Essentialism Book Notes

Trent Madden  —  March 11, 2016 — Leave a comment

“Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time right now?”


“Almost everything is noise. Very few things are essential.”

Less, but better.

It’s about pausing constantly to ask–am I investing in the right activities. Most are trivial. Few are vital.

Selecting only things that are truly essential.

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

The undisciplined pursuit of more is usually the key for failing, especially in big companies.

Decision fatigue.

Myth–we can have it all.

job descriptions with huge lists of requirements.

When we try to do it all, we make tradeoffs that we would never make.

We can either make our choices deliberately or let other people control our lives.

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself and not what others expected of me.”

Instead of asking: Is there a chance I will where this some day in the future?
Ask: Do I love this? Do I look great in it? Do I wear it often?

Will this activity or effort make the highest contribution to my goal?

“If I didn’t already own this, how much would I pay to buy it?”

How many times have you made your to-do list, only to have it grow by the end of the day.

Essentialism is about organizing the closet of our lives.

Very few things are exceptionally valuable.

The reality of tradeoffs– we can’t have it all or do it all.

Step 1: Explore

Which problem do I want to solve?

Essentialists explore before committing. Then they go BIG on 1 or 2.

-What do I feel deeply inspired by?
-What am I especially talented at?

We are looking for our highest level of contribution.

Step 2: Eliminate

You must say no.

This means pushing against social pressure.

Step 3: Execute

Essentialist build a system where execution is most likely.

There is tremendous freedom in eliminating the non-essentials.

I can do anything, but not everything.

It is the ability to choose that makes us human.

I was not failing in any pursuit, but I was not succeeding either.

Keeping your options open is overrated–but what about antifragility?

In sacrificing my ability to choose, I chose.

When we don’t choose, somebody else will choose for us.

Learned Helplessness–when people think their actions don’t matter, they usually stop trying.

Remember your ability to choose. That’s very important.

Non-essentialist: I have to.
Essentialist: I choose to.

The Unimportance of Practically Everything

Most things have little value.

What is the most valuable result I could achieve in this job?

Buffet– invests only in the businesses he was sure of and bet heavily on them.

90% of his wealth comes from 10 investments.

Some efforts produce exponentially better results than others.

The best software developers are 10000x more effective than an average software programmer.

Essentialist– almost everything is non-essential.

Discern more, do less.

Southwest Airlines — Every choice was made in an effort to keep costs down. Essential–they’re a low cost airline.

Straddling– keeping your strategy in tact while also trying to adopt the strategy of a competitor simultaneously.

Habits creep in over time. little by little.

When you have a bunch of values, it gives employees no clear directions. What if the values conflict at times?

Same with being loyal to all stakeholders–shareholders, management, client, etc. Which one is priority.

Ex: Amazon–loyal to the end customer.

She insisted on 18 yearly priorities.

non-essentialists– ask how they can do both.

Instead of asking what do I have to give up, they ask: what do I want to big on?

Essentialists explore broadly, so that they can find the right thing to go big on.

An essentialist creates space to explore life.

Bill Gates — takes a week off every year to just think, read and reflect. Even while he was CEO at Microsoft.

Constantly ask–What are we trying to achieve? Is this the most important thing? Drill it home.


Nothing fired up the brain like play

Essentialists know play is essential

Play reduces stress

“He eliminated all stress in his life”

Protect the asset

The best asset we have is ourself.

#1 asset for continuing highly is ourself.

Sleep is essential

It drives peak performance

Bill gates- all big mistakes

They hire slowly and deliberately

Hell yes or no

If it’s not a clear yes, it’s a clear no.

Is this someone I want to work with everyday

Clarity or purpose is a huge indicator of performance

A clear no is more respected than a wishy washy yes.

Chief editing officer

Progress is the greatest motivator.

2 primary motivators:
-recognition for achievement

Shoot for progress in meaningful work.

Build momentum–then it gets going and it seems like overnight success.

Make small progress in something you do often.

Incentives–5 tokens per week. Extra token for reading a book.

Start small and celebrate wins

Minimum viable progress.

Pixar–tries stuff and sees what works

We don’t finish our films, we release them.

Start a project as early as possible with a least effort as possible.

What’s the smallest part I could do right now? This helps limit procrastination.

Big chart

When we start small and achieve progress, more motivated and more success.

A non-essentialist tries to get things done by brute force.
An essentialist designs a routine that gets things done almost naturally.

Phelps’ routine was so ingrained.

Visualize the perfect day.

Noah’s Notes
Is THIS the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?

Think: Less but better.

Priority. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.

Will this activity or effort make the highest possible contribution toward my goal?”

As Peter Drucker said, “People are effective because they say ‘no,’ because they say, “this isn’t for me.”

As poet Mary Oliver wrote: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

What really counted was the relationship between time and results. Think about the output for the time you are inputting.

We discover how even the many good opportunities we pursue are often far less valuable than the few truly great ones.

Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?

When did you last take time out of your busy day simply to sit and think?

Protecting the Asset = Sleep!

What happens to our closets when we use the broad criterion, “Is there a chance that I will wear this someday in the future?” The closet becomes cluttered with clothes we rarely wear. But if we ask, “Do I absolutely love this?

We tend to value things we already own more highly than they are worth, and thus find them more difficult to get rid of.

If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?

The 90-10 model for making decisions. You can apply to just about every decision or dilemma. As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0.

Clarity about what is essential fuels us with the strength to say no to the nonessentials.

Separate the decision from the relationship. Say no to non-essential meetings.

When we push back effectively, it shows people that our time is highly valuable. It distinguishes the professional from the amateur.
I say no very easily because I know what is important to me
If I weren’t already invested in this project, how much would I invest in it now?”
By quietly eliminating or at least scaling back an activity for a few days or weeks you might be able to assess whether it is really making a difference..
Boundaries are a little like the walls of a sandcastle. The second we let one fall over, the rest of them come crashing down. Essentialists, on the other hand, see boundaries as empowering.
You need to put up your fences well in advance, clearly demarcating what’s off limits so you can head off time wasters and boundary pushers at the pass
Another quick test for finding your deal breakers is to write down any time you feel violated or put upon by someone’s request.
Essentialists, on the other hand, use the good times to create a buffer for the bad.

Need to have a margin of safety in all areas of your life.

What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?

“What obstacles or bottlenecks are holding you back from achieving X, and how can I help remove these?”

When we want to create major change we often think we need to lead with something huge or grandiose. BUT, in all forms of human motivation the most effective one is progress. Creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success
Visualize. Something powerful about visibly seeing progress toward a goal.

“The tape” was a visualization of the perfect race. In exquisite detail and slow motion Phelps would visualize every moment from his starting position on top of the blocks, through each stroke, until he emerged.

Whenever she schedules a meeting or phone call, she takes exactly fifteen seconds to type up the main objectives.

With repetition the routine is mastered and the activity becomes second nature.

You can easily do two things at the same time: wash the dishes and listen to the radio. What we can’t do is concentrate on two things at the same time.

Pathetically tiny amount of time we have left of our lives. It challenges me to be even more unreasonably selective about how to use this precious

Peter Thiel took “less but better” to an unorthodox level when he insisted that PayPal employees select one single priority in their role—and focus on that exclusively

Trent Madden

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Trent is big on personal development, learning, and unconventional methods.

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