A Summary and Review of Essentialism by Greg McKeown
I just finished reading Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Essentialism was a great read and I’m excited to share a summary of the book with you.
I will warn you up front: this isn’t a short summary. That said, I did my best to identify the key ideas and deliver them to you.
There are 4 parts in the book. The first part outlines the core mindset of an essentialist while the following three parts turn the mindset into a systematic process for the disciplined pursuit of less.
The basic proposition of essentialism is that you can make your highest contributions towards the things that really matter only when you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all and say yes to everyone.
The book discusses two types of people: essentialists and non-essentialists.
The way of the essentialist involves the relentless pursuit of less but better, rejects the idea that we can fit it all into our lives, requires us to grapple with real trade-offs and make tough decisions, and enables us to live by design rather than by default. The essentialist realizes that almost everything in life is noise and that very few things are essential. Essentialists constantly pause to ask “Am I investing in the right activities?”
Through essentialism, one can figure out how to get the right things done rather than how to get more things done. Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies and then making execution of those things almost effortless.
McKeown discusses a paradox of success that is made up of 4 phases:
- When we really have clarity of purpose, we succeed in our endeavor
- When we have success, we gain a reputation as a “go-to” person and are presented with more options and opportunities
- When we have more options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts and we get spread thinner and thinner
- 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
In these four phases, it’s clear that the pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure.
Non-essentialism is everywhere in our society because there are too many choices, too much social pressure, and people believe that they can have it all.
Part I: Essence: What is the core mind-set of an Essentialist
There are 3 chapters in Part I:
- Choose: The Invincible Power of Choice
- 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.
Learned helplessness is “a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed.” It can manifest at work in two ways: someone checking out and not trying or someone accepting all opportunities and assignments because they believe they have to do it all. Choices are hard and everything in our society is designed to make it hard for us to say no.
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.
McKeown discusses Warren Buffett’s success as an investor and states that 90% of Buffett’s wealth comes from just 10 investments. This is an extreme reflection of the Pareto principle.
A non-essentialist thinks almost everything is essential whereas an essentialist thinks almost everything is non-essential. An essentialist learns how to tell the difference between what is truly important and everything else.
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.
When faced with a trade-off, essentialists ask the tougher question: “Which problem do I want?” Essentialists make trade-offs deliberately and act for themselves rather than waiting to be acted upon.
Trade-offs can present a significant opportunity for essentialists. By weighing both options and selecting the best one for us, we increase our chance of achieving our desired outcome.
Part II: Explore: How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?
In Part II of Essentialism, there are 5 chapters:
- Escape: The Perks of Being Unavailable
- 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.
Essentialists choose to create space to explore and ponder. In general, we tend to think of focus as a thing. Focus is something we have, but it’s also something we do. In order to focus, we need to escape.
Today, nobody is ever bored. By eliminating all boredom through our use of technology, we lose the time we had to think and process. When our lives get faster and busier, it becomes more important to build thinking time into our schedule. The noisier things get, the more we need to build quiet reflection spaces where we can truly focus.
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.
Essentialists are powerful observers and listeners. They listen explicitly for what is not being said and read between the lines.
Non-essentialists listen while preparing to say something and get distracted by extraneous noise. They hyperfocus on inconsequential details and miss the point.
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.
Greg McKeown defines play as anything that we do simply for the joy of doing it rather than as a means to an end. Play might seem like a non-essential activity, but it is essential in many ways. Play can significantly improve personal health, relationships, education, and ability to innovate. Given that play sparks innovation and is deeply essential, the value of play can’t be overstated.
Humans are built to play and built through play. When we play, we engage in the purest expression of our humanity and the truest expression of our individuality.
Play is fundamental to living the way of the essentialist, as it fuels exploration in at least 3 ways:
- Play broadens the range of options available to us
- 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
Play stimulates parts of the brain involved in both careful, logical reasoning and carefree, unbounded exploration. Play doesn’t just help us to explore what’s essential. It is essential in and of itself.
Sleep: Protect the Asset
The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. We must protect this asset.
