A Small Life Book Club: Essentialism


I’m a little late too the Book Club game this month. I apologize if you were waiting for the riveting discussion that I’m sure will ensue 🙂 I just had a lot going on and I know not all of it was essential. Ha-ha.

Anyway, this month I listened to the audiobook version of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less*. The author, Greg McKeown, has a lovely voice and if anything, listening to the audiobook favorably influenced my opinion of the book. That hasn’t always been the case when I listened to audiobooks in the past. See: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

I wholeheartedly agree with the premise of this book. Most people chase everything instead of chasing the right things. The right things are the things in your life and career that will make the most impact. Unfortunately most of the tasks that we do are unimportant. It’s answering email. It’s picking up the dry cleaning. It’s filling out that form for the 5th time because someone lost it again…

I know on an everyday basis that most of the work tasks and many of the life tasks that I do are nonessential. I know that checking my email 394834923293 times a day doesn’t contribute to my productivity. I know that doing the dishes isn’t going to contribute to my big life goals. I also know that if I don’t do it, no one else will. Which leads me to my biggest problem with the book. I think that the principles are very difficult to apply to government, service or “worker-bee” jobs. It would be easy to say “no” to pursuing menial tasks if I was higher up the food chain. Unfortunately, much of my job is filling out forms and filling up the printer’s paper tray. Even if I did advocate for essentialism, I don’t think I would ever see an institutional change. It’s sad, but true.

I also think that as a person with a limited income, essentialism is difficult to apply to my personal life. Yes, I want to work on writing a book, but I can’t afford to pay someone to do my laundry, clean my house and cook my meals. That has to be done on an every day basis by me.

Although some of the principles of the book are going to be extremely difficult to implement, since reading this book, I have begun to question the nonessential things I can control. Do I really need a Facebook? No. And as soon as I download all of my pictures, I plan to get rid of it. I also reinstalled Rescue Time to keep me off of distracting sites. And I’ve taken off my email’s sound alert, so I don’t run to my email each time I hear the new mail ping. These little things have been extremely helpful, but I’ve yet to free up large chunks of time for essential projects.

Have you read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less*? What did you think? How have you limited nonessential things in your life to make space for the important stuff? Let me know in the comments!


P.S. July’s pick will be Scarcity: Why having too little means so much*. Feel free to leave suggestions for future books in the comments!

*Affiliate links.

9 thoughts on “A Small Life Book Club: Essentialism

  1. Aaron

    Thanks so much for sharing this! It’s really interesting to think about. I do want to provide a counter point, related to this comment about music:

    “Music is the silence between the notes.” (Claude Debussy)

    I think a similar lesson can be applied to life. I wouldn’t want to try operating at peak effectiveness all the time – it sounds exhausting.

    For example, I live in an area that has inexpensive grocery delivery service. I could have someone bring groceries to me, freeing my time to be more impactful at work and home. But I choose to walk the 15 minutes to the market. It’s during that walk that I often think of new blog topics and figure out challenging problems.

    Similarly with doing dishes. I choose to wash mine rather than leaving them for the cleaning service at our office. It’s a nice break from work, and the warm water soothes my hands after being at the keyboard.

    If I was focused on maximizing impact I would probably make different decisions than the ones above. But instead, by focusing on enjoying moments of inefficiency, I often free myself up for less stress and more freedom of thought.

    So the perspective shift is on enjoying each element of life, rather than measuring those elements in terms of impact. Overall, it means my life is more pleasant.

    1. melanie Post author

      Aaron, that’s a good point. I don’t think the author was promoting peak effectiveness, but instead, promoting a life in which the menial tasks we don’t like (for me that’s doing dishes) are minimized so we can spend time doing bigger, more important things, like spending time with out families.

  2. amstincan

    Sorry that I am late to the conversation. Overall this was a very good book. I found a number of things to apply in my life. I agree it is very important take the time to determine what my priorities are and to keep reminding myself of them. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking I can do it all, which as the author states is truly not possible. Life is full of trade-offs and having to say no. It comes down to being focused enough to say no to the right things for the right reasons. I like the ideas of how to say no without damaging relationships too. Good pointers and reminders here. The only thing I didn’t like is that I am afraid if taken the wrong way and to the extreme a person could apply the concepts in this book to become a “whatever is best for me” person. However, taken the way I believe the author intended the concepts can help a person simplify and focus their lives on what is truly important.

    My favorite points were the ones about being in the moment and living in the present. Far too often I forget to do this. Simplifying isn’t just about having less stuff but having less clutter overall in our lives. Thanks for suggesting this read. 🙂

    1. melanie Post author

      No problem! I agree that the concepts could be taken to the extreme, but I think readers have to think about it as, if I give up checking email 232039 times a day, I’ll be able to spend more time with my family or whatever your unproductive vice is.

      I agree about living in the present too. I really struggle with that. It’s just not my personality type! But it’s an essential part of minimalism.

      1. amstincan

        Exactly and we all have room to improve when it comes to eliminating or at least reducing distractions that keep us from reaching our goals or giving the more important parts of our lives our best. 🙂

  3. Planet Millie

    I don’t know if you’ve read this book before, but I would recommend Hand Wash Cold (Karen Maizen Miller) to reconcile your issues with this book. She is a buddhist monk and she talks about how these jobs need doing no matter how minimalist you are in life. I found that she really filled the gap that is being left by other minimalism books – namely that like you say, plates still need washing, mundane emails still need to be responded to, etc. You can just decide to not do “boring” jobs any more because life is more important. They *are* life.

    Anyway. That’s my two cents! I haven’t read Essentialism yet. I’m just waiting for it to drop in price on the Kindle!

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