Book Summary: "Essentialism" by Greg McKeown

Summarized by

13 min read

essentialism by greg mckeown 0

The Essentialist

Only ones 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.

The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better. It doesn’t mean occasionally giving a nod to the principle. It means pursuing it in a disciplined way.

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

Success can distract us from focusing on the essential things that produce success in the first place.

Choose. The Invisible Power of Choice

We may not always have control over our options, we always have control over how we choose among them.

The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away — it can only be forgotten.

The Essentialist knows that when we surrender our right to choose, we give others not just the power but also the explicit permission to choose for us.

Discern. The Unimportance of Practically Everything

We live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.

Nonessentialist thinks almost everything is essential. Essentialist thinks almost everything is nonessential.

Nonessentialist views opportunities as basically equal. Essentialist distinguish the vital few from the trivial many.

Trade-off. Which Problem Do I Want?

Ignoring the reality of trade-offs is a terrible strategy for organizations. It turns out to be a terrible strategy for people as well.

We can try to avoid the reality of trade-offs, but we can’t escape them.

Nonessentialist thinks, “I can do both.” Essentialist asks, “What is the trade-off I want to make?”

Nonessentialist asks, “How can I do it all?”. Essentialist asks, “What can I go big on?”

Trade-offs are not something to be ignored or decried. They are something to be embraced and made deliberately, strategically, and thoughtfully.

Essentialist spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking. The purpose of the exploration is to discern the vital few from the trivial many.

Escape. The Perks of Being Unavailable

Nonessentialist is too busy doing to think about life. Essentialist creates space to escape and explore life.

In order to have focus we need to escape to focus.

By abolishing any chance of being bored we have also lost the time we used to have to think and process.

The faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule. And the noisier things get, the more we need to build quiet reflection spaces in which we can truly focus.

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.

Look. See What Really Matters

Nonessentialist pays attention to the loudest voice. Essentialist pays attention to the signal in the noise.

Nonessentialist hears everything being said. Essentialist hears what is not being said.

Nonessentialist is overwhelmed by all the information. Essentialist scans to find the essence of the information.

One of the most obvious and yet powerful ways to become a journalist of our own lives is simply to keep a journal.

Play. Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child

Nonessentialist thinks play is trivial. Essentialist knows play is essential.

Nonessentialist thinks play is an unproductive waste of time. Essentialist knows play sparks exploration.

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 because it fuels exploration in at least three specific ways.

  1. Play broadens the range of options available to us.
  2. Play is an antidote to stress, and this is key because stress, in addition to being an enemy of productivity, can actually shut down the creative, inquisitive, exploratory parts of our brain.
  3. Play has a positive effect on the executive function of the brain.

Play doesn’t just help us to explore what is 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. If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that, I mean our minds, our bodies, and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution.

The way of the Nonessentialist is to see sleep as yet another burden on one’s already overextended, overcommitted, busy-but-not-always-productive life. Essentialist instead see sleep as necessary of operating at high levels of contribution more of the time.

Nonessentialist think one hour less of sleep equals one more hour of productivity. Essentialist knows one hour more of sleep equals sever more hours of much higher productivity.

Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize.

Select. The Power of Extreme Criteria

90 Percent Rule. As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it.

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.

Nonessentialist says yes to almost every request or opportunity. Essentialist says yes to only the top 10 percent of opportunities.

Nonessentialist uses broad, implicit criteria like “ if someone I know is doing it, I should do it.” Essentialist uses narrow, explicit criteria like “Is this exactly what I am looking for?”

Making our criteria both selective and explicit affords us a systematic tool for discerning what is essential and filtering out the things that are not.

If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.

Clarify. One Decision That Makes a Thousand

When there is a lack of clarity, people waste time and energy on the trivial many. When they have sufficient levels of clarity, they are capable of greater breakthroughs and innovations — greater that people even realize they ought to have — in those areas that are truly vital.

An essential intent is both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable. Done right, and essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions. Once the big decision is made, all subsequent decisions come into better focus.

A true essential intent is one that guides your greater sense of purpose, and helps you chart your life’s path.

Dare. The Power of a Graceful “No”

Without courage, the disciplined pursuit of less is just lip service. Anyone cant talk about the importance of focusing on the things that matter most — and many people do — but to see people who dare to live it is rare.

When we have strong internal clarity it is almost as if we have a force field protecting us from the nonessentials coming at us from all directions.

People respect and admire those with the courage of conviction to say no.

The point is to say no to the nonessentials so we can say yes to the things that really matter. It is to say no — frequently and gracefully — to everything but what is truly vital.

Everyone is selling something — an idea, a viewpoint, an option — in exchange for your time. Simply being aware of what is being sold allows us to be more deliberate in deciding whether we want to buy it.

When we push back effectively, it shows people that our time is highly valuable. It distinguishes the professional from the amateur.

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.

Uncommit. Win Big by Cutting Your Losses

Sunk-cost bias is the tendency to continue to invest time, money, or energy into something we know is losing proposition simply because we have already incurred, or sunk, a cost that cannot be recouped.