If we underinvest in ourselves, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution. Underinvesting in ourselves can manifest when we don’t take care of our minds, bodies, and spirits. One of the most common ways we damage our asset is through lack of sleep.
Essentialists see sleep as necessary for operating at high levels of contribution more of the time. They systematically build sleep into their schedules so that they can do, achieve, and explore more.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000-hour rule. This rule was based on a study of violinists conducted by K. Anders Ericsson. The study found the following:
- The best violinists spent more time practicing than merely good students
- 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
A full night’s sleep may increase brain power and enhance problem-solving ability. A nap can even increase creativity. Sleep is the restorative companion to the discerning essentialist mind. Sleep will enhance your ability to explore, make connections, and do less but better during the hours that you’re awake.
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.
Mastering this essentialist skill requires one to be vigilant about acknowledging the reality of trade-offs. Applying highly selective criteria is a trade-off and will make you sometimes turn down an option that seems very good and have faith that the perfect option will come along in the future. Sometimes that perfect option will come and sometimes it won’t.
The very act of applying selective criteria forces you to choose which perfect option to wait for rather than letting other people, or the universe, choose for you. Applying selective criteria forces you to make decisions by design rather than by default.
Making our criteria selective and explicit gives us a systematic tool for discerning what’s essential and filtering out what’s not. If a commitment isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a no.
If we say yes to opportunities because they provide an easy reward, we risk having to later say no to more meaningful opportunities.
Part III: Eliminate: How can we cut out the trivial many?
There are 5 chapters in Part III:
- Clarify: One Decision That Makes a Thousand
- 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.
There are 2 common patterns when teams lack clarity of purpose:
- Playing politics
- It’s all good (which is bad)
When playing politics, a team becomes overly focused on winning the manager’s attention. When we’re unclear about our personal purpose in life and don’t have a clear sense of our goals, aspirations, and values, we make up social games. We end up wasting time and energy trying to look good in comparison to others and overvalue non-essentials. We neglect activities that are truly essential.
If a team believes it’s all good (which is bad), then the team has no purpose and becomes leaderless. Without clarity and purpose, pursuing something because it’s good enough doesn’t enable us to make a high level of contribution.
McKeown describes essential intent. An essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions. It is both inspirational and concrete. It is also both meaningful and measurable.
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.
Failing to say no to someone can cause us to miss out on something more important. When we’re unclear about what’s essential, we are defenseless. However, clarity about what’s essential fuels us with the strength to say no to the non-essentials.
It’s also hard to say no in these moments because we fear social awkwardness. As a species, we’re wired to want to get along with others. Our survival used to depend on fitting in with the tribe and getting along with others.
The way out of this trap is to learn to say no firmly and resolutely, but gracefully. Other people will respect us more for doing so. People admire those with the courage and conviction to say no. People are effective because they say no.
Essentialists know that after saying yes to please someone, they’ll feel bullied and resentful at both the person and themself. Eventually, they’ll wake up to the unpleasant reality that something more important must be sacrificed to accommodate for the new commitment.
The point isn’t to say no to all requests. Rather, the point is to say no to the non-essentials so that we can say yes to the things that really matter. We should say no often and gracefully to everything except what’s truly vital.
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.
Individuals are vulnerable to the sunk-cost bias. An essentialist has the courage and confidence to admit their mistakes and uncommit no matter what the sunk costs are.
The endowment effect states that we tend to undervalue things that we don’t own and overvalue things that we do own. We have this bias when it comes to non-essential activities as well as belongings. Only when we admit that we’ve made a mistake in committing to something can we make the mistake a part of the past. If we remain in denial, we continue to circle pointlessly.
In our personal and professional lives, we try too hard to be something we’re not. We often force something that’s a mismatch. We fall into the trap of the status quo bias by continuing to do something just because we’ve always done it. It is easy to blindly accept and not bother to question commitments because they’re already established.
An essentialist stops making casual commitments. They pause before they speak and ask themself if what they’re committing to is essential.
