Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown: Summary & Notes

Rated: 10/10

Available at: Amazon

ISBN: 0804137382

Related: The Art of the Good Life


A fantastic book. Essentialism is the way of living that I'd been converging towards in many areas of my life, without knowing it.

How do we combat the busyness of current life? The overwhelm of options and information? The lack of clarity that we all seem to have? Essentialism gives you a framework to develop your own purpose and stay focused on your goals. Applicable to both work and personal life.

This book will be one I re-read frequently, and gift to many.


Chapter 1: The Essentialist

  • "The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials."—Lin Yutang
  • When a request comes in, ask yourself: "Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?"
  • 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.

The Way of the Essentialist

  • The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better.
  • There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital.
  • The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default.

The Way of the Nonessentialist

  • If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
  • In our society we are punished for good behavior (saying no) and rewarded for bad behavior (saying yes).
  • Curiously, and overstating the point in order to make it, the pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure. Put another way, success can distract us from focusing on the essential things that produce success in the first place.

Why Nonessentialism Is Everywhere

  • Once an Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware, who cared for people in the last twelve weeks of their lives, recorded their most often discussed regrets. At the top of the list: "I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."
  • This requires, not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials, and not just getting rid of the obvious time wasters, but cutting out some really good opportunities as well.

Our lives get cluttered just as closets do. Here’s how an Essentialist would approach that closet.

  • 1. Explore and Evaluate
  • 2. Eliminate
  • 3. Execute

Essentialism is about creating a system for handling the closet of our lives. This is not a process you undertake once a year, once a month, or even once a week, like organizing your closet. It 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.

Essence: What Is the Core Mindset of an Essentialist?

Step 1. Explore: Discerning the Trivial Many From the Vital Few

  • If we search for "a good opportunity," then we will find scores of pages for us to think about and work through. Instead, we can conduct an advanced search and ask three questions: "What do I feel deeply inspired by?" and "What am I particularly talented at?" and "What meets a significant need in the world?"

Step 2. Eliminate: Cutting Out the Trivial Many

Step 3. Execute: Removing Obstacles and Making Execution Effortless

Essence: What Is the Core Logic of an Essentialist?

  • To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: "I choose to," "Only a few things really matter," and "I can do anything but not everything."

Chapter 2: Choose: The Invincible Power of Choice

  • We often think of choice as a thing. But a choice is not a thing. Our options may be things, but a choice—a choice is an action. It is not just something we have but something we do.

The Invincible Power of Choosing to Choose

  • For too long, we have overemphasized the external aspect of choices (our options) and underemphasized our internal ability to choose (our actions).

How Do We Forget Our Ability to Choose?

  • To become an Essentialist requires a heightened awareness of our ability to choose.
  • When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless. Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices—or even a function of our own past choices.

Chapter 3: Discern: The Unimportance of Practically Everything

  • In 1951, in his Quality-Control Handbook, Joseph Moses Juran, one of the fathers of the quality movement, expanded on this idea and called it the "Law of the Vital Few." His observation was that you could massively improve the quality of a product by resolving a tiny fraction of the problems.
  • 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.
  • To practice this Essentialist skill we can start at a simple level, and once it becomes second nature for everyday decisions we can begin to apply it to bigger and broader areas of our personal and professional lives.

Chapter 4: Trade-off: Which Problem Do I Want?

  • 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.
  • 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.

Chapter 5: Escape: The Perks of Being Unavailable

  • “Without great solitude no serious work is possible."—Pablo Picasso

Space to Concentrate

  • No matter how busy you think you are, you can carve time and space to think out of your workday.

Space to Read

  • One practice I’ve found useful is simply to read something from classic literature (not a blog, or the newspaper, or the latest beach novel) for the first twenty minutes of the day.

Chapter 6: Look: See What Really Matters

Filter for the Fascinating

  • We know instinctively that we cannot explore every single piece of information we encounter in our lives. Discerning what is essential to explore requires us to be disciplined in how we scan and filter all the competing and conflicting facts, options, and opinions constantly vying for our attention.

Keep a Journal

  • For the last ten years now I have kept a journal, using a counterintuitive yet effective method. It is simply this: I write less than I feel like writing.
  • Restrain yourself from writing more until daily journaling has become a habit.

Chapter 7: Play: Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child

  • Play, which I would define as anything we do simply for the joy of doing rather than as a means to an end—whether it’s flying a kite or listening to music or throwing around a baseball—might seem like a nonessential activity. Often it is treated that way. But in fact play is essential in many ways.

A Mind Invited to Play

  • Play is fundamental to living the way of the Essentialist because it fuels exploration in at least three specific ways.
  • First, play broadens the range of options available to us.
  • Second, play is an antidote to stress.
  • Third, play has a positive effect on the executive function of the brain.

