In this episode:
02:03 – How the book came about
03:35 – The paradox of success
06:47 – A formula for success
09:24 – Slave or master?
12:02 – How to limit opinion fatigue
12:16 – Schedule this 1 day every 90 days
14:15 – Going BIG
17:17 – Beware this planning fallacy
19:51 – Getting the extra yield
22:00 – Definite yes or else no
24:56 – Steps to pare down to the essential
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James: James Schramko here, welcome back to SuperFastBusiness.com. Today, this episode is going to blow your mind. But more importantly, it’s actually going to put you back into control, it’s going to reduce stress, remove chaos, and make life more enjoyable. My guest for today is a New York Times best seller. I’d love to welcome Greg McKeown. Welcome to the call.
Greg: I’m so happy to be with you. Thanks for having me.
James: I took my kid to the motocross park a few weeks back and I read your entire book, which is Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” While I was sitting there reading it, I just thought, this is ticking boxes, the whole way through. Everything that I’m reading, I’m like, yes, yes, yes, yes. And then when I got to the end of the book, I noticed you did something very rare, and you actually credited all of the sources, and it was pretty much a summary of my library.
So it’s the best mashup of ideas that I’ve ever found in one concentrated source, which is kind of ironic since the whole point of your message is less but better. And I just want to say firstly as a huge fan of the book, you’ve done such a great job and I recommend it to everyone that I encounter because of what’s in that book. So thank you for putting it together.
Greg: I appreciate that ever so much. Thank you.
James: It’d be great if you could just give a very brief intro as to how the book came about because I know that you were writing for the Harvard Business Review and you must have got some kind of a reaction from what you were publishing to make it into a book.
How the book came about
Greg: Yes. That is a posit how it came to be and one of the pieces I wrote for Harvard Business Review was called “The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less.” That really did seem to strike a chord to people. I mean I think that’s for a few reasons. But first of all, I think it just has the power of relevancy now. So one thing you need more of is less. And in fact, I think it’s quite hard to almost share any other idea with people because they’re already so consumed. People feel that they’re stretched too thin already at work and at home. They feel like they’re saying yes to everyone and everything. They feel like they’re making a millimeter progress in a million different directions. And so I think that it taps into something in the zeitgeist. And I was in that sense of just being very lucky both with that piece and also being able to write the book at such a time as this.
James: Well, perhaps if we could just cover some of the key points, we might cherry pick the top ideas. I think it would be fairly important to mention the paradox of success. Would you like to explain what you found with that and why it’s so important?
The paradox of success
Greg: Well basically, the paradox of success says that when people focus on the right things, then it leads to success. If you focus on the right things, at the right time, then it generates success. What it generates as well, which sounds like the right problem to have, is new options and opportunities. And you become the go-to person. People want more from you. As they say, that sounds like the right problem but it does in fact turn out to be a problem, especially if it leads to what Jim Collins has called “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” And it often does lead to that. And so, exaggerating the point in order to make it success is a catalyst for failure.
James: That is quite a paradox.
Greg: Yeah. It is a paradox. It doesn’t sound like it should be true but it is. Here’s my point of view on it is that it doesn’t mean that we should be anti-success of course, and I’m not. What it means is that we have to learn how to become successful at success. It means that we have to learn particular principles, particular leadership abilities to be able to navigate that challenge. And I think that everybody has to develop this now because it’s not just individuals may find their lives, they become successful, some of them may have options of not choosing.
I mean if it’s true that the success paradox applies to one person at a time given the story of their lives, but it is also true now, globally, culturally, so that our whole culture in the developed world has fallen into the undisciplined pursuit of more. And so all of those need to apply a very particular set of leadership principles in order to thrive amid that challenge. And so as in the same way that, for example, Churchill is a particular kind of leader that was relevant at a particular time in history.
In a similar way, in a metaphorical way of comparison, to become an essentialist has become the very kind of leadership we need now personally and then of course in our teams and organizations. We have to be able to figure out what is essential, eliminate what’s not as gracefully as possible, and also then be able to reallocate resources in a way to make getting the right things done as effortless as possible. Those are really the three things we have to do. Explore what’s essential, eliminate what’s not, and execute as frictionless as possible.
James: Great. And when it comes to teams, you’re fairly adamant that clarity equals success.
Clarity equals success
Greg: That’s an interesting phrase to pull out from that research. That is what I did, I interviewed hundreds and hundreds. I think by the time we were done, we were well over a thousand data points on this. People had to identify, when have you worked on a team that had high clarity? When have you worked on a team that had low clarity? What was it like? What were the results? When you do this, visually, as I did with a group at one time, when they looked at the data that they just produced real time, I said, “What do you see? What do you learn?” That was somebody’s summary. They looked at the data together and it says that clarity equals success. And that’s interesting.
