A Summary and Review of Essentialism by Greg McKeown

My Takeaways and Opinion on Essentialism

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash
  1. When we have success, we gain a reputation as a “go-to” person and are presented with more options and opportunities
  2. When we have more options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts and we get spread thinner and thinner
  3. We get distracted from what would be our highest level of contribution. The effect of our success has undermined the very clarity that led to our success in the first place

Part I: Essence: What is the core mind-set of an Essentialist

There are 3 chapters in Part I:

  • Discern: The Unimportance of Practically Everything
  • Trade-Off: Which Problem Do I Want?

Choose: The Invincible Power of Choice

When we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone else will step in and choose for us. We tend to think of choices as things, but they’re actions. We may not have control over the options we have, but we always have control over how we choose among our options. Our ability to choose can’t be taken or given away. It can only be forgotten. We often overemphasize our options and underemphasize our actions.

Discern: The Unimportance of Practically Everything

Certain types of effort yield higher rewards than others. More effort doesn’t necessarily yield more results. Less but better effort does. The Pareto principle can apply to our productivity indicating that 20% of our efforts produce 80% of our results.

Trade-Off: Which Problem Do I Want?

We shouldn’t ignore the reality of trade-offs. By definition, saying yes to one opportunity requires us to say no to several others. We can either make the hard choices for ourselves or allow others to make them for us. We can try to avoid the reality of trade-offs, but we can’t escape them.

Part II: Explore: How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?

In Part II of Essentialism, there are 5 chapters:

  • Look: See What Really Matters
  • Play: Embrace the Wisdom of your Inner Child
  • Sleep: Protect the Asset
  • Select: The Power of Extreme Criteria

Escape: The Perks of Being Unavailable

We need space to escape in order to discern the essential few from the trivial many. We can only get this space by design. Before you can evaluate what is and isn’t essential, you need to explore your options.

Look: See What Really Matters

In every set of facts, something essential is hidden. We don’t have the capacity to explore every single piece of information we encounter. Discerning what is essential to explore requires us to be disciplined in how we scan and filter all the competing and conflicting facts, options, and opinions that are constantly vying for our attention.

Play: Embrace the Wisdom of your Inner Child

Our modern school system has removed the leisure, and much of the pleasure, from learning. Schools can kill creativity rather than fuel it through play. Most companies also fail to create a playful culture that sparks true exploration.

  • Play is an antidote to stress and stress can be an enemy of productivity that shuts down the creative, inquisitive, and exploratory parts of our brain
  • Play has a positive effect on the brain’s executive function

Sleep: Protect the Asset

The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. We must protect this asset.

  • Mastery takes focused and deliberate effort
  • The second most important factor that differentiated the best violinists from the good violinists was sleep
  • The best violinists slept 8.6 hours per night on average
  • The best violinists also napped for 0.4 hours per day on average
  • Sleep allowed top performers to regenerate so that they could practice with greater concentration

Select: The Power of Extreme Criteria

McKeown describes a simple technique for becoming more selective in the choices we make. If we feel total and utter conviction to do something, then we should say yes. Anything else should be a no. If the answer isn’t a definite yes, then it is a no. This technique succinctly summarizes a core essentialist principle that’s critical to the process of exploration.

Part III: Eliminate: How can we cut out the trivial many?

There are 5 chapters in Part III:

  • Dare: The Power of a Graceful “No”
  • Uncommit: Win Big by Cutting Your Losses
  • Edit: The Invisible Art
  • Limit: The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

Clarify: One Decision That Makes a Thousand

As an essentialist, you need to get your purpose from pretty clear to really clear. In a team, motivation and cooperation deteriorate when there’s a lack of purpose. People thrive when there’s a high level of clarity about what a team stands for and what their roles and goals are.

  • It’s all good (which is bad)

Dare: The Power of a Graceful “No”

Saying no in the face of social pressure is a huge challenge. Navigating the moments where someone is pressuring you to do something with courage and grace is one of the most important skills for an essentialist to master. It’s also one of the hardest.

Uncommit: Win Big by Cutting Your Losses

Sunk-cost bias revolves around a tendency to continue to invest time, money, or energy into something we know is a losing proposition simply because we’ve already sunk a cost that can’t be recouped. This can become a vicious cycle, as the more we invest, the more determined we become to see our investment pay off.

Edit: The Invisible Art

One essentialist craft is editing. Editing involves strictly eliminating the trivial, unimportant, or irrelevant. The next step in becoming an essentialist involves becoming an editor in your life and leadership.

  • Condense
  • Correct
  • Edit less

Limit: The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

The disappearance of boundaries is typical of our non-essentialist era. If you don’t set boundaries, there won’t be any. Or, even worse, there will be boundaries set by default, or by another person, instead of by design.

Part IV: Execute: How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?

In the final part of Essentialism, there are 6 chapters:

  • Subtract: Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles
  • Progress: The Power of Small Wins
  • Flow: The Genius of Routine
  • Focus: What’s Important Now?
  • Be: The Essentialist Life

Buffer: The Unfair Advantage

We all live in an unpredictable world and constantly face the unexpected. Literally, a buffer is something that prevents two things from coming into contact and harming each other. We can reduce the friction of executing the essential in our work and lives by creating a buffer.

  • Add 50% to your time estimate
  • Conduct scenario planning

Subtract: Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles

It’s important to identify what’s keeping you back from achieving what really matters to you. By systematically identifying and removing this obstacle, you’ll be able to reduce the friction keeping you from executing what’s essential.

Progress: The Power of Small Wins

The essentialist starts small and celebrates progress. Instead of going for big, flashy wins that don’t matter, the essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.

  • Start late and big: Doing everything at the last minute and somehow making it happen

Flow: The Genius of Routine

The essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you’ve identified as essential to the default position. With the right routine, each effort yields exponentially greater results.

  • Routine: behavior itself which can be mental, physical, or emotional
  • Reward: helps your brain figure out if this particular habit is worth remembering for the future

Focus: What’s Important Now?

Always focus on what’s important now. Every second spent worrying about a past or future moment distracts us from what’s important in the here and now.

  • Kairos (qualitative): refers to the time that is opportune, right, and different
  • Get the future out of our head
  • Prioritize

Be: The Essentialist Life

We are all capable of purging our lives of the non-essential and embracing the way of the essentialists in our own ways, in our own time, and on our own scale. We can all live a life of simplicity, high contribution, and meaning.

  • Something you are: essentialism is a different, simpler way of doing everything and becomes a lifestyle and all-encompassing approach to living and leading


  • Rating: 91/100
  • I absolutely loved this book. It was well-written, informative, and easy to read.
  • I was impressed by how much valuable information Essentialism contains. It truly forced me to think about my own life and consider what’s essential and what’s holding me back.
  • I would recommend this book to everyone. I think that there is at least one nugget, if not many more, that can improve someone’s life.
  • There were some points of redundancy, but for the most part, I felt like McKeown repeated ideas for a reason. The repetition let me know that he was emphasizing something important.
  • I was surprised to see chapters on play and sleep. I enjoyed reading these chapters and like the fact that McKeown emphasized the importance of both play and sleep in our lives.

data scientist interested in AI and NLP davidpeletz.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store