Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
BY Greg McKeown
Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless
“[Essentialism] is a timely, essential read for anyone who feels overcommitted, overloaded, or overworked.”
Are you trying to block out the noise and live your life with the absolute necessities?
If so, you aren’t the only one. Essentialism has become the new minimalism, and more people are picking it up.
With the rise of social media and the build-up of toxic productivity culture (or hustle porn), we’re looking for an escape. Luckily, Essentialism by Greg McKeown gives us that escape. Essentialism is a systematic, disciplined method for identifying our greatest areas of contribution and for making those activities nearly effortless.
In his book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown crosses philosophical theory with education theory to discuss how practicing essentialism can transform our lives.
Join us to learn more about the book and whether you agree or disagree with its key insights.
“Entrepreneurs succeed when they say ‘yes’ to the right project, at the right time, in the right way. To accomplish this, they have to be good at saying ‘no’ to all their other ideas. Essentialism offers concise and eloquent advice on how to determine what you care about most, and how to apply your energies in ways that ultimately bring you the greatest rewards.”
About Greg McKeown
Greg McKeown is a writer, public speaker, and leadership and business strategist born in London. He graduated with an MBA degree from Stanford University after completing his undergraduate studies in communications and journalism at Brigham Young University.
Through his work with businesses around the world, McKeown focuses on essentialism. He helps companies eliminate extra noise by focusing only on what matters.
Famous for his minimalistic strategy, McKeown’s fame skyrocketed as a public figure when he started speaking on essentialist living and how it helped him professionally and personally.
With his professional experience and knowledge, McKeown has earned several honors. Most notably, the World Economic Forum inducted him into the Forum of Young Global Leaders in 2012.
Top 20 Insights:
1. Choose: We can’t always control the options presented to us, but we can always control the choices we make and how we spend our time and energy. Remove the words “I have to” which puts you in a reactive, helpless position. Use the words “I choose to”—remember that you can always choose how to respond to your circumstances.
2. Discern: We’re surrounded by noise that confuses and distracts us. Stop thinking that everything is important. Learn to filter out the few vital things that are truly valuable from the mass of trivialities.
3. Trade-offs are a fact of life. You can do anything but not everything. Stop thinking “How can I do it all?”. Instead, choose the problem you’d focus on, and ask “What trade-offs will I make?” and “How can I go really big on this?” See trade-offs not as losses but as opportunities to find the highest-impact options
4. Essentialists create the time and space to explore options so they get clear on their goals and can identify the activities/efforts that’ll create the biggest contribution.
5. Non-Essentialists spend their time/effort trying to force their way through execution, while Essentialists invest time/effort to figure out how to do things in the least effortful way.
6. Fundamentally, Essentialism isn’t something that you do, but something that you become. It’s about thinking, acting and living in a way that allows you to have the greatest possible contribution and fulfilment, so you live a meaningful life without regret
7. Being busy is a terrible measure of importance. What’s important is identifying the vital few things that matter in your life and pursuing those things relentlessly.
8. Life is very short, and while many of us know this, how often do we bring this reality into our daily thoughts and decision making? How much more common is it to get lost in the daily minutia and forget to see that we’re wasting our limited time on trivial things that won’t matter a month from now, let alone 5 years from now. Instead, the essentialist consciously recognizes the brevity of life and uses it as a source of courage to do the things that matter.
9. The first skill of determining what matters and consciously designing a fulfilling life is to recognize your power to choose your response to any situation or problem you face.
10. If you are like most people, you won’t recognize the immense importance of trade-offs in your life. If someone asks you for a 20 minute favor, it’s easier to say yes to that favor than to have the courage to say no because that favor will prevent you from completing the project that fulfills you most.
11. Play is indispensable to feeling recharged, creative, and engaged. Yet how many adults prioritize regular play in their lives? Very few. Just because you’re no longer a kid doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t leave room for play in your life. Be silly. Do improv. Let loose. If you incorporate more play in your life, you will experience a number of life-enhancing cognitive improvements.
12. As a high-achiever, it’s easy to think that sacrificing a little sleep will enable you to be more productive. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
13. Quality questions create a quality life. If you’re confused about what you should prioritize for the day, month, or year, ask yourself, “What will I say no to?” Doing so will help you identify the few important things that will make a difference.
14. If I ask you what your priorities are, they should be simple and clear enough that you can easily articulate them on the spot. If they are just “pretty clear,” you will undoubtedly be confused about how to allocate your time, and you will end up the easier, but less important tasks.