But you see, it’s an interesting insight. I think that is the very nature, but it also comes back to this paradox of success as well. When we have clarity, it leads to success. The challenge is to produce new clarity, higher levels of clarity. In the midst of success, and that’s not easy to do, because the very nature, almost the gravitational pull of success itself is distracting. It will end up keeping people so busy at their current level of success just addressing all of the things that are coming their way that there’s no space for them to invest in the next level up.
So you see this all the time that people plateau in their progress, again individually or the team, because they’ve got things going in the right way. That’s fine. But they don’t break through the next level because they don’t get to the next level of absurdly selective criteria so that they can cherry pick, to use your term from a moment ago, amongst these opportunities and just select the ones that will actually help them to operate at their highest point of contribution.
James: And it’s a process that can be applied in all sorts of things. I guess I’ve gone from reading an entire Kindle to making my own highlights, to straining that down to one piece of paper. And now I’m mindful that our listener may not be fully aware of some of the ideas in your content, and then to actually put forward all the ideas could potentially overwhelm them, and we’re probably competing with messages on their phone, social media, updates. How big a problem do you think it is with the environment that we have these days with the tech and the way that anyone can make content and get to people so easily?
The challenge of technology
Greg: I think that technology makes a good servant but a poor master. I think that in today’s environment, really speaking generally not individually, I think technology is a master. We don’t tend to process to make it our servant. And this is why, because over the last year, we shifted from being connected to hyperconnected. We have also shifted from information overload, which you’re familiar with, to opinion overload, which is a different phenomenon. It’s a different challenge because opinion overload is actual people, it’s relationships, the people in our lives, the people of the periphery you know on Facebook, on Twitter, people we even barely know, being able to get a vote in our lives as to what we should do.
So it’s always been true that if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. But in this environment, everybody’s got a vote if we’re not careful. So to put all that into context, what I think is the social media, the smart technology, the wearables, all of these have progressed so much faster than our skillset has developed.
So currently, we are being massively outpaced by the technology that we’re being confronted with. I’m optimistic that over time, we will develop new skills, we will adapt in ways that eventually, will mean that we know how to navigate these challenges. We will adapt in ways that I think we’ll look back into 2015 and say, “Do you remember when we were crazy doing this, this and this, we would do all these behaviors?” And then “Wow, that was wild, wasn’t it? It was all so different.” Eventually, we’ll adapt past that. But right now, we’re playing catch up for sure.
James: I have a feeling I’ve come through that door as someone who is an early user of those things. I’m totally over it, and I’ve cut down my Facebook to 1 ½ hours a week for example. And I sort of took a twist on one of your phrases, you say that one-time decisions eliminate thousand future decisions. I think one-time decision to limit social media eliminates a thousand opinion fatigues by the sound of it.
The Personal Quality Offsite
Greg: Yeah, I think that’s right. I like the idea of your opinion fatigue. I mean I think that’s right, and again, it’s about using a powerful tool. How do I learn to utilize them? So in general, I’m not saying to people, “Oh, you should be on Twitter,” or “You should not be on Twitter,” or “You should be on Facebook,” or “not be on Facebook.” I believe that these are tools like anything. They have massive utility for people. I don’t think they’re going away. Although I’m sure they will evolve, the tools themselves will evolve. But I think that our own ability to just create space, so for example, what I do, you know, advocate to people is that they should spend one day every 90 days in a personal quarterly offsite so that on that day, they’re saying, “Look, I’m just going to review where I’ve been, especially looking at where I’ve been successful in giving the things that really matter to me,” so that you can have a sense of knowing what’s possible. You can make decisions around what’s essential. So look where you’ve got it right.
And number two is to say, “Look. What’s the number one thing I want to do personally over the next 90 days? And what’s the one thing I want to do professionally over the next 90 days?” And you come out of that experience, that personal quarterly offsite with clarity around that. And also you’ve had the conversation and the third question is, “What are the tradeoffs I need to make?” Over the next 90 days, to really be able to actually make this and this enjoyable experience is possible, getting things, getting the items accomplished.
So if someone takes a day every 90 days to do that, they suddenly have a high level of clarity with which to shape their day-to-day decisions about social media, about email, about what meetings to take, and all of the rest of it. You can make these decisions about various things strategically based on the clarity you get at the personal quarterly off site.
James: I think you talk about this in the framework of going big. Perhaps you could explain that when it comes to decision making and filtering.
