Essentialism

Feb 2021

This is my attempt at a minimal summary of the book Essentialism, written by Greg Mckeown. The book itself is already quite concise, but I’ve distilled it further in an effort to communicate the concepts in as few words as possible. I’d strongly recommend referencing it directly, as it’s packed with examples of each concept in action on both an individual and organizational level.


Essentialism was born from the pursuit of the question “What holds capable and driven people from breaking through to the next level?” In consulting with Silicon Valley executives, McKeown observed what he refers to as the paradox of success, where success brings more and more opportunities which distract us and diffuse our efforts. Jim Collins refers to this phenomenon as the undisciplined pursuit of more. The antidote, McKeown has found, is the disciplined pursuit of less, but better.

Essentialism is about figuring out what is most important, eliminating everything else and making the execution of the important things effortless. An Essentialist focuses on getting the right things done, fueling significant progress in a single direction rather than a millimeter of progress in a million different directions.

More than just a set of techniques, it is a systematic and disciplined approach to life. When embraced completely, Essentialism becomes a natural part of our being that enables us to operate at our highest point of contribution.

The main idea isn’t exactly new. It’s rooted in many spiritual and religious traditions. And its philosophy of “less but better” can be found reflected in notable figures throughout history: the Dalai Lama, Steve Jobs, Leo Tolstoy, Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett, Mother Teresa, and Henry David Thoreau, to name a few.

An essentialist pauses constantly to ask “Am I investing in the right activities?”

The book is divided into four parts:

  • Essence defines the core mindset of an Essentialist
  • Explore gives practical advice for figuring out what’s most important
  • Eliminate provides advice for cutting out everything else
  • Execute shows how to make doing the important things effortless

What is the core essence of an Essentialist?^

We have the power to choose. We often give up our ability to choose because of social pressure. While our options can be taken away, our ability to choose can never be. If we don’t practice exercising our agency, we may learn helplessness.

Most things are unimportant and don’t produce results. For example, the Law of the Vital Few says that 20% of our efforts yield 80% of the results. An essentialist takes time to evaluate all their options to discern what is really important.

We cannot have it all and must embrace trade-offs. Trying to take on every opportunity available spreads us thin and prevents us from being truly effective. The reality is that every choice we make is a trade-off. We should embrace this and be more deliberate, strategic and thoughtful in our choices.

“There are no solutions, only trade-offs”
– Thomas Sowell

How do we discern the essential?^

Make space for yourself and find escape from distraction. You need uninterrupted time to focus. Deliberately set aside time on your schedule to think and explore possibilities.

“Without great solitude, no serious work is possible”
– Pablo Picasso

Zoom out and look at the bigger picture. We can easily get caught up in the minute details of our day to day lives. And our memories are notriously fallable. Keep a journal and review it regularly. Try to find a signal in the noise.

Make time for play. Play can be defined as doing something just for the joy of it rather than for any end result. As we grow older we learn that play is childish and trivial. On the contrary, play expands our minds and allows us to explore: It facilitates connections that we wouldn’t otherwise make, it’s an antidote to creativity-crippling stress and it stimulates parts of the brain involved in both careful reason and carefree exploration.

“Play doesn’t just help us explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.”

Protect your greatest asset: yourself. We must nurture our bodies, minds and spirits if we are to be sustainable. The most common way we neglect ourselves is lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation compromises our ability to prioritize, one of the most important Essentialist skills.

Be ultraselective. If your criteria is too broad you will end up overcommitting. Instead, narrow your options based on extreme criteria. Try the 90% rule: Pick one important criterion for a decision and evaluate your option on a scale between 0 and 100. Any rating lower than 90 should be automatically changed to a 0.

“If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

How do we eliminate the non‑essential?^

Clarify your purpose by identifying your essential intent. Unlike a mission/vision statement which are more general in nature, your essential intent should be concrete and inspirational. Some examples include: “to get everyone in the UK online by the end of 2012” and “to build 150 affordable, green, storm resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.” Done right, this one decision will eliminate 1000 later ones.

Don’t be afraid to decline. It can be socially awkward to reject someone’s request and the book gives a few tactics for dealing with these kinds of situations. One is to remember that declining doesn’t necessarily mean saying the word “No.” Also remember that you are trading popularity for respect. Essentialism means having to do this often so McKeown also offers a few response templates you can use.

“We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no’.”
– Tom Friel

Uncommit from prior obligations. Uncommitting can be more difficult than not committing in the first place. The book outlines a few commitment traps like sunk cost bias and the endowment effect. Ask yourself, “If I weren’t already invested in this would I invest now?” and “What else can I do with this time/money?” You must learn to be comfortable cutting losses.

Continuously edit your time and activities. McKeown compares the art of editing for film, literature and other media to editing our life. The idea is to use deliberate subtraction to increase our ability to focus on what really matters. This means eliminating options or activities that are good but get in the way of our essential intent. Editing continuously saves us from having to make major cuts later.

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
 – Steven King

Set boundaries. If you don’t set them, someone else will. Pushing back can have social costs but not pushing back costs us our ability to choose what is most essential in life. Boundaries proactively eliminate demands from others and prevent the need for a direct “No.”

Create a list of dealbreakers. If you’re not sure where to begin, try making a note anytime someone makes a request that bothers or burdens you. Craft social contracts when engaging with others by each outlining your shared purpose/goals, what you expect from each other, what you are and aren’t willing to do, etc.

How can we make the execution of the essential effortless?^

Create buffers to account for the unexpected. Instead of assuming the best-case scenario, practice extreme and early preparation. Combat planning fallacy by adding 50% to time estimates. Conduct scenario planning to identify risks and develop contingency plans.

Identify and remove obstacles to progress. A non-essentialist tries to get more results by doing more, where an essentialist produces more by removing. Make a list of obstacles and prioritize them using the question, “What is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?” See The Hikers from the business parable The Goal.

“To attain knowledge add things every day. To attain wisdom subtract things every day.”
 – Lao-tsu

Start small and build momentum. Celebrate small acts of progress instead of going for flashy wins. Small wins will compound and eventually lead to a significant breakthrough. Start by asking yourself, “What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task I’m trying to get done?”

Achieve flow state by cultivating routines. The right routines will enhance creativity by freeing up cognitive resources. They also create the conditions necessary for intense concentration and allow you to execute on autopilot.

To cultivate a new habit, create a trigger to cue yourself into action. For example, if you want to start writing every day, put your notebook somewhere so that you’ll run into it in the course of your regular routine. You can also try starting your day with the thing you want to do instead of waiting until later when you’re likely to be tired and out of willpower.

Focus on what’s important right now. Don’t be so preoccupied with the past and future that you become distracted. It’s only in the here and now that we can execute on what really matters. The ancient Greeks had two words for time: Chronos, referring to the quantitative kind we measure; and Kairos, referring to the qualitative kind that can only be experienced when we are fully in the moment.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, and pulled in a million different directions, stop and ask yourself, “What’s important right now?” Make a list of things vying for your attention and cross off anything that’s not essential right now. Prioritize the list with the important things. Get the future out of your head by writing your thoughts a journal.

“Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply.”
 – Thich Nhat Hanh

Make Essentialism a part of your core being. It’s not just something to be done occasionally and it’s not just about success. It’s about living a life of meaning and purpose. To get the most out of it we must make it part of our core and nurture that core until only a thin crust of nonessentialist remains. It’s a long process of transformation, not just of the mind but of the heart. This disciplined pursuit of less will bring you more clarity, more control, and more joy.


Additional resources