Main Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of LessGreg McKeown
The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done. It is not a time management strategy, or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.
By forcing us to apply a more selective criteria for what is Essential, the disciplined pursuit of less empowers us to reclaim control of our own choices about where to spend our precious time and energy—instead of giving others the implicit permission to choose for us.
Essentialism is not one more thing—it’s a whole new way of doing everything. A must-read for any leader, manager, or individual who wants to do less, but better, and declutter and organize their own their lives, Essentialism is a movement whose time has come.
By forcing us to apply a more selective criteria for what is Essential, the disciplined pursuit of less empowers us to reclaim control of our own choices about where to spend our precious time and energy—instead of giving others the implicit permission to choose for us.
Essentialism is not one more thing—it’s a whole new way of doing everything. A must-read for any leader, manager, or individual who wants to do less, but better, and declutter and organize their own their lives, Essentialism is a movement whose time has come.
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APPENDIX Leadership Essentials NEVER DOUBT THAT A SMALL GROUP OF THOUGHTFUL, COMMITTED CITIZENS CAN CHANGE THE WORLD; INDEED, IT’S THE ONLY THING THAT EVER HAS. —Margaret Mead LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner sees “fewer things done better” as the most powerful mechanism for leadership. When he took the reins of the company he could easily have adopted the standard operating procedure of most Silicon Valley start-ups and tried to pursue everything. Instead, he said no to really good opportunities in order to pursue only the very best ones. He uses the acronym FCS (a.k.a. FOCUS) to teach his philosophy to his employees. The letters stand for “Fewer things done better,” “Communicating the right information to the right people at the right time,” and “Speed and quality of decision making.” Indeed, this is what it means to lead essentially. ESSENTIALIST TEAMS Essentialism as a way of thinking and acting is as relevant to the way we lead companies and teams as it is to the way we lead our lives. In fact, many of the ideas I have shared in this book first became clear to me in working with executive teams. I have since gathered data from more than five hundred individuals about their experience on more than one thousand teams. I asked them to answer a series of questions about a time when they had worked on a unified team, what the experience was like, what role their manager played, and what the end result was. Then I had them contrast this with a time when they had been on a disunified team and what that was like, what role their manager played, and how it affected the end result. The results of this research were startling: when there was a high level of clarity of purpose, the teams and the people on it overwhelmingly thrived. When there was a serious lack of clarity about what the team stood for and what their goals and roles were, people experienced confusion, stress, frustration, and ultimately failure. As one senior vice president succinctly summarized it when she looked at the results gathered from her extended team: “Clarity equals success.” This is just one of the many reasons that the principle of “less but better” is just as useful in building teams that can make a difference as it is in enabling individuals to live a life that really matters. Life on teams today is fast and full of opportunity. When teams are unified, the abundance of opportunity can be a good thing. But when teams lack clarity of purpose, it becomes difficult if not impossible to discern which of these myriad opportunities are truly vital. The unintended consequence is that Nonessentialist managers try to have their teams pursue too many things—and try to do too many things themselves as well—and the team plateaus in its progress. An Essentialist leader makes a different choice. With clarity of purpose, she is able to apply “less but better” to everything from talent selection, to direction, to roles, to communication, to accountability. As a result her team becomes unified and breaks through to the next level. THE ELEMENTS OF LEADING AS AN ESSENTIALIST At this point in the book you’ve learned about flaws in Nonessentialist thinking and replaced that false logic with the basic truths of Essentialism. But Essentialism doesn’t end with the individual. If you lead in any capacity—whether it’s a team of two colleagues, a department of five hundred employees, or even some group in your school or community—the next step in your journey, if you are willing to take it, is to apply these same skills and mind-sets to your leadership. MIND-SET Nonessentialist Everything to everyone Essentialist Less but better TALENT Nonessentialist Hires people frantically and creates a “Bozo explosion.” Essentialist Ridiculously selective on talent and removes people who hold the team back. STRATEGY Nonessentialist Pursues a straddled strategy where everything is a priority. Essentialist Defines an essential intent by answering the question, “If we could only do one thing, what would it be?” Eliminates the nonessential distractions. EMPOWERMENT Nonessentialist Allows ambiguity over who is doing what. Decisions are capricious. Essentialist Focuses on each team member’s highest role and goal of contribution. COMMUNICATION Nonessentialist Talks in code. Essentialist Listens to get to what is essential. ACCOUNTABILITY Nonessentialist Checks in too much or is so busy he or she checks out altogether. Sometimes does both: disrupting the focus of the group and then being absent to the group. Essentialist Checks in with people in a gentle way to see how he or she can remove obstacles and enable small wins. RESULT Nonessentialist A fractured team that makes a millimeter of progress in a million directions Essentialist A unified team that breaks through to the next level of contribution From looking at this chart, the advantages of applying the Essentialist approach to every aspect of leadership that matters should be clear. Still, let’s take a moment to briefly expand on these to get even clearer on how, exactly, to lead as an Essentialist. BE RIDICULOUSLY SELECTIVE IN HIRING PEOPLE A Nonessentialist tends to hire people frantically and impulsively—then gets too busy or distracted to either dismiss or reskill the people keeping the team back. At first the hiring bonanza seems justified because of the pace of growth that must be sustained. But in reality one wrong hire is far costlier than being one person short. And the cost of hiring too many wrong people (and one wrong hire often leads to multiple wrong hires because the wrong person will tend to attract more wrong people) is what Guy Kawasaki called a “Bozo explosion”—a term he uses to describe what happens when a formerly great team or company descends into mediocrity.1 An Essentialist, on the other hand, is ridiculously selective on talent. She has the discipline to hold out for the perfect hire—no matter how many résumés she has to read, or interviews she has to conduct, or talent searches she has to make—and doesn’t hesitate to remove people who hold the team back. The result is a team full of all-star performers whose collective efforts add up to more than the sum of their parts (see chapter 9, “Select,” for more on this subject). DEBATE UNTIL YOU HAVE ESTABLISHED A REALLY CLEAR (NOT PRETTY CLEAR) ESSENTIAL INTENT Without clarity of purpose, Nonessentialist leaders straddle their strategy: they try to pursue too many objectives and do too many things. As a result their teams get spread in a million directions and make little progress on any. They waste time on the nonessentials and neglect the things that really matter (see chapter 10 on the importance of purpose and essential intent). These days there is a lot of talk in organizations about “alignment,” and indeed the more a team is aligned, the greater their contribution will be. Clear intent leads to alignment; vague direction produces misalignment every time. GO FOR EXTREME EMPOWERMENT The Nonessentialist disempowers people by allowing ambiguity over who is doing what. Often this is justified in the name of wanting to be a flexible or agile team. But what is actually created is a counterfeit agility. When people don’t know what they are really responsible for and how they will be judged on their performance, when decisions either are or appear to be capricious, and when roles are ill-defined, it isn’t long before people either give up or, worse, become obsessed with trying to look busy and therefore important instead of actually getting any real work done. An Essentialist understands that clarity is the key to empowerment. He doesn’t allow roles to be general and vague. He ensures that everyone on the team is really clear about what they are expected to contribute and what everyone else is contributing. One CEO recently admitted that he had allowed ambiguity on his executive team to keep the whole organization back. To repair the damage, he said he went through a huge streamlining process until he was down to just four direct reports, each with a clear functional responsibility across the whole organization. The iconoclastic entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel took “less but better” to an unorthodox level when he insisted that PayPal employees select one single priority in their role—and focus on that exclusively. As PayPal executive Keith Rabois recalls: “Peter required that everyone be tasked with exactly one priority. He would refuse to discuss virtually anything else with you except what was currently assigned as your #1 initiative. Even our annual review forms in 2001 required each employee to identify their single most valuable contribution to the company.”2 The result was the employees were empowered to do anything within the confines of that clearly defined role that they felt would make a high level of contribution to the shared mission of the company. COMMUNICATE THE RIGHT THINGS TO THE RIGHT PEOPLE AT THE RIGHT TIME The Nonessentialist leader communicates in code, and as a result people aren’t sure what anything really means. Nonessentialist communication usually is either too general to be actionable or changes so quickly that people are always caught off guard. Essentialist leaders, on the other hand, communicate the right things to the right people at the right time. Essentialist leaders speak succinctly, opting for restraint in their communication to keep the team focused. When they do speak, they are crystal clear. They eschew meaningless jargon, and their message is so consistent it seems almost boring to their ears. In this way, teams are able to pick up the essential through all the trivial noise. CHECK IN OFTEN TO ENSURE MEANINGFUL PROGRESS The Nonessentialist leader is not great on accountability. A primary and somewhat obvious reason is that the more items one pursues, the harder it is to follow up on all of them. In fact, a Nonessentialist leader may unintentionally train his people to expect no follow-up at all. In turn, the members of the team soon learn that there are no repercussions for failing, cutting corners, or prioritizing what is easy over what is important. They learn that each objective pronounced by the leader will be emphasized only for a moment before giving way to something else of momentary interest. By taking the time to get clear about the one thing that is really required, the Essentialist leader makes follow-up so easy and frictionless that it actually happens. By checking in with people frequently to reward small wins and help people remove obstacles, he bolsters the team’s motivation and focus and enables them to make more meaningful progress (see chapter 17 on the power of progress). Simply leading according to the principle of “less but better” will enable your team to amplify their level of collective contribution and achieve something truly remarkable. As expressed by Ela Bhatt, a classic Essentialist and truly visionary leader whose legacy includes such meaningful achievements as winning the prestigious Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, founding dozens of institutions dedicated to improving the conditions for poor women in India, and being named one of Hillary Clinton’s personal heroines: Out of all virtues simplicity is my most favorite virtue. So much so that I tend to believe that simplicity can solve most of the problems, personal as well as the world problems. If the life approach is simple one need not lie so frequently, nor quarrel nor steal, nor envy, anger, abuse, kill. Everyone will have enough and plenty so need not hoard, speculate, gamble, hate. When character is beautiful, you are beautiful. That is the beauty of simplicity.3 Indeed that is the beauty of leading as an Essentialist. EXPLORE Discern the Vital Few from the Trivial Many One paradox of Essentialism is that Essentialists actually explore more options than their Nonessentialist counterparts. Nonessentialists get excited by virtually everything and thus react to everything. But because they are so busy pursuing every opportunity and idea they actually explore less. The way of the Essentialist, on the other hand, is to explore and evaluate a broad set of options before committing to any. Because Essentialists will commit and “go big” on only the vital few ideas or activities, they explore more options at first to ensure they pick the right one later. In Part Two, we will discuss five practices for exploring what is essential. The gravitational pull of Nonessentialism can be so strong that it can be tempting to skip over or skim over this step. Yet this step, in itself, is essential to the disciplined pursuit of less. 