Greg: Well, I say this in terms of what comes to mind about that is Warren Buffet. So Warren Buffett, when he was first starting out on his investment journey, he concluded something really smart, which is, “I can’t be wise a thousand times.” He thought, “Maybe I can be right 20 times, really right 20 times.” And he used this as a metaphor, the idea of a punch card, like almost like a dance that has 20 punches in it. And so that’s it. That’s my whole investment in life. It’s going to be these 20 punches. As a result, I’m not going to make small decisions. I’m not going to make little investments here. I’m not going to play around, mess around it with a little bit of an idea here, a little bit of an idea there. If I’m doing, I’m going big. So that changed his whole approach to investing. And changed it very much into what I would be calling maybe the essentialist because what it meant is that because he was only going to go big a few times, he had to explore very broadly.
Another paradox of essentialism is that what I found is that essentialists explore more broadly than non-essentialists. And that is because they explore more broadly but commit more narrowly. So again I’m using the Buffet example. He’s explored all day long. He goes through portfolio after portfolio evaluating the value constantly until you say no to all of them, until he finds exactly the right thing.
He gains big and he keeps it for a long time. Now that was his philosophy going into his investment story. But now, we can also look how did it work. Well of course we know he’s the most successful investor in the history. We also can observe that 90% of his wealth comes from just 10 decisions. That’s the point.
An essentialist believes that almost everything is not essential. An non-essentialist believes that almost everything is essential. They try and pursue everything. They try and commit big on everything. And that’s why they don’t sleep. And that’s why they stay up. That’s why they’re working 24/7 and always want to be available, and the fear of missing out and all of that is out of the idea that all of it is equally important. But with an essentialist, almost everything is meaningless noise, almost everything is ultimately trivia. A few things really matter and they act concerned and focused on spending that time to find those few things.
James: And part of it stems from the very first step of being honest that you cannot do it all. You just got to have this realization. I think perhaps a lot of people haven’t figured that step out yet.
Greg: I think that’s right. The term for that problem is called the planning fallacy, which is one of many brain heuristics. And you know, these heuristics, they are something that is developed or evolved into our minds that has some truth, some use, some utility, but then there’s lots of cases in which it doesn’t really work in reality. So that it’s useful in some cases, not in other cases, but our brain hasn’t learned to distinguish when to apply that little lapses inside the planning fallacy that humans will keenly underestimate how long a task will take.
What’s interesting about it is it’s true even when they’ve done the task many times before. And so people can relate to the times when they’re in the middle of writing an email and they look at their watch and they say, “I’ve got 5 minutes to get into that meeting.” And they know that it takes 5 or longer minutes to get there, but they carry on with the email and say to themselves, “I’ll just get there in two.” And they know they can’t. And of course they finish the email and they’re going to be late, and they are late. And they run and they try and make it, but they know it still takes that 5, they know how long it’s going to take. And that is a planning fallacy.
And so you’re right. I think that upfront, you have to sort of become a little disgusted at non-essentialism. I think you have to look at it, stare at it, become very dissatisfied with what I believe strongly is a bill of goods that we’ve been sold is a bad idea. And lies. Yes, a lie. The lie is if you can fit it all, then you can have it all. And there’s a few reasons that’s a lie. First of all, if you try to fit it all and you don’t have it all, you don’t get it all, you make everyone get upset, you make everyone get frustrated, you do a bit of progress on everything, you don’t do a great job at everything and you’re exhausted all the time.
So first of all, if you try to do it all, you just won’t produce the results you’ve been promised. But also, as you start it off this little idea that I’ve been ripping on, it is impossible to fit it all in. So that’s where the lie begins. You can’t fit it all in. You can’t fit in half of what you think. My wife was saying to me the other day, I felt quite clever. A little play on words there. I figured enough schedule.
James: So the next logical thought line from that is something I think is worth emphasizing, that certain types of effort yield higher rewards than others. I know you’ve drawn from resources like Richard Koch. Most people in my sphere have heard of the 80/20 or a power curve. It’s a recurring theme in most modern contexts. But I think people underestimate how different the extra yield is, and that’s one of the points that you put forward in the book as well.
Greg: That’s absolutely right. Whatever you call it. There’s many, many names for it and it’s been identified in so many fields. It is still routinely under estimation. And so when you wake up in the morning, I think this is very common for people; you wake up, and first of all, they get into trouble because the first thing they do is they’ll check their phone. It all starts there. The sense of reactivity starts there. And it’s not just reactive. The essence of the problem isn’t just that somebody feels busy all day, the essence of the problem is that it all feels approximately the same level of importance. That is the problem, that we get into believing it’s all a priority. It’s all important. It all has to be done. And that’s overwhelming. It’s challenging.
You can see how far we’ve come when you just think about the word priority itself. It came in the English language in the 1400s and it was singular. Priority. The very first, the very prior thing. That is what it meant, and very sensibly, It stayed in Europe for the next 500 years. And it was only in the 1900s as a result of the industrial revolution and the sort of thinking that came in with that, that somebody started to pluralize the term. That somehow, we can have very, very many, very first or before everything else things. And you know, we can’t. That’s a complete nonsense.
