Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

Reading Time: 7 minutes


A compelling philosophy about living consciously, focusing on the essential few things that fulfill you, and designing your life to achieve your highest point of contribution. McKeown highlights the danger in failing to recognize tradeoffs, the necessity of learning to say no, and the importance of play and sleep.

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Key Takeaways

What is an essentialist?

“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.”

“Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking. But their exploration is not an end in itself. The purpose of the exploration is to discern the vital few from the trivial many.”

Essentialism is a practical philosophy that encourages us to consciously design a life in which we identify and pursue the vital few things that matter, eliminate the things that don’t matter, and create a reality that allows us to achieve our highest point of contribution. At its core, essentialism is about eliminating the noise in our lives so that we can spend our time and energy on the things that count.

Busyness is a terrible measure of success

“What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?”

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. But to get to this point of clarity, we need to give ourselves the time and space to listen, think, meditate, rest, and play. Once we have space, we can begin to find the signal in a world full of noise.

Reflect on the brevity of life

“To harness the courage we need to get on the right path, it pays to reflect on how short life really is and what we want to accomplish in the little time we have left.”

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.

Choose choice

“That is why the first and most crucial skill you will learn on this journey is to develop your ability to choose choice, in every area of your life.”

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. When you internalize your power to choose to respond with gratitude, instead of anger, and with patience, instead of frustration, you’re well on your way to living a better life.

The reality of tradeoffs

“A Nonessentialist approaches every trade-off by asking, “How can I do both?” Essentialists ask the tougher but ultimately more liberating question, “Which problem do I want?” An Essentialist makes trade-offs deliberately. She acts for herself rather than waiting to be acted upon.”

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.

To avoid this trap, you need to recognize that you can’t do everything that you want to do in life.

When you accept that time spent on x means less time spent on y, you realize that the best thing you can do is to choose x or y, instead of falsely believing that you can do both. In doing so, you will be able to successfully prioritize and execute on the most important tasks in your personal and professional life.

The importance of play

“Play expands our minds in ways that allow us to explore: to germinate new ideas or see old ideas in a new light. It makes us more inquisitive, more attuned to novelty, more engaged. Play is fundamental to living the way of the Essentialist.”

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.

Why sleep is non-negotiable

“So if “protecting the asset” is so important, why do we give up our precious sleep so easily? For overachievers part of the reason may be that they simply subscribe to the false belief, as I did, that if they sleep less they will achieve more. Yet there are ample reasons to challenge this assumption, like the growing body of research demonstrating that a good night’s sleep actually makes us more productive, not less.”

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. Sleep is indispensable towards your productivity and recovery, and if you want to be a high-achiever, you will not sacrifice sleep for a few extra minutes of the “grind.”

What will I say no to?

““What will I say no to?” This is the question that will uncover your true priorities. It is the question that will reveal the best path forward for your team.”

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.

Pretty clear is not clear enough

“Executives I work with often suggest their company purpose or strategy is “pretty clear,” as if to say that is sufficient. But anyone who wears glasses knows there is a big difference between pretty clear and really clear!”

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.

“When there is a serious lack of clarity about what the team stands for and what their goals and roles are, people experience confusion, stress, and frustration. When there is a high level of clarity, on the other hand, people thrive.“

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.

One decision to eliminate a thousand

“An essential intent, on the other hand, is both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable. Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions. It’s like deciding you’re going to become a doctor instead of a lawyer.”

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. Because you have decided on honesty at all times, you only have one thing to do: be honest.

Choose long-term respect over short-term popularity

“Essentialists accept they cannot be popular with everyone all of the time. Yes, saying no respectfully, reasonably, and gracefully can come at a short-term social cost. But part of living the way of the Essentialist is realizing respect is far more valuable than popularity in the long run.”

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. For example, if a friend asks you to go to dinner when you know that you need to hit your deadline for producing the first draft of your book, you will always gracefully say no and fulfill your commitment to the book.

Saying no may be uncomfortable and come at a short-term cost to your popularity, but in the long-run, you will gain respect for being a person who has clear priorities and stays true to his commitments.

A question to help with prioritization

“Yes, I’m happy to make this the priority. Which of these other projects should I deprioritize to pay attention to this new project?”

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. If you do this consistently, you’re less likely to end up in a situation where you have bitten off far more than you can chew.

Progress is the best form of motivation

“Research has shown that of all forms of human motivation the most effective one is progress. Why? Because a small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.”

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.

Leverage the power of routines

“To some, routine can sound like where creativity and innovation go to die—the ultimate exercise in boredom. We even use the word as a synonym for pallid and bland, as in “It has just become routine for me.” And routines can indeed become this—the wrong routines. But the right routines can actually enhance innovation and creativity by giving us the equivalent of an energy rebate. Instead of spending our limited supply of discipline on making the same decisions again and again, embedding our decisions into our routine allows us to channel that discipline toward some other essential activity.”

Routines save our finite mental energy. They allow us to focus our energy on what is essential and eliminate what is non-essential. To castigate routine as boring or restricting is to fail to recognize its power to help you do exactly what you want to do.

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