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. Ironically, in a Nonessentialist culture these things—space, listening, playing, sleeping, and selecting—can be seen as trivial distractions. At best they are considered nice to have. At worst they are derided as evidence of weakness and wastefulness. We all know that highly ambitious or productive person who thinks, “Of course, I’d love to be able to set aside time on the calendar simply to think, but it’s a luxury we can’t afford right now.” Or “Play? Who has time for play? We are here to work!” or as one leader said to me in an on-boarding process, “I hope you had a good night’s sleep. You won’t get much of that here.” If you believe being overly busy and overextended is evidence of productivity, then you probably believe that creating space to explore, think, and reflect should be kept to a minimum. Yet these very activities are the antidote to the nonessential busyness that infects so many of us. Rather than trivial diversions, they are critical to distinguishing what is actually a trivial diversion from what is truly essential. Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking. But their exploration is not an end in itself. The purpose of the exploration is to discern the vital few from the trivial many. [image: ] Taking Essentialism Beyond the Page As part of his engaging keynote speeches, talks, and workshops, Greg McKeown shares a strategic framework for living and leading as an Essentialist. Using real-world examples, Greg McKeown challenges assumptions and moves his audiences to action. Among his lecture topics are: THE DISCIPLINED PURSUIT OF LESS (BUT BETTER) – KEYNOTE This lecture speaks to anyone who has ever felt overworked but underutilized, or always busy but never productive. Greg McKeown offers a framework for discerning what is essential, eliminating what is not, and removing obstacles in order to make the execution of what is essential as effortless as possible. The disciplined pursuit of less allows employees to channel their time, energy, and effort toward making the highest possible contribution to what really matters. LEADING AS AN ESSENTIALIST – KEYNOTE In this keynote, Greg McKeown illustrates why leading as an Essentialist can help organizations accomplish more with fewer resources, take teams to the next level, and produce breakthroughs in results and innovation. APPLYING ESSENTIALISM – THE LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT TRAINING In this workshop, McKeown gives participants the tools to define the Strategic Intent of their business. Specifically, they will learn to Evaluate the trivial many from the vital few, Eliminate the nonessentials, and to Enable the team to almost effortlessly execute on the essentials. To inquire about a possible speaking engagement, please contact the Random House Speakers Bureau at 212-572-2013 or firstname.lastname@example.org. A full profile and video footage of Greg McKeown can be found at www.rhspeakers.com. [image: ] Notes 1. THE ESSENTIALIST 1. A version of this story was published in a blog post I wrote for Harvard Business Review called “If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will,” June 28, 2012, http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/06/how-to-say-no-to-a-controlling/. 2. Originally called “the Clarity Paradox” in a blog post I wrote for Harvard Business Review called “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” August 8, 2012, http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/08/the-disciplined-pursuit-of-less/. I have drawn from other HBR blogs I have written in various parts of this book. 3. Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In (New York: HarperCollins, 2009). 4. Peter Drucker, “Managing Knowledge Means Managing Oneself,” Leader to Leader Journal, no. 16 (Spring 2000), www.hesselbeininstitute.org/knowledgecenter/journal.aspx?ArticleID=26. 5. Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pessoa, “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 17 (2011): 6889–92. 6. Bronnie Ware, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” Huflington Post, January 21, 2012, www.huffingtonpost.com/bronnie-ware/top-5-regrets-of-the-dyin_b_1220965.html. I first wrote about this in a blog post I wrote for Harvard Business Review called “If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will,” June 28, 2012, http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/06/how-to-say-no-to-a-controlling/. 7. Ibid., “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” 8. Ibid., “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” 9. Peter Drucker interview with Bruce Rosenstein on April 11, 2005. Bruce wrote up the interview in his book Living in More Than One World: How Peter Drucker’s Wisdom Can Inspire and Transform Your Life (San Francisco, CA. Berrett-Koehler, 2009). 10. Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture (dir. Vicki Abeles, 2011) is a documentary and a movement in schools working to fight, using my own words, Nonessentialism in school. They are working to reduce the imposition of unnecessary homework and stress on children. See their website, www.racetonowhere.com/. 11. There are many citations for this or similar statements. Emile Gauvreau is just one example: “I was part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest, to make money they don’t want, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like” (quoted in Jay Friedenberg, Artificial Psychology: The Quest for What It Means to Be Human [New York: Taylor and Francis, 2010], 217). 12. Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” in New and Selected Poems, vol. 1 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 94. 2. CHOOSE 1. M. E. P. Seligman, “Learned Helplessness,” Annual Review of Medicine 23, no. 1 (1972): 407–12, doi: 10.1146/annurev.me.23.020172.002203. 2. William James, Letters of William James, ed. Henry James (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920), 1:147; quoted in Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (1948; repr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 1:323. 3. DISCERN 1. John Carlin, “If the World’s Greatest Chef Cooked for a Living, He’d Starve,” Guardian, December 11, 2006, http://observer.theguardian.com/foodmonthly/futureoffood/story/0,,1969713,00.html. 2. Joseph Moses Juran, Quality-Control Handbook (New York: McGraw Hill, 1951). 3. I originally wrote this in a blog post for the Harvard Business Review, called “The Unimportance of Practically Everything,” May 29, 2012 4. Richard Koch, The 80/20 Principle: The Secret of Achieving More with Less (London: Nicholas Brealey, 1997); The Power Laws (London: Nicholas Brealey, 2000), published in the United States as The Natural Laws of Business (New York: Doubleday, 2001); The 80/20 Revolution (London: Nicholas Brealey, 2002), published in the United States as The 80/20 Individual (New York: Doubleday, 2003); and Living the 80/20 Way (London: Nicholas Brealey, 2004). 5. Warren Buffett, quoted in Koch, The 80/20 Individual, 20. 6. Mary Buffett and David Clark, The Tao of Warren Buffett: Warren Buffett’s Words of Wisdom (New York: Scribner, 2006), no. 68. 7. Ibid., “The Unimportance of Practically Everything.” 8. At a meeting we both attended at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. He was speaking, and afterwards we chatted for a few minutes. He confirmed that he had said it or words to the same effect and that he certainly believed it was true. 9. John Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You (Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1993), 22–23. 4. TRADE-OFF 1. “30-Year Super Stocks: Money Magazine Finds the Best Stocks of the Past 30 Years,” Money magazine, October 9, 2002. 2. “Herb Kelleher: Managing in Good Times and Bad,” interview, View from the Top, April 15, 2006, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxyC3Ywb9yc. 3. M. E. Porter, “What Is Strategy?” Harvard Business Review 74, no. 6 (1996). 4. Erin Callan, “Is There Life After Work?” New York Times, March 9, 2013. 5. Judith Rehak, “Tylenol Made a Hero of Johnson & Johnson,” New York Times, March 23, 2002, www.nytimes.com/2002/03/23/your-money/23iht-mjj_ed3_.html. 6. Michael Josephson, “Business Ethics Insight: Johnson & Johnson’s Values-Based Ethical Culture: Credo Goes Beyond Compliance,” Business Ethics and Leadership, February 11, 2012, http://josephsoninstitute.org/business/blog/2012/02/business-ethics-insight-johnson-johnsons-values-based-ethical-culture-its-credo-goes-beyond-compliancer-than-compliance-based-rules-culture/. 7. Sowell in a talk he gave at Ohio State University in 1992. 8. Stephanie Smith, “Jim Collins on Creating Enduring Greatness,” Success, n.d., www.success.com/articles/1003-jim-collins-on-creating-enduring-greatness, accessed September 22, 2013. 9. David Sedaris, “Laugh, Kookaburra,” The New Yorker, August 24, 2009, www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/24/090824fa_fact_sedaris. 5. ESCAPE 1. Frank O’Brien, “Do-Not-Call Mondays.” 2. Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2012), 132. 3. Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 105. 4. Jeff Weiner, “The Importance of Scheduling Nothing,” LinkedIn, April 3, 2013, https://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130403215758-22330283-the-importance-of-scheduling-nothing. 5. I am indebted here to an excellent first-person account of Bill Gates’s Think Week by Robert A. Guth, “In Secret Hideaway, Bill Gates Ponders Microsoft’s Future,” Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2005, http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB111196625830690477,00.html. 6. LOOK 1. Nora Ephron, “The Best Journalism Teacher I Ever Had,” Northwest Scholastic Press, June 18, 2013, www.nwscholasticpress.org/2013/06/18/the-best-journalism-teacher-i-ever-had/#sthash.ZFtUBv50.dpbs; also written about by Ephron in her essay “Getting to the Point,” in Those Who Can … Teach! Celebrating Teachers Who Make a Difference, by Lorraine Glennon and Mary Mohler (Berkeley, CA: Wildcat Canyon Press, 1999), 95–96. 2. Accident description in the Aviation Safety Network’s Aviation Safety Database, http://aviation-safety.net/database/, accessed June 9, 2012. 3. To Harry Potter in the film, Deathly Hallows—Part 1. 4. “The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers when there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.” C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2001), 138. 5. “Young Firm Saves Babies’ Lives,” Stanford Graduate School of Business, June 7, 2011, www.stanford.edu/group/knowledgebase/cgi-bin/2011/06/07/young-firm-saves-babies-lives/. 7. PLAY 1. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, the Secret to Happiness, TED talk, February 2004, video, www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow.html. 2. Sir Ken Robinson, Bring on the Learning Revolution!, TED talk, February 2010, video, www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution.html. 3. Stuart Brown, Play Is More Than Just Fun, TED talk, May 2008, video, www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital.html. 4. Quoted in Stuart Brown, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (New York: Avery, 2009), 29. 