5 great takeaways for the creative life from Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

What a management consultant can teach creatives about setting priorities.

For years a discussion has been brewing about what makes a person an adult. I’ve figured it out. It’s not having kids, buying a house, ironing your shirt, or being in a career-track job. It is having defined priorities: Knowing what yours area and aligning your life in pursuit of those priorities.

Greg McKeown gets that. He might be my personal hero, since he’s been inspiring business leaders to ax the unimportant meetings, the undefined objectives, the time wasters, the non-essentials, in favor of defining what is truly essential. He writes about the process, and how successful businesses and individuals have trimmed their lives towards the essential, in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

For creatives, the problems aren’t really that different. Creatives still get distracted, they just identify the distracted mind with the zing ping-a-ling of creativity. Some of us thrive on this mindset.

The main difference is that creatives generally work independently, so their board meeting might be the time wasted on social media, or pursuing projects that aren’t meant to go anywhere, or their undefined objectives might be finding themselves drawn in by the pursuit of creativity as an act as opposed to creativity as a career choice with defined goals for success.

Here are 5 great takeaways for creatives from this must-read book

1. On setting ROUTINES

“The way of the Essentialist is different. The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position.”

Nothing could be more true for the creative life than the statement above. Your body loves routine. Your mind wants to enter the space where you create at the same time every day, like clockwork. Once you develop a creative routine, you will find yourself aching and yearning when you aren’t at your desk, or at your easel, or holding your instrument. You set yourself up for success by carving out the space for creativity because you have decided it is essential.


“What we can’t do is concentrate on two things at the same time. When I talk about being present, I’m not talking about doing only one thing at a time. I’m talking about being focused on one thing at a time. Multitasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can “multifocus” is.

You must plan for how you are going to focus. You create the space for creativity and focus through your routine and by deciding to focus. You know what that means for you. You know if it means that your phone has to be in the other room, you have to be logged off of certain sites while writing or working, or you need some cashews there at the desk to keep going. The big takeaway here is that multitasking is overrated. Focus gets it done. But you have to practice focus, and be kind to yourself while you practice. Learning to focus is part and parcel to the creative routine.


“Of course, we don’t have to try to replicate Gandhi to benefit from his example as someone who lived, fully and completely, as an Essentialist. We can all purge our lives of the nonessential and embrace the way of the Essentialist — in our own ways, and in our own time, and on our own scale. We can all live a life not just of simplicity but of high contribution and meaning.”

The important part of this idea is wrapped up in the idea that each of us falls short of making our highest contribution because we let ourselves be pulled in a dozen different directions at once. This is true if you constantly create activities that detract you from your work. What is your highest contribution? This is one question not answered in this book. In fact, the book assumes that you have already identified what that highest contribution is, which may be the question.  But take note: Cutting out the nonessential puts you on the path towards the highest contribution. I think they are two lanes on the same road.

4. On figuring out that LESS IS BETTER

“Working hard is important. But more effort does not necessarily yield more results. “Less but better” does.”

In school, we all knew what busywork was. We all understood that when the teacher put some random worksheets in front of us that weren’t related to anything we were learning, it was busywork. It was meant to keep us occupied. And yet, in our creative lives, we sometimes do the busywork because we can do it mindlessly. Because we don’t yet know how to sink into the work and focus. Because focus is hard (at first) and requires us to drop into the flow state. So we check email, we go on Instagram and like a few things, we open some tabs to shop. So it shouldn’t be any surprise when the book doesn’t get written, the great dream stays a dream. What can you cut out? Me? My current plan is to take mindless activities like interacting on Instagram and set aside a specific time for it.


“In the simplest terms, straddling means keeping your existing strategy intact while simultaneously also trying to adopt the strategy of a competitor.”

Was there ever a business strategy more applicable to the creative life than this? The problem with creativity as a business is that each person must blaze their own trail. You can draw inspiration from some one else’s path, but you can never recreate it. It’s a terrible idea. You don’t want to be that person. So you try stuff. And more often than not, you give up before anything yields results. McKeown talks in the book about Continental Airlines, which tried to replicate the success of Southwest Airlines by following some of its approaches, such as cutting out meals in-flight. But it didn’t work, because the airline continued to straddle by doing everything the old way at the same time.

What are you doing the old way while also doing it the new way? Whose process are you mimicking? Whose work have you aligned yourself with? What is your strategy for positioning yourself creatively, apart from your competitors? All of us would do well to revisit this problem and adjust what we are doing.

Order a copy of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

Have you applied some ideas from Essentialism to your life? How has it helped? Post in the comments.



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