Decision making tools to help us focus on what’s important

“Essentialism” by Greg McKeown

The simple premise of the book is pretty straight forward: it is only after we stop trying to do everything and stop saying yes to everyone, that we can direct our energy to the few things that really matter to us, the essentials.

It is about priority, the discipline pursuit of less, about getting the right things done, and doing them mindfully and wholesomely. And everything else become fairly insignificant.

I must admit that while reading the early chapters I was at first skeptical of this book, as its simple message is just another minimalism mantra that I’ve already read in several books. But as I read on, I soon realize that McKeown relies more on data and scientific findings rather than just the general zen feeling of the outcome (which have profoundly changed my life nonetheless). And the more the book progresses the more practical it gets, which starts with the concept of trade-offs.

In a perfect world we can easily eliminate all of the non-essentials. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and instead in every decision that we make we will more likely to face trade-offs. As McKeown explains, “by definition, a trade-off involves two things we want. Do you want more pay or more vacation time? Do you want to finish this next e-mail or be on time to your meeting? Do you want it done faster or better?” “Obviously”, McKeown continues, “when faced with the choice between two things we want, the preferred answer is yes to both. But as much as we’d like to, we simply cannot have it all.”

So yes, most of the time we have to choose. And this just happens to be the core specialty of this book: the intricate process of decision making.

The book provides us with the scientific and psychological researches about the underlying determinants behind our decision making process – such as learned helplessness, Pareto Principle, the Power Law theory, sunk-cost bias, or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow – and guide us to the process of (re)gaining control over our options.

It then teaches us several decision making skills, such as to look at information like a journalist (by following a lead, by listening to what is not being said, by finding the essence of the information), or the 90 Percent Rule (if it’s not a hell yeah, then it’s a no – only the 90% mark out of 100% will do), or decluttering methods that would make Marie Kondo blushed, or simple methods like clarifying our purpose so that it’s changed from pretty clear to really clear.

It then analyzes some crucial factors of decision making such as the power of sleep, with the short chapter on sleep provides a more compacted findings than the 2 books on sleep that I’ve read. The fact that this book put the science of sleep into the overall context of Essentialism makes it relatively more actionable that Shawn Stevenson’s and Ariana Huffington’s excellent stand alone book on the subject.

For example, to succeed at something we need to put 10,000 hours of hard work on it (a theory founded by K. Anders Ericsson by studying violinists, and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell). But this book provides the 2nd part of the study that was rarely highlighted: that the very best violinists actually sleep an average of 8.6 hours. It was sleep that gave them the edge.

Moreover, the book also provides so many tools for the execution, including the very useful “buffer” theory and the “slowest hiker” efficiency, that ensure our execution can be efficient and precise. It also highlighted the importance of routines to switch our task to Basal Ganglia part of the brain and make it automatic and thus freeing up our minds (akin to Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habits), and a sub-chapter on triggers that would make Marshall Goldsmith proud.

The book also provides an abundance of many more examples from various walks of life, with examples from the morning routines of some of the most successful people, to the investment decisions of Warren Buffett (whom owes 90% of his wealth only from 10 investments), what Stephen R. Covey did for his daughter (that leaves a profound inspiration for my parenting style), how Britain and Norway handle their oil proceeds differently, to what Nelson Mandela did in his 27 years in prison (eliminating everything non-essential including his resentment to work on 1 clear goal: to eliminate apartheid in South Africa), or how the right NO spoken at the right time can change the course of history (such as the bus incident with Rosa Parks).

Neurologically speaking our attention span, willpower, and cognitive bandwidth are not unlimited. Hence, it is only by focusing on the essentials that we can produce deep work, flows, and other things that lead to extraordinary performances. In fact, one of the biggest differences between the average person and billionaires and top athletes is that they prioritize their time and effort differently. And this book gives us the clarity on how to do them.