Do less, better: Essentialism in a nutshell

Minimalist photograph of a light bulb hanging from the ceiling.
Photo by Adrià Tormo on Unsplash

As developers, we like to talk a lot about efficiency. Maybe it’s the engineering mindset or the sense that we want to always be improving and doing things better. Or maybe it’s because we care about making optimizations. Either way, it’s something that we value highly.

Essentialism is about applying that sort of efficiency to our life. It’s about cutting through the noise and the extra baggage and getting to the core of what needs to be solved or fixed. It does so primarily by eliminating what’s not working and focusing on what’s actually important. 

I just finished reading the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown and this is my take on it. It was recommended to me by a developer I respect and I thought I’d spend a few minutes sharing what I learned in hopes that others will find it useful too.

What is Essentialism?

The whole premise of Essentialism is based around the idea of doing less, but better. Much of the book is spent comparing two types of people- what the author calls Essentialists & Nonessentialists. The Nonessentialist is your classic overstressed workaholic who makes too many commitments. It’s the person that is always busy yet still says yes to everything. They’re the folks that are outwardly successful but always seem to get bogged down in the weeds. It could also be the person with a thousand side projects that never see the light of day.

For me going through the book, the descriptions of Nonessentialists often hit too close to home. We’re living in very chaotic times and life is rough for so many people. We’re also in a spot where it’s easy to get swept up into all of the “stuff” that doesn’t really matter.

What Greg McKeown is arguing for, though, is a different perspective and way of being, what he calls the way of the Essentialist.  It can be summed up with the mantra of “do less, better”.

Do less, better

The three main components of essentialism, then, are as follows: 

  1. Individual choice
  2. Prevalence of noise
  3. Reality of tradeoffs

Let me explain about each of them.

First, as individuals, the idea is that we have the power to make choices. A choice is an action. It’s something that we decide to do. It’s about recognizing that we have the power to say no to projects and ideas that don’t excite us. We can politely decline invitations when we have other important work to do. We can make fewer commitments and promises.

Second, we can recognize the prevalence of noise in our lives and work.  Much of what we read, see, and do is in the category of noise. It’s all of that unimportant and often “urgent” work that we get caught up in. There are infinite possibilities out there to distract us from what’s important in our personal lives and work. As a result, we end up focusing on points that don’t really matter. It takes a very focused approach to be able to cut through it all and to find what’s essential. 

Third, we can come to terms with the reality of tradeoffs. People run into trouble is when they try to do everything. The end result is that their attention and focus gets diluted over too wide of an area. You may make an inch of progress in multiple different areas, but you never excel in any one spot. By cutting out unessential tasks and projects, we can open up more space to work on what we care about. The most important component, however, is to choose. And choosing means yes that there is undoubtedly something else (possibly many things) that we’ll need to say no to. We need to welcome such tradeoffs rather than trying to always jam more into our schedules. Learn to be your own best editor by graciously cutting what isn’t working for you.

Be the editor of your life

Watch out for statements like: 

  • I have to.
  • It’s all important.
  • I can do both.

We want to think we can do it all and that we’re superheroes. The reality, though, is that we can’t. We can’t be in two places at once. We can’t focus on two activities at the same time. We can’t be experts in everything. We can’t be everything to everyone.

Instead, try these statements:

  • I choose to.
  • Only a few things really matter.
  • I can do anything, but not everything.

The idea is to focus on being present for the stuff (people, projects, work) that really matters. When in doubt, Greg McKeown recommends applying the 90% rule. It’s either a Heck Yeah!! or a no. Don’t get caught up in anything in between. To borrow from Marie Kondo, we have to learn to keep only what sparks joy. Everything else, we need to graciously and respectfully say no to.

Sleep more, rest more, play more

Finally, we need to recognize the necessity of rest, play, and sleep in our lives. As busy people, there’s a tendency to think of ourselves as machines (or at least I certainly did for a while!).  The faulty thinking goes that we can do it all, we can keep working, and we don’t need to take breaks. We just need to push a little harder!

Unfortunately, though, we’re humans. Trying to burn the candle at both ends usually ends in… well, exhaustion and burnout.  As someone who has personally struggled with these issues, I can tell you that it’s just not worth it. Make space when you can, particularly when you feel the most resistance. When we’re at our busiest, that’s often when we need our rest and play time the most.

TLDR: We need to make room in our schedules and lives for the things that matter the most.

Closing thoughts

In summary, Essentialism has been an eye-opening experience for me in a lot of ways. It builds upon a number of books and concepts that I’ve previously read about, most notably the book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang and Marie Kondo’s lovely book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

If I had a complaint about the book Essentialism, it would merely be that the author focuses perhaps too much on CEOs and people whose lifestyles are frankly out of reach for many of us. His target audience is not the “everyman” or “every person”, it’s the high functioning business executive. So if you do read the book, keep that in mind.

I also want to recognize that the ability to say “no” and to guard your time aggressively in and of itself can be rife with a lot of privilege. If you’re struggling to make ends meet or fighting for survival, it’s a lot harder. If you’re in a toxic work or home environment, it’s a lot harder.  If you have kids, it’s a lot harder. If you are from an underrepresented community in tech, it’s a lot harder. If you’re currently dealing with fallout from the pandemic, it’s a lot harder. You get the idea. 

However, in its defense, I might argue that setting boundaries on your time and energy is even more critical when all is not going well or when you’re coming from a place of low personal power. It might even help you regain some semblance of your focus and control over your life to help you work toward a better situation.

Either way, as with most things, take what you can from it and leave what doesn’t work for you. No judgment here. Be gentle and kind to yourself. I just know that engaging with this philosophy has helped me already.

Some changes that I’ve personally made after reading this book is that I decided to quit volunteering once a week. I realized that it wasn’t contributing to my goals and instead it was leaving me exhausted after. I’ve also moved all of my teaching lessons to the weekends so that I can focus more on my writing and development skills. Baby steps toward a less chaotic schedule and hopefully baby steps toward honing in on what’s most important to me. 

Take-away Points:

I’ll leave you with my three main take-away points:

  1. Learn to guard and protect your time & energy. If it’s not a heck yeah, then it’s a no.
  2. Focus on what’s important to you, ignore the rest.
  3. Sleep more, play more, rest more. Especially when there’s no time.

Questions for Discussion:

  • What personal philosophy have you relied on? Have you used a version of essentialism in your life? What have you found that works for you?
  • How do you go about saying no to various nonessential commitments or responsibilities in your life? How do you decide what your priority is and where your focus should be? 
  • Are there any nonessential projects that you could say goodbye to this next week? What would your schedule look like if you had more time to do what you love? 

That’s all for now! 🙂


I welcome your feedback. If you enjoyed this article or if you have any questions or concerns, feel free to contact me on Twitter or write to me in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!

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