Uncommitting is harder than not committing in the first place. We feel guilty saying no to something that we’ve already committed to. Learning how to uncommit in ways that’ll garner you respect for your courage, focus, and discipline is crucial to becoming an essentialist.
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.
Good editors use deliberate subtraction to actually add life to the ideas, setting, plot, and characters. In life, disciplined editing can help add to your level of contribution, as it increases your ability to focus on and give energy to the few things that really matter. Disciplined editing lends the most meaningful relationships and activities more space to blossom. It also involves making trade-offs.
There are 4 simple principles in editing the non-essentials out of our lives:
- Cut out options
- Edit less
Waiting too long to edit will force us to make major cuts that we don’t always get to choose. Continuously editing our time and activity allows us to make minor but deliberate adjustments along the way. Becoming an essentialist means integrating cutting, condensing, and correcting into our daily routine. In doing so, we make editing a natural part of our lives.
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.
Essentialists view boundaries as empowering and understand that boundaries protect their time from being hijacked. Boundaries free them from the burden of having to say no to things that further others’ objectives instead of their own. Clear boundaries allow essentialists to proactively eliminate the demands and encumbrances from others that distract them from the true essentials.
The challenge of setting boundaries goes far beyond the workplace. When people in our lives make their problems our problems, we aren’t able to help them. By taking on their problems, we enable them and take away their ability to solve them. Forcing people in your life to solve their own problems is equally beneficial for you and for them.
When we don’t set clear boundaries, we can end up imprisoned by the limits that others set for us. When we have clear boundaries, we’re free to select from the options that we’ve deliberately chosen to explore. If you can’t identify your boundaries to yourself or others, it may be unrealistic to expect others to respect them or figure them out.
Part IV: Execute: How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?
In the final part of Essentialism, there are 6 chapters:
- Buffer: The Unfair Advantage
- 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.
If we forget to respect and maintain buffers in our lives, we get busy and distracted. Before we know it, the due date comes no matter how much extra time we built in. Projects and commitments tend to expand to fill the amount of time we allot to them.
The essentialist looks ahead, plans, and prepares for different contingencies. They expect the unexpected and create a buffer to prepare for the unforeseen. This gives them much-needed wiggle room when things come up. The way of the essentialist is to use the good times to create a buffer for the bad times.
There are a few tips to keep your work and sanity in check by creating a buffer:
- Use extreme preparation
- Add 50% to your time estimate
- Conduct scenario planning
The planning fallacy comes up a lot in our lives. We underestimate how long a task will take even when we’ve done the task before. We often know we can’t do things in a given time frame, but don’t want to admit it to anyone.
Essentialists accept the reality that we can never fully anticipate or prepare for every scenario or eventuality, as the future is too unpredictable. They build in buffers to reduce the friction caused by the unexpected.
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.
This subtraction can’t be done in a haphazard way. If you want to improve the overall functioning of a system, you need to identify the limiting factor.
Essentialists don’t default to Band-Aid solutions. They look for the obstacles that slow down progress rather than those that are most obvious or immediate. They constantly ask: “What is getting in the way of achieving the essential?”
An essentialist produces more by removing more rather than doing more. Instead of focusing on the efforts and resources we need to add, the essentialist focuses on the constraints or obstacles we need to remove.
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.
Of all forms of human motivation, progress is the most effective one. A small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms faith in our further success.
There are two primary internal motivators for people: achievement and recognition for achievement. We’re faced with a choice: we can either use our energy to set up a system that makes execution of goodness easy or we can resign ourselves to a system that makes it harder to do what’s good.
To create successful systems that make execution simple, we need to start small, encourage progress, and celebrate small wins. We can adopt a method of “minimum viable progress.” We do this by asking ourselves what the smallest amount of progress is that’ll be useful and valuable to the essential task we’re trying to finish.
There are 2 ways to approach an important goal or deadline:
- Start early and small: Starting at the earliest possible moment with the minimal possible time investment
- Start late and big: Doing everything at the last minute and somehow making it happen
By starting small and rewarding progress, we end up achieving more than when we set lofty and often impossible goals. The act of positively reinforcing our successes allows us to reap more enjoyment and satisfaction out of the process.
