How many times have you found a book that really speaks to you? Sometimes we have to re-read, re-listen, or just go through it several times to get all of the good out of it. This week starts a series of breaking down essentialism. Rather than having to read the book yourself (or do if you want all it has to offer), I am going to take the first part of the book, Essentialism, and share my thoughts on how we can apply what it has to offer and simplify our lives.

Essentialism Book Summary Part 1 Transcript

Let’s get right to it because we are going to start discussing each section of Essentialism in upcoming episodes of the podcast. 

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is a book by Greg McKeown. You can find the Amazon affiliate link here if you’re interested in looking it up. 

I have listened to the audio, I have read the book, and now I am listening and rereading it, going through it with a fine tooth comb. We can then come back and I can just give you the important bits and pieces and have you think about ways that you can apply that to your life. 

The reason that we are doing this book is because it is really perfectly summarizing the ways that you can simplify your life using essentialism. Not just in a minimalism aspect (although I do feel like that is kind of the root of everything that’s happening here), it is minimalism in your own tasks, so that you can excel at the things that are important and things that matter. 

The book is broken into four phases, I guess I should say. The first phase is “essence,” which we will talk about today, then “explore,” “eliminate” and “execute.” 

While we could probably do these in many episodes, and that would be way more essential for me to do a five minute episode on Wednesdays and bring that back, I just think that we’re going to have a lot to talk about today. 

I want to make sure that I did justice to each of these pieces. I’m trying to save you the six and a half hours that comes with the actual reading of the book, or listening to the audiobook, and hoping that we can tackle some things together and give you ideas for your classroom, your home, your personal life, all of the wonderful things. So let’s go ahead and dive into the first section of Essentialism

Essentialism: Priority vs Priorities

One of the first ideas that the author starts off with in the introduction is that, this book is kind of doing for your life, what a professional organizer would do for your closet. 

We might not be getting rid of a whole lot, and we are going to organize things in a different way, but you really have to decide what is most valuable to you to showcase and to put up front. 

I thought this was a really interesting fact: he said that the word “priority” came into the English language in the 1400s. Priority, only singular. Then in the 1900s, (500 years later), did we decide to just make it plural, because why not? You know, that’s what English likes to do is make things complicated. 

We then talked about “priorities”. We were putting something first for 500 years…putting one thing at the very top of our list, and then all of a sudden, we said, “You know what? One thing is just not enough. Let me put 10 things as the most important thing I could possibly be doing.” 

When you think about it, it came down to…if you don’t put the “priority” in your life in order (we all have the top three or four things that we prioritize in life), but if you’re not the person that is putting the priorities in that “priority spot”, then somebody else will. 

If I’m not the one that is doing the prioritizing of my own life, then somebody else is going to do it. Somebody else is going to give me something to do. Somebody else is going to “impression” me to feel like I need to be doing something else. Somebody else is going to be taking away my time from the things that I want to put a priority on. 

I like to sit and kind of think about that, because it’s really all about being in control of your own choices in your own time. 

Conservation of Energy says that you cannot create or destroy energy. It’s all just there, and it transfers into other things. 

You have a finite amount of energy in the day. You can either spend a little bit of that energy pointed at 15 to 20 different tasks, making maybe minimal progress on each of them, or you can spend the same amount of energy all on one task. 

Which one is actually going to make you feel more successful? Which one is actually going to make you more successful? I would just feel you will be more successful because you’re going to sit there and point all of your effort into one direction. 

The author calls this Living by Design, Not by Default. 

Essentialism: Living by Design, Not by Default

We tend to default to a ton of things pressuring us to feel like we have to take on more and more. We have to decide how to get the right things done, not just everything. It comes down to a line that’s repeated over and over again, “less, but better.“

We all have something that is really going to make us the most successful. It’s your thing, the thing that people turn to you for. The problem is this paradox of success. 

You start succeeding, and that means that you are now the go-to person for whatever it is you are successful at. Which means that you are given more opportunities, more options, more work in that area…which then spreads you and your energy thinner and thinner. 

You actually become distracted by what you were truly successful at because now your success is pointed into all of these different directions instead of guiding you towards bigger and better things. 

In our society (we’ve seen it with our students in the classroom) for the first time, people have almost too many choices. 

