The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

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These are my personal notes. I use them to remind future Brett what is important. As with all books I review, you can use my outline to determine if you should read this book. You will get something different out of the book than I did.

Part I: Essence

The mindset of the Essentialist.

The Essentialist

An essentialist focuses on what is absolutely essential by eliminating everything else. Essentialists do this by saying No.


The invincible power of choice

If you straddle, by keeping your options open, you will never be great at anything.

We often think of choice as a thing. But a choice is not a thing. Our options maybe things, but a choice is an action.

An essentialist needs to realize they have the power to choose. You don’t have to do anything. You do what you do now because you choose to. Forgetting we have the ability to choose makes us learn to be helpless. We allow others to choose for us.


the unimportance of practically everything

The world follows a power law. Few things are super important. Those few things (20%) return most (80%) of the results. Invest your energy in the great things, not the good things.

Warren Buffett owes 90% of his wealth to ten investments.


Which Problem Do I Want?

Don’t do everything. Life is filled with Trade-offs. An essentialist asks, “what do I want to go big on” instead of asking “what do I have to give up.”

The choices you make determine what you will be successful at. Trade-offs are to be embraced because you are being deliberate about how to spend your time.

Part II: Explore

How to determine and evaluate what is important.


The Perks of Being Unavailable

Only by giving ourselves time can we determine what is essential. If you are too busy to think about life you are being a nonessentialist. An essentialist is purposeful in creating time to escape and explore life. This does not mean going on vacation to ‘escape’ from work. This means making time to evaluate life.

We are no longer bored. Being bored gave us time to deliberately think.


See What Really Matters

Don’t focus on what people say. Focus on finding the information in-between what people say. People don’t come out directly and say things. So, be able to find the essence of the information.

Nonessentialists listen too. But they listen while preparing to say something.



Playing is not trivial it is essential to improving everything in your life. Playing improves your health, your relationships, your education, and the ability to innovate. Essentialist me give themselves time to play in order to spark exploration.

Play drives exploration by:

  • Broadening the range of options.
  • Reducing stress.
  • Stimulating parts of the brain responsible for logical reasoning and creativity.


Protect the Asset

Your most valuable asset is you. Why would you screw with your assets?

To operate at our best we need sleep. Eight hours of sleep. Sleep is priority for high performers. How more productive would you be if you had one more hour of sleep?

Essentialist choose sleep over doing more because they understand the contribution they make, on the things that matter, will have higher impact when they are rested.

Although we feel getting less sleep creates time to get more done, we are wrong. We just do more things poorly.

Sleep allows us to regenerate so that we can focus with greater concentration.


The Power of Extreme Criteria

Only do the top 10% of potential opportunities. Say no to the other 90%.

Use explicit criteria to select what you work on. Ask yourself:

Is this exactly what I am looking for?

Part III: Eliminate

How to cut out the trivial things.


One Decision That makes a Thousand

Before you can choose what to focus on you need to have a concrete and inspirational strategy. This strategy helps you eliminate anything that isn’t essential.

The intent needs to be meaningful and memorable.

Don’t focus on the words. The intent doesn’t need to be clever. The substance, not the style, is what counts.

Two questions help to figure out intent. “If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?” and “How will we know when we have succeeded?”

Make It Right’s mission statement is an example of a strategic intent.

to build 150 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward.

This serves the purpose of both saying what and how they will be measured.


The Power of a Graceful ‘No’

To be an essentialist you have to say ‘No’. Even when it’s social awkward. Even when it’s something you want to do. The only things you should say ‘Yes’ to are those which align with your primary objective.

Peter Drucker stated in a letter:

One of the secrets of productivity (which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours — productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do it well.

This seems a bit selfish to me.