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 is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles. Without a routine, the pull of non-essential distractions overpowers us.
If we create a routine that integrates the essentials, we can begin to execute them on autopilot. Pursuing the essential will happen without having to think about it.
We must invest a little bit of energy up front to create the routine and then we simply follow it. Our ability to execute the essential improves with practice. The right routines can enhance innovation and creativity by giving us the equivalent of an energy rebate.
Embedding our decisions into our routine allows us to channel our discipline towards some other essential activity. Highly creative people use strict routines to free up their minds. Most creatives find out their best rhythms for sleeping, eating, and working and abide by them even when it’s tempting to do otherwise. These creatives wear comfortable clothes, only interact with people they find likable, and only do things they think are important.
Personalizing patterns of action helps to free the mind from expectations that make demands on attention and allows intense concentration on matters that count.
Nearly 40% of our choices are deeply unconscious. Because of this, we have an opportunity to develop new abilities that eventually become instinctive.
There are 3 components of a habit:
- Cue: trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use
- 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.
The ancient Greeks had 2 words for time:
- Chronos (quantitative): connotes a literal ticking clock and the chronological time we measure
- Kairos (qualitative): refers to the time that is opportune, right, and different
The way of the essentialist is to be present and experience life in the Kairos, not just the Chronos. The essentialist focuses on things that are truly important right now. Essentialists live their whole lives in the moment. Because they do so, they can apply their full energy to the job at hand.
Essentialists don’t diffuse their efforts with distractions. They know that execution is easy if you work hard at it and hard if you work easy at it. We can’t concentrate on two things at the same time.
To be in the now, we must:
- Figure out what’s important right now
- Get the future out of our head
Training yourself to tune into Kairos will enable you to achieve a higher level of contribution and make you happier.
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.
There are 2 ways to think about essentialism:
- Something you do occasionally: essentialism becomes one more thing you add to your overstuffed life
- Something you are: essentialism is a different, simpler way of doing everything and becomes a lifestyle and all-encompassing approach to living and leading
By thinking about essentialism in the latter way, it can become the essence of who you are.
Essentialism has deep roots in many spiritual and religious traditions. The philosophy of “less but better” is reflected in the lives of many notable and diverse figures throughout history. These figures include: the Dalai Lama, Steve Jobs, Leo Tolstoy, Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett, Mother Teresa, and Henry David Thoreau. Essentialists can be found among the most successful people in every type of endeavor. These high achievers have deliberately chosen to fully embrace the way of the essentialist.
Regardless of what job, field, or industry we’re in, we can all choose to do the same. People with essentialism at their core get far more from their investment than those who absorb it only at the surface level. The benefits become cumulative, as every choice we make to pursue the essential and eliminate the non-essential builds on itself. That choice becomes more and more habitual until it becomes second nature.
It’s easy to get caught up in the paradox of success, but the essentialist avoids this trap. The way of the essentialist isn’t just about success, it’s also about living a life of meaning and purpose. If you fully embrace essentialism and really live it in everything you do at home or at work, it can become a part of the way you see and understand the world. You can change your thinking so deeply that the essentialist practices become natural and instinctive.
As these ideas become emotionally true, they take on power to change you. Once you become an essentialist, you’ll find that you aren’t like everybody else. While others’ lives are stressed and chaotic, yours will be full of impact and fulfillment.
In many ways, to live as an essentialist in our society is an act of quiet revolution. It’s not always easy and the transition doesn’t happen overnight. Over time, it gets easier and easier.
Focusing on the essentials is your choice. Becoming an essentialist is a long process, but the benefits are endless.
The disciplined pursuit of less can change your life for the better by giving you more clarity, control, and joy in the journey. The life of the essentialist is a life of meaning and a life that really matters. Whenever you’re faced with a decision or challenge in your life, ask yourself “What is essential?” and eliminate everything else.
- 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.