The Power of Essentialism

By Ron Pereira Updated on June 4th, 2015

Greg’s wife was scheduled to give birth to a baby girl on Friday.

Upon hearing this wonderful news Greg’s boss explained, in a rather direct way, “Friday would be a very bad day to have the baby.”

You see, as it turns out, Greg was needed at an extremely important client meeting this same Friday and missing it, no matter the reason, wasn’t acceptable to Greg’s boss.

Well, Friday came along and, as planned, Greg’s wife delivered a beautiful, and healthy, baby girl. Greg was there. That’s the good news.

The bad news happened shortly after Greg’s daughter was born. I’ll let Greg explain it.

“As it turns out, my manager picked me up from he hospital, took me to the appointment, and I was completely dazed the whole time. Afterwards they said to me, which I thought was interesting, they said, the client will respect you for the choice you’ve made. That isn’t the impression I got from the clients, to be honest. But even if it was, and even if some extraordinary thing had come from it, which it did not, surely I had made a fool’s bargain.

And this was where, at least looking back, I said, I’ve learned this lesson. If you don’t prioritize your life, then someone else will. And what I found is that I’m not alone.”

The “Greg” in this this true story is Greg McKeown, author of the bestseller Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less which, I can safely say, is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time.

What is Essentialism?

Put simply, Essentialism is all about fighting the false idea that we can have it all if we do it all.

Let me be clear, Essentialism isn’t a new type of to-do list system or sophisticated time management program. Instead, the Essentialist simply strives to become more selective in what they choose to do.

Put another way, the Essentialist seeks out time to create space while developing routines and habits that allow them to focus on the vital few important aspects of their lives.

How Do We Do This?

The first step to becoming an Essentialist is to realize that we live in a busyness bubble… as such, we have to decide we’re going to become an Essentialist.

In the book McKeown shares a 4-part plan for making the transition and I’d definitely recommend you study it deeply… but there were a few things that really impacted me.

Is it a Hell Yes?

First, the Essentialist needs to become comfortable saying no. This is very hard for many of us since we don’t want to upset, or disappoint, others.

But, here’s the thing, when we say yes to everyone, and everything, we’ll most likely upset and disappoint many of people anyhow since we won’t be able to do a good job at anything since we’re simply stretched too thin.

So, if it helps, simply start by not saying “YES!” immediately. Instead, politely ask if it would be OK for you to think about the request.

Then, once you have time to reflect and think you’ll want to ask yourself a simple question. Is my answer to this request, or question, hell yes? If it’s not, chances are very good you should respectfully say no.

At Gemba Academy we’re constantly coming up with new ideas while also being approached by others with many exciting thoughts and proposals. In the past, we used to get bogged down and, at times, overwhelmed, with these new ideas and requests.

Now, we simply challenge one another with the simple question, “Is it a hell yes?” In just about every case it’s not which allows us to free our minds and truly focus on delivering maximum value to our customers.

And when we do respond with “Hell Yes!” (which, as an aside, we recently did with some new technology we’re now exploring) our team is totally energized and focused since we have clarity of purpose.

Creates Space

Next, the Essentialist creates space to think and prioritize.

My colleagues Kevin and Steve are my role models when it comes to this. They both start, and end, their day by journaling what they did and plan to do.

Put another way, they make it a point to plan their day around what they need to do instead of what others want them to do.


Finally, we’ve covered the importance of sleep in our Culture of Kaizen course and McKeown also stresses how important sleep is for the Essentialist to thrive.

So, if you take nothing else from this article, or this book, this may be the most important advice of all.  We must protect the most important asset in our control – our mind and body – by getting enough rest.

Much More

Again, McKeown shares many more ideas and concepts in the book… but, at least for me, the ideas of saying no when it’s not “hell yes,” creating space to think and reflect, and getting adequate sleep resonated deeply with me.

Here’s a short video of Greg McKeown explaining more about the book. And here’s a longer video of a talk Greg gave at Google.

  1. Ashok

    June 7, 2015 - 11:23 am

    Nice point and it is similar to (if I get it right) multi-tasking (some call it fire-fighting vs. focusing on critical few for perfection in getting the results.

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