Part 2 of my interview with Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. In this episode, he continues with practical advice on getting clear on the bigger picture and enabling for more regular course corrections. Even Greg struggles to be an Essentialist all of the time. Where and how do you start with Essentialism? How do you begin taking back control over the minutes and moments that you can influence? How to focus on the things you can control.
“There are loads of things we don’t control. But focusing on those things, we eventually lose our power.”
“But you develop this journey; and you can eventually influence areas of your life where it originally appeared that you had no control at all.”
Direct download of Part 2 with Greg McKeown here.
Every 90 Days
Greg doesn’t write about it in the book, but he believes that the way we begin managing yourself is getting clear on the bigger picture. He recommends scheduling personal quarterly off-site retreats. Every ninety-days, scheduling a time to reflect and course-correct.
“I think I’m a Non-Essentialist 90% of the time.”
The difference is we can more quickly adjust our focus and priorities.
Building new muscle and starting small
Greg doesn’t recommend that you begin with attempting to influence, e.g., two levels above you, your boss’s boss. Instead, start with yourself.
He recommends starting by taking control of the first minute of your day.
- Your first thoughts
- Your morning routine
- A mantra
- Gain control over your first minute, then your first five.
- Move on to other areas of your life where you can take back control.
Embrace the journey
Unfortunately, Greg does not sell an Essentialism quick fix pill (I wish he did). Instead, Less, But Better becomes a philosophy, a mantra, selection criteria for living a more rewarding life. It isn’t about perfection, but instead, it is about taking the next step. Try something new. Attempt small changes that build upon themselves to even more significant advancements.
Direct download of Part 2 with Greg McKeown here.
Aaron McHugh: Friends, welcome to work life play. I'm your host, Aaron McHugh. I'm here to help you find work. You love. Learn to play live. Adventurously become curious and live your life with joy and purpose. Ready, set, go.
Friends. Welcome to another episode of work life play. Today is part two with Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism. I am a big, big, big Greg McKeown fan and his work about essentialism. The reason I broke it up into two parts, if you didn't catch the first one, you'll want to go back and listen to it. Just one episode was so rich and dense and very practical. I think challenging advice and really thoughtful life considerations. I didn't want to just jam-pack it into one episode because I knew that in order for you to get the most out of it, you'd probably need a little time to give it some thoughts consideration.
If you're just catching it for the first time, feel free to listen to them back to back. I did put together what I'll just call a Q&A transformation guide. The intent is, you would actually go download it. And they're actually the questions that we talk about, the topics we talk about in the course of the two-part podcast, but it's actually in a PDF downloadable guide you can use. So you can grab that at AaronMcHugh.com/LessButBetter.
So today when we break into the second part of this interview Greg just concluded his conversation piece about what Tesla was up to. And we begin kind of migrating into what are some practical best next steps. And he begins with some advice about looking at taking a quarterly personal offsite and learning to better manage ourselves. So I think you'll really enjoy it and then stay tuned at the end of the episode. I'll go ahead and give you a little bit of a recap again, on some of the questions and give you some more dialogue that you can begin to thinking about for some of your own thoughtful beginnings of 2018.
One of the quotes that you use, Greg, and the book from Peter Drucker, I really liked because basically he says “never before in time, it's unprecedented precedent in our current human condition for the first time, literally substantially and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. And for the first time they will have to manage themselves.” So a lot of what I, and if maybe internalize from the essentialist stories, messages, and examples is really about becoming the kind of person back to Steve jobs, who, who actually gets really good at managing myself versus, as you say so well in the book, if you don't make decisions than other people and we'll set those priorities for you.
And so I think even in this example, you just gave here with Elon Musk is about just going back to this, stripping it down, and actually becoming, I would call like a craftsman level about what kind of self-management this, what do I want? What do we know for sure? What are my priorities? What do I want my career to look like? What do we want to accomplish it? All of it coming back and you use the term as a business person, a value proposition that the net benefit to you of becoming the kind of person who can wield and manage your own life means the highest value return in the things that you deem important. So say more about that, of just how that's become a core piece of what it means to be an essential.