5. Jaak Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 297. 6. Quoted as conversation between Einstein and János Plesch in János Plesch’s János: The Story of a Doctor, trans. Edward FitzGerald (London: Gollancz, 1947), 207. 7. Supriya Ghosh, T. Rao Laxmi, and Sumantra Chattarji, “Functional Connectivity from the Amygdala to the Hippocampus Grows Stronger after Stress,” Journal of Neuroscience 33, no. 38 (2013), abstract, www.jneurosci.org/content/33/17/7234.abstract. 8. Edward M. Hallowell, Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011), 125. 9. Ibid., p. 113. 8. SLEEP 1. K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (1993): 363–406, http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/blogs/freakonomics/pdf/DeliberatePractice(PsychologicalReview).pdf. 2. Charles A. Czeisler, “Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer,” interview by Bronwyn Fryer, Harvard Business Review, October 2006, http://hbr.org/2006/10/sleep-deficit-the-performance-killer. 3. Ullrich Wagner et al., “Sleep Inspires Insight,” Nature 427 (January 22, 2004): 352–55. An additional study further supports the idea: Michael Hopkin, “Sleep Boosts Lateral Thinking,” Nature online, January 22, 2004, www.nature.com/news/2004/040122/full/news040119-10.html. 4. Nancy Ann Jeffrey, “Sleep Is the New Status Symbol For Successful Entrepreneurs,” Wall Street Journal, April 2, 1999, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB923008887262090895.html. 5. Erin Callan, “Is There Life After Work?,” New York Times, March 9, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/03/10/opinion/sunday/is-there-life-after-work.html?_r=0. 9. SELECT 1. Derek Sivers, “No More Yes. It’s Either HELL YEAH! or No,” August 26, 2009, http://sivers.org/hellyeah. 2. “Box CEO Levie at Startup Day,” GeekWire, September 24, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W99AjxpUff8. 3. I originally cited this in a blog post I wrote for Harvard Business Review called “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” August 8, 2012, http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/08/the-disciplined-pursuit-of-less/. 10. CLARIFY 1. This exercise and other parts of this chapter were originally published in Harvard Business Review called “If I Read One More Platitude-Filled Mission Statement, I’ll Scream,” October 4, 2012. 2. I am indebted here to Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad and their brilliant piece in Harvard Business Review, “Strategic Intent,” May 1989, http://hbr.org/1989/05/strategic-intent/ar/1. They use as context the Japanese companies at the time who had a long-term intent to stretch companies to go beyond their current level of resources. Over time as I have worked with people and teams this idea has proven useful but has changed sufficiently enough to be described differently. Thus an essential intent. 11. DARE 1. Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965 (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 66. 2. Mark Feeney, “Rosa Parks, Civil Rights Icon, Dead at 92,” Boston Globe, October 25, 2005. 3. Donnie Williams and Wayne Greenhaw, The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People who Broke the Back of Jim Crow (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2005), 48. 4. “Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks Dies at 92,” CNN, October 25, 2005. 5. This story is shared in a few different places, but this account is taken from my interview with Cynthia Covey in 2012. 6. Stephen R. Covey and Roger and Rebecca Merrill, First Things First (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 75. 7. http://wps.prenhall.com/hssaronsonsocpsych6/64/16428/4205685.cw/-/4205769/index.html. 8. Quoted in Howard Gardner, “Creators: Multiple Intelligences,” in The Origins of Creativity, ed. Karl H. Pfenninger and Valerie R. Shubik (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 132. 9. First referenced in a blog post I wrote for Harvard Business Review called “If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will,” June 28, 2012, http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/06/how-to-say-no-to-a-controlling/ 10. In 1993 Interview re: Paul Rand and Steve Jobs, dir. Doug Evans, uploaded January 7, 2007, www.youtube.com/watch?v=xb8idEf-Iak, Steve Jobs shares how Paul Rand came up with the logo for NeXT. 11. Carol Hymowitz, “Kay Krill on Giving Ann Taylor a Makeover,” Business Week, August 9, 2012, www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-08-09/kay-krill-on-giving-ann-taylor-a-makeover#p2. 12. UNCOMMIT 1. “Concorde the Record Breaker,” n.d., www.concorde-art-world.com/html/record_breaker.html, accessed September 22, 2013; Peter Gillman, “Supersonic Bust,” Atlantic, January 1977, www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/77jan/gillman.htm. 2. “Ministers Knew Aircraft Would Not Make Money,” Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/ministers-knew-aircraft-would-not-make-money-concorde-thirty-years-ago-harold-macmillan-sacked-a-third-of-his-cabinet-concorde-was-approved-the-cuba-crisis-shook-the-world-and-ministers-considered-pit-closures-anthony-bevins-and-nicholas-timmins-review-highlights-from-1962-government-files-made-public-yesterday-1476025.html 3. Gillman, “Supersonic Bust.” 4. Michael Rosenfield, “NH Man Loses Life Savings on Carnival Game,” CBS Boston, April 29, 2013, http://boston.cbslocal.com/2013/04/29/nh-man-loses-life-savings-on-carnival-game/. 5. Daniel Kahneman, Jack L. Knetsch, and Richard H. Thaler, “Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias,” Journal of Economic Perspective 5, no. 1 (1991): 193–206, http://users.tricity.wsu.edu/~achaudh/kahnemanetal.pdf. 6. Tom Stafford, “Why We Love to Hoard … and How You Can Overcome It,” BBC News, July 17, 2012, www.bbc.com/future/story/20120717-why-we-love-to-hoard. 7. I originally wrote this in a blog post for Harvard Business Review called “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” August 8, 2012, http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/08/the-disciplined-pursuit-of-less/. 8. Hal R. Arkes and Peter Aykon, “The Sunk Cost and Concorde Effects: Are Humans Less Rational Than Lower Animals?” Psychological Bulletin 125, no. 5 (1999): 591–600, http://americandreamcoalition-org.adcblog.org/transit/sunkcosteffect.pdf. 9. James Surowiecki, “That Sunk-Cost Feeling,” The New Yorker, January 21, 2013, www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2013/01/21/130121ta_talk_surowiecki. 10. Daniel Shapero, “Great Managers Prune as Well as Plant,” LinkedIn, December 13, 2012, www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20121213073143-314058-great-managers-prune-as-well-as-plant. 13. EDIT 1. Mark Harris, “Which Editing Is a Cut Above?” New York Times, January 6, 2008. In 1980, Ordinary People won as Best Picture, but its editor Jeff Kanew was not nominated for Best Editing. 2. Harris, “Which Editing.” 3. “Jack Dorsey: The CEO as Chief Editor,” February 9, 2011, video, uploaded February 15, 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=fs0R-UvZ-hQ. 4. Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, 10th Anniversary ed. (New York: Pocket Books, 2000), 224. 5. I wrote about this subject further in a blog post for Harvard Business Review called “The One Thing CEOs Need to Learn from Apple,” April 30, 2012 6. King, third foreword to Ibid., xix. 7. Alan D. Williams, “What Is an Editor?” in Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do, 3rd rev. ed., ed. Gerald Gross (New York: Grove Press, 1993), 6. 14. LIMIT 1. Some minor details changed. 2. Based on a talk Clayton Christensen gave to students at the Stanford Law School in 2013 3. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 29–30. 4. I have found this story cited in several places: for example, Jill Rigby’s Raising Respectful Children in an Unrespectful World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), ch. 6. But I have yet to find an original source for the story and therefore share this only as an anecdote. 15. BUFFER 1. Guy Lodge, “Thatcher and North Sea Oil: A Failure to Invest in Britain’s Future,” New Statesman, April 15, 2013, www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/04/thatcher-and-north-sea-oil-%E2%80%93-failure-invest-britain%E2%80%99s-future. 2. Dale Hurd, “Save or Spend? Norway’s Commonsense Example,” CBN News, July 11, 2011, www.cbn.com/cbnnews/world/2011/July/Save-or-Spend-Norways-Common-Sense-Example-/. 3. Richard Milne, “Debate Heralds Change for Norway’s Oil Fund,” FT.com, June 30, 2013, www.ft.com/cms/s/0/8466bd90-e007-11e2-9de6-00144feab7de.html#axzz2ZtQp4H13. 4. See Roland Huntford, The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole (New York: Modern Library, 1999). 5. Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (New York: Harper Business, 2011). 6. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Intuitive Prediction: Biases and Corrective Procedures,” TIMS Studies in Management Science 12 (1979): 313–27. 7. Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross, “Exploring the ‘Planning Fallacy’: Why People Underestimate Their Task Completion Times,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67, no. 3 (1994): 366–81, doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1246. 8. Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross, “Inside the Planning Fallacy: The Causes and Consequences of Optimistic Time Predictions,” in Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment, ed. Thomas Gilovich, Dale Griffin, and Daniel Kahneman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 250–70. 9. Stephanie P. Pezzo, Mark V. Pezzo, and Eric R. Stone, “The Social Implications of Planning: How Public Predictions Bias Future Plans,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 42 (2006): 221–27. 10. Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, “Protecting Morocco through Integrated and Comprehensive Risk Management,” n.d., www.gfdrr.org/sites/gfdrr.org/files/Pillar_1_Protecting_Morocco_through_Integrated_and_Comprehensive_Risk_Management.pdf, accessed September 22, 2013. 11. Also in this piece he identifies twelve reasons people don’t practice risk mitigation: Wharton Center for Risk Management and Decision Processes, “Informed Decisions on Catastrophe Risk,” Wharton Issue Brief, Winter 2010, http://opim.wharton.upenn.edu/risk/library/WRCib20101_PsychNatHaz.pdf. 16. SUBTRACT 1. Eliyahu M. Goldratt, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement (Great Barrington, MA: North River Press, 2004), ch. 13, p. 94. 2. Sigmund Krancberg, A Soviet Postmortem: Philosophical Roots of the “Grand Failure” (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994), 56. 3. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/poiesi 17. PROGRESS 1. Parts of this chapter were first published in a blog post I wrote for Harvard Business Review called “Can We Reverse The Stanford Prison Experiment?” June 12, 2012. 2. Based on my interviews with Ward Clapham between 2011 and 2013. 3. Speech at the annual Labour Party Conference, September 30, 1993, when Blair was shadow home secretary; see “Not a Time for Soundbites: Tony Blair in Quotations,” Oxford University Press Blog, June 29, 2007, http://blog.oup.com/2007/06/tony_blair/#sthash.P1rI6OHy.dpuf. 4. Frederick Herzberg, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” Harvard Business Review, September–October 1987, www.facilitif.eu/user_files/file/herzburg_article.pdf. 5. Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review, May 2011, http://hbr.org/2011/05/the-power-of-small-wins/. 6. “The Lord Will Multiply the Harvest,” An Evening with Henry B. Eyring, February 6, 1998. http://www.lds.org/manual/teaching-seminary-preservice-readings-religion-370-471-and-475/the-lord-will-multiply-the-harvest?lang=eng. 7. Ibid., “Can we reverse the Stanford Prison Experiment?” 8. See his website, http://heroicimagination.org/. 9. We got this idea from Glenn I. Latham’s The Power of Positive Parenting (North Logan, UT: P&T Ink, 1994). 10. Seen on the wall at Facebook. 11. Popularized by Eric Ries in an interview at Venture Hacks, March 23, 2009, “What Is the Minimum Viable Product?” http://venturehacks.com/articles/minimum-viable-product. 12. Peter Sims, “Pixar’s Motto: Going from Suck to Nonsuck,” Fast Company, March 25, 2011, www.fastcompany.com/1742431/pixars-motto-going-suck-nonsuck. 