Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

My notes from this book:

Questions this book addresses:

  • How often do you say yes simply to please? Or to avoid trouble? Or because “yes” had become your default response? 
  • Have you ever felt yourself stretched too thin? Have you ever felt both overworked and underutilized? Have you ever found yourself majoring in minor activities? Do you ever feel busy but not productive?
  • If you struggle with any of these, the way out is the way of the Essentialist. 

ESSENCE: What is the core mind-set of an Essentialist?

1. Individual choice

  • A choice is not a thing, a choice is an action. If we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone else will step in to choose for us. While we may not always have control over our options, we always have control over how we choose among them.
  • If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?

2. The prevalence of noise

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

– “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” – John Maxwell.

3. The reality of trade-offs

  • We can’t have it all or do it all.  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 Essentialist pauses to constantly ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference between what is trivial and what is vital – learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential. 

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 your highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential. 

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 matters. Screen-Shot-2014-06-18-at-6.02.52-PM

We have lost our ability to filter what is important and what isn’t.

You can think of this book doing for your life and career what a professional organizer can do for your closet.

EXPLORE: How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?

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.

  • Space to think – 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 built quiet reflection spaces in which we can truly focus.
  • Time to look and listen – Essentialists are powerful observers and listeners. Keep a journal – write less than you feel like writing until it becomes a habit & review your journal monthly.
  • Permission to play – “Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement” ~ Sir Ken Robinson. Play = anything we do for joy rather than as a means to an end. Play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity. “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge” ~ Albert Einstein
  • Wisdom to sleep – the best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. Most people are just so tired that they have forgotten what it really feels like to be fully rested. Essentialists see sleep as necessary for operating at high levels of contribution more of the time. Science shows than even a nap can increase creativity.
  • Discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make – If the answer isn’t a definite yes then it should be a no. 90% rule = if you rate it any lower than 90%, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it. Forces you to make decisions by design, rather than default. Jim Collins’s Good to Great  = if there’s only thing you are passionate about – and that you can be best at –  you should do just that one thing. “Will this activity or effort make the highest possible contribution toward my goal?”

ELIMINATE: How can we cut out the trivial many?

  • It’s not enough simply to determinate which activities and efforts don’t make the highest possible contribution; you still have to actively eliminate those that do not.
  • “People are effective because they say ‘no,’ because they say, ‘this isn’t for me.'”
  • If I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?
  • “To follow, without halt, one aim: there is the secret to success” ~ Anna Pavlova, Russian ballet dancer
  • Example = What do you really want out of your career over the next 5 years?
  • The power of a graceful “no” – we need to be clear about what is essential. we need to get over social awkwardness to learn to say no firmly, resolutely, and yet gracefully… people will actually respect us more and admire us to have the courage of conviction to say no. “People are effective because they say no” – Peter Drucker, father of modern management. (p. 136 example). We must say no to the non-essentials to say yes to the things that really matter.
    • How do we say no gracefully?
      • Separate the decision from the relationship
      • Saying “no” gracefully doesn’t have to mean using the word no
      • focus on the trade-off
      • remind yourself that everyone is selling something
      • make your pace with the fact that saying “no” often requires trading popularity for respect
      • remember that a clear “no” can be more graceful than a vague or noncommittal “yes”
    • The “No” Repertoire
      • The awkward pause
      • The soft “no” or the “no but”
      • Let me check my calendar and get back to you
      • Use email bounceback
      • Say Yes, what should I deprioritize?
      • Say it with humour.
      • You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.
      • I can’t do it, but X might be interested.

Uncommit – win big by cutting your loses

  • beware of the endowment effect = our tendency to undervalue things that aren’t ours and to overvalue things b/c we already own them.
  • pretend you don’t own it yet – “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?

Edit – the invisible art

  • editing – which involves the strict elimination of the trivial, unimportant, or irrelevant – is an Essentialist craft. There are a thousand things we could be doing. But there are only one or two that are important.
    • cut out options – the Latin root of the word decision – cis or cid – literally means “to cut” or “to kill”. we need to eliminate multiple meaningless activities & replace them with one very meaningful activity.

EXECUTE: How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?

A system to make executing your intentions as effortless as possible.

  • Plans ahead & creates a buffer to prepare for the unforeseen giving yourself wiggle room when things come up, as they inevitably do.
  • Don’t default to Band-Aid solutions. Find the obstacle that is keeping you back from achieving what really matters to you.
  • Catch more flies with honey approach = “what obstacles or bottlenecks are holding you back from achieving X, and how can I help to remove these?”

Progress – the power of small wins

  • The Essentialist starts small & celebrates progress. Instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter, the Essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.
  • Of all forms of human motivations the most effective is progress. Why? Because a small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.

Flow – the genius of routine

  • the power of a routine grows out of our brain’s ability to take over entirely until the process becomes fully unconscious.

How do we resist the powerful pull of habits like eating junk food, watching pointless Youtube clips, poor habits?

  • Every habit is made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue is the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. The routine – the behavior itself – can be physical or mental or emotion. The reward helps your brain figure out if this particular habit is worth remembering for the future. Over time this look becomes neurologically intertwined.
  • What this means is that if we want to change our routine, we don’t really need to change the behavior. Rather, we need to find the cue that is triggering the nonessential activity or behavior and find a way to associate that same cue with something that is essential.
    •  Examples
      • bakery pass by triggers to pick up doughnut = use that cue to remind you to pick up a salad.
      • alarm clock triggers you to check email = use it as cue to workout.
      • sight of junk food trigger to eat = use it as cue to pray.
    • Each time you execute the new behavior strengthens the link is your brain between the cue and the new behavior – soon you’ll become unconscious & automatic with the new routine.
    • We can create new triggers
      • Each time you look at your phone when it is not for a message, read a prayer first.
    • Tackle your routines one by one
      • Start with one change in your daily or weekly routine & then build on your progress from there.

Focus – what’s important now?

  • Every second spent worrying about a past or future moment distracts us from what is important in the here and now.
  • Prioritize each list



  • “Fewer things done better” ~ Jeff Weiner LinkedIn CEO – the most powerful mechanism for leadership.
  • Peter Thiel PapPal CEO insisted each employee to find one single priority in their role & focus only on that.


  • This is a discipline  you apply each and every time you are faced with a decision about whether to say yes or whether to politely decline. It’s a method for making the tough trade-off between lots of good things and a few really great things. It’s about learning how to do less but better so that you can achieve the highest possible return on every precious moment of your life.

The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better. 

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