You can choose to distract yourself, if you do or do not want to complete your assignment, who you follow on social media. You can choose way too many things. What resources are you going to use? Are you going to use this gluten free, vegan flour or the other one that includes something that is vegan? I’m not sure what you would do with flour. This was probably a bad example. 

We have so many options, and we are giving people more and more options every day. But we have never been trained on how to evaluate these options effectively. That ends up causing a bigger problem. 

We are not set to manage all the options ourselves, so we become overwhelmed and either paralyzed, or we do a little bit of all of the options. 

The Mindset of an Essentialist

There’s actually a few ways the author suggests you get into the mindset of essentialism. 

Individual Choice

The first is individual choice. You have to realize that you can choose how to spend your energy and your time. You get that choice. 

Other people may suggest things. Of course there are things at work that are given to you, but you are in charge of how you dictate the amount of energy and the amount of time spent on each of those tasks. 

You have to realize that almost everything is noise. Very few things that we do are exceptionally valuable. 

There’s actually a principle: 80% of the success you have is from 20% of the work. So if you can figure out what that 20% is, why do all of the other things if 80% of your success can come from a fifth of the things that you’re going to be doing in the day. 

Then there’s also recognizing that this does come with a trade off. We’ve all been pushed with this whole idea of the option of saying no. We have the ability to say no in this day and age, and saying yes to something is saying no to something else. So we have to recognize the trade offs that you’re making by accepting things. Being invited to something and saying you’re going to go by taking on an additional task, what are you then saying no to? 

Now we get to this point where we have to realize that we’re changing things from “I have to,” to “I choose to.” You’re taking on and choosing that option. You’re not being told it’s all important, but you have to realize that only a few things only really matter. You can try to say, “I can do both,” but you also have to realize you can do anything that you want, but you cannot do everything

The power of those words is that, when you say that you are choosing something, you are kind of forgiving that whole “learned helplessness” that a lot of us have come about. 

We know that we see it in our students and in the classroom, but we are also experiencing that ourselves. Especially as more and more things are asked of teachers and of parents, and just everything that we are as a human being, more and more is always asked of us. More and more is expected of us. 

We have this “learned helplessness,” that we’re just accepting that that’s the way it’s going to be. Instead…when you say, “I’m choosing to do this,” you’re taking away the helplessness and putting yourself back in control. 

So how do we discern what types of things to take on? Is there a point where doing more does not actually produce more, or better, outcomes? What Greg McKeown, the author, is saying is, what really counts is the relationship between the time and results. 

We pay for everything in time. You might think that you’re paying with money, but that money was earned through how you are spending your time. I know I used to do this. I think it’s a great reminder when I read it in the book, where sometimes when you’re thinking of buying something that you probably don’t really need, reminding yourself how many hours of work that item is costing you. 

If you still feel satisfied with it at that point, go ahead, go ahead and purchase it. But if that makes you stop and go, hmmmm, that was almost three days worth of work for this bag or this jacket. Is that really worth it? Am I going to feel like that result is worth the time that I put into it? It’s a good way to pause and kind of take a step back. 

If you’re invited to an event, is that event (in the time that you’re going to spend preparing for it and going to it) worth the result, or the outcome, that is going to happen from being there? 

The book, Essentialism, goes on to explain this with a lot of quotes from a lot of very wealthy, very famous people. What it comes down to is that sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do. Some efforts can produce exponentially better results than others, and that goes back to the 80/20 rule, or the Pareto Principle. 

There’s this quote from John Maxwell, who has written like 8 million books on leadership and productivity, but he said, “The overwhelming reality is, we live in a world where almost everything is worthless, and very few things are exceptionally valuable. You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” 

When starting to realize that almost everything is completely unimportant in the long run, then it becomes the idea of the trade off because there are things that you have to do no matter what. But you still have the choice of the amount of energy and effort you spend on them. Right? 

