The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (But Better)

With so many things going on in our hyper-busy, and sometimes frantic, lives, how do you prioritize and do meaningful, important work and actually complete it? Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, is here to share how you can have both a life and a business that better reflects your priorities in a fast-paced environment.

Greg shares some key concepts outlined in his book and imparts some game-changing advice that you can start applying today to become more productive and efficient in your life and business.

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(With your host Andrew Youderian of eCommerceFuel.com and Gregory McKeown of “Essentialism” and GregMcKeown.com)

Andrew: Thank you so much for joining me today on the show. And today, we all live in hyper busy, sometimes, frantic lives. So many things feels like we need to get done a lot of time. With all that going on, how do you prioritize, how you do meaningful important work and get it done in that kind of environment? And how do you still make sure you have a life and a business that reflects your priorities? Sometimes that can be a challenge.

Andrew: Joining me to talk about how to do just that is Greg McKeown. He’s the author of “Essentialism”, a New York Times best-selling book and one of my favorite books, was my favorite book from 2015. We’ll link up to the episode on Drew Sanocki and my favorite books that we went through about a month ago or so. We dive in that issue, had to do all of those things. Apologies in advance for what is a little bit of some choppy audio on Greg’s side. So apologies for that. But if you can do through that, it’s a fun discussion. And the first question I ask Greg is, what is the biggest thing that he sees that keeps otherwise capable, driven, smart people from succeeding? And that’s where we’ll pick it up with our discussion with Greg.

What Keeps You from Success

Greg: Well, the answer was hidden in plain sight. What I found was that what keeps otherwise successful people and organizations, for that matter, from breaking through to the next level is success. And I noticed that phenomenon, at first, working with Silicon Valley companies where I noticed a small team of people, when they were focused on the right few things, at the right time, for the right reasons, could really generate an enormous amount of momentum and break through to the next level. And they became successful.

But here’s the thing, what comes with success is a very logical next step, which is that there’s an increase in options and opportunities. And it’s the increase of options and opportunities that can get people distracted from the very things that led to success in the first place. And so, exaggerating the point in order to make it here, what I learned, is that success can become a catalyst for failure if it leads to what Jim Collins has called “the undisciplined pursuit of more”. And so, really, everything that I write about in ‘Essentialism’ is the antidote to that problem or the disciplined pursuit of less but better.

Andrew: Yeah. I think we get this view of people. It’s really easy to see everyone’s best side, all of their success, all of other things going well in their life and because it’s public and people want to show that and nobody shows the deep dark secrets, the things that aren’t going well in their life. And I have this theory, I think you’d agree that most people who look like they have it all together are secretly making just sacrifices all over the place that may not be visible.

If you do agree, have you seen any antidotes, could you give us some real specific antidotes of that, for maybe a business owner who’s struggling right now, who’s comparing himself to some of these people who seem to have everything together but they can’t seem to do everything and keep it all together.

Looking at Moment-to-Moment Priorities

Greg: Yeah. Look, I think the principle here is, actually I’m just going to tell a story because this is one of the key elements of why I ended up writing ‘Essentialism’, was of a more personal side to what I’ve already just shared. It started when I got an email from my boss, at the time, saying that Friday would be a very bad time for my wife to have a baby because they wanted me to be at a particular client meeting. And Friday was, in fact, the time my wife had a baby and we’re in the hospital together and my wife is well, the baby’s well, my daughter’s well but instead of being focused pristinely on that moment, instead of experiencing the joy of that moment, I was being pulled in at least two different directions with a sense of, “How can I do both?”

And to my shame, I went to that client meeting. I remember afterwards, my boss at the time said, “The client will respect you for the choice you just made”. And I don’t know if they did but I do remember distinctly learning the simple idea, which is that if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. And so, in answer to your question, I think the people that are struggling with feeling pulled all over the place, first of all, are in pretty good company because I think it’s a very universal challenge right now.