Of Work and Play

  • Play doesn’t just help us to explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.
  • So how can we all introduce more play into our workplaces and our lives? In his book, Brown includes a primer to help readers reconnect with play. He suggests that readers mine their past for play memories. What did you do as a child that excited you? How can you re-create that today?

Chapter 8: Sleep: Protect the Asset

Protecting 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. One of the most common ways people—especially ambitious, successful people—damage this asset is through a lack of sleep.
  • The real challenge for the person who thrives on challenges is not to work hard.
  • Essentialists instead see sleep as necessary for operating at high levels of contribution more of the time.

Shattering the Sleep Stigma

  • Sleep will enhance your ability to explore, make connections, and do less but better throughout your waking hours.

Chapter 9: Select: The Power of Extreme Criteria

The 90 Percent Rule

  • You can think of this as the 90 Percent Rule, and it’s one you can apply to just about every decision or dilemma. 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.
  • Mastering this Essentialist skill, perhaps more than any other in this section, requires us to be vigilant about acknowledging the reality of trade-offs. By definition, applying highly selective criteria is a trade-off; sometimes you will have to turn down a seemingly very good option and have faith that the perfect option will soon come along. Sometimes it will, and sometimes it won’t, but the point is that 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.
  • The benefits of this ultra-selective approach to decision making in all areas of our lives should be clear: when our selection criteria are too broad, we will find ourselves committing to too many options.

Opportunity Knocks

  • Here’s a simple, systematic process you can use to apply selective criteria to opportunities that come your way. First, write down the opportunity. Second, write down a list of three "minimum criteria" the options would need to “pass" in order to be considered. Third, write down a list of three ideal or "extreme criteria" the options would need to “pass" in order to be considered. By definition, if the opportunity doesn’t pass the first set of criteria, the answer is obviously no. But if it also doesn’t pass two of your three extreme criteria, the answer is still no.

Eliminate: How Can We Cut Out the Trivial Many?

  • Of course, finding the discipline to say no to opportunities—often very good opportunities—that come your way in work and life is infinitely harder than throwing out old clothes in your closet.
  • So once you have sufficiently explored your options, the question you should be asking yourself is not: "What, of my list of competing priorities, should I say yes to?" Instead, ask the essential question: "What will I say no to?" This is the question that will uncover your true priorities.

Chapter 10: Clarify: One Decision That Makes a Thousand

From "Pretty Clear" to "Really Clear"

  • In my work, I have noticed two common patterns that typically emerge when teams lack clarity of purpose.

Pattern 1: Playing Politics

  • In the first pattern, the team becomes overly focused on winning the attention of the manager.
  • We do a similar thing in our personal lives as well. When we are unclear about our real purpose in life—in other words, when we don’t have a clear sense of our goals, our aspirations, and our values—we make up our own social games. We waste time and energies on trying to look good in comparison to other people.

Pattern 2: It’s All Good (Which is Bad)

  • In the second pattern, teams without purpose become leaderless. With no clear direction, people pursue the things that advance their own short-term interests, with little awareness of how their activities contribute to (or in some cases, derail) the long-term mission of the team as a whole.
  • In the same way, when individuals are involved in too many disparate activities—even good activities—they can fail to achieve their essential mission.
  • One reason for this is that the activities don’t work in concert, so they don’t add up into a meaningful whole. For example, pursuing five different majors, each of them perfectly good, does not equal a degree. Likewise, five different jobs in five different industries do not add up to a forward-moving career.
  • So how do we achieve clarity of purpose in our teams and even our personal endeavors? One way is to decide on an essential intent.

Essential Intent

  • An essential intent is both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable.
  • Essential Intent is making one decision that will eliminate 1000 later decisions.

Stop Wordsmithing and Start Deciding

  • An essential intent doesn’t have to be elegantly crafted; it’s the substance, not the style that counts. Instead, ask the more essential question that will inform every future decision you will ever make: "If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?"

Ask, "How Will We Know When We’re Done?

  • A powerful essential intent inspires people partially because it is concrete enough to answer the question, "How will we know when we have succeeded?"

Living with Intent

  • Essential intent applies to so much more than your job description or your company’s mission statement; a true essential intent is one that guides your greater sense of purpose, and helps you chart your life’s path.

Chapter 11: Dare: The Power of a Graceful "No"

  • Without courage, the disciplined pursuit of less is just lip service.

Essentially Awkward

  • Since becoming an Essentialist I have found it almost universally true that people respect and admire those with the courage of conviction to say no.
  • So how do we learn to say no gracefully? Below are general guidelines followed by a number of specific scripts for delivering the graceful “no."
  • 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 peace 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

To consistently say no with grace, then, it helps to have a variety of responses to call upon. Below are eight responses you can put in your “no" repertoire.