Definite yes or else no
James: Tell me about one of the great tools to help working out which things have the high yield activity or not will be the definite yes or else no philosophy. It’s probably worth mentioning that one.
Greg: Yeah. This is true. The challenges for capable, driven, successful people is to discern between the good and the great. I think most people can discern, especially if they create any space to think, they can discern between the complete waste of time and something that’s really important. But where they get into trouble is in the foggy middle. So I recommend that people can actually make this decision strategy quite concrete by making a list of all the options and then going down each of them and saying for a scale of 1 to 100 percentage, how much of a yes do you want to do? How right does this feel?
You do that, some things will be 10%. They are not the right things. I should not be doing those things. That’s not where my focus should be. And then some of the things will be like 90% or above. They’re like the definite yeses, these are the right things. And those sort of polarized things are easier. What’s harder is when you have something that’s 50%, 60%, 70%, 80% yes. And that’s where we often have our resources absorbed. The problem is given what we were just talking about, the planning fallacy is that we don’t actually have time to do the 70%, 80%, 90% and the ones that are definite yeses.
And so my challenge to people is get the things that are 90% to 100% and then everything else, you just pretend they’re zeros. So if something is 70%, you just pretend it’s zero. If it’s 80%, it’s a zero. And see what you’re left with. You can always if you say, oh, I’m not left with anything, there are no 90% or above options here, maybe you say, “Well, I’ll reduce my criteria just to 80% and above and see what I’m left with.” But often, what I found when I do it is that what remains, what is 90 and above will consume me. To achieve those objectives in a given day or a week, or in 90 days or a year, those will actually take all the available energy and time I have. And I just feel so much better to be able to invest those on the things that are clearly yes. So yeah. It’s no more, “Yeah, sure.” It’s “Absolutely yes,” or “No. We’re not doing it.”
James: Greg, that’s a great philosophy. Now there are plenty of things that we could discuss and I’m super respectful of your time. I think in the spirit of essentialism, we’re going to keep this episode tight. So I might just do a little summary and we’ll make sure that we summarize the key points we’ve discussed.
Steps to get started
The first one is that we’re going to be more successful at being successful to avoid the paradox of success. We’ll acknowledge that we can’t do it all. We’ll also manage our tech environment so that we’re the master and not the servant. We’re going to work out what’s essential by doing more research and putting things through the high yield filter using a yes or no approach. And once we’ve got that one thing or the most essential thing, then we’re going to execute, and we’re going to have a 90-day review point, we’re going to be very clear on the one thing we’d like to achieve, and everything else will subordinate around that because we’re going to make one-time decisions that eliminate thousands of future decisions, and then we’re going to get on with our routine.
Some of the areas we didn’t cover that I think would come up when our listeners go and read the book, which I highly recommend, and I’ll put a link to it right here, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less. They’re going to find out about editing, play, sleep, pause and journaling. And there are things that I’ll let the listener discover on their own.
So in summary, is that a fair assessment of how someone might get started having just listening to this episode, Greg?
Greg: I think that’s exactly right, yes.
James: Perfect. Well, I just wanted to say thank you so much for coming along to the call because I know that I’ve got very tight schedule blocks in my calendar. And the rest of the time is my thinking time, and I’m sure that that’s the case for you. In fact, the fact that you even came to the podcast meant I must have passed some kind of filter and I hope it was worthwhile for you as well.
Greg: Thank you ever so much for having me.
An opportunity to practice essentialism
James: Where can our listeners go find out more information about you aside from buying your book on any of the top bookstores?
Greg: You know what I would say, we’re very excited, I’m very excited about having spent the last year trying to answer the question. What is the best way to become an essentialist? And finally, we’ve cracked the code on it. And we’re launching a program called Essential. And people will actually listen to the people applying the program right now. This is for people who are really serious about trying to apply these ideas and become a real essentialist in their lives.
So they get together, I’m going to lead the program, and the people that come, we’re going to have them get together every 90 days for a personal quarterly offsite, which we just mentioned, after a year. It’s going to be this adventure to try and apply these things. We know that it’s a process. That’s what I’ve learned. It’s a process, not an event. So often we’re learning in a sort of one time or you read something, or go through some process, and then it’s over. So we’ve been having it as an ongoing journey of the way to approach this. So people can go to applyessential.com and apply. We’re going to work through those applications and find a group that we think really works.
James: Fantastic. What a great opportunity. For my experience, you’re on a winner there. That’s exactly how my mastermind works. It’s 12 weekly review points on an ongoing in perpetuity basis actually. It does get phenomenal results. So our lucky listener could go along to applyessential.com. If they’re successful, I’m sure their life is going to become chaos-free with your help, Greg. Thank you so much for putting aside the time with us.
Greg: Thank you ever so much. Bye for now.
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