Greg McKeown: I've got lots of thoughts about this. I loved everything you just shared. Give it to me one time at more as a question.
Aaron McHugh:Managing yourself.
Greg McKeown: Yes. How do you do it?
Aaron McHugh:How do you do it? This is my personal opinion. So my personal opinion is that part of the power of the essentialist message is you are inviting individual people you're regardless of where they are in their careers and what they do, where they are in an org chart or not whether they're a stay-at-home mom, whether they're a school teacher or whether they're the CEO of Tesla, you are inviting people forward by giving them a template for how to manage themself and their own life to actually have a higher degree of return of, of the value that they deem as important, whatever it is that they think is important that they want out of their life. You've provided them a methodology and approach of how they do that.
And so my question is, as you are teaching people how to manage themselves better wield this, you know, Steve jobs wheeled, his intensity, what is it that what are the net, I guess a couple of things that you try and get people to start with when they begin that self discovery of ‘this starts with me.’
Greg McKeown: I think that the first thing, something I don't cover in the book is to hold a personal quarterly offsite. You schedule time every 90 days to get clearer at the bigger picture. It's a strategy offsite. You're it's going on in my life. Where am I? You know what what's, what's working, what's not working. You're really trying to identify the news of your life. Okay. Here's where I am right now. You trying to put down all the, you try to look at the next three months and you try to say, okay, what's going on over the next three months? What am I already committed to?
And then out of it, you say, okay, promote these things. Here are the two or three things that to me are really essential over the next 90 days. I mean, I say two or three, but what really matters? It isn’t the number, but that you really have identified the number one you say, look, 90 days from now, if we've only done one thing, this is the thing that really ought to be done. So that, that becomes a something that you keep coming back to day after day after day, you're going to be off track 90% of the time. You're going to be a nonessentialist 90% of the time, but you keep coming back and, you know, just like a fly to there. An airplane is off track, 90% of the time, literally that's true, but it keeps coming back on track. That's how it gets to where it's supposed to when it's supposed to get there. And that same with essentialism. I mean, I'm, I'm off track 90% of the time, but, but I think I keep coming back if I do anything differently, I think I just come back more often.
Aaron McHugh:Yes. And course correct. More often. Yeah. That's really good. Yeah.
Greg McKeown: Yeah. It's about tiny corrections in the things you do often. And so that, that then leads to, you know, I think the second thing, which is one of the ideas I love is the idea of the first minute of your day, where you, you say I'm going to design what's I think about in the first minute, and one thing that I've done that I've really found helpful is to take that the results of the personal course, we offsite write it up and have it visible.
So when I wake up in the morning, I pick that up and I look at, just do a scan of, okay, these are the things that I've identified previously as, as really important. This is this, these are the things that I'm pursuing. This is the top item for me. That's one thing to do in that first minute. There's a lot of things people can do, but what I, why, why use that illustration is because one, we all have a lot of mornings, so it's a very predictable thing we're going to have. And to where people can get stumped with a centralism, is that they'll say, well, look, Hey, I can't just say no to my boss's boss. You know, they get, get into this idea of it's about, you know, the section that's about elimination, elimination of non-essentials. Well, I got my boss's boss and I always want to say, yeah, I wouldn't start there.
Aaron McHugh:Yeah, absolutely. Start with your first minute. Start small. Start with something with a higher rate of return.
Greg McKeown: And if you don't feel like you can control the first minute of your day, that's on you.
Greg McKeown: You can, you can start to control that, start to influence that.
Aaron McHugh:And I think that's back to my question of what I think you do so incredibly well in the book in which is why I keep going back to it and buy it for and evangelize it is I think you do such a good job of highlighting the areas of your life. That you can take back control, that you can own the decision. If you don't like going back to what are we going to do this holiday season? And if we start making decisions on what did we do last year? What's everyone else doing well, that's come on timeout. No. What, what is it that you want? Who do you want to spend your time with or not?
