Most of us are familiar with the German proverb—“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing—and that is the main thing.” But what does this mean? How does one go about doing this? It’s like reading Simple Church, which calls for a radical culling of ”ministry creep” (the activities, traditions that collect in the church over the years), while leading a multifaceted church committed to being multicultural, global, community based, education centered, worship driven, reaching students, children,… It sounds good, but how does one do this? What are the main things?
On a more personal level, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown, is directed at individual lives. I have found this to be a timely book, for I think all too many of us live lives weighted down with nonessentials (life creep). It comes with living in a cluttered and distracted age, with overabundance and oversupply and countless expectations. The way of the essentialist is not about setting new goals in time management—it is about pausing to ask, “Am I investing my best energies in the best activities?” It’s not about getting more things done—but how to get the right things done. It really is the disciplined pursuit of less.
An essentialist approaches life in three ways. First, one explores and evaluates; second, one works through what must be eliminated; and third, one moves to action, executing one’s intentions.
Exploring entails taking time to escape to see the landscape, gain perspective, discern the essential few from the trivial many. Sometimes we have to stop and ask in a fresh way—“What really matters?” “What am I passionate about and good at? What is it that will meet a significant need?” Essentialists are powerful observers and listeners. Last week I had lunch with a small group which included a university president. I couldn’t help but notice that while others spoke, he spent much of his time capturing the conversation in his spiral notebook. I’m told that he does this with most appointments. As I listened to his journey, I was impressed he is an essentialist, an observer of life, listening for what is essential.
Essentialists exercise the serious discipline of cutting out competing priorities. While a nonessentialist thinks almost everything is essential, an essentialist thinks almost everything is nonessential. Essentialists actively eliminate those things that do not make a contribution. In leading an organization, they ask, “If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?” This requires the courage to say no—gracefully. The result may be an initial disappointment, but it is usually followed by respect. Some of the most effective people are really good at saying no.
Essentialism marked the earthly life of Jesus. He could have easily spread Himself thin, seeking to fulfill peoples’ expectations, but He didn’t. To the surprise of some, He often slipped away. To the comment “Everybody is looking for you” (Mark 1:37), Jesus said “Let’s go somewhere else”. Sometimes elimination involves uncommitting. Sometimes we have to cut our losses and admit our mistake of saying yes, our nature to attempt too much. Essentialists become really good at editing. Just as the best movies and the best books have the best editors, so the best lives submit to severe editing. Subtraction allows for the addition of a fuller life.
All of this implies good execution, and this requires a good system. McKeown exhorts those committed to Essentialism to develop buffers, margins that prepare for the unforeseen and unexpected. I am not so good here. I tend to be too optimistic about time (I can get there in five minutes, I can finish this project by Friday). The result is hurry, all-nighters, and stress (and chronic lateness)—marks of a non-essentialist. Nonessentialists react to rather than anticipate crises. Essentialists prepare for them. They discover a routine, a flow that embraces what is essential. Routines go a long way to making execution effortless. Finally, good execution requires present focus. If you spend more time thinking about the past or preparing for the future, there is a chance you will miss the present. Essentialists go after the kairos moments served up in the here and now.
McKeown warns that becoming an essentialist will set you apart. While others are saying yes, you are saying no. You will find yourself speaking less and listening more. Life will be less about stress and more about impact. You will find yourself living the German proverb.