But I also think that the solution is to not worry about at all, not to compare themselves at all to what other people are doing and what other people think they should be doing but instead to get quiet and to get clear on the internal clarity around the question, what is most important now? what’s the priority now? And then you just have to have the courage that that conviction will give to you, to be able to push off the external pressures that are sort of ubiquitous and everywhere. That’s where I think people have to begin.

The Essentialist Framework

Andrew: So, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think with essentialism, as you talk about in the book, you can kind of break it down, the framework, into three ways. The first one, exploring and kind of deciding on what you just mentioned, one of those few key things you want to focus on. Number two, eliminate everything else. And then three, build a platform for effortless executions. That kind of the framework, in a nutshell?

Greg: Yes. That’s a framework, that’s sort of a approach. But before all of that, you have to begin with a mindset, before you deal with the skillset. The mindset for very very many of us has been given to us, it’s in the culture of our times. And it basically says, “You have to do it all and if you do manage to fit it all in, then you will get it all”. That’s the mantra, that’s the dominant assumption of our times. And the problem with that is that it’s not true. It turns out to be a lie. So we have been sold a bill of goods.

And so otherwise driven, successful, capable, hard-working people end up in a place they didn’t expect to end up which is that they’re stretched too thin, either at work or at home, that they feel busy but not productive and they’re actually making just a millimeter progress in a million directions instead of really breaking through to the next level. You’ve got to get to the mindset first. Because as soon as you take on the mindset of an essentialist, as soon as that really sinks deep into the mind and even into the heart, then all of the skills that grow out of that become natural and instinctive. But until the mindset is there, none of the skills will matter anyway. You’ll just misapply the skills of essentialism.

The mindset is this, that almost everything is nonessential and a very very few things are essential and really matter. And so that basically, the great work of life is to figure out what those few things are. You can see that if somebody thinks that the work of life is digging coal, then the natural reaction of that assumption is, “Okay, then we have to dig more and more coal all the time” It’s game of just how hard can you work, how much can you do.

But if you suddenly discovered that life is really about digging for diamonds, it would change the whole approach of life. Suddenly, you’d be far more selective with your thought, “Well, how do we get to that?” You’d take more time, you’d work out exactly the right location to be able to find that very essential thing that you’re looking for. I think that the latter metaphor is more accurate to describe the world in which we live. A few things really matter and it’s difficult to overstate the unimportance of practically everything else.

Andrew: For you personally Greg, what have been some of the hardest things that even if you know they’re not necessarily essential to what’s really crucial to you, which I’m guessing is things of substance like family, spreading the message of essentialism, these core things in your life, what are then some of those things that have been the hardest to shed even though you need to?

Your Level of Success Will Be Determined By Your Level of Selectivity

Greg: I feel like I struggle constantly. And one of the reasons I struggle constantly is because essentialism, in a way, gets harder with time. And this is why, because, it’s like somebody in the gym lifting weights, they get stronger but as they get stronger somebody says, “Well, we’ll put more weight on.” And so you have to keep developing your essentialist muscles. Let me just be precise about this as to why, it’s because as you go up in your success and your level of contribution, each level brings with it more and more opportunities and options, as we’ve discussed before. And so you have to get better and better at discernment. And your level of success will be determined by your level of selectivity.

So, let’s put this into concrete terms. For me, right now, so the book came out a year and a half ago now and it really has been more successful than anybody could’ve imagined. It’s made a great difference. It’s published in 20 languages or thereabouts. Already, it’s gone far and wide. What’s the natural reaction of that? What comes next?

Well, lots of people want a piece of your time. Lots of people have had some benefit, even a life-changing experience with essentialism. All of this is what you want. What does it mean? What does the book agent want? Well, he wants the next book out of you. What does the publisher want? The next book. What do the readers want? Okay, what’s next? And the thing is that, that all feels like the right problem to have, doesn’t it? But if you’re not careful what happens is you start to say, “Well, that’s what they want and that’s what I’ve always wanted too so let’s just do it”.

