Prioritizing across roles and responsibilities is a daily task for most of us. This is especially amplified at the intersection of research careers, faculty life, and family.

The dogma for scientific careers – especially those driven by extramural funding – is that giving your science priority over all else is a crucial academic survival strategy. Yet now, we are confronted with valid needs for institutional service, challenging new teaching structures, contributions to professional organization and community groups, and special projects. The need to choose wisely is paramount.

Searching online for guidance about establishing one’s “why” and setting and reaching goals retrieves best sellers and webinars pushing productivity methods for filling every waking minute and working ten times harder than others. Alongside is coaching advice to follow your bliss and simplify work and life to achieve flow and balance. Actionable steps framed by research evidence and consideration of personal values rarely coexist in this genre of career self-help.

Bringing both into focus is why we love Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Greg McKeown’s lucid and practical guidance weaves together a balance of encouragement and probing to identify, own, and control your direction with realistic advice about how to implement changes to stay focused on what is essential to your success. He includes just enough requisite case examples and research findings from fields like neuropsychology to be convincing without breaking pace.

His practical lineup, perhaps even more valid now than when published in 2014, asks:

  • What is the core mindset of an Essentialist?
  • How can we discern the trivial from the vital few?
  • How can we cut out the trivial many?
  • How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?

His main order of business – bringing focus to the cloud of activities that we feel we have to do, need to do, or just find ourselves doing – is made to order for academic faculty in early career and plays just as well to those in mid and later career seeking new energy by sharpening their focus on what is essential, compelling and generative.

He hits the nail on the head so often you come to love the hammer even as you see that what he’s aiming for is a renovation of how we run our lives. CliffsNotes would include these blows:

Core concepts

  • The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better.
  • Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.
  • We forget our ability to choose and we learn to be helpless. Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices. Regain your choice.

Necessity of un-committing

  • Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.
  • Many capable people don’t reach the next level of contribution because they can’t let go of the belief that everything is important.
  • The reality is that saying yes to any opportunity by definition requires saying no to several others.

Actions to take

  • Be unavailable at times: we need to escape in order to focus.
  • Play: it expands our minds in ways that allow us to explore…makes us more inquisitive, more attuned to novelty, more engaged…helps us to see possibilities we would not otherwise have seen.
  • Recognize that if we under-invest in ourselves – our minds, bodies, and spirits – we damage the very tools we need to make our highest contributions.
  • Learn that if an opportunity isn’t a clear yes, then it is a clear no.
  • Practice until saying “no” gracefully doesn’t have to mean using the word no.

Reflect and refine to shape what is essential to you

  • What do you truly want out of your career in the next five years?
  • If you could be excellent at only one thing, what would it be?

McKeown’s examples build insights and provide coaching on topics like a repertoire for saying no, how to gauge what is essential, and teaching yourself to uncommit. They provide an actual roadmap, unlike so many books that convey only the theory of success or glimpses of the wins of others.

Before you agree to coordinate a new webinar series, or link together the neighbors who are COVID-homeschooling, or to be on the faculty senate ballot, get this book and dig down to what is essential to you. Then choose to do that.


McKeown Essentialism Videos

Five Minute Appetizer about Essentialism

Greg McKeown’s Big Idea speech at the 2018 VitalSmarts REACH conference.

Related Topics

Productivity Tip #6: I’m Not Telling You to Lie

Please, Just Say “No”

Regrouping to Gain Resilience and Resolve


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