18. FLOW 1. Michael Phelps and Alan Abrahamson, No Limits: The Will to Succeed (New York: Free Press, 2008). 2. Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (New York: Random House, 2012). 3. Phelps and Abrahamson, No Limits. 4. “Plasticity in Neural Networks,” in “The Brain from Top to Bottom,” n.d., http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_07/d_07_cl/d_07_cl_tra/d_07_cl_tra.html, accessed September 22, 2013. 5. “Habits: How They Form and How to Break Them,” NPR, March 5, 2012, www.npr.org/2012/03/05/147192599/habits-how-they-form-and-how-to-break-them. 6. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997), 145. 7. David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn, “Habit: A Repeat Performance,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15, no. 4 (2006): 198–202, http://web.archive.org/web/20120417115147/http://dornsife.usc.edu/wendywood/research/documents/Neal.Wood.Quinn.2006.pdf. 8. In an interview with Dan Pink, http://www.danpink.com/2012/03/the-power-of-habits-and-the-power-to-change-them/. 9. Stacy Cowley, “A Guide to Jack Dorsey’s 80-Hour Workweek,” CNNMoneyTech, November 14, 2011, http://money.cnn.com/2011/11/13/technology/dorsey_techonomy/index.htm. 19. FOCUS 1. Jiro Dreams of Sushi, dir. David Geld (2011). 2. “Oprah Talks to Thich Nhat Hanh,” O magazine, March 2010, www.oprah.com/spirit/Oprah-Talks-to-Thich-Nhat-Hanh/3. 20. BE 1. Eknath Easwaran, preface to The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas, ed. Louis Fischer (1962; repr., New York: Vintage, 1990), xx. 2. “Gandhiji’s Philosophy: Diet and Diet Programme,” n.d., Mahatma Gandhi Information Website, www.gandhi-manibhavan.org/gandhiphilosophy/philosophy_health_dietprogramme.htm. 3. library.thinkquest.org/26523/mainfiles/quotes.htm. 4. Albert Einstein, “Mahatma Gandhi,” in Out of My Later Years: Essays (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950). 5. Henry David Thoreau to H. G. O. Blake, March 27, 1848, in The Portable Thoreau, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (London: Penguin, 2012). 6. Proverbs 23:7. APPENDIX: LEADERSHIP ESSENTIALS 1. Guy Kawasaki, “From the Desk of Management Changes at Apple,” MacUser, December 1991, and then a follow-up piece, “How to Prevent a Bozo Explosion,” How to Change the World, February 26, 2006, http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2006/02/how_to_prevent_.html. 2. Keith Rabois, answer to “What Strong Beliefs on Culture for Entrepreneurialism Did Peter/Max/David Have at PayPal?” Quora, n.d., www.quora.com/PayPal/What-strong-beliefs-on-culture-for-entrepreneurialism-did-Peter-Max-David-have-at-PayPal/answer/Keith-Rabois, accessed September 22, 2013. 3. From an e-mail and follow-up phone interview in August 2013. Copyright © 2014 by Greg McKeown All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York. www.crownpublishing.com CROWN BUSINESS is a trademark and CROWN and the Rising Sun colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data McKeown, Greg pages cm 1. Choice (Psychology) 2. Decision making. 3. Essentialism BF611.M455 2014 153.8/3 2012001733 ISBN 978-0-8041-3738-6 eBook ISBN 978-0-8041-3739-3 Illustrations and jacket design by Amy Hayes Stellhorn and her team at Big Monocle in collaboration with Maria Elias. v3.1 CHAPTER 18 FLOW The Genius of Routine ROUTINE, IN AN INTELLIGENT MAN, IS A SIGN OF AMBITION. —W. H. Auden For years before the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps won the gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he followed the same routine at every race. He arrived two hours early.1 He stretched and loosened up, according to a precise pattern: eight hundred mixer, fifty freestyle, six hundred kicking with kickboard, four hundred pulling a buoy, and more. After the warm-up he would dry off, put in his earphones, and sit—never lie down—on the massage table. From that moment, he and his coach, Bob Bowman, wouldn’t speak a word to each other until after the race was over. At forty-five minutes before the race he would put on his race suit. At thirty minutes he would get into the warm-up pool and do six hundred to eight hundred meters. With ten minutes to go he would walk to the ready room. He would find a seat alone, never next to anyone. He liked to keep the seats on both sides of him clear for his things: goggles on one side and his towel on the other. When his race was called he would walk to the blocks. There he would do what he always did: two stretches, first a straight-leg stretch and then with a bent knee. Left leg first every time. Then the right earbud would come out. When his name was called, he would take out the left earbud. He would step onto the block—always from the left side. He would dry the block—every time. Then he would stand and flap his arms in such a way that his hands hit his back. Phelps explains: “It’s just a routine. My routine. It’s the routine I’ve gone through my whole life. I’m not going to change it.” And that is that. His coach, Bob Bowman, designed this physical routine with Phelps. But that’s not all. He also gave Phelps a routine for what to think about as he went to sleep and first thing when he awoke. He called it “Watching the Videotape.”2 There was no actual tape, of course. The “tape” was a visualization of the perfect race. In exquisite detail and slow motion Phelps would visualize every moment from his starting position on top of the blocks, through each stroke, until he emerged from the pool, victorious, with water dripping off his face. Phelps didn’t do this mental routine occasionally. He did it every day before he went to bed and every day when he woke up—for years. When Bob wanted to challenge him in practices he would shout, “Put in the videotape!” and Phelps would push beyond his limits. Eventually the mental routine was so deeply ingrained that Bob barely had to whisper the phrase, “Get the videotape ready,” before a race. Phelps was always ready to “hit play.” When asked about the routine, Bowman said: “If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program. But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits have taken over. When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan and he’s been victorious at every step. All the stretches went like he planned. The warm-up laps were just like he visualized. His headphones are playing exactly what he expected. The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension.”3 As we all know, Phelps won the record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. When visiting Beijing, years after Phelps’s breathtaking accomplishment, I couldn’t help but think about how Phelps and the other Olympians make all these feats of amazing athleticism seem so effortless. Of course Olympic athletes arguably practice longer and train harder than any other athletes in the world—but when they get in that pool, or on that track, or onto that rink, they make it look positively easy. It’s more than just a natural extension of their training. It’s a testament to the genius of the right routine. 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. Nonessentialist Essentialist Tries to execute the essentials by force Allows nonessentials to be the default Designs a routine that enshrines what is essential, making execution almost effortless Makes the essential the default position Making It Look Easy Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles. Without routine, the pull of nonessential distractions will overpower us. But if we create a routine that enshrines the essentials, we will begin to execute them on autopilot. Instead of our consciously pursuing the essential, it will happen without our having to think about it. We won’t have to expend precious energy every day prioritizing everything. We must simply expend a small amount of initial energy to create the routine, and then all that is left to do is follow it. There is a huge body of scientific research to explain the mechanism by which routine enables difficult things to become easy. One simplified explanation is that as we repeatedly do a certain task the neurons, or nerve cells, make new connections through communication gateways called “synapses.” With repetition, the connections strengthen and it becomes easier for the brain to activate them. For example, when you learn a new word it takes several repetitions at various intervals for the word to be mastered. To recall the word later you will need to activate the same synapses until eventually you know the word without consciously thinking about it.4 A similar process explains how when we drive from point A to point B every day we can eventually make the journey without consciously thinking about it, or why once we’ve cooked the same meal a few times we no longer have to consult the recipe, or why any mental task gets easier and easier each time we attempt it. With repetition the routine is mastered and the activity becomes second nature. Our ability to execute the essential improves with practice, just like any other ability. Think about the first time you had to perform a certain critical function at work. At first you felt like a novice. You probably felt unsure and awkward. The effort to focus drained your willpower. Decision fatigue set in. You were probably easily distracted. This is perfectly normal. But once you performed the function over and over, you gained confidence. You were no longer sidetracked. You were able to perform the function better and faster, and with less concentration and effort. This power of a routine grows out of our brain’s ability to take over entirely until the process becomes fully unconscious. There is another cognitive advantage to routine as well. Once the mental work shifts to the basal ganglia, mental space is freed up to concentrate on something new. This allows us to autopilot the execution of one essential activity while simultaneously actively engaging in another, without sacrificing our level of focus or contribution. “In fact, the brain starts working less and less,” says Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit. “The brain can almost completely shut down.… And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.”5 To some, routine can sound like where creativity and innovation go to die—the ultimate exercise in boredom. We even use the word as a synonym for pallid and bland, as in “It has just become routine for me.” And routines can indeed become this—the wrong routines. But the right routines can actually enhance innovation and creativity by giving us the equivalent of an energy rebate. Instead of spending our limited supply of discipline on making the same decisions again and again, embedding our decisions into our routine allows us to channel that discipline toward some other essential activity. The work Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done on creativity demonstrates how highly creative people use strict routines to free up their minds. “Most creative individuals find out early what their best rhythms are for sleeping, eating, and working, and abide by them even when it is tempting to do otherwise,” Mihaly says. “They wear clothes that are comfortable, they interact only with people they find congenial, they do only things they think are important. Of course, such idiosyncrasies are not endearing to those they have to deal with.