Book Summary: The how-to guide for focusing on what matters.

Book cover: Essentialism

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

by Greg McKeown

Essentialism isn’t about time management, goal setting, or other tactics and tricks. It’s about developing a strategic mindset focused on identifying what matters most, continuously navigating toward what’s essential, and pursuing the right activities to achieve what matters to you. It doesn’t challenge us to do more, but to think differently.

To live as an Essentialist, we need to let go of three deeply ingrained beliefs: “I have to,” “It’s all important,” and “I can do both.” And replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things matter,” and “I can do anything, but not everything.”

This is the basic value proposition of Essentialism: only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.

By making us more selective about what’s essential, the disciplined pursuit of less gives us back control over where we invest our time and energy, and we stop letting other people or circumstances decide for us.

This book is for anyone who, more often than they’d like, feels stretched too thin, overworked, and underutilized at the same time, feels busy but unproductive, and feels other people’s agendas constantly hijack their time.

There are four parts to the book. The first introduces Essentialism and describes the core mindset of an Essentialist. The next part outlines how to identify the vital few amid the trivial many. How to cut out the trivial many is the third part. The last part addresses implementation—how to make doing the vital few nearly effortless.

In the author’s words: 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. [It] 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.

This summary reflects my takeaways from a useful book I recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy from your favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links:  eBook | Audiobook | Print

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes should be attributed to the book’s author.


The Essentialist Mindset

Three realities underpin the Essentialist mindset:

  • Individual choice: We have a choice in how we use our time and energy.
  • The prevalence of noise: Very few things in the world provide exceptional value; most things are just noise. So it’s worth investing time in figuring out what matters most.
  • The reality of tradeoffs: When we accept we can’t do it all or have it all and tradeoffs are a fact of life, we stop asking ourselves, “How can I make it all work?” Instead, we ask more empowering questions, such as, “Which problem do I want to solve?”

Essentialism is about keeping these realities in the forefront as we confront the causes of non-essentialism, which are everywhere:

  • Too many choices. There’s been exponential growth in the number of choices available to us. It is easy to lose sight of what’s most important amid it all.
  • Too much social pressure. Besides having more options, we also have many more external influences on our choices.
  • That “you can have it all, do it all.” This myth isn’t new. But we confront so many new choices and expectations in today’s world that it’s become particularly damaging. It leads overstressed people to try to fit too many activities into their already overburdened schedules.

Successful people are prone—maybe especially so—to the pressures of nonessentialism because of the “paradox of success”:

  1. Success comes from having clarity of purpose.
  2. Success brings more options, and opportunities — our time and energy are in demand.
  3. Facing more options, opportunities, and demands diffuses our efforts.
  4. We become distracted as we spread ourselves thinner. This undermines what made us successful in the first place — clarity of purpose.

Steps To Becoming an Essentialist

Step 1. Explore: discern the vital few amid the trivial many. Essentialists systematically explore and evaluate a broad set of options before committing to one. To conduct a more thorough search, they ask questions such as:

  • What deeply inspires me?
  • What do I excel at?
  • What fills a significant need in the world?

Step 2. Eliminate: cut out the trivial many. Saying “no” may be the key to making our most significant contribution. Many of us say “yes” because we want to please. But as Peter Drucker said, “People are effective because they say ‘no,’ because they say, ‘this isn’t for me.’”

  • Saying “no” sometimes goes against expectations, which takes courage and some compassion. It takes both mental and emotional discipline to say “no.”
  • Since we can’t do everything, the question is, who will decide what we do or don’t do? If we give up the right to choose, someone else will decide for us, possibly setting us on a course we don’t want to go.

Step 3. Execute: remove obstacles and make execution effortless. The execution process is often seen as difficult and something we must force. Instead of forcing execution, the Essentialist uses the time saved to create a system for removing obstacles and making execution as simple as possible.

These three elements—exploreeliminateexecute—are a cyclical process. Our highest contribution level is the right thing the right way at the right time.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

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? What if the whole world shifted from the undisciplined pursuit of more to the disciplined pursuit of less… only better?

The Power of Choice

Becoming an Essentialist means becoming more aware of our ability to choose. When we lose sight of this, we become a function of other people’s choices or our past choices. Someone or something will take over when we surrender our right to choose.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

Discern the Vital Few

Essentialists discern more in order to do less. A few are exceptionally valuable in the wealth of options available to us. Essentialists explore their options. They know it’s worth investing in exploration because finding the vital few can have an exponential payoff.

Many capable people are kept from getting to the next level of contribution because they can’t let go of the belief that everything is important.

