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Best Books for Career Development, Edition 2

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

“Essentialism” by Greg McKeown

You just organized your to-do list for the day. You have planned out your top five priorities, and are ready to begin on the first task. Then an email comes in. You think, “That will just take a second to answer, let me respond quickly, and then I’ll get back to my list.” Then another comes in. And another. Followed by response after response. “Ok,” you think taking a deep breath, “back to it.”

Ding! A text comes through from your partner asking if you’re still planning on going to the grocery after work. “Oh shoot, that reminds me, I cannot forget diapers and formula.” You reply to him and double-check your grocery list. Then a colleague pops his head in your office. “Do you have five minutes?” he asks, “I’d like to run something by you.” Even though you'd like to get to your work, you say yes. Twenty-five minutes later, he leaves your office. You notice three more emails and two messages on Teams. “I’ll just address those real quick,” you think. After responding, your stomach rumbles and you notice it’s noon. “Wow . . . how is it lunch and I haven’t even begun the first thing on my list?”

Sound familiar?

We are continuously bombarded by texts, emails, distractions, and demands from every angle, and it’s a draining challenge to master.

“Essentialism” provides tactics and tools to increase focus and decrease distractions. It’s “not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.” It’s about taking the time to reflect on how you spend your time. It’s about accepting that we cannot do it all, so we must prioritize, focus on those top priorities, and learn how to say no to what’s not a priority.

As someone who wants to do it all (to be a good mom, to have a clean house, healthy meals, productive work, exercise, fun, relaxation, and beautiful family time) this is not easy. In fact, right now - the dishes are stacked and my personal to-do list is waiting. But blog writing is one of my top priorities, so the dishes and the to-do list can wait. They might even have to wait until tomorrow.

Greg McKeown explains that “by investing in fewer things we have the satisfying experience of making significant progress in the things that matter most.”

Do less and do it better.

It sounds simple but it’s not. We have to make an effort to establish boundaries, and then continuously implement those boundaries. “Boundaries are a little like the walls of a sandcastle. The second we let one fall over, the rest of them come crashing down.” McKeown writes that “although setting boundaries can be hard, not pushing back is harder, as we ultimately lose our ability to choose what is most essential in our life. We live at the expense of everyone else’s agenda rather than our own.” In other words:

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

The book provides a systematic process for determining what you truly what to say yes to in life, and what you need to say no to. Because saying no isn’t easy or often well received, McKeown provides tactics and language for how to politely say no. One example he provides is “I would very much like to but I’m overcommitted.”

Another component of this book that has had a long-lasting impact on me is the psychological phenomenon of “sunk-cost bias.” McKeown defines sunk-cost bias as “the tendency to continue to invest time, money, or energy into something we know is a losing proposition simply because we have already incurred, or sunk, a cost that cannot be recouped.” It’s the reason we will keep watching a bad movie, reading a boring book, or staying in an unhealthy relationship. We continue investing time, money, or energy into something simply because of the time, money, or energy we have previously invested, regardless of if it's still worth it for us.

Learning about this increased my awareness of how often I used to do this. Now I give myself permission to stop reading books I don’t like or walk away from projects that aren’t as valuable as I imagined. Recently, I was halfway through tracking data in an Excel spreadsheet and realized - this really isn’t the best way to do this. Previously, I would have finished tracking the data in that way, solely because I was already halfway through. Now, I’m okay with beginning the task again in a new and more efficient way, despite the time I spent doing it the first way.

This book is incredibly useful, especially in today’s world where technology has increased our distractions. It’s something I’ve listened to on Audible, read, and will listen to and read again because it's a way of life that takes practice. The effort and practice required to determine your top priorities and focus solely on those may be hard, but it’s essential (no pun intended) for accomplishing your most important goals.

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