But, in fact, what I have felt in my own life is that isn’t the thing I’m supposed to do next. And so essentialism is a living, breathing thing for me. So I have pushed this off and instead I’m pursuing something else that I feel is a higher contribution.

Simplify The Decision Process

Andrew: And I might be putting you on the spot here but I think it might be an interesting question. You just mentioned, you have a tremendous amount of people vying for your time, for your attention and you’re the essentialist king, if anyone has to do it, it’s you. What made you agree to come on for 45 minutes of your time today to chat, to talk, especially when you’ve got so many other things. What was the mental process or the evaluation criteria that allowed me to be able to be on the phone with you today? How did that work?

Greg: Well, there’s a few things for this. The first is, I think, a helpful way to categorize decisions which is allotting a certain amount of time to certain activities. So I have a media day, once a month. So all the different media that comes in is evaluated and fit within that but I don’t do any more. So once that schedule is filled, it goes to the next month. And that enables a couple of things.

One, it simplifies the decision-making because I don’t have to say, “Well, okay. So is this more important?” or have my EA decide is this more important than this meeting or that meeting? We just say, “Here’s the day”. We just fill in those time slots and once that’s filled you move to the next month. So you know that you don’t neglect the important work or be able to continue this conversation with people and you also don’t have to become consumed with it where every day you’re having a call, you’re doing something, you’re doing an interview. So that’s how we’ve approached it. And it really massively simplifies the decision-making process and it also keeps enough investment on it without too much investment on it.

Building Your Platform

Andrew: Makes sense. And the third part of the framework is building what you call “building a platform for effortless execution”. And can we talk a little bit about that? I know some people, you can lock yourself in a room, I know you kind of went into monk mode when writing your book when you were, you just hunkered down or were off-line from early in the morning to one or two in the afternoon every day. But can we just get some thoughts on what are some of the most critical aspects to understand for people who really want to build that platform to be able to execute effortlessly.

Greg: Well, you have to begin with this important idea. So the subtitle of the book ‘The Disciplined Pursuit of Less’ introduces an idea of discipline or emphasizes that rather. And you have to have a correct understanding of discipline to be able to make the right next step.

Sometimes people talk about discipline in a way that the research doesn’t support. They’ll say things like, “Okay. I’ve got to really get disciplined about that” as if they can psych themselves into greater discipline. But, in fact, what we found in researching discipline is that people cannot do that. What they have is, on any given day, they already have just a set amount of discipline. Over the long run, there are things we can do to slowly increase the supply of discipline but pretty much, it’s pretty set. So, what’s the implication of that?

Well, every time we make a decision of any kind, we are dipping in to a finite resource of discipline and we’re taking out. So if I wake up and I say, “Okay. Well, I have to decide whether I’m going to meditate this morning”. I’ve got to decide whether I’m going to pray, I’ve got to decide whether I’m going to read something inspirational this morning and so on. If I have to decide every single day to do that or not to do it then I’m using up my discipline bucket for decisions I could just make once and build a routine that I don’t question in the morning. I just get up and get on with the routine that I have carefully selected in the past.

And this really starts to get the idea of effortless execution, is that we have to build a routine around those things that we have previously identified as essential so that we don’t use up that precious resource of discipline in trivial or repeated decisions.

It leads to what has described as “decision fatigue”. And I think that most people know about what that means because it happens to us whether through social media or certain emails and certain endless number of expectations that seem to be exploding around us, this massive expansion of choices means that by noon we can be exhausted if we’re not careful. So I think, you mentioned writing the book, yes, if I hadn’t built a routine that was the same almost every single day for the nine months that I was in the writing phase of the book, I think it would’ve been frustrating and painful.

Because I built, with my wife, a very consistent routine that we just knew this is how it works, this is how it’s going to be done in a way that’s family friendly for us and this is the order. As a result of that, it became really quite joyous, effortless is a strong word, but in a sense, an effortless process, certainly compared with, if I’d just waited and done it at the end of the day or done it whenever I happened to feel like it. No. The routine is what saved me.