Which Problem Do You Want

In the book, there is an entire section titled “Which Problem Do I Want?” You need to look at every opportunity and kind of play your own devil’s advocate. What are the pros and cons of the opportunity or the task that you’re given? What are you giving up in order to take that on? What are those pros and cons because nothing is 100%, like a surefire yes. There’s always going to be something that we’re going to be losing out on, or that’s going to make something a little bit more difficult. We have to start recognizing the trade offs that you’re making because if you don’t evaluate your trade offs, then you’re just letting somebody else decide what’s important in your day and in your life. And you lose out on the things that are important to you 

When offered a new opportunity, or given a new task, you have to decide if it is the problem that you want. What is the trade off? 

If you are asked to take on a Dungeons and Dragons club after school, then what are the pros and cons of that? And what are you saying no to if you say yes to taking on the club?

So weigh both of those options. What if you say yes, and what if you say no. The pros of saying yes might be that you get a little stipend. The students can just play and you’ll have extra time to finish some work while you’re at school. And you could build some relationships with some truly awesome kids who just like to nerd out over some things. 

But then on the other side, you’re saying no to that time. Either at home or for yourself. Maybe going to the gym before you go home. The time that you could be making yourself a nice home cooked meal. 

There’s something of value to you in that time that you’re giving up. But also, is it worth the trade off? For me, is this stipend going to be worth those relationships that I’m building with students? Or, do I want to get home to my own family? 

You have to decide which one is easier to sacrifice? Which problem do you want to say no to admin and dealing with those mental consequences that we pretend we actually get? Or saying no to spending time with your own kids and dealing with that problem of feeling like you’ve missed out. 

At that point, you’re finally able to strategically pick the best one for you and be in charge of your own time and how you spend it. 

This whole first section of this book is just about that mental hurdle of trying to think through the tasks, not even the items, but the tasks that we do on a daily basis and this essential? Basically, is this value added to helping me get to my end goal?

I remember when I first started back on Teachers Pay Teachers, I had a problem with fonts. I think almost anybody who sells on Teachers Pay Teachers will say the same thing about fonts and clipart. You go in and you buy hundreds of dollars worth of these fonts, and then it comes down to the fact that I’m a secondary teacher. I did not need all of these cutesy doodle fonts. I didn’t need all of these things. 

I was not being an essentialist when it came to that. I was spending so much time sorting through, downloading, transferring things over, testing them out, and printing up these binders. That was a trade off in my head. I hadn’t even thought about what I was losing out on. I honestly probably lost out on at least a full 24 hours of buying and organizing fonts, not to mention the money and the time that I had to earn that money to then spend on fonts that I literally don’t ever use. I probably have 600 fonts that I’ve purchased.  

Looking back, I can tell how ridiculous this whole font thing was and how much time was wasted. How it was not adding value to anything that I was trying to do. 

It was not part of that 20% that was giving me 80% of my results. I am now hoping that through this, we can both work together to help you move forward, instead of needing that hindsight vision. Not spending time on things that don’t matter towards the priority, maybe priorities (just a few), that you have that are going to make you feel successful. 

Decide Your Measure of Success

You have to decide what your measure of success is going to be, which will give you your priority, maybe top three priorities, and then decide what activities you are currently doing that are not actually value adding to those goals. 

Now there are things that we have to do when it comes to school and work, but make sure you’re minimizing your energy, your effort and your time on the things that really are not value added, so that you can prioritize and maintain energy on the things that are. 

When you’re given a new option, or when you’re debating something really quickly in your head, or given a new task, decide what the trade off is. Is the trade off worth it?

If you have to do it, then maybe it’s a minimal effort thing. If you realize that that is not a sacrifice you’re willing to take, it’s not going to be the problem you take on, then make sure to minimize its effects as much as possible.  

Just working on essentialism for an entire week will really open your eyes to the things that you can change and make a difference right now. I’ve done this in the past week or so, and I cannot tell you how much more energy I have when I come home, how less stressed I am about the things that truly do not matter that I would have panicked about earlier on, and how much more fun I’m just having with my family and my kids…which is one of my top three priorities. If you were wondering.

Follow Along for More

If you’d like to follow along, feel free to click this link to go ahead and get yourself a copy of the book. I really would love to know what some of your biggest takeaways are. 

Either tag me on Instagram @engineerdoeseducation or @simplesystemswithsampodcast. Also, send me an email

I’d love to know what you want more clarification on, or what really resonated with you so that we can go ahead building some simple systems off of this mindset shift together. Until next time. 

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Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

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