And starting in those I'd call what some people would maybe more consider the peripheral areas of their life versus the boss that you just mentioned. The two, you know, two executives above them that have them do a report ad hoc with, you know, six hours notice like that is a difficult place to start, but I've found that if you start in the peripheral edges of your life, where they feel like it's not that big of a deal, that you, as an essentialistlist, you do gain strength and confidence in the clarity, which then fuels and fuels in the other bigger areas. When you actually go try and tackle the big things, you've already gained all this confidence and strength in tackling all the small little things.
Greg McKeown: Yeah. It's just so true. What you're describing. I love your description of it. You totally get it. It's about building muscle and then you start to be able to go, okay. I actually, I actually realized, Oh, I, well, if I can control the first minute of my day then, well, what about the first two minutes? You know, if you can do the first two minutes, maybe you can do five minutes so on, right. And, and the same logic starts to build and you go, well, what if I designed a routine for the first half hour of my day, first hour of my day? And suddenly you go, yes, there's loads of things we don't control, but there's loads of things we do if we start there. Yes. And if we focus on that, by focusing on what we don't control, we give power to the things we don't control.
And in such a way we eventually lose our power or at least perceive we perceive that we do. And so you know, I've, I am, I'm playing around with future book ideas. And even though I I felt very clearly not to do it for a few years. I felt like it wasn't the thing I needed to do next, but but as I, one of the ideas that I play with would be around really. How do you put this into practice? I've been, I've been hesitant to do that book because it originally, I just thought, no, you don't need it. If you can develop a mindset, if you can develop enough of the skillset that I already wrote about, then it's enough. But it's been really consistent that people have said, you know, even after re reading the book, even after reading the book multiple times, they'll be like, okay, well, I just really want to know how to start where to go.
And I think, Oh, Jesus, that's probably is on me. You, I guess it isn't enough. And so to try and take the best of what I've learned in the, in the year since, and worked with so many different people to try and apply these ideas. I find that one thing that one thing I feel would be useful to write about is the process of how you go from, you know, like in a very step-by-step approach, how you go from focusing on things, you control all the way to things that you can only barely influence. And the order, like, how would you do that? And so that by the end, you you've developed your own influence. So, so much that you can start to impact things, including in the final analysis, including your boss’s boss.
Greg McKeown: And in that situation with your boss’s boss, no, you don't have the, you don't have the control. You can just, that's a career limiting move. If you do that, if you were to do that just bluntly or rudely, or, or even at all in some scenarios. But if you learn, if you develop this journey, if you start to develop the muscles yourselves and so on, and the new skills to be able to communicate with other people in a compassionate way. And so on, eventually you can get to the point where you at least can influence what originally appeared to be like. I have no control at all in this situation. And so I think that idea, it could be interesting.
Aaron McHugh:It's very interesting because this morning when I was getting ready for this and reviewing my notes and doing some reading, I was writing in my journal and I wrote down three different categories and the things I can control, the things I can have influence I can influence maybe not over, but I can influence them and they'll have varying levels of how much can I influence, but I can't influence these. And then the things that feel out of my control, but starting with those in that order of what's underneath my domain and going back to the manager myself. And if all of that is, then I love your example of a Steve Jobs 2.0, that's a great example of look at a Steve Jobs 2.0, when it came back, 10 years later, here's all the life circumstances in experiences that rolled up into this new person who then became proud of the Apple that he built versus the individual device that he invented.
Well, then I think that that's really a lot of where the, yeah, the building blocks of building muscle, as you said. And I think a lot of times, as you're saying that this idea of people needing really practical steps, a friend of mine calls them like handheld handholds and on-ramps, and that people really need to know it's a climbing analogy of a handhold of like, where, where do I put my foot? Where do I put my next hand in my move? Or if you're trying to get them on an, on ramp onto a highway that you're trying to take them somewhere, he's like, it's just, you just sometimes need to help them get on, on the on ramp. So I think I would agree with you that essentially ism is such a big idea and such a revolutionary way to begin to, to manage and steer and direct your life and your career and your relationships, that it is any other thing.