15. Clarity is essential in the workplace. If people aren’t clear on their goals, they will experience de-motivating stress, confusion, and frustration. But when people are clear on what needs to be done, they will thrive.
16. In your life, identify and make the decisions that will eliminate a thousand future decisions. For example, if you decide that you will never lie, you have eliminated all of the muddy future situations in your life where it might be more comfortable to tell a small lie than to be honest.
17. One core skill of being an essentialist is learning to say no to things that do not allow you to operate at your highest point of contribution.
18. If your boss asks you to take on a new project, don’t just immediately say yes. If you have a full plate already, stop and use the above phrasing to make it clear that you’re happy to re-prioritize your time, but that re-prioritization will mean that something else on your list won’t get done.
19. Progress is intensely motivating. When we see progress, we experience the power of momentum and re-affirm our belief in our ability to be successful at the task at hand. So if you’re working on a big project, start with an action that will allow you to feel the motivational impact of progress.
20. Routines save our finite mental energy. They allow us to focus our energy on what is essential and eliminate what is non-essential.
Lesson #1: Design a Place to Escape
First and foremost, you need a place to escape. Whatever place we choose will be our safe space.
These days, finding a space that’s your own is challenging. You’ll have to design it purposefully to make it happen.
As you’re choosing your space, you should be picky. Your area needs to be good enough to help you focus while completing your daily tasks.
Not just any space will do.
To focus correctly, we require a space that will support us. If you can’t concentrate in a busy room, don’t pick a busy room. If you need color on the walls, make it happen.
Having the right room for you will improve creativity while boosting productivity. With that in mind, it may take a while to build the space you want to use for your personal and professional projects.
The space that you decide on could be your home, the local coffee shop, your office, or somewhere else. There are no rules for what it has to look like or what it needs to be.
It’s your job to design your private room how you want to.
All you need to do is make sure you can think freely in the space. The room you choose should allow you to achieve your dreams without cluttering reality.
Finding your get-away room may be the first step to achieving what you want in life. Start thinking about what kind of vibe would motivate you.
Lesson #2: Essentialists Have More Options Than Non-Essentialists
McKeown battles the widespread belief that essentialism leads to fewer options in life. He argues the opposite.
Non-essentialists get excited by many things, leading them to react to everything in life. These individuals become distracted by their pursuit of anything and everything. However, they don’t have the opportunity to explore all of these things. As a result, they end up exploring less often than essentialists do.
Essentialists go all out for the things that light a fire within them. They don’t focus on things that they care little about.
So, essentialists have more time to explore the things they’re in love with.
To make time for exploration, you must use the private room you’ve created. McKeown points to geniuses like Newton who quarantined inside his home for a year during the Great Plague. During this time, he formulated gravitational theory and became a famous mathematician.
We may need time and space to make some of our most significant discoveries. Spending time in this space may be the only way that we can unleash our creative minds.
As we venture deeper into essentialism, we need to spend time in our private rooms focusing on what we care about most.
Why would we spend our Saturday learning about something we only care 10% about? McKeown challenges us to follow the 90% rule. We should only put our energy towards things we care for at least 90%.
Only then can we become masters in what we want to know about.
Lesson #3: If It Isn’t a Clear Yes, Then It’s a Clear No
McKeown picks apart our decision-making processes. Like the rest of us, he knows how indecisive we can be.
Often, we fall somewhere between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ on decisions we need to make. We want to avoid saying “yes” but we don’t want to rule it out either for fear of missing out altogether.
We should stop this back and forth. We should decide whether to say “yes” or “no”, unequivocally.
We can’t keep deciding on things half-heartedly. We’re either in or out. There’s no in-between with essentialism.
If you aren’t saying ‘yes,’ you’re saying ‘no’. It’s that simple.
We should also reconstruct the way we approach our decisions. Others may tempt us to say “yes” to everything if we have to decide on one answer.
Ask yourself these questions:
· What am I deeply passionate about?
· What taps into my talent?
· What meets a significant need in the world?
Applying more rigid criteria to our decision-making process will make it more likely for us to pick higher-level choices. If we challenge how we think about a question, we’re more likely to get a straight answer.
If someone asks you to do something you’re not interested in, your answer should be “no.” If someone asks you to do something that doesn’t fit your talents, the answer should be “no”.
Looking at things through a binary lens can help you decide faster. It also frees up time for things that matter to you.
Lesson #4: Define Your Purpose in Life
Our life purpose seems to be the main plot for every self-help book out there. But that’s because it’s the most important thing you can do to help yourself discover who you are.