… But personalizing patterns of action helps to free the mind from the expectations that make demands on attention and allows intense concentration on matters that count.”6 One CEO in one of Silicon Valley’s most innovative companies has what at first glance would seem like a boring, creativity-killing routine. He holds a three-hour meeting that starts at 9:00 A.M. one day a week. It is never missed. It is never rescheduled at a different time. It is mandatory—so much so that even in this global firm all the executives know never to schedule any travel that will conflict with the meeting. If it is 9:00 A.M. on Monday, every person will be there. It is a discipline. At first blush there is nothing particularly unique about this. But what is unique is the quality of ideas that come out of this regular meeting. Because the CEO has eliminated the mental cost involved in planning the meeting or thinking about who will or won’t be there, people can focus on the creative problem solving. And indeed, his team makes coming up with creative, inventive ideas and solutions look natural and easy. The Power of the Right Routine According to researchers at Duke University, nearly 40 percent of our choices are deeply unconscious.7 We don’t think about them in the usual sense. There is both danger and opportunity in this. The opportunity is that we can develop new abilities that eventually become instinctive. The danger is that we may develop routines that are counterproductive. Without being fully aware, we can get caught in nonessential habits—like checking our e-mail the second we get out of bed every morning, or picking up a doughnut on the way home from work each day, or spending our lunch hour trolling the Internet instead of using the time to think, reflect, recharge, or connect with friends and colleagues. So how can we discard the routines that keep us locked in nonessential habits and replace them with routines that make executing essentials almost effortless? OVERHAUL YOUR TRIGGERS Most of us have a behavioral habit we want to change, whether it’s to eat less junk food, waste less time, or worry less. But when we try, we find that changing even the simplest, tiniest habit is amazingly, disturbingly hard. There seems to be a gravitational force pulling us inexorably back to the warm embrace of those French fries, that Web site with the pictures of the goofy cats, or the spiral of worry about things outside our control. How do we resist the powerful pull of these habits? In an interview about his book The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg said “in the last 15 years, as we’ve learned how habits work and how they can be changed, scientists have explained that every habit is made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine—the behavior itself—which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular habit is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more automatic as the cue and reward become neurologically intertwined.”8 What this means is that if we want to change our routine, we don’t really need to change the behavior. Rather, we need to find the cue that is triggering the nonessential activity or behavior and find a way to associate that same cue with something that is essential. So, for example, if the bakery you pass on the way home from work triggers you to pick up a doughnut, next time you pass by that bakery, use that cue to remind you to pick up a salad from the deli across the street. Or if your alarm clock going off in the morning triggers you to check your e-mail, use it as a cue to get up and read instead. At first, overcoming the temptation to stop at the bakery or check the e-mail will be difficult. But each time you execute the new behavior—each time you pick up the salad—strengthens the link in your brain between the cue and the new behavior, and soon, you’ll be subconsciously and automatically performing the new routine. CREATE NEW TRIGGERS If the goal is to create some behavioral change, we’re not just confined to our existing cues; we can create brand-new ones to trigger the execution of some essential routine. I used this technique to develop the daily routine of writing in a journal, and it worked wonders for me. For a long time I wrote in my journal only sporadically. I would put it off all day; then at night I would rationalize, “I will do it in the morning.” But inevitably I wouldn’t, and then by the next night I had two days’ worth to write and it was overwhelming. So I put it off again. And so on. Then I heard someone say he had developed a routine of writing a few lines at the exact same time each day. This seemed like a manageable habit, but I knew that I would need some cue reminding me to write at the specified time each day or I would continue to put it off as I’d been doing. So I started putting my journal in my bag right next to my phone. That way, when I pull my phone out of my bag to charge it each evening (already a well-established habit) I see the journal, and this cues me to write in it. Now it is instinctive. Natural. I look forward to it. It has been ten years now and I have almost never missed a day. DO THE MOST DIFFICULT THING FIRST Ray Zinn is the founder and CEO of Micrel, a semiconductor business in Silicon Valley. He is a contrarian in lots of ways. He is seventy-five years old in an industry and city that usually celebrates twenty-year-old college dropouts. In 1978 he and his business partner invested $300,000 to launch the company and it has been profitable every single year, since inception (except for one year when they consolidated two manufacturing facilities). Since going public, their stock price has never fallen below its IPO price. Ray credits this success to their highly disciplined focus on profitability. He has led the company as CEO for thirty-five years, and throughout that period Ray has followed an extraordinarily consistent routine. He wakes up at 5:30 A.M. every single morning, including Saturday and Sunday (as he’s done for more than fifty years). He then exercises for an hour. He eats breakfast at 7:30 A.M. and arrives at work at 8:15 A.M. Dinner is at 6:30 P.M. with his family. Bedtime is 10:00 P.M. But what really enables Ray to operate at his highest level of contribution is that throughout the day, his routine is governed by a single rule: “Focus on the hardest thing first.” After all, as Ray said to me: “We already have too much to think about. Why not eliminate some of them by establishing a routine?” Use the tips above to develop a routine of doing your hardest task in the day first thing in the morning. Find a cue—whether it’s that first glass of orange juice you have at your desk, or an alarm you set on your cell phone, or anything you’re already accustomed to doing first thing in the morning—to trigger you to sit down and focus on your hardest thing. MIX UP YOUR ROUTINES It’s true that doing the same things at the same time, day after day, can get boring. To avoid this kind of routine fatigue, there’s no reason why you can’t have different routines for different days of the week. Jack Dorsey, the cofounder of Twitter and founder of Square, has an interesting approach to his weekly routine. He has divided up his week into themes. Monday is for management meetings and “running the company” work. Tuesday is for product development. Wednesday is for marketing, communications, and growth. Thursday is for developers and partnerships. Friday is for the company and its culture.9 This routine helps to provide calmness amid the chaos of a high-growth start-up. It enables him to focus his energy on a single theme each day instead of feeling pulled into everything. He adheres to this routine each week, no exceptions, and over time people learn this about him and can organize meetings and requests around it. TACKLE YOUR ROUTINES ONE BY ONE It would be unfortunate to become so taken with the genius of routine that we’d be tempted to try to overhaul multiple routines at the same time. But as we learned in the last chapter, to get big results we must start small. So start with one change in your daily or weekly routine and then build on your progress from there. I don’t want to imply that any of this is easy. Many of our nonessential routines are deep and emotional. They have been formed in the furnace of some strong emotions. The idea that we can just snap our fingers and replace them with a new one is naive. Learning essential new skills is never easy. But once we master them and make them automatic we have won an enormous victory, because the skill remains with us for the rest of our lives. The same is true with routines. Once they are in place they are gifts that keep on giving. CHAPTER 2 CHOOSE The Invincible Power of Choice IT IS THE ABILITY TO CHOOSE WHICH MAKES US HUMAN. —Madeleine L’Engle I stared, wide-eyed, at the piece of paper in my hands. I was sitting in the foyer of a high-rise office building. It was dusk, and the last few people were trickling out for the evening. The piece of paper, covered with scribbled words and arrows, was the result of a twenty-minute spontaneous brainstorm about what I currently wanted to be doing with my life. As I looked at the paper I was mostly struck by what wasn’t on it—law school was not on the list. This got my attention because I was halfway through my first year at law school in England. I had applied to study law because of repeated advice to “keep your options open.” Once I got out, I could practice law. I could write about law. I could teach law. Or I could consult on the law. The world would be my oyster, or so the argument went. Yet from almost the first moment I started studying law, instead of choosing between these pursuits I had simply tried to fit them all in. I would study my law books at all hours all day and read the great management thinkers in the evenings. In spare moments, I would write. It was a classic “straddled strategy” of attempting to invest in everything at once. The result was that while I was not entirely failing in any pursuit I was not entirely succeeding at any either. I soon began to wonder just what was so great about all these open options. In the middle of all this existential confusion I received a call from a friend in the United States inviting me to his wedding. He had already bought and sent the tickets! So I gratefully accepted his invitation and left England for an unexpected adventure. While in the United States I took every opportunity to meet with teachers and writers. One such meeting was with an executive for a nonprofit educational group. As I was leaving his office, he mentioned in passing, “If you decide to stay in America, you should come and join us on a consultation committee.” His passing comment had a curious force about it. It wasn’t his specific question. It was the assumption he made that I had a choice: “If you decide to stay …” He saw it as a real option. This got me thinking. I left his office and took the elevator down to the lobby. I took a single sheet of paper from someone’s desk and sat in the lobby and attempted to answer the question: “If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?” The result was that piece of paper on which law school, as I have indicated, was not written. Up to that point I had always known logically that I could choose not to study law. But emotionally it had never been an option. That’s when I realized that in sacrificing my power to choose I had made a choice—a bad one. By refusing to choose “not law school,” I had chosen law school—not because I actually or actively wanted to be there, but by default. I think that’s when I first realized that when we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone else will step in to choose for us. A few weeks later, I officially quit law school. I left England and moved to America to start down the path of becoming an author and a teacher. You’re reading this now because of that choice. Yet, for all the impact this specific choice has had on the trajectory of my life, I value the way it changed my view about choices even more. We often think of choice as a thing. But a choice is not a thing. Our options may be things, but a choice—a choice is an action. It is not just something we have but something we do. This experience brought me to the liberating realization that while we may not always have control over our options, we always have control over how we choose among them. Have you ever felt stuck because you believed you did not really have a choice? Have you ever felt the stress that comes from simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs: “I can’t do this” and “I have to do this”? Have you ever given up your power to choose bit by bit until you allowed yourself to blindly follow a path prescribed by another person? If so, you are not alone. The Invincible Power of Choosing to Choose For too long, we have overemphasized the external aspect of choices (our options) and underemphasized our internal ability to choose (our actions). This is more than semantics. Think about it this way. Options (things) can be taken away, while our core ability to choose (free will) cannot be. The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away—it can only be forgotten. How Do We Forget Our Ability to Choose? One important insight into how and why we forget our ability to choose comes out of the classic work of Martin Seligman and Steve Maier, who stumbled onto what they later called “learned helplessness” while conducting experiments on German shepherds. Seligman and Maier divided the dogs into three groups. The dogs in the first group were placed in a harness and administered an electric shock but were also given a lever they could press to make the shock stop. The dogs in the second group were placed in an identical harness and were given the same lever, and