Notes on Essentialism
How to Survive in the Era of Abundance
The Essentialist Rebel’s guide to prioritization.
On the first post of this short series of notes on the book Essentialism, we reviewed a few problems caused by our world of excessive Abundance, and how the Essentialist paradigm-shift can address them.
The original definition of priority in English (in the 1400s) didn’t have a plural form. Its meaning was the very first or “prior”. It was only half a millennium after, in the 20th century, that the plural “priorities” started to be used. In the early days of the Era of Abundance (a.k.a. the 2nd Industrial Revolution), we went from having one single “first thing” to many different “first” things.
As a mathematician by training, the logic of having many “first” things eludes me, but such is the logic of our times. Nowadays, we don’t even have a few key priorities. We have different levels of priorities: “high”, “medium” and “low”. We have priorities A through Z. We’ve used and abused the “priority” to the point that it has lost all meaning.
This bastardization of the concept of “priority” (highlighted by Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism) illustrates three major fallacies that rule our lives in the Era of Abundance:
- Decision Amnesia: “I do it because I have to.”
- Efficiency Procrastination: “The faster I get things done, the more things I can do today.”
- Trade-off Ignorance: “I can do both.”
Read on to find out how an Essentialist Rebel, who opposes the norm of Abundance, would reframe these fallacies into strengths.
In the Era of Abundance, we tell ourselves “I do it because I have to.” The Essentialist Rebel thinks instead “I do it because I choose to”.
A choice is composed of two elements: the options available and the act of deciding. Unfortunately, we’ve been taught to focus too much on the options and not enough on the conscious act itself. Although options are often externally imposed on us, our innate ability to decide cannot be lost or stolen, but it can be forgotten.
And, it’s easy to forget. Who has never delayed making an important decision out of fear, confusion or uncertainty? Maybe we’re considering a change in careers, breaking up with a partner or finally moving to a new city. Whatever the conundrum, we’ll keep postponing the decision until the “right time” comes; and, until that “right time” is long gone.
Indecision is a decision unto itself. And it’s the worst kind of decision, it’s the one that makes us a victim of the defaults, which are seldom within our control. Greg McKeown knows this better than anyone:
When we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone else will step in to choose for us.
He started his career studying law, even though he seemed certain that it wasn’t his vocation. His failure to make the decision not law school meant that the default option of law school prevailed. His reason for persevering in his studies is familiar advise: “keep your options open”. What good is hoarding many “open” options when we know we’ll never choose them, anyway? As shown in the last post (and in Paradox of Choice), an excessive abundance of options can lead to choice overload, and so might not be conductive to the best decisions.
What are you doing because you have to?
What would you do because you choose to?
In the Era of Abundance, we say to ourselves “the faster I get things done, the more things I can do today”. The Essentialist Rebel thinks instead “I’ll do the few things that really matter, no matter how long they take”.
Essentialism replaces our fetish for efficiency with a desire for effectiveness. It’s easy to confuse the two — it happens to me all the time — so here’s a good way to tell the two apart:
- Effectiveness relates to strategic decisions: it’s doing the right things to achieve an objective. Example: a GPS will find the most effective route with the shortest distance to a destination.
- Efficiency relates to tactical performance: it’s doing things the right way to achieve an objective with fewer resources (i.e. saving time, effort, money… ). Example: an efficient engine will get you to your destination faster.
At school, in business and in life, we’re encouraged to strive for efficiency. Since we have a long to-do list, we want to get through each task fast so that we can move on to the next one.
Being efficient without regard to effectiveness is the default mode of the universe.
— Tim Ferriss
Most task don’t propel us towards our goals; they just make us feel and look busy. In fact, according to the 80/20 rule (a.k.a the Pareto principle), there are only a few vital tasks will lead to the overwhelming majority of outcomes. Roughly 20% of one’s efforts will lead to roughly 80% of the results.
Focusing on effectiveness is focusing solely on the essential tasks; those of highest leverage. Effectiveness is about prioritizing the essential and letting go of all other tasks that would normally clutter your to-do list and mind. If you only have one or two tasks on your to-do list, you can take your time to get them done.
What’s the 20% of tasks that would make you more effective?
What’s the 80% of tasks that you should stop doing altogether?
In the Era of Abundance, we say to ourselves “I can do both”. The Essentialist Rebel thinks instead “I can do anything, but not everything”.
In the Era of Abundance, we want to have our cake and eat it, too. We look at trade-offs in a bad light, as if the trade-off was stealing something that was rightfully ours. A trade-off is concession, a renouncement, a relinquishment, a surrender, a — okay, I got carried away with the thesaurus — you get the idea: it’s bad. So, we often just ignore them. As McKeown writes in Essentialism:
We can try to avoid the reality of trade-offs, but we can’t escape them.
Ignoring the ruthless reality of trade-offs can be perilous. Michel Porter, a professor at the Harvard Business School, warns companies of straddling their strategy. When a business adopts a new strategy while persisting with their original one at the same time, it is straddling. It doesn’t only happen in business,
Programmers know the benefits of everything and the trade-offs of nothing.
- Rich Hickey, creator of Clojure
When we say yes to everything, we’re saying no to the essential. When we believe we can do it all, we spread ourselves too thin. Inevitably, the quality of our work suffers on all fronts and sooner or later, we fail.
A trade-off is a blessing in disguise. They don’t prevent us from having ALL that we want, but instead they provide an opportunity to choose exactly the ONE thing we need: a priority. They provide an opportunity to identify and refine the essential.
What are you “straddling” right now in life?
Which trade-offs can you welcome as an opportunity, instead of a challenge?
The Era of Abundance has given us many, many advances in the last century. It has also caused many, many issues (beyond the three fallacies I’ve mentioned above) in our lives, our societies, and most crucially, our environment. In the fog of abundance, we’ve lost our priorities as individuals and as civilizations. By focusing on our essential priority, by remembering our ability to choose, by recognizing we can’t do everything, we can live with more meaning, more impact and, hopefully, a little more wisdom.
I’ll leave you with a haiku written by ChatGPT (it’s worth noting that nothing else in the post was written with it):
Era of abundance,
Priorities hard to discern,
Stay tuned for more notes on Essentialism.