The Essentialist Secret to Productive Writing

Minimalism is about paring things down to the minimum — minimum elements, clean sleek minimal design.

Essentialism is similar but different. It’s about “less but better.”

In Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, he lays out the core essentialist mindset.

1. Individual choice: We can choose how to spend our energy and time. Without choice, there is no point in talking about trade-offs.

2. The prevalence of noise: Almost everything is noise, and a very few things are exceptionally valuable. This is the justification for taking time to figure out what is most important. Because some things are so much more important, the effort in finding those things is worth it.

3. The reality of trade-offs: We can’t have it all or do it all. If we could, there would be no reason to evaluate or eliminate options. Once we accept the reality of trade-offs we stop asking, “How can I make it all work?” and start asking the more honest question “Which problem do I want to solve?”

Essentialism, he says, is about “discerning the trivial many from the vital few.”

He also lays out the core logic of the essentialist:

There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist: “I have to,” It’s all important,” and “I can do both.” Like mythological sirens, these assumptions are as dangerous as they are seductive. They draw us in and drown us in shallow waters.

To embrace the essence of essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.”

These simple truths awaken us from our non-essential stupor. They free us to pursue what really matters. They enable us to live at our highest level of contribution.

Awesome, right? It’s a fantastic book. Highly recommended.

Operating at your highest level of contribution means doing the right thing for the right reason at the right time.

In my experience, each of these three things need to be there with anything that I’m really putting myself into. If even one element is missing, I’ll feel it. Sooner or later, something will feel “off.” I’ll lose interest, inspiration, or it won’t pan out. Nobody will take an interest in it.

Maybe you don’t have time for what you really want in life.

Maybe you can’t even sense anything you truly feel called to do.

Maybe you can churn out words but you don’t feel deeply connected with what you write.

Part of the discipline behind essentialism is that sometimes it’s not about taking action but doing less.

Being a more productive writer is not necessarily solved by trying to squeeze out more words. If we’re not hitting any word count goals, that may be where we notice it, but that’s not necessarily where the problem lies.

It’s easy to hit your productivity goals when you love what you write, you have space to write, and you have certainty that there is an eager audience for it.

When we fail to make progress toward our life’s most essential goals, it’s not enough to simply grasp our process harder and force ourselves to squeeze out every last bit of language we can muster. The nose-to-the-grindstone approach stems from a scarcity mindset.

Invite the flow state by making freewriting a part of your writing process. The modality of freewriting is remarkably malleable. When something else comes up for you, it makes a presence in your language — when you have a question, then you engage with the question. The mindset of freewriting is harmonous with the logic of essentialism.

We produce more, but it’s not about keeping every last word. We produce more knowing that the essential is bound to come from an unrestrained and unburdened spirit.

Saying no to things

As enthusiastic as I am about freewriting, I am not arguing that it is the only way to solve all of life’s problems. As you come to know yourself, you can sense better when it is right to engage the writing process and when it is better to float awhile. Stewarding your energy is of huge importance for consistent productivity.

One way of exploring this is through moodling — spending time doing very little but with the intent of gaining a sense of clarity about your project. The intent is there, and you put yourself in a receptive frame of being.

Getting clear about the heart of your writing project

I have learned to discern when my productivity lags because of my energy level — maybe I just need to take a break or switch to a different modality (voice transcription, etc).

When my productivity drops because I have hit a snag with my writing, I find it powerful to simply engage the flow of freewriting to help bring clarity to the situation. When I write about my project and take the opportunity (it might take only a few minutes) to unearth my feelings, it stirs things up and always ends up putting me in a better disposition for making something happen.

A small shift of understanding makes all the difference.

When we’re working creatively, there are very seldom cookie-cutter approaches that can really unlock the problem, even if only because we fail to see how our unique situation fits an established model of being uninspired, frustrated, needing to vent, talk through problems, or develop a better game plan.

People resist doing things like this because it seems like something extra, but it’s a prime case where the logic of essentialism applies. To be at our most effective, we need to take time and space to assess everything. From that empowered and abundant standpoint, we can actually see the optimal trajectory to take. Otherwise, we battle to stay productive but remain ineffective.

Try freewriting on these questions to clarify your current writing project and
expand from that center of clarity:

  • When you feel that you “have to,” what part of you wants to?
  • In your life, what nonessential things/people/tasks can you say no to?
  • At its core, what do you love about your project? What might it be about? What lights you up about it? If anything were possible, what would it look like?
  • What is it really about?
  • Are there aspects of your writing project that you feel are supposed to be a certain way? What else might be possible?
  • What work would you like to accomplish before you reach this life’s deadline?
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