You do a great job in the book of providing lots of stories, but I would agree that, you know, your maybe Essentialism 2.0 is a practical guide to as simple as yeah. Every morning, I have a one minute crib sheet of what's important to me for the next 90 days. Oh man. That’s a home run for people that especially just feel like I don't know where to start. And all of that feels like it's, it's in an out of my control and in States that I wish it wasn't. So to provide what you even have a diagram in the book about small wins, you know, this idea of like, by building these individual wins, they successively equal bigger wins later. But so I would, I would be happy to read that book.
Greg McKeown: I appreciate you saying that. And the, you know, we'll, we'll see if we go down that direction, but it's, but the idea of the, of the small wins, you know, it really is taking that idea and, and actually providing that, that path. And you say, okay, well, where do you begin? What is the smallest wins that you can, that you can stop and do consistently and build up from there? All the way to somebody say, I mean, again, I’m keeping it in the caveats as to whether I do it or not, but to me it becomes a sort of guide for, you know, people like you and others. You know, I have read it this many times.
It's people that are, that are into it, who go, okay, now I want to bring it into my organization. I mean, I work with a lot of organizations and I would work with none of them, if it weren't for these the one for these people who are, who become advocates for centralism, if they are the ones that bring it in, they say, really, they are the ones that prove that you can have impact beyond yourself because they're the ones that go and listen, you know, I'm not perfect evangelists. I'm still grappling with this, but I'd love for my senior leadership team to read this. And so they provide the books and they have the conversation and they start the conversation and then there's a keynote.
Aaron McHugh:Got it. So they evangelize it for you. They're then working on indoctrinating people within their own organization, and then invite you in to say, no, look, Greg, tell him what I've been telling him.
Greg McKeown: That’s right. And, and, you know, I'm, I do, I do just essentially no outreach into companies. This is just people who read it, who become advocates, who become, and they just do this on their own. And they just start to get the conversation going. And they do by focusing on what they can control by reading it themselves by you, then getting there, maybe the team they're on to read it by getting another person into it, by then discussing it further. But by focusing on the things they control and all that can influence, they expand that influence significantly. And suddenly they are having an impact on the culture of their whole organization.
Aaron McHugh:Absolutely. Yeah. By going this less traveled path, less obvious path that actually leads to greater returns. Even as the opening chapter of the book States, the individual executive who was going to leave and then, you know, maybe take early retirement, but you know, only do what a consultant would do. And subsequently went on to then have this much higher level of success and accomplishment because he took the less traveled path. And I think that's the, to me, that's the punchline is like, no, you don't understand. Less is more like it's actually better. And it's super unpopular. The challenge is why to bring it, have someone be an evangelists of promoting discipline pursuit of less insight. A non-essentialist organization is really difficult, but when you can prove through factually based deliverables, something was better than the old way. Then people start to take notice and listen, and they're willing to at least allow their ear, you know, to be borrowed out, loaned out for a little while of like, okay, I saw some proof I'll listen, it doesn't sound like it's for me. I don't know how that will ever be the company we are if we try and do less. But I know, I know it doesn't make any sense, but you just have to trust me. Let's have Greg come in, he'll do a thing for us. You guys read the book. Like I love it. It sounds perfect.
Greg McKeown: The phrase that's in the book is when you, as you well know from the Rams that I think needs to be elevated, is that phrase “less but better”. It's it's so succinct. Really. It's the succinct to summary of essential. Isn't less but better. It helps to make sense of what we mean. And even the phrase less is more while I actually think there is some substance to that. It's hard to get your head around what it really means unless it's Mark and well, I guess if we just had less than we'd have more, what does it mean? Okay. It's a little bit like when people say work smarter, not work harder, work smarter. I always go: yeah, that sounds really good. But what does that mean? But less but better. It immediately promulgates what the shift would actually be is doing fewer things done better. You actually become more selective and do those things really well, rather than try to do everything average to well, so it has like a very concrete strategy embedded in it.