  • The awkward pause.
  • The soft “no" (or the "no but").
  • "Let me check my calendar and get back to you."
  • Use e-mail bouncebacks.
  • Say, "Yes. What should I deprioritize?"
  • Say it with humor.
  • Use the words "You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y."
  • "I can’t do it, but X might be interested."

Chapter 12: 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 a losing proposition simply because we have already incurred, or sunk, a cost that cannot be recouped. But of course this can easily become a vicious cycle: the more we invest, the more determined we become to see it through and see our investment pay off. The more we invest in something, the harder it is to let go.
  • It explains why we’ll continue to sit through a terrible movie because we’ve already paid the price of a ticket. It explains why we continue to pour money into a home renovation that never seems to near completion. It explains why we’ll continue to wait for a bus or a subway train that never comes instead of hailing a cab, and it explains why we invest in toxic relationships even when our efforts only make things worse.

Avoiding Commitment Traps

Beware of the Endowment Effect

  • "the endowment effect": our tendency to undervalue things that aren’t ours and to overvalue things because we already own them.

Pretend You Don’t Own it Yet

  • Tom Stafford describes a simple antidote to the endowment effect. Instead of asking, "How much do I value this item?" we should ask, "If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?" We can do the same for opportunities and commitment.
  • Don’t ask, "How will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity?" but rather, "If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?" Similarly, we can ask, "If I wasn’t already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?"

Get Over the Fear of Waste

Instead, Admit Failure to Begin Success

  • Only when we admit we have made a mistake in committing to something can we make a mistake a part of our past.

Stop Trying to Force a Fit

Get a Neutral Second Opinion

Be Aware of the Status Quo Bias

  • The tendency to continue doing something simply because we have always done it is sometimes called the "status quo bias."
  • One cure for the status quo bias is borrowed from the world of accounting:

Apply Zero-Based Budgeting

  • Typically, when accountants allocate a budget they use last year’s budget as the baseline for the next year’s projection. But with zero-based budgeting, they use zero as the baseline. In other words, every item in the proposed budget must be justified from scratch.
  • You can apply zero-based budgeting to your own endeavors. Instead of trying to budget your time on the basis of existing commitments, assume that all bets are off. All previous commitments are gone. Then begin from scratch, asking which you would add today. You can do this with everything from the financial obligations you have to projects you are committed to, even relationships you are in. Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.

Stop Making Casual Commitments

From Now On, Pause Before You Speak

  • It might sound obvious, but pausing for just five seconds before offering your services can greatly reduce the possibility of making a commitment you’ll regret.

Get Over the Fear of Missing Out

To Fight This Fear, Run a Reverse Pilot

  • In a reverse pilot you test whether removing an initiative or activity will have any negative consequences.

Chapter 13: Edit: The Invisible Art

  • In life, disciplined editing can help add to your level of contribution. It increases your ability to focus on and give energy to the things that really matter. It lends the most meaningful relationships and activities more space to blossom.

Editing Life

Cut Out Options


  • As Alan D. Williams observed in the essay "What Is an Editor?" there are two basic questions the editor should be addressing to the author: "Are you saying what you want to say?" and, "Are you saying it as clearly and concisely as possible?"
  • Likewise, in life, condensing allows us to do more with less.


  • Similarly, in our own professional or private lives we can make course corrections by coming back to our core purpose.

Edit Less

Chapter 14: Limit: The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

  • Nonessentialists tend to think of boundaries as constraints or limits, things that get in the way of their hyperproductive life.
  • Essentialists, on the other hand, see boundaries as empowering. They recognize that boundaries protect their time from being hijacked and often free them from the burden of having to say no to things that further others’ objectives instead of their own.

Execute: How to Make Execution Effortless

  • While Nonessentialists tend to force execution, Essentialists invest the time they have saved by eliminating the nonessentials into designing a system to make execution almost effortless.
  • In other words, once you’ve figured out which activities and efforts to keep in your life, you have to have a system for executing them.

Chapter 15: Buffer: The Unfair Advantage

  • The only thing we can expect (with any great certainty) is the unexpected. Therefore, we can either wait for the moment and react to it or we can prepare. We can create a buffer.
  • The Nonessentialist tends to always assume a best-case scenario. We all know those people (and many of us, myself included, have been that person) who chronically underestimate how long something will really take.
  • The way of the Essentialist is different. The Essentialist looks ahead. She plans. She prepares for different contingencies. She expects the unexpected. She creates a buffer to prepare for the unforeseen, thus giving herself some wiggle room when things come up, as they inevitably do.

Here are a few tips for keeping your work—and sanity—from swerving off the road by creating a buffer.

Use Extreme Preparation

Add 50 Percent to Your Time Estimate

  • "planning fallacy": This term, coined by Daniel Kahneman in 1979, refers to people’s tendency to underestimate how long a task will take, even when they have actually done the task before.