Find your life purpose, so you can work on that one thing. If you know that there’s one thing for you to do, why would you work on anything but that one thing for the rest of your life?
Many people find it helpful to create a mission statement for their lives. It may take a while to make, but this mission statement can help guide your decisions.
For example, your mission statement may be to help people live their lives to the max. With this mission in mind, you can decide what is and isn’t worth your time.
If you’re following this mission statement and someone wants you to help them start a soda company, you may find that this doesn’t align with your goals. So, you’d say no to the opportunity and keep moving until the right opportunity comes along.
As you’re practicing decision-making this way, you may find that you’re saying ‘no’ more often than ‘yes’, but that’s the point. You want to minimize the number of things you’re focusing on, so you can give more energy to a smaller list of things.
Putting ten items on your plate instead of forty can make a big difference. You’ll be able to give more of yourself to the things that matter.
Lesson #5: Become A CEO of Your Life
McKeown asks you to become a CEO, but he isn’t talking about heading your own business (unless that’s your end goal in life). Quoting Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter, he asks us to become Chief Editing Officers in our own lives.
Chief Editing Officers are constantly assessing situations, cutting out unnecessary junk, and focusing on things that make sense.
“Only a few things really matter. I can do anything but not everything.”
That’s what you have to do in your life.
While discussing Chief Editing Officers, McKeown’s business background comes out. Quoting Jack Dorsey, the founder and former CEO of Twitter, he says that the primary job of a CEO in business is to be a Chief Editing Officer.
First, CEOs must consider trade-offs and what each would mean for an organization. We must think about potential exchanges and how they would better or worsen our lives.
Often, we ignore these trade-offs. We don’t think about how making other decisions may positively affect our lives.
Imagine if a business did this. Ignoring trade-offs could be detrimental and perhaps deadly for any business.
“Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?” The cumulative impact of this small change in thinking can be profound.”
As essentialists, we have to consider trade-offs constantly. We’re aiming to maximize our lives using our interests. So, we have to consider what we want to give up to accommodate those interests in our lives.
Second, we must be ready to pivot our direction as new obstacles present themselves. If we’re planning to meet Goal A, we might have four smaller goals to accompany it.
But what happens if one of those goals falls through? In the proper CEO way, we need to remove or revise it and then keep moving.
This life editing is a natural part of essentialism. We must get used to cutting, revising, and correcting throughout our lives.
Lesson #6: Get Enough Sleep
Getting enough sleep may seem out of the blue, but McKeown drives this point home more than once. Sleep is essential to essentialism.
Sleep is the dividing factor between talented people who do and don’t get the work done. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, you are unlikely to be as productive as you want to be.
Whether we get all of our sleep at night or break up our rest into two long naps, we need to get enough deep sleep to help us drive ourselves through the day.
Getting enough sleep isn’t just about getting 7-9 hours a night. We need to get quality sleep for those hours to count.
Sleeping 10 hours in one night will do nothing if only one of them is a quality hour of sleep.
To track your sleep quality, consider investing in a smartwatch. Smartwatches can track your sleep cycles and help you determine how to improve your sleep quality. These watches and their accompanying sleep apps can look at your heart rate drop, deep sleep, total sleep, restlessness, and more.
Having this data can help us determine how to enhance our sleep in the future.
You may need to sleep earlier, sleep in later, try a nightly routine, or keep your phones away from your beds.
The next time you think about your daily routines, add enough sleep to your schedule.
Lesson #7: Make a Daily Routine
Essentialism is about everyday progress. It’s the small steps that lead toward significant differences. We have to be patient enough to wait for the improvement to happen.
The only thing that matters is that you’re making forward progress towards the things you want to do. No one said that we have to finish our entire to-do list today.
Essentialists design daily routines that yield more significant results in a shorter time. They still work as hard as others, but deliver better results. Between their motivation and time management, essentialists can do more than non-essentialists.
“To discern what is truly essential we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make.”
As you’re creating your daily routine, you may run into a problem here or there. If this happens, it’s time to pivot. When we run into roadblocks, it’s a sign that something isn’t working. These obstacles may mean we need to shift our focus to something else or change how we view the problem.
If you’re scheduling your work time in the morning, and you’re too tired to get anything done, you may need to reschedule for the evening. Or, you may need to evaluate your sleep patterns.
If you’re scheduling family time in the morning but aren’t available because you’re so tired from the night before, shift your time to give yourself positive time for both things.