Nonessentialist asks, “Why stop now when I’ve already invested so much in this project?”. Essentialist asks, “If I weren’t already invested in this project, how much would I invest in it now?”

Once when we admit we have made a mistake in committing to something can we make a mistake a part of our past. When we remain in denial, on the other hand, we continue to circle pointlessly.

When we get so emotionally hung up on trying to force something that is not right fit, we can often benefit from a sounding board. Someone who is not emotionally involved in the situation and unaffected by the choice we make can give us the permission to stop forcing something that is clearly not working out.

No one likes going back on their word. Yet learning how to do so — in ways that will garner you respect for your courage, focus, and discipline — is crucial to becoming an Essentialist.

Edit. The Invisible Art

Nonessentialist thinks that making things better means adding something. Essentialist thinks that making thing better means subtracting something.

Nonessentialist attached to every word, image, or detail. Essentialist eliminates the distracting words, images, and details.

Editing our time and activities continuously allows us to make more minor but deliberate adjustments along the way. Becoming and Essentialist means making cutting, condensing, and correcting a natural part of our daily routine — making editing a natural cadence in our lives.

Limit. The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

Nonessentialist thinks if you have limits you will be limited. Essentialist knows that if you have limits you will become limitless.

Nonessentialist sees boundaries as constraining. Essentialist sees boundaries as liberating.

Nonessentialist exerts effort attempting the direct “no”. Essentialist sets rules in advance that eliminate the need for the direct “no”.

Once we take their problem for them, all we’re doing is taking their ability to solve it.

When we don’t set clear boundaries in our lives we can end up imprisoned by the limits others have set for us. When we have clear boundaries, on the other hand, we are free to select from the whole area — or the whole range of options — that we have deliberately chosen to explore.

If you can’t articulate your boundaries to yourself and others, it may be unrealistic to expect other people to respect time or even figure them out.

Buffer. The Unfair Advantage

The only thing we can expect is the unexpected. Therefore, we can either wait for the moment and react to it or we can prepare. We can create a buffer.

Nonessentialist assumes the best-case scenario will happen. Essentialist builds in a buffer for unexpected events.

Nonessentialist forces execution at the last minute. Essentialist practices extreme and early preparation.

Essentials accept the reality that we can never fully anticipate or prepare for every scenario or eventually; the future is simply too unpredictable. Instead, they build in buffers to reduce the friction caused by the unexpected.

Subtract. Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles

What is the obstacle that is keeping you back from achieving what really matters to you? By systematically identifying and removing this “constraint” you’ll be able to significantly reduce the friction keeping you from executing what is essential.

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

We can’t know what obstacles to remove until we are clear on the desired outcomes.

There are often multiple obstacles to achieving any essential intent. However, at any one time there is only ever one priority; removing arbitrary obstacles can have no effect whatsoever if the primary one still doesn’t budge.

Progress. The Power of Small Wins

Nonessentialist starts with a big goal and gets small results. Essentialist starts small and gets big results.

Nonessentialist goes for the flashiest wins. Essentialist celebrates small acts of progress.

A small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.

When we start small and reward progress, we end up achieving more than when we set big, lofty, and often impossible goals. And as a bonus, the act of positively reinforcing our successes allows us to reap more enjoyment and satisfaction out of the process.

Flow. The Genius of Routine

Nonessentialist tries to execute the essentials by force. Essentialist designs a routine that enshrines what is essential, making execution almost effortless.

Nonessentialist allows nonessentials to be the default. Essentialist makes the essentials the default position.

Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles. Without routine, the pull of nonessential distractions will overpower us. But if we create a routine that enshrines the essentials, we will begin to execute them on autopilot.

Instead of spending our limited supply of discipline on making the same decision again and again, embedding our decisions into our routine allows us to channel that discipline toward some other essential activity.

Focus. What’s Important Now?

To operate at your highest level of contribution requires that you deliberately tune in to what is important in the here and now.

The way of the Essentialist is to tune into the present. To focus on the things that are truly important — not yesterday or tomorrow, but right now.

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.

When faced with so many tasks and obligations that you can’t figure out which to tackle first, stop. Take a deep breath. Get present in the moment and ask yourself what is most important the very second. If you are not sure, make a list of everything vying for your attention and cross off anything that is not important right now.

Be. The Essentialist Life

We can all purge our lives of the nonessential and embrace the way of the Essentialist — in our own ways, and in our own time, and on our own scale. We can all live a life not just of simplicity but of high contribution and meaning.

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 of just a few major accomplishments that have real meaning and significance?

If you allow yourself to fully embrace Essentialism — to really live it, in everything you do, whether 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 practices of Essentialism become natural and instinctive.

Focusing on the essentials is a choice. It is your choice. That in itself is incredibly liberating.

The life of an Essentialist is a life lived without regret. If you have correctly identified what really matters, if you invest your time and energy in it, then it is difficult to regret the choices you make. You become proud of the life you have chosen to live.

Whatever decision or challenge or crossroads you face in your life, simply ask yourself, “What is essential?” Eliminate everything else.