The core idea of the book is captured in a few early quotes: ‘Almost everything is noise’, ‘Only a few things really matter’, ‘What are the trade-offs?’. It’s about ruthlessly focusing only on the things that actually matter to you, and being painfully aware of the opportunity costs of low value activities and constant distraction.
A quick chapter-by-chapter summary:
Choose. Decision fatigue and learned helplessness prevent people from realizing that they even have choices. Schedule time to step back and reflect.
Discern. Push only on the levers that matter most. Don’t keep pushing harder on the levers that are in front of you in the hope that things will get better if you work hard enough. Be willing to lose instead of taking on every challenge that is given to you.
Trade-off. Pretty much every choice is a trade-off. You need to have to have clear priorities to be able to choose between trade-offs. Trying to win at everything doesn’t work.
Escape. Need space to think to even realize that decisions exist.
Look. Don’t give in to information overload. Look for signal. Don’t feel like you have to absorb everything. Make goals/questions/problems explicit to avoid paralysis by analysis.
Play. Important for creativity.
Sleep. Can’t trade sleep for productivity - simply doesn’t work. Sleep deprivation is invisible to suffers - they believe they are at peak performance. See sleep as an investment in productivity instead.
Select. ‘Fuck-yes or no’. Don’t choose options because they are good, choose them because they are the best use of your limited time. Focus on comparative advantage - not where you can contribute but where you can do better than anyone else.
Clarify. ‘Essential intent’ - goals that are both concrete and inspirational eg “get everyone in the UK online by 2012”. Needs to be testable and completable so that you know when you are done.
Dare. Find ways to say ‘no’ gracefully. Better to say ‘no’ than under-commit. Don’t be driven by fear of missing out.
Uncommit. Cut losses to make room for success in other areas. Combat sunk cost fallacy, endowment effect, status quo bias etc by reframing eg “if I didn’t already own this, how much would I pay for it?”.
Edit. Subtraction and perfection etc.
Limit. If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. Set boundaries, clearly communicate them and stick to them.
Buffer. Reserve time/money/resources to account for unforeseen problems. A system at max capacity is fragile. Explicitly consider worst-case eg “imagine we are one month in the future and this project has failed - what happened?”.
Subtract. Don’t fix symptoms - figure out what the essential problem is. Push the biggest lever.
Progress. Don’t try to do everything all at once. Create small wins to build momentum.
Flow. Design routines and triggers that lead to the behavior you want. Fix one routine at a time.
Focus. Multi-tasking vs multi-focusing - can do multiple things but can only apply conscious attention to one at a time. Context-switching is devastating to performance. Figure out what is the most important thing right now, and dump everything else out of your memory (eg onto a notepad). Regularly pause to just be present/mindful and then re-prioritize.
Be. Don’t just pay lip service to these ideas. Apply them to your entire life.
For a book about essentialism, it has an awful lot of filler. All the best advice on changing behavior hammers on the importance of focusing on a few, specific, high-impact, actionable items rather than drowning people in a tsunami of information - advice that this book itself repeats but does not follow. So here is my alternate, condensed advice:
Schedule regular periods of time to think, whether that’s a day every month to think about your life or ten minutes every hour to plan your work. Put it in your calender, use a pomodoro timer, whatever. During those periods:
- Remind yourself of your ‘essential intent’ - the concrete, completable, inspirational goal that takes priority over everything else.
- Reflect on how you spent the last period and whether that was the best way to make progress towards the goal.
- Decide how to spend the next period of time.
- Have a cup of tea. Look out the window. Don’t check your email.
That’s it. Being explicit about goals and making time to reflect and correct course is 90% of this book. The rest is noise. Not worthless, but not worthwhile enough to spend time reading.