today, there are people who don’t even know that they released that product. They killed it. That is the undisciplined pursuit of more.
All of this reminds me of the word “priority.” It came into the English language in the 1400’s, and it’s singular. Of course, it has to be singular. It’s the first, or prior, thing. It stayed singular for the next 500 years. It was only in the industrial revolution that, somehow, it became pluralized: “priorities.” What does that mean? How can you have many first things? To me, that’s a form of madness.
Non-essentialism is saying, “If you can do it all, if you fit it all in, then you can have it all.” That’s not true. We have to get back to reality, where you’ve got to figure out what the priority is. You’ve got to make tradeoffs, so that you can put energy into and see tremendous progress in the few things that matter most.
David: That makes a lot of sense. It reminds me of a Jim Collins quote about the idea that if you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any priorities.
Greg: There are different people that we want to serve and different things that we want to do, but, by definition, you can’t have more than one priority. You can have multiple goals. You can have multiple important things. You just can’t have multiple priorities.
At any given moment, you can multi-task, but you cannot multi-focus. Do you know what the root of the word “focus” means?
David: I don’t.
Greg: It comes from the word “hearth.” Like in a home, a hearth around a fireplace. Imagine pre central heating, pre electricity, pre electric light. As soon as the sun is down, this is the place of warmth and light, where family meets and spends their time.
This is what we mean by focus, and I find it beautiful. It goes to the spirit of essentialism, which, to me, is that you’ve got to embrace essentialism first in yourself. You’ve got to want it for you. Once you make that decision and start becoming an essentialist, then it starts to affect the way you think about everything else, like the way you interact with and lead other people. It becomes relevant professionally, and it becomes relevant in corporate leadership. But it starts with the individual. It starts with this idea of hearth.
“You can have multiple goals. You can have multiple important things. You just can’t have multiple priorities.”
David: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Greg: Years ago, somebody told me, “Just don’t write a book that nobody wants to read.”
That advice stayed with me as a metaphor for all sorts of things in life. Don’t try to sell a product that nobody wants to buy. Don’t try to serve someone in a way they’re not interested in being served. It has to do with getting in the mind of the people that you’re trying to serve, exploring what is essential to them, so that you’re not wasting time doing a bunch of stuff that doesn’t matter to [them].
David: What do you believe that most people don’t?
Greg: I believe in the almost breathtaking ability within each of us to make a contribution so much greater than we tend to make. The price is letting go of the good non-essential things we’ve been doing in the past.
When you set goals, they really work. When people write down a goal, when they visualize it, think about it, and talk about it, the power in us to bring forth that thing is tremendous.
Though sometimes we set goals and forget we’ve set them, so we never let it go. I’ve pursued a couple of things in my life because years ago, I had set the intent and then it worked on autopilot. I remember years ago, someone in my family had said to me, “Wouldn’t it be so cool to have a real Stormtrooper outfit?” Of course, you can buy these now. They cost a thousand bucks, but you can buy them. [One day], it was coming up to Halloween, and I was like, “[I can] go do it.”
I went all the way to actually trying this thing on in the store. I stood there looking in the mirror with it on, going, “There’s no part of this you want anymore. This is just a childhood thing.” Some goals are just okay to let go.
[Some people have] the idea that they need to marry a certain kind of person, or have a certain kind of hair or personality. [But the goals] are outdated. They don’t even want that anymore. I think there’s enormous liberation in having a “look at yourself in a Stormtrooper outfit” moment and going, “That’s cute. I have no interest [in] this.”
David: In your view, what makes someone a leader?
Greg: For the last 20 years, we’ve been hearing a lot about [moving] from a very exclusive, closed, cold leadership to this more open, collaborative leadership. And that’s really positive, but there’s also a downside to that if you go too far. It becomes a sort of inclusivism, where everyone has to be involved in every decision. Everyone has to be in every meeting. Everyone has to be in every email chain and on every conference call. And that becomes an exhausting mess. You’re so worried about hurting someone’s feelings that the decision doesn’t get made.
Essentialism helps to get us back into place. It’s not about saying no and being cold and harsh. It’s about working together to get really clear about what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do, who the right people are and who the right people aren’t, so that you can build something—a unified whole that does something special. That takes tradeoffs and judgment calls, determining that you won’t try to do everything for everyone all the time.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.