For most people, daily routines shift with the day of the week, the season of the year, or the time of life they’re in.
It’s likely that we’re going to have to make these shifts, too. That’s okay.
Living as essentialists gives us the flexibility we need to make these changes. As long as we’re focusing on the things that light our fire, we’re doing right by ourselves.
That said, make changes as you need to make them. Don’t waste time on things that don’t fit your lifestyle.
Lesson #8: Use a Zero-Based Ownership and Budgeting Model
The Zero-Based Ownership and Budgeting Model is an essentialist way to look at how we do things. It’s another way McKeown brings his business experience into Essentialism.
Think about things that you might not have done. Ask yourself these questions:
· If you didn’t already own an item, would you still buy it?
· If you didn’t already invest money and energy into a project, would you continue supporting it?
· If you didn’t already spend time on a relationship, would you restart that relationship today?
This zero-based approach can help us determine whether we’re spending our time, money, and effort on the right things.
Look around your house. If you didn’t spend money on certain items, would you still have them?
Look around at your life. If you didn’t spend time with certain people, would you still keep in touch with them?
Look around at your job. If you didn’t spend energy on a project, would you still continue working on it?
“The killer question: “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?”
It may be tough to remove our emotional involvement from items, relationships, and projects, but it’s important. It can help us clean up our lives and focus on what matters most.
We shouldn’t keep diverting attention to where our focus isn’t meant to be. If we fill our lives with these unnecessary things, we’re cluttering our minds and souls.
Moving forward, we have to consume intentionally and analyze our lives with clarity. The Zero-Based Ownership and Budgeting Model empowers us to look deeper into our lives and keep only what’s meant to be there.
Lesson #9: Set Clear Boundaries
To practice essentialism, we need clear boundaries. How are we going to remove things from our lives if we aren’t willing to set boundaries around our wants?
It’s critical to note that setting these boundaries does not make us egoists or individualists. Rather, they make us respectable and help us regain power over our own lives.
Unfortunately, saying ‘no’ is a weak spot for many of us. Prior generations have taught us to do what’s expected and to let no one down.
While it’s great to help people out, it’s not so great if that detracts from our lives.
Setting boundaries is a fairly new thing for our generation. So, it’s not surprising that you may not understand how to do so.
Setting clear boundaries is the only way to liberate yourself from things that don’t fulfill your life.
If there’s someone who always expects you to be available for them, it’s time to put an end to it. You deserve more than being bossed around by someone else.
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
Set clear boundaries ahead of such situations. If you know what your boundaries are ahead of time, you can choose your answer ahead of the request.
For example, let’s say that one of your boundaries is that you don’t work outside the hours of 8 AM to 5 PM Monday through Friday. If someone asks you to commit to a work activity on the weekend, your answer is no.
The more you enforce these boundaries, the more confident you’ll feel in standing up for the things you care about.
Lesson #10: Do Fewer Things Better
The number one lesson that we should learn after reading Essentialism is that we need to do fewer things better. This means that we should focus on a select number of things rather than trying to do everything at once.
“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”
Think about your professional life. How many projects are you trying to take on at once? How many people depend on you to get these projects done, and how are you committing 100% to each of these projects?
If you’re taking on too much, it’s likely that you’re unable to give enough of yourself to anything.
“Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.”
You’re likely making things up as you go along, hoping that everything will figure itself out.
Now, think about your personal life. How many obligations do you have with your family and friends? What events are you planning to go to, and what things do you need to get done before those events?
Between your professional life and your personal life, it’s likely that you’re stretching yourself too thin.
We simply can’t do and be everything to everyone.
That’s where essentialism comes in. This mindset and lifestyle give us a way to boil things down to what we want to focus on.
Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the 20 things that we’re trying to get done, we can live to the fullest by working on our five favorite things. These are the things that give us life and purpose.
“The reality is, saying yes to any opportunity by definition requires saying no to several others.”
You’ll also find that your outcomes become a lot better with an essentialist perspective. You’re able to get the more important things done at a higher quality.
Final Book Summary and Review of Essentialism
You now know all there is to know about the essentialism philosophy.
Essentialism by Greg McKeown describes a systematic discipline that can help us determine where we can contribute the most throughout our lives. By focusing on the things that we care about, we can make our lives more fulfilled and productive.
Since we care significantly more about the things we’re channeling our energy towards, we’re more likely to complete related tasks almost effortlessly.
If you’re looking to simplify your life and cut out all the extra noise, Essentialism is a must-read.