So that’s a phrase to me that when you, when you, when you can get people to sort of adopt it as a mantra, less but better. If it can start to affect everything. So it's less but better products. It's less but better strategies, just fewer things, fewer strategies, it's less but better communication that send fewer messages in our marketing. We try and say 10 things. We say nothing. It's hiring practice. It's we want, we don't want to hire more people. We want less but better people who want to have fewer we're really, really well you know, pull in, it becomes a mantra that really can be utilized to build an entire institution, culture, even society.
Aaron McHugh:Yes, it is.
Greg McKeown: It is a philosophy that can, that can be, everything could be built upon. And we, there are great examples and even post writing a centralism, I feel like they've been some great illustrations at the Fitsu, which is a company that's know relatively small company. But I write about in the book has continued to develop themselves and they have grown, not in complexity, but have grown in success. And notability in the previous is that they're probably the most essentialist company that I've worked with. It, they, they began their, their company with the phrase less but better than who they are. And it proceeded the book. So I can't take credit for that.
But when I talked to the managing director there when I was interviewing him, I gave the language essentialist and he's not a very presumptuous guy. He said, Oh, I can say that that's who I've been for the last, you know, I don't remember the years, 20 years, 30 years. That is what I've been at essentially. And it was so cool because and I was kind of full circle in our conversation today, but it was so cool because he, this is how the story has evolved. Finally, I was able to get language for a phenomenon that I've been observing. That's, that's a very satisfying moment because what you're doing is you're trying to what's the word I'm looking for? Amplify a quiet sound. You're going, I've seen something here. People do undisciplined pursuit of more. I see it everywhere. I see this problem. And I've seen people do something different.
We don't have any words for it. I have language for it, but I've seen leaders operating differently to this. And so then you’re starting to explore, you still don't have the language properly. And then you find out, is this a, this managing director? Oh, he is one of these and you get the language decentralist and he says, yes, I've done that for 30 years. I am that. And you go, yes, there are these people. And then as, as it's gone forward and even writing the book, but then even post writing the book, I go, there's examples everywhere. Either. This is not isolated in a corner. There are examples everywhere, but we didn't have the language for it so we could hardly see it.
Aaron McHugh:Yeah. That’s very, that's a great example of amplifying a quiet sound. Yeah. And then naming it and then aggregating it in description, examples and stories so that people can also hear that, that small sound that EV that it's. And that's where I think that the universalism of essentialism to me is incredibly powerful. And I know that you've experienced lots of metric success related to how many books have been sold in languages it's been translated into and, and all that. And I think it's phenomenal. And the part I love the most about it is that almost like an archeologist, you like somehow unearthed and uncovered this universal thing, this ample, you know, this quiet sound and then packaged it in such a way with handholds and on-ramps that it enables for people to get it and hear more clearly what it is that sound on the edges of their life was like.
Greg McKeown: Yeah, well, that's beautiful. That's that's both affirming and also aspirational, you know, there's a, as we go forward, this is what exactly what we're trying to do.
Aaron McHugh:Well done. We'll keep, keep going. And I'm excited that I get a chance to do the same here and share this this out so that people can understand that this is an alternative. You can actually run and manage your own life, your own career, your own relationships, and that as if you don't take charge, and if you don't drive and direct these things, and if you don't begin building muscles in these small areas, and over time, maybe tackle bigger things, then someone else will for you. And that is a very disempowering and I find often dissatisfying way to live.
And so there's a lot more joy to be had a lot more enjoyment of our life and the people that we do it with and the careers that we have. But I think a lot of it starts with stepping up as we've talked about today, becoming the kind of person who can wield a better, a better story directed by us. So I really love your work, Greg, and I'm super excited and appreciative of the conversation that we get to share it with other people.
Greg McKeown: Thank you so much for your time. Aaron, it's been a real pleasure today. Yeah.