the same shock, with one catch: the lever didn’t work, rendering the dog powerless to do anything about the electric shock. The third group of dogs were simply placed in the harness and not given any shocks.1 [image: ] Afterwards, each dog was placed in a large box with a low divider across the center. One side of the box produced an electric shock; the other did not. Then something interesting happened. The dogs that either had been able to stop the shock or had not been shocked at all in the earlier part of the experiment quickly learned to step over the divider to the side without shocks. But the dogs that had been powerless in the last part of the experiment did not. These dogs didn’t adapt or adjust. They did nothing to try to avoid getting shocked. Why? They didn’t know they had any choice other than to take the shocks. They had learned helplessness. There is evidence that humans learn helplessness in much the same way. One example I heard is that of a child who struggles early on with mathematics. He tries and tries but never gets any better, so eventually he gives up. He believes nothing he does will matter. I have observed learned helplessness in many organizations I have worked with. When people believe that their efforts at work don’t matter, they tend to respond in one of two ways. Sometimes they check out and stop trying, like the mathematically challenged child. The other response is less obvious at first. They do the opposite. They become hyperactive. They accept every opportunity presented. They throw themselves into every assignment. They tackle every challenge with gusto. They try to do it all. This behavior does not necessarily look like learned helplessness at first glance. After all, isn’t working hard evidence of one’s belief in one’s importance and value? Yet on closer examination we can see this compulsion to do more is a smokescreen. These people don’t believe they have a choice in what opportunity, assignment, or challenge to take on. They believe they “have to do it all.” I’ll be the first to admit that choices are hard. By definition they involve saying no to something or several somethings, and that can feel like a loss. Outside the workplace, choices can be even harder. Any time we walk into a store or a restaurant or anywhere selling something, everything is designed to make it hard for us to say no. When we listen to a political advertisement or pundit, the objective is to make it unthinkable for us to vote for the other side. When our mother-in-law calls us up (mine excluded of course) and wants us to do something, it can be hardest of all to feel we really have a choice. If we look at everyday life through this lens, it is hardly surprising we forget our ability to choose. Yet choice is at the very core of what it means to be an Essentialist. To become an Essentialist requires a heightened awareness of our ability to choose. We need to recognize it as an invincible power within us, existing separate and distinct from any other thing, person, or force. William James once wrote, “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”2 That is why the first and most crucial skill you will learn on this journey is to develop your ability to choose choice, in every area of your life. Nonessentialist Essentialist “I have to.” Forfeits the right to choose “I choose to.” Exercises the power of choice When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless. Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices—or even a function of our own past choices. In turn, we surrender our power to choose. That is the path of the Nonessentialist. The Essentialist doesn’t just recognize the power of choice, he celebrates it. The Essentialist knows that when we surrender our right to choose, we give others not just the power but also the explicit permission to choose for us. CHAPTER 12 UNCOMMIT Win Big by Cutting Your Losses HALF OF THE TROUBLES OF THIS LIFE CAN BE TRACED TO SAYING YES TOO QUICKLY AND NOT SAYING NO SOON ENOUGH. —Josh Billings By any estimation, the Concorde jet was a striking achievement in aeronautical engineering. Aboard this passenger plane you could fly from London to New York in as little as two hours, fifty-two minutes, and fifty-nine seconds.1 That’s less than half the time of a traditional plane, making the Concorde the fastest passenger plane in the world. Unfortunately, it was also an extraordinary financial failure. Of course many great ideas, innovations, and products are. But what made this one different was that it consistently lost money for more than four decades. Yet each time it went over budget the French and British governments poured more and more money in. They did this even knowing that the chance of recouping their continued investments, let alone the original expenditures, were miniscule; with the plane’s limited seating, few orders coming in, and the high cost of production, it was clear that even with exaggerated estimates the project would never be profitable. Indeed, when the British cabinet papers were released under the thirty-year rule, they revealed that government ministers at the time knew the investment “could not stand on normal economic grounds.”2 Why would intelligent, capable British and French government officials continue to invest in what was clearly a losing proposition for so long? One reason is a very common psychological phenomenon called “sunk-cost bias.” Sunk-cost bias is the tendency to continue to invest time, money, or energy into something we know is a losing proposition simply because we have already incurred, or sunk, a cost that cannot be recouped. But of course this can easily become a vicious cycle: the more we invest, the more determined we become to see it through and see our investment pay off. The more we invest in something, the harder it is to let go. The sunk costs for developing and building the Concorde were around $1 billion. Yet the more money the British and French governments poured into it, the harder it was to walk away.3 Individuals are equally vulnerable to sunk-cost bias. It explains why we’ll continue to sit through a terrible movie because we’ve already paid the price of a ticket. It explains why we continue to pour money into a home renovation that never seems to near completion. It explains why we’ll continue to wait for a bus or a subway train that never comes instead of hailing a cab, and it explains why we invest in toxic relationships even when our efforts only make things worse. Examples like this abound; consider the somewhat bizarre story of a man named Henry Gribbohm, who recently spent his entire life savings, $2,600 in total, at a carnival game trying to win an Xbox Kinect. The more he spent, the more determined he became to win. Henry said, “You just get caught up in the whole ‘I’ve got to win my money back,’ but it didn’t turn out that way.”4 The more he invested in trying to win this nonessential item, the harder it was for him to walk away. Have you ever continued to invest time or effort in a nonessential project instead of cutting your losses? Have you ever continued to pour money into an investment that wasn’t panning out instead of walking away? Have you ever kept plodding down a dead end because you could not admit, “I shouldn’t have pursued this direction in the first place”? Ever been stuck in a cycle of “throwing good money after bad”? A Nonessentialist can’t break free of traps like these. An Essentialist has the courage and confidence to admit his or her mistakes and uncommit, no matter the sunk costs. Nonessentialist Essentialist Asks, “Why stop now when I’ve already invested so much in this project?” Thinks, “If I just keep trying, I can make this work.” Hates admitting to mistakes Asks, “If I weren’t already invested in this project, how much would I invest in it now?” Thinks, “What else could I do with this time or money if I pulled the plug now?” Comfortable with cutting losses Sunk-cost bias, while all too common, isn’t the only Nonessentialist trap to watch out for. Below are several other common traps and tips for how to extricate yourself politely, gracefully, and with minimal cost. Avoiding Commitment Traps BEWARE OF THE ENDOWMENT EFFECT A sense of ownership is a powerful thing. As the saying goes, nobody in the history of the world has washed their rental car! This is because of something called “the endowment effect,” our tendency to undervalue things that aren’t ours and to overvalue things because we already own them. In one study demonstrating the power of the endowment effect, the Nobel Prize–winning researcher Daniel Kahneman and colleagues randomly gave coffee mugs to only half the subjects in an experiment.5 The first group was asked how much they would be willing to sell their mug for, while the second group was asked what they would be willing to pay for it. It turned out the students who “owned” the mugs refused to sell for less than $5.25, while those without the cups were willing to pay only $2.25 to $2.75. The mere fact of ownership, in other words, caused the mug owners to value the objects more highly and made them less willing to part with them. In your own life, I’m sure you can think of items that seem to be more valuable the moment you think about giving them away. Think of a book on your shelf you haven’t read in years, or a kitchen appliance still sitting in the box, or the sweater you got from Aunt Mildred but never wore. Whether or not you get any use or enjoyment out of them, subconsciously, the very fact that they are yours makes you value them more highly than you would if they didn’t belong to you. Unfortunately, we have this bias when it comes to nonessential activities as well as belongings. The project that isn’t getting anywhere at work seems that much more critical when we’re the team leader on it. The commitment to volunteer at the local bake sale becomes harder to get out of when we’re the one who put the fund-raiser together. When we feel we “own” an activity, it becomes harder to uncommit. Nonetheless, here is a useful tip: PRETEND YOU DON’T OWN IT YET Tom Stafford describes a simple antidote to the endowment effect.6 Instead of asking, “How much do I value this item?” we should ask, “If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?” We can do the same for opportunities and commitment. Don’t ask, “How will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity?” but rather, “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?” Similarly, we can ask, “If I wasn’t already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?”7 GET OVER THE FEAR OF WASTE Hal Arkes, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University who studies judgment in decision making, was puzzled by an enigma. Why are adults so much more vulnerable to the sunk-cost bias than young children? The answer, he believes, is a lifetime of exposure to the “Don’t waste” rule, so that by the time we are adults we are trained to avoid appearing wasteful, even to ourselves.8 “Abandoning a project that you’ve invested a lot in feels like you’ve wasted everything, and waste is something we’re told to avoid,” Arkes said.9 To illustrate this he gave the following scenario to a group of participants: “Assume that you have spent $100 on a ticket for a weekend ski trip to Michigan. Several weeks later you buy a $50 ticket for a weekend ski trip to Wisconsin. You think you will enjoy the Wisconsin ski trip more than the Michigan ski trip. As you are putting your newly purchased Wisconsin ticket in your wallet you notice that the Michigan ski trip and the Wisconsin ski trip are for the same weekend. It’s too late to sell or return either ticket. You must choose which to use.” When asked, “Which ski trip will you go on?” more than half said they would opt for the more expensive trip, even though they would enjoy it less. Their (faulty) reasoning was that using the cheaper ticket would be wasting more money than using the expensive ticket. It’s natural not to want to let go of what we wasted on a bad choice, but when we don’t, we doom ourselves to keep wasting even more. INSTEAD, ADMIT FAILURE TO BEGIN SUCCESS I remember a friend who would never stop to ask for directions because he could never admit he was lost. So we would waste time and energy driving around in circles, getting nowhere—the epitome of a nonessential activity. Only when we admit we have made a mistake in committing to something can we make a mistake a part of our past. When we remain in denial, on the other hand, we continue to circle pointlessly. There should be no shame