Does It Spark Joy?

Andrew: As an essentialist, are you also a minimalist in that you try to limit the number of possessions you own?

Greg: I think that the answer to that question is yes, to the idea that I like to limit the number of things around me. I think that the stuff in our lives can really bully us if we’re not careful. When we’re sold things constantly, we are generally sold the benefits but not the cost. Yes, we know the price of a thing but we don’t know the total cost of ownership of it. And every physical item we have around us reminds us of something, tells us something, teaches us something, emphasizes something.

And so, I certainly, I’ve read and love and recommend the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo. I think that is a very compatible book with essentialism. And the question that she suggests people ask of every physical item in their life is to hold it in their hands and to ask, “Does it spark joy?”. The question of “does it spark joy?” is what I described in the book as a 90% criteria. A 90% criteria, a 90% decision means that something has to be 90% great or above for you to say yes.

So if an item of clothing is really awful, maybe we know, “Okay, we’re going to get rid of that. This is terrible. We don’t like that”. That’s like a 10% level. But what if something’s a 50% or 60% or 70% item, “That is pretty nice and I have worn it a couple times so it’s pretty new” or “Aunt Mildred gave it to me or…” Those are the things that clutter up the closet. And a 90% rule or at least the kind of question of does it spark joy is at 90% is saying, “Look, even if I love this, it better spark joy for you to keep it”. And the whole idea of essentialism is we say no to those things. We say if it’s not 90% or above, it’s a no. Or to use a phrase I quite like from another person’s blog, Derek Sivers, “It’s no more yes, it’s either, hell yeah! or no”.

Andrew: Yeah. I love that phrase as well. One of the things that, I think stood out to me the most out of your entire book, Greg, was your concept of the non-essentialist leader really isn’t strong on accountability for their team members because it’s very true, it’s hard to hold someone accountable for a myriad of responsibilities. If you keep dumping things on people and they’ve got all these things going on, it’s a lot harder to tow the line.

But at the same time, myself and a lot of people listening to this podcast, independent e-commerce store owners, they probably have, they’ve got maybe anywhere between three to five employees, enough people where they’re managing a small team, but not enough where they can say, “Hey, this is my marketing guy exclusively and this is my guy that just does merchandising”. And based on the size of the organization, by default, by necessity, a lot of people have to wear a lot of hats.

So given that concept, what would you tell people? What would you tell me in that situation? Would it be something in the lines of, “Really, even if you’re going to drop other things, just give them one thing to focus on” or how should an entrepreneur in a small business that wearing a lot of hats is just kind of necessary think about that? To be a great and responsible leader but still have a lot of accountability in place.

Prioritizing Goals Instead of Roles

Greg: Well, you’re asking a good question about the roles that a person can have but I think they have to go for that because I think that where small business owners struggle, the problem begins, it’s not just the hats, the roles, it’s just what is the highest priority goal for this 90-day period?

I think that the number one mistake I see small business owners make is that they underestimate the amount of time and energy and resources it will take to achieve a particular goal. So there’s a name for this, it’s pretty interesting which means it’s a common bias that is present in all humans. And it’s called “the planning fallacy”. And basically what it means is that people underestimate routinely how long things will take and how many resources they take.

So, for example, you think about it yourself. How many times have you decided to take on a project or initiative and you have found that it took less time than you expected? Okay. Think about that. And then say, how many times have you taken on a project or initiative and it took more time than you expected? And tell me what the ratio is between those two. Actually, I want you to do that. Tell me what in your life, what is the ratio between them?

Andrew: I’d say probably, I feel like this is something I actually plan for so I might not be giving you as much of a home run answer as you might think, but I’d say, usually, it really comes and almost never comes in under, often will come in over, but I usually take an estimate and then usually double it for something I expect to be doing because just like the laws of the universe just always conspire against you it seems.

