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Live by design, not by default

Book Summary: Essentialism, Greg McKeown


I strongly believe that there is no such as thing as not having a choice. When people say, "but I don't have a choice", and trust me, I catch myself saying that too, I try to remind them/myself that in fact, we do have a choice. We have a choice in how we respond (what we say), how we define the situation (our framing of the issue), and how we move forward (our actions). We always have a choice.

A choice is an action. It is not just something we have but something we do. While we may not always have control over our options, we always have control over how we choose among them. - Greg McKeown, Essentialism

At its core, Essentialism is a book about choice. Throughout the book, Greg McKeown challenges us to choose the kind of life we want to live. To choose to do only those things that really matter. To choose to put our energy towards only those activities that bring us meaning and joy. To choose a life that is true to our values and that allows us to contribute at our highest potential. It's choosing to live life by design, not by default.


McKeown calls this Essentialism, and that by choosing to create our own life, we become Essentialists; that is "being in control of our own choices", choices that can lead us on "a path to new levels of success and meaning...a path where we enjoy the journey, not just the destination".


But the book isn't just philosophical and esoterical in that way that many personal development books can be. Rather, McKeown presents a logical and very pragmatic approach to becoming an Essentialist, with each chapter having a core "how to" theme, with actionable steps and plenty of relatable examples and practical tips that I found myself incorporating into my life immediately. Each chapter builds on the last chapter, until you have a complete model and methodology with how to create a life that focuses on only what is important.


Another thing I liked about the book, is that it is meant for your entire life, not just work or personal or family life. I'm a big proponent of living a wholistic life, where each aspect of our life impacts the others. So becoming an Essentialist means that our entire life is built around making choices that enable us to do only those things that are most important in all areas of our life. Funnily enough though, throughout the book I found myself having many a-ha moments specifically around my job. I realized how much I'm saying yes to at work, even though I don't have time or I'm not sure it's really a priority. Why? As McKeown says, if we don't have clarity about what is important, about what our mission is, and about our end goal, then we'll say yes to everything. It's like the saying, when everything is a priority, then nothing is important. I've started being more mindful at work and am working to clarify the team's goals and vision, so that we can say yes to those things that will create the most value and help move the company forward in big ways, instead of in just small, non-impactful ways.


Recently, I attended a book club through The Unmistakeable Creative Prime group, and through the thoughtful questions and group conversation, had a series of a-ha moments about my personal/non-work life. The first being the importance of "protecting your assets", as McKeown calls them - that is looking after ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. If being an Essentialist is about focusing on the things that matter most, then our health should be the top priority. So things like getting enough sleep, moving our bodies, hydrating, and eating well. Looking after ourselves also means allowing ourselves space to think and time to create. For me, this means ensuring that I give myself at least an hour a day to read, write or create content.


Another a-ha moment for me was when someone mentioned the importance of play...something my adult self struggles with. So I'm working on taking breaks during the day to play with my cat, sharing a joke with a colleague, and being open to finding humour in everyday life situations.


Becoming an Essentialist is a practice. In fact, the subtitle of the book is "the disciplined pursuit of less". Once we understand why pursuing less can be so beneficial to us, bringing us more inner peace, joy, and meaning, then it becomes easy to choose to practice this discipline.


Finally, all choices require tradeoffs. We simply cannot have it all. Every choice we make, every activity we say yes to, will mean saying no to something else - and vice versa. However, if we are making choices to honour our highest potential and that align with our values, then we need to trust that the tradeoff is to our benefit, even if in the short term it feels like we are losing something.


I highly recommend reading this book. I've already incorporated many of the strategies into my life and I'm sure I'll be referring to the book over and over again. It has provided me with a framework on how to make decisions on the activities I choose to put my energy towards, and also with how to be more confident in saying 'no' to opportunities. It's like decluttering our lives and spending energy on only those vital few things that are most important to us. And in today's chaotic, unpredictable, and stressful environment, feeling in control over the choices we make is essential.


I'd love to hear your thoughts and learnings from this book.


P.S. If you're interested in hearing a podcast featuring Greg McKeown and Essentialism, here's the link to the Unmistakeable Creative episode.

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