in admitting to a mistake; after all, we really are only admitting that we are now wiser than we once were. STOP TRYING TO FORCE A FIT In the movie Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman plays a struggling actor who is trying to get work. The movie begins comically with a series of failed auditions. At one he is told, “We need someone a little older.” At the next he is told, “We’re looking for someone younger.” Then at the next, “You’re the wrong height,” to which he responds, “I can be taller.” The executive responds, “No. We’re looking for somebody shorter.” Desperate to make it work, Hoffman’s character explains: “Look. I don’t have to be this tall. See, I’m wearing lifts. I can be shorter.” But the executive also insists, “I know, but we’re looking for somebody different.” Still persistent, the would-be actor pushes back again: “I can be different.” The point is that we often act like Dustin Hoffman’s character by trying too hard to be something we’re not. Whether in our personal or professional lives, it is all too tempting to force something that is simply a mismatch. The solution? GET A NEUTRAL SECOND OPINION When we get so emotionally hung up on trying to force something that is not the right fit, we can often benefit from a sounding board. Someone who is not emotionally involved in the situation and unaffected by the choice we make can give us the permission to stop forcing something that is clearly not working out. I once wasted months of effort trying to force a project that just wasn’t working out. Looking back, the more I put into it the worse things became. But my irrational response was to invest still more. I thought, “I can make this work!” I did not want to accept I had been wasting my effort. I finally shared my frustration with a friend who had the advantage of being emotionally removed from the project—someone who wasn’t burdened with the sunk costs and could evaluate my decisions with some perspective. After listening to me he said, “You’re not married to this.” And with those simple words I was liberated to stop investing in a nonessential. BE AWARE OF THE STATUS QUO BIAS The tendency to continue doing something simply because we have always done it is sometimes called the “status quo bias.” I once worked at a company that used an employee evaluation system that seemed to me so woefully outdated that I became curious about how long it had been in place. As I searched for its creator in the company I found that nobody, up to and including the long-standing head of HR, knew of its origin. More shocking still, in the ten years she had been at the company, nobody had once questioned the system. It’s all too easy to blindly accept and not bother to question commitments simply because they have already been established. One cure for the status quo bias is borrowed from the world of accounting: APPLY ZERO-BASED BUDGETING Typically, when accountants allocate a budget they use last year’s budget as the baseline for the next year’s projection. But with zero-based budgeting, they use zero as the baseline. In other words, every item in the proposed budget must be justified from scratch. While this takes more effort it has many advantages: it efficiently allocates resources on the basis of needs rather than history, it detects exaggerated budget requests, it draws attention to obsolete operations, and it encourages people to be clearer in their purpose and how their expenses align to that project. You can apply zero-based budgeting to your own endeavors. Instead of trying to budget your time on the basis of existing commitments, assume that all bets are off. All previous commitments are gone. Then begin from scratch, asking which you would add today. You can do this with everything from the financial obligations you have to projects you are committed to, even relationships you are in. Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether. STOP MAKING CASUAL COMMITMENTS Some people’s days are full to the brim with soft commitments they have taken on unintentionally through an offhand comment or casual conversation they had somewhere with someone. You know the kind I mean—you’re chatting with your neighbor about her work on the PTA, your colleague about a new initiative she is heading up, or your friend about a new restaurant he wants to try, and before you know it, boom, you’re committed. FROM NOW ON, PAUSE BEFORE YOU SPEAK It might sound obvious, but pausing for just five seconds before offering your services can greatly reduce the possibility of making a commitment you’ll regret. Before the words “That sounds great, I’d love to” fly out of your mouth, ask yourself, “Is this essential?” If you’ve already made a casual commitment you’re regretting, find a nice way to worm your way out. Simply apologize and tell the person that when you made the commitment you didn’t fully realize what it would entail. GET OVER THE FEAR OF MISSING OUT We’ve seen ample evidence in this chapter suggesting that the majority of us are naturally very loss-averse. As a result, one of the obstacles to uncommitting ourselves from a present course is the fear of missing out on something great. TO FIGHT THIS FEAR, RUN A REVERSE PILOT One of the ideas that has grown popular in business circles in recent years is “prototyping.” Building a prototype, or large-scale model, allows companies to test-run an idea or product without making a huge investment up front. Exactly the same idea can be used in reverse to eliminate nonessentials in a relatively low-risk way, by running what Daniel Shapero, a director at LinkedIn, calls a “reverse pilot.”10 In a reverse pilot you test whether removing an initiative or activity will have any negative consequences. For example, when an executive I work with took on a new senior role in the company, he inherited a process his predecessor had gone to a huge effort to implement: a huge, highly visual report on a myriad of subjects produced for the other executives each week. It consumed enormous energy from his team, and he hypothesized that it was not adding a great deal of value to the company. So to test his hypothesis he ran a reverse pilot. He simply stopped publishing the report and waited to see what the response would be. What he found was that no one seemed to miss it; after several weeks nobody had even mentioned the report. As a result, he concluded that the report was not essential to the business and could be eliminated. A similar reverse pilot can be carried out in our social lives. Are there commitments you routinely make to customers, colleagues, friends or even family members that you have always assumed made a big difference to them but that in fact they might barely notice? By quietly eliminating or at least scaling back an activity for a few days or weeks you might be able to assess whether it is really making a difference or whether no one really cares. Even using these techniques, it’s true that “uncommitting” can be harder than simply not committing in the first place. We feel guilty saying no to something or someone we have already committed to, and let’s face it, no one likes going back on their word. Yet learning how to do so—in ways that will garner you respect for your courage, focus, and discipline—is crucial to becoming an Essentialist. 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. In chapter 1 we talked how our life can resemble an overly full closet and how an Essentialist would approach organizing it. We talked about how if you want your closet to stay tidy you need a regular routine. You need to have one large bag for items you need to throw away and a very small pile for items you want to keep. You need to know the dropoff location and the hours of your local thrift store. You need to have a scheduled time to go there. In other words, 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. It is human nature to want to do easy things. In this part of the book you’ll learn how to make executing the right things—the essential things—as easy and frictionless as possible. [image: ] CHAPTER 11 DARE The Power of a Graceful “No” COURAGE IS GRACE UNDER PRESSURE. —Ernest Hemingway The right “no” spoken at the right time can change the course of history. In just one example of many, Rosa Parks’s quiet but resolute refusal to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus at exactly the right moment coalesced into forces that propelled the civil rights movement. As Parks recalls, “When [the bus driver] saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ ”1 Contrary to popular belief, her courageous “no” did not grow out of a particularly assertive tendency or personality in general. In fact, when she was made a secretary to the president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP she explained, “I was the only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say no.”2 Rather, her decision on the bus grew out of a deep conviction about what deliberate choice she wanted to make in that moment. When the bus driver ordered her out of her seat, she said, “I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”3 She did not know how her decision would spark a movement with reverberations around the world. But she did know her own mind. She knew, even as she was being arrested, that “it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind.”4 Avoiding that humiliation was worth the risk of incarceration. Indeed, to her, it was essential. It is true that we are (hopefully) unlikely to find ourselves facing a situation like the one faced by Rosa Parks. Yet we can be inspired by her. We can think of her when we need the courage to dare to say no. We can remember her strength of conviction when we need to stand our ground in the face of social pressure to capitulate to the nonessential. Have you ever felt a tension between what you felt was right and what someone was pressuring you to do? Have you ever felt the conflict between your internal conviction and an external action? Have you ever said yes when you meant no simply to avoid conflict or friction? Have you ever felt too scared or timid to turn down an invitation or request from a boss, colleague, friend, neighbor, or family member for fear of disappointing them? If you have, you’re not alone. Navigating these moments with courage and grace is one of the most important skills to master in becoming an Essentialist—and one of the hardest. I did not set out to write a chapter about courage. But the deeper I have looked at the subject of Essentialism the more clearly I have seen courage as key to the process of elimination. Without courage, the disciplined pursuit of less is just lip service. It is just the stuff of one more dinner party conversation. It is skin deep. Anyone can talk about the importance of focusing on the things that matter most—and many people do—but to see people who dare to live it is rare. I say this without judgment. We have good reasons to fear saying no. We worry we’ll miss out on a great opportunity. We’re scared of rocking the boat, stirring things up, burning bridges. We can’t bear the thought of disappointing someone we respect and like. None of this makes us a bad person. It’s a natural part of being human. Yet as hard as it can be to say no to someone, failing to do so can cause us to miss out on something far more important. A woman named Cynthia once told me a story about the time her father had made plans to take her on a night out in San Francisco. Twelve-year-old Cynthia and her father had been planning the “date” for months. They had a whole itinerary planned down to the minute: she would attend the last hour of his presentation, and then meet him at the back of the room at about four-thirty and leave quickly before everyone tried to talk to him. They would catch a trolley car to Chinatown, eat Chinese food (their favorite), shop for a souvenir, see the sights for a while and then “catch a flick” as her dad liked to say. Then they would grab a taxi back to the hotel, jump in the pool for a quick swim (her dad was famous for sneaking in when the pool was closed), order a hot fudge sundae from room service, and watch the late, late show. They discussed the details over and over before they left. The anticipation was part of the whole experience. This was all going according to plan until, as her father was leaving the convention center, he ran into an old college friend and business associate. It had been years since they had seen each other, and Cynthia watched as they embraced enthusiastically. His friend said, in effect: “I am so glad you are doing some work with our company now. When Lois and I heard about it we thought it would be perfect. We want to invite you, and of course Cynthia, to get a spectacular seafood dinner down at the Wharf!” Cynthia’s father responded: “Bob, it’s so great to see you. Dinner at the wharf sounds great!” Cynthia was crestfallen. Her daydreams of trolley rides and ice cream sundaes evaporated in an instant. Plus, she hated seafood and she could just imagine how bored she would be listening to the adults talk all night. But then her father continued: “But not tonight. Cynthia and I have a special date planned, don’t we?” He winked at Cynthia and grabbed her hand and they ran out of the door and continued with what was an unforgettable night in San Francisco. As it happens, Cynthia’s father was the management thinker Stephen R. Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) who had passed away only weeks before Cynthia told me this story. So it was with deep emotion she recalled that evening in San Francisco. His simple decision “Bonded him to me forever because I knew what mattered most to him was me!” she said.5 Stephen R. Covey, one of the most respected and widely read business thinkers of his generation, was an Essentialist. Not only did he routinely teach Essentialist principles—like “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”—to important leaders and heads of state around the world, he lived them.6 And in this moment of living them with his daughter he made a memory that literally outlasted his lifetime. Seen with some perspective, his decision seems obvious. But many in his shoes would have accepted the friend’s invitation for fear of seeming rude or ungrateful, or passing up a rare opportunity to dine with an old friend. So why is it so hard in the moment to dare to choose what is essential over what is nonessential? One simple answer is we are unclear about what is essential. When this happens we become defenseless. On the other hand, when we have strong internal clarity it is almost as if we have a force field protecting us from the nonessentials coming at us from all directions. With Rosa it was her deep moral clarity that gave her unusual courage of conviction. With Stephen it was the clarity of his vision for the evening with his loving daughter. In virtually every instance, clarity about what is essential fuels us with the strength to say no to the nonessentials. Essentially Awkward A second reason why it is hard to choose what is essential in the moment is as simple as an innate fear of social awkwardness. The fact is, we as humans are wired to want to get along with others. After all, thousands of years ago when we all lived in tribes of hunter gatherers, our survival depended on it. And while conforming to what people in a group expect of us—what psychologists call normative conformity—is no longer a matter of life and death, the desire is still deeply ingrained in us.7 This is why, whether it’s an old friend who invites you to dinner or a boss who asks you to take on an important and high-profile project, or a neighbor who begs you to help with the PTA bake sale, the very thought of saying no literally brings us physical discomfort. We feel guilty. We don’t want to let someone down. We are worried about damaging the relationship. But these emotions muddle our clarity. They distract us from the reality of the fact that either we can say no and regret it for a few minutes, or we can say yes and regret it for days, weeks, months, or even years. The only way out of this trap is to learn to say no firmly, resolutely, and yet gracefully. Because once we do, we find, not only that our fears of disappointing or angering others were exaggerated, but that people actually respect us more. Since becoming an Essentialist I have found it almost universally true that people respect and admire those with the courage of conviction to say no. Peter Drucker, in my view the father of modern management thinking, was also a master of the art of the graceful no. When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian professor most well known for his work on “flow,” reached out to interview a series of creative individuals for a book he was writing on creativity, Drucker’s response was interesting enough to Mihaly that he quoted it verbatim: “I am greatly honored and flattered by your kind letter of February 14th—for I have admired you and your work for many years, and I have learned much from it. But, my dear Professor Csikszentmihalyi, I am afraid I have to disappoint you. I could not possibly answer your questions. I am told I am creative—I don’t know what that means.… I just keep on plodding.… I hope you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours—productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”8 A true Essentialist, Peter Drucker believed that “people are effective because they say no.” Nonessentialists say yes because of feelings of social awkwardness and pressure. They say yes automatically, without thinking, often in pursuit of the rush one gets from having pleased someone. But Essentialists know that after the rush comes the pang of regret. They know they will soon feel bullied and resentful—both at the other person and at themselves. Eventually they will wake up to the unpleasant reality that something more important must now be sacrificed to accommodate this new commitment. Of course, the point is not to say no to all requests. The point is to say no to the nonessentials so we can say yes to the things that really matter. It is to say no—frequently and gracefully—to everything but what is truly vital. Nonessentialist Essentialist Avoids saying no to avoid feeling social awkwardness and pressure Says yes to everything Dares to say no firmly, resolutely, and gracefully Says yes only to the things that really matter So how do we learn to say no gracefully? Below are general guidelines followed by a number of specific scripts for delivering the graceful “no.” SEPARATE THE DECISION FROM THE RELATIONSHIP When people ask us to do something, we can confuse the request with our relationship with them. Sometimes they seem so interconnected, we forget that denying the request is not the same as denying the person. Only once we separate the decision from the relationship can we make a clear decision and then separately find the courage and compassion to communicate it.9 SAYING “NO” GRACEFULLY DOESN’T HAVE TO MEAN USING THE WORD NO Essentialists choose “no” more often than they say no. There may be a time when the most graceful way to say no is to simply say a blunt no. But whether it’s “I am flattered that you thought of me but I’m afraid I don’t have the bandwidth” or “I would very much like to but I’m overcommitted,” there are a variety of ways of refusing someone clearly and politely without actually using the word no. Later in the chapter you’ll find more examples of ways to gracefully word your “no.” FOCUS ON THE TRADE-OFF The more we think about what we are giving up when we say yes to someone, the easier it is to say no. If we have no clear sense of the opportunity cost—in other words, the value of what we are giving up—then it is especially easy to fall into the nonessential trap of telling ourselves we can get it all done. We can’t. A graceful “no” grows out of a clear but unstated calculation of the trade-off. REMIND YOURSELF THAT EVERYONE IS SELLING SOMETHING This doesn’t mean you have to be cynical about people. I don’t mean to imply people shouldn’t be trusted. I am simply saying everyone is selling something—an idea, a viewpoint, an opinion—in exchange for your time. Simply being aware of what is being sold allows us to be more deliberate in deciding whether we want to buy it. MAKE YOUR PEACE WITH THE FACT THAT SAYING “NO” OFTEN REQUIRES TRADING POPULARITY FOR RESPECT When you say no, there is usually a short-term impact on the relationship. After all, when someone asks for something and doesn’t get it, his or her immediate reaction may be annoyance or disappointment or even anger. This downside is clear. The potential upside, however, is less obvious: when the initial annoyance or disappointment or anger wears off, the respect kicks in. When we push back effectively, it shows people that our time is highly valuable. It distinguishes the professional from the amateur. A case in point is the time the graphic designer Paul Rand had the guts to say no to Steve Jobs.10 When Jobs was looking for a logo for the company NeXT, he asked Rand, whose work included the logos for IBM, UPS, Enron, Westinghouse, and ABC, to come up with a few options. But Rand didn’t want to come up with “a few options.” He wanted to design just one option. So Rand said: “No. I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution. If you want options go talk to other people. But I will solve the problem the best way I know how. And you use it or not. That’s up to you.” Not surprisingly, Rand solved the problem and created the “jewel” logo Jobs wanted, but the real lesson here is the effect Rand’s “push back” had on Jobs, who later said of Rand, “He is one of the most professional people I have ever worked with: in the sense that he had thought through all of the formal relationship between a client and a professional such as himself.” Rand took a risk when he said no. He bet a short-term popularity loss for a long-term gain in respect. And it paid off. Essentialists accept they cannot be popular with everyone all of the time. Yes, saying no respectfully, reasonably, and gracefully can come at a short-term social cost. But part of living the way of the Essentialist is realizing respect is far more valuable than popularity in the long run. REMEMBER THAT A CLEAR “NO” CAN BE MORE GRACEFUL THAN A VAGUE OR NONCOMMITTAL “YES” As anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of this situation knows, a clear “I am going to pass on this” is far better than not getting back to someone or stringing them along with some noncommittal answer like “I will try to make this work” or “I might be able to” when you know you can’t. Being vague is not the same as being graceful, and delaying the eventual “no” will only make it that much harder—and the recipient that much more resentful. The “No” Repertoire Remember, Essentialists don’t say no just occasionally. It is a part of their regular repertoire. To consistently say no with grace, then, it helps to have a variety of responses to call upon. Below are eight responses you can put in your “no” repertoire. 1. The awkward pause. Instead of being controlled by the threat of an awkward silence, own it. Use it as a tool. When a request comes to you (obviously this works only in person), just pause for a moment. Count to three before delivering your verdict. Or if you get a bit more bold, simply wait for the other person to fill the void. 2. The soft “no” (or the “no but”). I recently received an e-mail inviting me to coffee. I replied: “I am consumed with writing my book right now :) But I would love to get together once the book is finished. Let me know if we can get together towards the end of the summer.” E-mail is also a good way to start practicing saying “no but” because it gives you the chance to draft and redraft your “no” to make it as graceful as possible. Plus, many people find that the distance of e-mail reduces the fear of awkwardness. 3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” One leader I know found her time being hijacked by other people all day. A classic Nonessentialist, she was capable and smart and unable to say no, and as a result she soon became a “go to” person. People would run up to her and say, “Could you help with X project?” Meaning to be a good citizen, she said yes. But soon she felt burdened with all of these different agendas. Things changed for her when she learned to use a new phrase: “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” It gave her the time to pause and reflect and ultimately reply that she was regretfully unavailable. It enabled her to take back control of her own decisions rather than be rushed into a “yes” when she was asked. 4. Use e-mail bouncebacks. It is totally natural and expected to get an autoresponse when someone is traveling or out of the office. Really, this is the most socially acceptable “no” there is. People aren’t saying they don’t want to reply to your e-mail, they’re just saying they can’t get back to you for a period of time. So why limit these to vacations and holidays? When I was writing this book I set an e-mail bounceback with the subject line “In