The Reality of Tradeoffs—Which Problem Do I Want?

An Essentialist views tradeoffs as inevitable and not something negative. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” the Essentialist asks the tougher but ultimately liberating question, “Which problem do I want?”

Make Space to Escape

We need space to escape, design, create, read, focus, and think. Space to discern the vital few from the trivial many.  

Whether you can invest two hours a day, two weeks a year, or even just five minutes every morning, it is important to make space to escape in your busy life.

Practice the Skills of a Journalist

Seeing yourself as a journalist covering your own life enables you to look beyond the minor details and see the big picture. Keeping a journal is one of the easiest yet most powerful ways to become a journalist of your own life. Journalists and Essentialists:

  • Look for the point and the meaning. To identify what’s important, look for the “lead”—the story’s why, what, when, and who. Identify the point and why it matters.
  • Exercise discipline to scan and filter the competing and conflicting facts, options, and opinions constantly jostling for our attention.
  • Develop observation and listening skills. Read between the lines and listen for what’s not being said.
  • Connect the dots. By listening and asking questions, they distinguish the vital few from the trivial many, whether facts in the journalist’s story or opportunities facing the Essentialist.

[Journaling can help you notice the] small, incremental changes [that] are hard to see in the moment but can have a huge cumulative effect over time.

Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child

Play fuels exploration. It broadens the range of options available to us. It’s an antidote to stress. It stimulates the parts of the brain involved in both logical reasoning and carefree exploration.

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

Sleep Protects the Asset

Essentialists know that an extra hour of sleep results in several more hours of increased productivity. Adequate and quality sleep enables creativity and leads to the highest mental performance levels.

Sleep was the second-highest performance factor in the famous “10,000 hours” study. The top performers in that study not only practiced longer, but they also slept longer than their peers and slept more than the average American. “Sleep… allowed these top performers to regenerate so they could practice with greater concentration. They also got more out of those hours of practice because they were better rested.”

Being sleep deprived interferes with our ability to prioritize. It hinders our ability to identify the vital few among the trivial many. The more sleep you get, the more you’ll be able to explore, make connections, and accomplish less but better.

Tap the Power of Extreme Criteria

Essentialists only say “yes” to the best 10% of opportunities using specific, narrow criteria. Applying strict selection criteria can be a simple, systematic process:

  1. Identify the opportunity and write it down.
  2. List three “minimum criteria” that an option must meet to be considered.
  3. List three ideal or “extreme criteria” for an option to be further considered.

A “yes” opportunity must meet all of your minimum and at least two of your three extreme criteria.

Applying numerical values to our options leads to fewer impulsive or emotional decisions. It takes discipline to apply strict criteria. But, without it, we will suffer a high price.

If it’s not a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.

Make One Decision That Settles a Thousand

An essential intent is one decision that settles a thousand later decisions. It’s a strategic choice that maps a course for the next five, ten, or even twenty years. This significant decision makes all subsequent decisions come into better focus.

An essential intent should inspire as well as be concrete. It should answer: “If we could achieve excellence in only one thing, what would it be?” And “How will we measure our success?”

Living with intent is worth the effort because only with real clarity of purpose can people, teams, and organizations fully mobilize and achieve something truly excellent.

The Power of a Graceful “No”

A clear picture of what’s essential helps shield us from the nonessentials. The process of elimination is not possible without courage. Sometimes it’s necessary to say “no.”

Consider the tradeoffs. If we don’t know what we’re giving up, it’s easier to convince ourselves that we can get it all done. We can’t.

When we learn to say no firmly, resolutely, yet graciously, we find people respect us more. Essentialists understand it is impossible to be popular with everyone all the time, and respect is far more valuable in the long run than popularity.

You can say “no” gracefully without using the word no. However, sometimes a blunt “no” works best.

A firm “no” can be more polite than a vague or tentative “yes.” Being vague is not the same as being polite; delaying saying “no” will only worsen things.

Uncommit and Cut Your Losses

Learn to uncommit. Sometimes success eludes us, and other times we find ourselves embroiled in things that aren’t essential. Uncommitting is the way out. It can be more difficult than simply not committing at all. But learning how to uncommit an essential discipline to free up time and resources for the vital few.

Beware of the commitment traps:

  • Sunk-cost bias occurs when we continue to invest time, money, or energy in something we know is a losing proposition because we have already incurred a cost that we can’t recover. Ask, “If I pulled the plug now, what else would I be able to accomplish with this time and money?”
  • Endowment effect is our tendency to overvalue things we own and undervalue things we don’t. Ask, “What would I pay to obtain this item if I didn’t own it?” “What would I do to get this opportunity if I didn’t have it already?”

