Around the time I started this blog in May, I also worked on small recalibrations on what I want to do on a regular basis. That included reading one book a month.

For this month, I read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.

The book’s core challenge to the reader is encapsulated in a basic question, “What is essential in my life?” And what follows that question is a re-examination if the way you allocate your energies, your thoughts, your time (most especially), are all towards the pursuit of what you believe is your “essential intent”.

Some key assumptions that I gathered from the book:

First, this book is not for those who are exploring around life, trying out options, trying to find out what directions to take. Near the book’s beginning is a description of the “paradox of success” – that success starts off when you get to do something good, then because the reward for good work is even more work, you then eventually find yourself pulled in all sorts of directions. But what happens is that you spend so much time and energy doing many things, that eventually, you do not do anything great anymore. You lose focus. You underperform.

So, the struggle described in the book is grounded on the experience of those who have worked around and have a bounty of good options to choose from. At that point, you can really ask yourself, “What many good things do I eliminate in order to do something massively great?”

Second, the book is not for those who do not have at the very least, some form of productivity ritual in their life. The challenge to eliminate many good things in order to focus on the “essential intent” is painful to shoulder. The book has a grounded exploration of the notions of guilt when saying “no”, or the fear when you try to eliminate potentially good things given that you have no assurance that your other choice is a better one. Without an existing system of productivity, or at least a semblance thereof, adjusting life and decision-making to reflect essentialism principles is outright excruciating.

But I understand the point. Essentialism is the fabric by which simplicity runs. And by simplicity I do not mean, and the book does not mean, a mediocre life. This is simplicity is the Gandhi, Dalai Lama kind. What is that essential in your life that you are willing to give up other things for, because you believe it is the most meaningful way that you can have impact in whatever world you are in? That assumes a process of discernment. That assumes a disciplined assessment of priorities. That assumes the courage to make and stand by decisions.

Essentialism forwards the promise of a life you are in control of, at least with what is controllable. For example, time. Your time. Given our limited time living, how would you control your time so you will have more moments of being present? How do you configure your time in the office, your nights, your weekends, so that you spend them with your highest potential and energy maximized? With this disciplined attempt to control time, there is peace. “Kairos”, as it is described, the Greek word for “opportune moment, the supreme time”.  How do you make every moment, THE moment for what you intend it to be?

Not just for work, the book discusses. But for relationships too. I adore the anecdote shared by Stephen Covey’s daughter about Covey saying no to a high-level unexpected meeting because the father and daughter agreed to some quality time. Essentialism is consistent with Covey’s first principle: Begin with the end in mind. The book just says, begin and persevere with the end in mind, and get rid of everything else that does not help you get it.

Again on relationships, there are parts that trigger some familiar relationship-killers: moments when the person you are talking to suddenly answers an SMS, or takes a call, or looks at his watch. The book says: We can all multi-task, but we cannot multi-focus. At every moment, there is only one thing that you really can commit to. What is it then that takes your focus? And does it reflect your essential intent? And is your life happier, more peaceful, more meaningful because that is your focus?

At the end of the book, there is an annex on how essentialism as a way of life can also be applied to leadership, to teams, to organizations. I appreciate that part as well. When many management books suggest how to address inefficiencies or lack of capacities, this book says, have the courage to get rid of it; take the non-essentials out. Now that is difficult, but I get the wisdom of it too. Why spend so much time and energy catering to the inefficient and ineffective when you can take it out of your equation altogether, and focus your team on what is your core intent? It is the kind of question for a strategic planning that requires alcohol for processing.

I suppose I am at a point in my life when answering these kinds of questions is ripe for the taking. I could not have dealt with the questions the book poses if I read this 10 years ago, when I was out for an adventure to map out the world apparent to me and make some space for myself. At this point in my life, I get the wisdom of the essentialism life-philosophy challenge. What I appreciate the most is the framing of the book about the finiteness of life, that in truth, we are all going to die. So how do I spend my life meaningfully? As one anecdote in the book said, definitely not, “She wrote emails.”

And we go back to this, what I quoted in my graduation speech in Ateneo last June 1:

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I start with a new book on July 1. Or maybe tomorrow. Get a good head start.

Because from Essentialism, I take away this thought: Purposive expenditure of time.

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