Essentialism and Minimalism in life and products that we build

I recently visited my home in India and had a great time catching with my family. My brother has influenced my life and my thinking many times. We exchanged good ideas about minimalism and how it’s challenging to be minimalist in the world of abundance.

On my way back, read Greg Mckeown’s Essentialism-Disciplined-Pursuit of Less. His thoughts really resonated. I consider my self minimalist, except in few cases. However, after reading him I connected many dots. This changed my perspective and lead me into creating a small guide for myself. This post is my attempt to get clarity in those thoughts and put it out there that might be useful for someone who wants to embark on this journey.


Hugo-Mercier has a great thoughts on how reasoning makes us human. While its a great gift its also a problem when we are not aware of things that we reason for and fall into the trap of many biases.

Secondly, its simple. Human brain is not very effective multi-tasker. Focus is critical for success in any field. The moment I realized this, I started searching around how to calm down monkey mind and there I found help with meditation.

What is Essentialism?

Paraphrasing Mckeown –

“Its about getting similar or better results from only required tasks”.

To me its not about doing less. We should certainly aim high, work hard and hold our standards, but its about doing it in such way that we stay focused and do what is needed. Its hard. We all know the rock and sand analogy.

Relation between Essentialism and minimalism?

Let’s see what minimalism give you — its about choosing ONLY those things that matter. Whats the joy of being minimalist? — when you remove things you tend to go towards perfection. Antoine de Saint is a great reminder of this. To me, being minimalist improves focus. Improved focus leads to awareness since my subconscious has less things to deal with. That leads me to discover and decide on essential things.

Why? What do you get?

1. Biggest thing that I get out of doing only things that matter is time to think. Quality thinking is hard. You need better problem to think. You need better framework to think. If either of this is not present, it leads to frustration.

2. Attention to details and hence improved quality of results.

3. The choices that you generate for yourself. This is most fulfilling for me when I do things that I WANT to do rather than things that I dont know why I am doing.

Philosophically —I relate that “Nothing lasts forever and attachments is cause of suffering” are some of the important teachings from zen and Buddhism philosophy. One could argue, not many things in life are essentials, only those are that will create a legacy and those that changes the course of how we live our lives.

What do we see in products around — 

In my opinion Apple is great example of this. Apple’s recent trillion dollar evaluation leads to many thinkers talk about their brand image. Brand is built on perceived value and how people associate them with. There is a famous quote (I am paraphrasing)- “All of apple products combined can be placed on one small table but they are some of the best in the class”. If I squint, “Sleek” design that apple promotes is minimalist design. When headphone jacks were removed from iPhone, I kind of thought of Einstein’s famous quote — “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

Tesla’s model 3 — a great demonstration of how less is more. I highly recommend a test drive if you haven’t. On the other side of the spectrum, there is Microsoft office that has good instances of over-kills

As a product person, its one thing to know to design optimally but equally hard to implement in practice. As some say “Perfection is when whatever you add or remove, you worsen the result / value”

When I thought what took me so long to get here, I figured that there are some things that stooped me from being essentialist

1. Peer pressure and necessity to seek social validations

2. Guilt and fear of disappointing someone and saying yes to things that are not really important

2. Lack of focus — Random thoughts all the time

3. Fear of missing out and fear of opportunity loss

4. Not being in present and negative anticipation of future

Essentialism through asking better questions

Some of Mckeown’s questions that he suggest one should ask to self —

“What do I feel deeply inspired by?”

“What am I particularly talented at?”

“What meets a significant need in the world?”

On top of these, few other questions that I feel are also compelling

“What is a shelf-life of the outcome that I am putting effort into. Is it worth it?”

“Will this product or service matter in 5 years?”

“Will this make any difference in more than 100 people’s lives?”

If I am putting time in meeting someone (other than family), I always have 2 questions in the back of my mind. “Are we talking on something that will benefits either party?” and second “Does the outcome of this conversation really matter to any of us?” This helps me avoid small talk. Its hard to keep this in mind and not always possible but I am striving.

Almost all the time, to do things that are absolutely necessary, you have to say “No” to distraction and other things. In silicon valley, there is a saying in startup world, if you want to succeed focus on your idea and don’t let other idea come to your mind 🙂 There is enough material out that talks about improving our productivity and reducing distraction. It ultimately boils down to Stephen Covey’s circle of influence and circle of concern.

Here are some ways that I find are helpful when you get asked and you want to say “NO”gracefully-

  1. Take a pause for moment and they say No. This certainly soften the blow.
  2. Give an ETA instead saying pointed NO if that is something you want to take on.
  3. Use out of office replies when you are focusing and want to get time to yourself.
  4. If you boss or executive is asking something then say “Yes, what should I de-prioritized?” this will strike the discussion.
  5. Say with No with a joke 🙂 This is very situation dependent.
  6. Suggest an alternative to what is being requested instead of directly saying “NO”
  7. Delegate — “I cant help but this other person can”. People asking help are generally looking to get things done and doesnt really matter who gets it.

Consistency in saying “NO” also build credibility as people will see that you have a focus and you value it. One thing to recognize is that we are choosing “NO” than “saying NO”. Its a trade off.

Hope this post brings in some insight and some motivation to bring this in practice.

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