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Focusing on What Is Essential: Do less to achieve more

September 21, 2020


By CSH Senior Accountant, Kristen Foster

Monday morning: the start of a new work week. The possibilities are endless as we try to achieve our best. The reality, however, is that many of us cannot control the volume of requests coming in. Our inboxes are flooded with unanswered messages, projects are looming that have not been started, and our calendars are full. Everything is vying for our attention and requesting top priority. All of this leaves us feeling overworked and overwhelmed.

This can make us feel like we are constantly spinning our wheels and not making the progress that we desire. But, why?

Greg McKeown has devoted his career to this discipline. For over 15 years, he has fixated on one question: What is it that keeps capable, driven people from breaking through to the next level?

I recently finished McKeown’s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. His findings are enlightening.

The pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure. More specifically, at the brink of success, a Pandora’s box of new options and opportunities are unleashed. It is easy to become distracted and lose focus on the essential activities that originally brought us to that point. We become caught in the mental trap of believing we must say YES to everything.

The antidote to that problem, according to McKeown, is the disciplined pursuit of less, but better. It is by way of Essentialism that your greater contribution is achieved.

Less, but Better

At its core, Essentialism is a systematic approach for determining your highest and most valuable point of contribution, and then building a platform for effortless execution. It is about getting the right things done, not getting more things done. Distinguishing the vital few from the trivial many. Filtering through all the noise to find the essence.

McKeown believes that if you could do only a few things exceptionally well—that is, go big on only one or two things—the collective contribution you make breaks you through to the next level.

There are three core steps that move you in the direction of achieving your highest point on contribution:

  • Exploring – Identifying what is essential to you
  • Eliminating – Cutting out the nonessential
  • Executing – Building systems to get things done

McKeown’s book offers over 250 pages of industry examples, as well as systematic methods for becoming more efficient, productive and effective in both personal and professional realms. Here are some of the most interesting:


Think Week

Made famous by Bill Gates, the idea of taking time off to simply think, read and concentrate, allows you to identify what is and is not essential. “In order to have focus we need to escape to focus.” Deep thinking brings clarity and prospective; it leads to innovation and growth. If you are too busy to think, you are too busy. Whether it is an annual week off, a “do-not-call Monday,” or a few minutes every day, the consistent investment of time to simply escape and ponder, helps you discern the vital few from the trivial many.

90-Percent Rule

You received a last-minute invite to a networking event that starts in an hour. Looking at everything else on your plate, should you go? Under this rule, evaluate the option on a scale of 0 to 100. If you rate going to the event lower than 90 percent, automatically change the rating to 0 and reject it (say no). If attending the event scores at or above 90 percent, go! By applying highly selective criteria to options and saying yes to only the top 10 percent of opportunities, you will avoid getting caught in indecision. In the end, you will have less to do, and more time to do the things you want to do.


The Power of “No”

Saying no is hard. It is uncomfortable. We worry about disappointing, missing out or feeling badly. Social pressures also play a role in making this simple word so hard to say. Yet, learning to say no graciously and purposefully is a must. In order to allow space for the things that really matter, saying no is critical, courageous and necessary. “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no,’” – Tom Friel

Essential Intent

There is a difference between pretty clear and really clear. Time spent under pretty clear leads to confusion, frustration and stress. Time spent under really clear is purposeful, energetic and leads to innovation. Essential intent is a concrete and inspirational description of what you’re doing. It provides clarity of purpose.

For example, read your company’s mission statement. Does it provide clarity of purpose? According to McKeown, the test of a mission statement is this: If I’m a new employee at the company and I read the statement, would I be able to make an educated guess about what trade-offs to make between essential things as opposed to good things?

McKeown takes this illustration a step further. Brad Pitt’s nonprofit organization Make It Right has the following mission: We are going to build 150 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward [of New Orleans]. This embodies essential intent. It makes really clear what is important to the nonprofit.

Achieving strategic clarity is difficult. It requires trade-offs and concentration to get to the very essence. The results, however, are remarkable. With real clarity, people, teams and organizations can fully mobilize, break through to the next level and achieve something truly great.


Add 50% Rule

Life is unpredictable. We face unforeseen events, requests and challenges every day. A task that should take 5 minutes turns into 5 hours. Waiting for the unexpected to hit is reactive. Planning for the unexpected is proactive.

One way to better prepare is to create a buffer. McKeown suggests adding 50% to the amount of time estimated to complete a task. So, if you allotted an hour for a lunch meeting, block off 1.5 hours on your calendar. A built-in buffer reduces stress and allows you to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Now, you can spend the extra time present, and without worry. Applying this concept consistently over the long run leads to more effortless execution.

Power of Small Wins

Seeing progress feels good! It builds momentum, excitement and energy around a project. Recognizing small achievements consistently over time leads to breakthroughs. Does your company have a system in place that celebrates small wins? One simple technique is to add a visualization tool. Much like an activity tracker (think how accomplished you feel when you reached your step goal for the day), a visualization tool is a graphical tracker that measures progress. Implementing a system that rewards the small, essential wins leads to more achievement, more enjoyment and more enjoyment of the process.


When asked how I am doing, I often find myself responding to colleagues and friends with same three words, “good, but busy,” and, more times than not, I am met with the same response. Being busy all the time no longer needs to be a badge of honor. By taking time to escape, think and identify what is essential, eliminating all else, and building systems to make execution flow naturally, meaningful progress toward your greater contribution is possible. You CAN break through to the next level!

Source: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

All content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. Matters discussed in this article are subject to change. For up-to-date information on this subject please contact a Clark Schaefer Hackett professional. Clark Schaefer Hackett will not be held responsible for any claim, loss, damage or inconvenience caused as a result of any information within these pages or any information accessed through this site.


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