Admitting to a mistake, we are only admitting that we are now wiser than we once were.

Be the Editor of Your Life

A good editor improves things — a story, idea, or message — by eliminating things that are confusing or in the way. Editing involves:

  • Cutting. Getting rid of irrelevant things eliminates the nonessentials. Sometimes that may mean eliminating some good or even excellent choices.
  • Condensing. Replacing many meaningless activities with one exceptional one.
  • Correcting. Having a clear overarching essential intent allows us to monitor our actions and compare them to our true intentions. And make adjustments if they don’t correspond.

Editing is a natural part of the daily routine for an Essentialist.

A good editor uses deliberate subtraction to add life to the ideas, setting, plot, and characters.

Boundaries Set Us Free

Boundaries give us freedom. Unless we set clear boundaries in our lives, we can end up imprisoned by the limits others set for us.

Boundaries empower essentialists. Boundaries protect their time and often relieve them of the burden of saying “no” to others.

Create social contracts with teammates. Working as a team, clarifying expectations and boundaries up front will prevent many downstream interruptions, misdirected requests, or other distractions.

Don’t rob people of the opportunity to solve their own problems. Allowing someone else to make their problem our problem does not help them. By taking on their problem, we rob them of the ability to solve it.

Identify your deal breakers with other people. This can be as simple as writing down every time you feel violated or put out by someone’s request. It doesn’t have to be severe.

Essentialists set rules in advance that eliminate the need for a direct “no.”

Include Buffers in Your Plans

Essentialists know the future is too unpredictable for us to anticipate and prepare for everything. So they plan for unexpected events by building in buffers, practicing extreme preparation, adding time to their estimates to cover the “planning fallacy,” and practicing scenario planning to anticipate challenges and reduce risk.

Produce More by Removing Obstacles

Essentialists recognize the payoff of focusing on the constraints or obstacles that must be removed. Before starting a project, instead of focusing on the efforts and resources that must be added, consider the constraints that might slow it down. Prioritize by asking yourself, “What obstacle, if removed, would eliminate most of the other obstacles?”

An Essentialist produces more—brings forth more—by removing more instead of doing more.

The Power of Small Wins

Making progress is the most effective form of human motivation. Even a small concrete win builds momentum and reinforces our belief in our future success. Essentialists go for small, simple wins and celebrate progress. Positively reinforcing our successes allows us to enjoy the process more.

Take a goal or deadline you have coming up and ask yourself, “What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?”

The Power of Routines

Essentialists create routines that allow them to complete their top priorities almost automatically. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on creativity, creative people find out early on what is the best rhythm for sleep, eating, and working for them, and adhere to them even when temptations abound.

The importance of curating our habits. 40% of our choices are deeply unconscious, posing a danger and opportunity. With that awareness, we can start building habits for what’s essential.

The Power of Focus

Essentialists tune into the present. The ancient Greeks had two words for time: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is chronological time, while Kairos refers to an opportune, right, or critical moment. The Essentialist is in the moment by focusing on what is important now rather than yesterday or tomorrow. They live in Kairos, not just Chronos.

We can multitask, but we can’t multi-focus. Being present isn’t about doing only one thing at a time. It’s concentrating on one thing at a time. We can’t focus on two things at once.

Tune into Kairos to boost your contribution and happiness. Look for your Kairos moments throughout the day. Journal them. Consider what caused and ended that moment and how you can recreate it.

Mindfulness helps you go home to the present.

— Thich Nhat Hanh

The Essentialist Life

Living essentially. Essentialism can be seen as something you do (sporadically) or something you are at your core (how approach, and live life). People who embrace Essentialism at their core get far more from their investment. This process of heart transformation was referred to as Metanoia by the ancient Greeks.

To be an Essentialist is to be a quiet revolutionary in our overburdened society. Whenever you find yourself at a crossroads or a decision point, ask yourself, “What is essential?” Eliminate everything else.

[T]he way of the Essentialist isn’t just about success; it’s about living a life of meaning and purpose. When we look back on our careers and our lives, would we rather see a long laundry list of “accomplishments” that don’t really matter or just a few major accomplishments that have real meaning and significance?

Book details and where to buy it:

Get the book on Amazon: eBook | Audiobook | Print (affiliate links*)
Amazon rating: 4.6
Goodreads rating: 4.0
Page count: 290
Publication date: April 15, 2014
Author website:

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