Multiply By Pi

Greg: What you just said that there is the perfect thing. So somebody once said to me that they take whatever time or financial estimate and they multiply it by pi. And I think that that’s a great rule of thumb. And it’s so consistent. You build a new house and somebody says it will cost this much, well multiply it by pi. It will take this amount of time, multiply it by pi.

This is a very good rule of thumb. Of course, it’s hard because once people develop that habit then of course, you can’t always multiply every estimate by pi. But I actually think it’s been true for me. I find it very rarely the case that the first estimate of time or cost will in fact be what it is. And so, I think you’ve got to begin here because regardless how many roles you give to people and how you divide up your energy, you’ve got to be true about, “Look, I can only do this many things”.

Because by getting honest about that, you then become more thoughtful about which of these projects I really want to pursue. And you got to really decide, “Do I care about these two? Are these the one or two projects that I think will move the needle, that will take me” and this is a good criteria for entrepreneurs, “take me to a 10x level of contribution this year?”

Three Must-Read Books (Besides Essentialism)

Andrew: Great. Kind of wrapping things up here. Could you give us maybe three of your favorite books that really embody the essentialist mindset and philosophy and habits. (Check out book picks from the forum here!)

Greg: What I’d like to do instead is cheat and give you only one, and actually not a whole book but an essay, that I think everybody listening should read. It’s called “The Catastrophe of Success” and it’s from “The Glass Menagerie”. “The Glass Menagerie” is a play and at the end of that play, and there’re a lot of books you can buy on that, there’s an essay. It was first written in the New York Times but is now published as an addition, after the play. And that is an amazing little essay.

I think everybody should read that. It’s about the risks of success. Once you become successful, what happens and how to really be careful to not allow it to take you away from those things that really will continue to produce success. I think people have to learn how to, I’m not anti-success, I want to emphasize that. I just believe we have to learn how to become successful at success.

And I know that a lot of entrepreneurs will say, “Well, I’d just like to be really successful first and then I can worry about that”. But I actually think, in general, everybody listening to this is already successful, they already are dealing with some of the challenges of that success. They already, for example, have more ideas of what to pursue than they have time to pursue it. That’s an evidence of the result of success. And there’s also people in the world who don’t have that problem. And so, how do you decide with that problem, what do you do about it?

I think that we’re all ready, the very fact that we’re taking the time to listen to this website, the fact that can speak, read, listen, write, all these kinds of things are evidences of success, even if a lot of that was given to us because we live in the Western world, in an industrialized world, and so on.

Still evidences of success and so we still have to learn all the things that come with that and how to make sure that those things don’t actually then consume us and overwhelm us. To make sure, just because we have podcasts that we can listen to on the way to wherever doesn’t just mean we should just listen to all of them or ten of them. We ought to be selective, we ought to be careful. Make sure that we’re listening to the ones that really are going to be the right ones. Just because we can read doesn’t mean we should read all the different books that we possibly can. We have to be discerning about it and so on. So that would be the essay, “The Catastrophe of Success”.

Andrew: Well, Greg, appreciate you coming on. If you’re listening, highly recommend “Essentialism”. It was my favorite book in 2015 and you can of course get online anywhere and you can learn more about Greg and the flossy of essentialism over at gregmckeown.com or on Twitter @GregoryMcKeown.com. Greg, thanks so much for coming on. I really appreciate having you.

Greg: Thank you very much.

Andrew: That’s going to do it for this week. If you enjoyed the episode, make sure to check out the eCommercefuel private forum, a vetted community exclusively for six and seven figure store owners. With over 600 experienced members and thousands of monthly comments, it’s the best place online to connect with and learn from other successful store owners to help you grow your business. To learn more and apply, visit ecommercefuel.com/forum. Thanks so much for listening and I’m looking forward to seeing you again next Friday.

What Was Mentioned

Image from Essentialism

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