Too Busy? Try Focusing on the Essentials

Greg McKeown would like us to think, not about how to do more with less, but how to do less better.

Leadership consultant Greg McKeown once left his wife and hours-old newborn at the hospital to attend a client meeting. That’s not something that McKeown, author of the 2014 book Essentialism, would do today. In his book, McKeown challenges our current mindset of  ‘I have to do it all,” and urges us to replace it with the pursuit of doing the “right things at the right time in the right way.”

“I think that we are in a busyness bubble,” McKeown told Convene.  “Like the real-estate bubble, or the Silicon Valley bubble, or the Dutch tulip bubble, we are in a time of irrational exuberance about being busy…. I think that eventually the bubble will burst, and we will think that we’re ridiculous and foolish to have lived and worked this way.”

McKeown is CEO of THIS Inc., a leadership and strategy-design agency headquartered in Silicon Valley, and has spoken at companies including Apple, Google, Facebook,, and Twitter.  We talked to him in December 2014:

Your book’s subtitle, “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” makes me think that it might be easier to add things and more difficult to cut back. Do you agree?

Absolutely. [Meeting planners] are at the nexus of all of the things that make this a challenge. For any [planner] I have ever worked with, their lives are fast and full of opportunity. The complication is they can really believe they have to do everything. The impact of that is that they can end up making only a millimeter of impact for their attendees in a million directions.

My whole position is that you can make a different choice. It’s a bold choice: You can create space in your design process to really figure out what is the essential message of the conference or event and what is the essential path of learning. And then have the courage to either eliminate everything else or at least really turn the volume way down on all the other things. I’ve taught at a lot of events now over the last 15 years. And I think the number-one mistake — made by a huge margin between that and mistake number two — is trying to do too many messages, and not [offering] enough space for people to think and process the messages they have.

One of the challenges is that conference and event organizers often feel they have to market themselves on the promise of more — more sessions, more and better speakers.

First of all, you’re right that this is, I think, the primary way conferences are sold. When I wrote [Essentialism], I knew I was being countercultural, but it’s more radical than I thought. As I’ve watched people try to wrestle with these ideas, I’ve realized that the monopoly that the alternative thought has on people.

The monopoly view is what I call Nonessentialism. If you can fit it all in, you can have it all. The problem is, what that actually produces at events is stressed-out attendees, who from the first second to the last second of the conference are filled with the fear of missing out. And where they can’t process the information, and it exhausts them, so they’re stressed and exhausted.

What I’m arguing, especially now, is that there is a whole other strategy of selling. It’s getting really clear, as an event designer or event organizer, about who is the primary customer. And what do they really care about? Saying, “I’m going to provide a smorgasbord of offerings, on the basis that I will be able to grab everybody,” is like the sales equivalent of a bottom trawler in fishing — it just pulls up everything. In reality, it ruins the seabed and destroys the ocean.

When we market like that, we can never get our events to the next level. We never know what it is that’s really attracting people, because we’re not thinking deeply enough about who is my customer and what is their real painful agenda? What are the priority issues?

I think one of the things event planners can do for their attendees is to be really generous — to create a luxurious amount of space for their participants to just go and chat, to go and think, to reflect on what they’ve heard. Not a few minutes at the end of the conference, or two minutes at the end of the speech, but space all throughout. Instead of half an hour for lunch and rush back in, you create two hours for lunch. Instead of breaks of 15 minutes and rushing people back in, do half an hour. Give them more space, because there is enormous value in that.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.