Aaron McHugh:You too, friends. How killer was that? So a personal session, basically a personal coaching session from Greg McKeown for, I think it was like an hour and 10 minutes, the two interviews combined. So that's pretty, pretty powerful way, I think to start 2018.
So a couple of highlights that I really found helpful and useful: probably the biggest punchline was this, how he distilled down this less, but better that didn't take credit for it. But that one of the managing partners from one of the companies that he interviewed, that that was their mantra, that was their very selective criteria of how they found their path to repeatable success. One of the things I really love is this idea of exercising, new muscle and building new muscle that starting small. So wrote down a few quotes that Greg said during the course of the interview, I want to share with you here.
So you said there's loads of things that we don't control, but both by focusing on those things, we give power to the things that we don't control effectively. We eventually lose our power. Another quote that I really enjoyed was you can eventually influence areas of your life, where it originally appeared that you had no control at all. So he's told a story about influencing two levels up on your org chart with your bosses boss. And that's probably not the place to start, but you could start with a first minute of your day routine.
And I love that. I thought it was a really great idea. So I actually just put up on my wall, focus on the things I can control and expand my influence. That way. One of the practical pieces I've been using recently is I use Headspace a meditation app, and there's a prioritization meditation track I've been using it's 10 or 15 or 20 minutes.
Whatever the guided time you want to take.
One of the things I struggle with is a million great ideas and, or, or at least I think they're great. There's things I want to pour myself into. Maybe I'll say it that way. I have always struggled with more desire than I have bandwidth and more goals or objectives or hopes or dreams. What I struggle with with though is translating those into making sure I'm working on the highest value, less but better items. So this meditation I've been working on has really helped. One of the key questions they ask is not in a doom and gloom way, but in a very, just hopeful way. If, if today was the only day you had, if today was your last day, what would you spend your time on? What actually is less but better? How would you allocate it?
So I've been spending time on that this week. It's been really helpful for me to focus on the things that I can control and just be okay with letting go of less. I think what's also really powerful about Greg's message and essentialism is that it is what he called a journey that if you're willing to go on a journey, if you're willing to run this life experiment in really small ways, and maybe it's starting with the morning routine, maybe it's starting with the first minute of your day. And then that expands into the second minute. And well, if I could control the first five minutes of my day, maybe I could actually have some influence over this bigger thing, like a problem or challenge relationship, or some changes that you want to make in your health and fitness, whatever those are. I think this time of year, most of us are at least considering looking down at 2018 and saying, well, what, what do I want, what do I desire?
And if this year is simply a repeat of last year, then even if it was a great year that doesn't expand us and offer a lot of growth opportunities for us in our life. So I'm interested in more and an expanding areas of my life that need to expand and shrinking and becoming more selective in areas of my life that need to shrink so that I can go less but better. Thanks for listening. Thanks for joining us on this journey of doing work that you love of living on purpose of being purposeful about your life and your relationships about your fitness, about your adventure, about your intentionality that you bring when you show up to your life. So I'm inviting you show up to your life. It's yours. It's the one tour that you get while you're here. So make it count, make it matter, make it yours, make it be something that you're proud of today.
And maybe not. All of it is something that you're proud of today. That's okay, but pick something, you can be proud of, pick something. You can influence, pick something that you can design. You can architect, and maybe that's as simple as pulled over on your way home from work today after the train commute, after the long drive, after a long day and spend three minutes down the street down here from down the walk from your apartment, and just take a pause, taking a couple of deep breaths, remind yourself what you're stoked about, what you're grateful for. What was good about today? What you're looking forward to for this week, you can do this. This is good for us. Keep going.
You've been listening to Work Life Play. If you like what you've heard, please do us a favor and rate us on iTunes. It really does help. You can get more information about this and other firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening. Thanks for being part of this adventure for being part of braving, pioneering work of discovering sustainable work life, play rhythms, love your work. Live your life. Play a whole lot more. I'm Aaron McHugh. Keep going.
*We’ve done our best for this transcription to accurately reflect the conversation. Errors are possible. Thank you for your patience and grace if you find errors that our team missed.
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