How to say No gracefully:

  • Separate the decision from the relationship.
  • Don’t use the word ‘No’
  • Focus on the trade-off
  • Remind yourself that everyone is selling something
  • Be okay with trading popularity for respect
  • A clear ‘No’ is better than a noncommittal ‘yes’

A few ways to say ‘No’ without saying ‘No’:

  • Force an awkward Pause
  • Use ‘No, but’
  • Give a reason to provide yourself time to think. (e.g. Let me check my calendar and get back to you)
  • “Yes. What should I deprioritize?” in response to a manager or business leader.
  • You are welcome to X, I am willing to Y.
  • I can’t do it but X might be interested.


Win Big by Cutting Your Losses

Understand when to cut your losses and walk away.

Be aware of human bias. To prevent the endowment effect ask, “If I didn’t have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it.” or “If I wasn’t already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it.”

Use Zero-based budgeting to determine what to work on. Normal accounting practices use the previous years allocation to build this years budget. Zero-based budgeting is when the budget is set to zero and each expense is individually justified.


The Invisible Art

Condensing what we do allows us to work on the important tasks. Having a clear intent (as discussed in the ‘clarify’ chapter) allows us to remove the tasks and events that aren’t tied to our intent.

Editing our lives doesn’t only mean removing things. It also implies not taking on more things by interjecting. We should be restrained in our comments to only focus on the essential.


The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

Boundaries are liberating. Essentialists use boundaries to set limits in advance which aids them in saying ‘No’.

Boundaries need to be set in our personal lives to. Don’t enable people by allowing them to make their problems, your problems.

Part IV: Execute

Do the Vital Few Things Effortlessly


The Unfair Advantage

Essentialists don’t use the best-case scenario for time estimates. They know the future is unpredictable and use buffers to pad their time.

Using buffers allows them to accomplish everything they need without the stress. They prepare for as many things as they can.

  • Add 50% to any time estimate.
  • Use extreme preparedness. Prepare for every possible contingency.
  • Conduct scenario planning by asking the following five questions:
  1. What risks do you place on this project?
  2. What is the worst-case scenario?
  3. What with the social effects of this be?
  4. what would the financial impact of this be?
  5. How can you invest to reduce risks or strength and financial or social resilience?


Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles

Identify problems which slow you down. Once identified figure ways to either speed the problems up or remove them.

Use this process:

  1. Be clear on your essential intent — We can’t maximize output without determining what is important.
  2. Identify what can be removed — Instead a starting the project right away think through the problems (prepare) that can slow down the task. Also, only fix the problems that affect the goal. If you need to write a paper, don’t hire someone to do research. Focus on removing the biggest obstacles first.
  3. Remove the obstacle — Use a “done is better than perfect” mindset. If another person is involved ask them, “what obstacles are in your way from achieving X and how can I remove them?”


The Power of Small Wins

Start small and celebrate progress. “Instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter, the Essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.”

Get away from thinking: ‘to do something big we have to start big’. It’s a fallacy. Make progress in meaningful work. Ask yourself:

“What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?”


The Genius of Routine

Essentialists value routine. The routine allows you to continue doing tasks that are essential. Once the routine is established it’s hard to break out of. Creating routines only expands energy in the beginning. The first few times you do the routine it is challenging. Eventually it’s unconscious.

Some advice from different people’s routines:

  • Ray Zinn — Do the hardest thing first. Right now.
  • Jack Dorsey — Break your week up into themes. Each day has a single focus. For Jack, Mondays are for Management meetings and running the company work. Tuesday is for product development. Wednesday is for marketing, communications, and growth. Thursday is for developers and partnerships. Friday os for the company and it’s culture.

Don’t make a bunch of routines all at once. Pick one and continue doing it until it’s habit. Then move on to the next one.


What’s Important Now?

Don’t think about the past or the future. Focus on the now.

The way of the essentialist is to tune into the present.

How to Be in the Now:

  • Figure out what is most important right now and focus your mind on that single thing.
  • Remove the thoughts of tomorrow by writing them down so you don’t lose them. Then, forget about them.


The Essentialist Life

You can either take the advice presented and do it occasionally which adds to the burdens of all the things you already do. Or you can be an essentialist.

In choosing to be an essentialist, you will struggle with it. Over time the principles become easier.

Ask yourself, “What is essential?” Then eliminate everything else.

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