Conduct Scenario Planning

  • We can apply these five questions to our own attempts at building buffers. Think of the most important project you are trying to get done at work or at home. Then ask the following five questions:
  • (1) What risks do you face on this project?
  • (2) What is the worst-case scenario?
  • (3) What would the social effects of this be?
  • (4) What would the financial impact of this be? and
  • (5) How can you invest to reduce risks or strengthen financial or social resilience?

Chapter 16: Subtract: Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles

  • “To attain knowledge add things every day. To attain wisdom subtract things every day."—Lao-tzu
  • Constraints are the obstacles holding the whole system back.
  • The question is this: What is the "slowest hiker" in your job or your life? 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.
  • They ask, "What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?"

Produce More by Removing More

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

Instead of focusing on the efforts and resources we need to add, the Essentialist focuses on the constraints or obstacles we need to remove. But how?

1. Be Clear About the Essential Intent

  • "How will we know when we are done?"

2. Identify the "Slowest Hiker"

  • Ask yourself, "What are all the obstacles standing between me and getting this done?" and "What is keeping me from completing this?" Make a list of these obstacles. Prioritize the list using the question, "What is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?"
  • When identifying your "slowest hiker," one important thing to keep in mind is that even activities that are "productive"—like doing research, or e-mailing people for information, or rewriting the report in order to get it perfect the first time around—can be obstacles. Remember, the desired goal is to get a draft of the report finished. Anything slowing down the execution of that goal should be questioned.
  • 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.

3. Remove the Obstacle

  • Give yourself permission to not have it polished in the first draft.
  • The "slowest hiker" could even be another person. To reduce the friction with another person, apply the "catch more flies with honey" approach. Ask him, "What obstacles or bottlenecks are holding you back from achieving X, and how can I help remove these?" Instead of pestering him, offer sincerely to support him.

Chapter 17: Progress: The Power of Small Wins

  • The way of the Nonessentialist is to go big on everything: to try to do it all, have it all, fit it all in. The Nonessentialist operates under the false logic that the more he strives, the more he will achieve, but the reality is, the more we reach for the stars, the harder it is to get ourselves off the ground.
  • The way of the Essentialist is different. Instead of trying to accomplish it all—and all at once—and flaring out, the Essentialist starts small and 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.
  • 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.
  • Amabile and Kramer concluded that "everyday progress—even a small win" can make all the difference in how people feel and perform." Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work," they said.
  • To really get essential things done we need to start small and build momentum.
  • Then we can use that momentum to work toward the next win, and the next one and so on until we have a significant breakthrough.

Focus on Minimum Viable Progress

  • Similarly, we can adopt a method of "minimal viable progress." We can ask ourselves, "What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?"

Do the Minimum Viable Preparation

  • Take a goal or deadline you have coming up and ask yourself, "What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?"
  • A colleague in New York uses a simple hack: whenever she schedules a meeting or phone call, she takes exactly fifteen seconds to type up the main objectives for that meeting, so on the morning of the meeting when she sits down to prepare talking points she can refer to them.
  • Visually Reward Progress

Chapter 18: Flow: The Genius of Routine

  • “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition."—W. H. Auden
  • The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position.
  • Yes, in some instances an Essentialist still has to work hard, but with the right routine in place each effort yields exponentially greater results.

Making It Look Easy

  • 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

Chapter 19: Focus: What’s Important Now?

Multitasking Versus Multifocusing

  • But in fact we can easily do two things at the same time: wash the dishes and listen to the radio, eat and talk, clear the clutter on our desk while thinking about where to go for lunch, text message while watching television, and so on.
  • What we can’t do is concentrate on two things at the same time. Multitasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can "multifocus" is.

The Pause That Refreshes

  • Pay attention through the day for your own kairos moments. Write them down in your journal.

Chapter 20: Be: The Essentialist Life

  • “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”—Socrates

Living Essentially

  • There are two ways of thinking about Essentialism. The first is to think of it as something you do occasionally. The second is to think of it as something you are.
  • In the former, Essentialism is one more thing to add to your already overstuffed life. In the latter, it is a different way—a simpler way—of doing everything. It becomes a lifestyle. It becomes an all-encompassing approach to living and leading. It becomes the essence of who we are.

Majoring in Minor Activities

  • Once you become an Essentialist, you will find that you aren’t like everybody else. When other people are saying yes, you will find yourself saying no. When other people are doing, you will find yourself thinking. When other people are speaking, you will find yourself listening. When other people are in the spotlight, vying for attention, you will find yourself waiting on the sidelines until it is time to shine. While other people are padding their résumés and building out their LinkedIn profiles, you will be building a career of meaning. While other people are complaining (read: bragging) about how busy they are, you will just be smiling sympathetically, unable to relate. While other people are living a life of stress and chaos, you will be living a life of impact and fulfillment. In many ways, to live as an Essentialist in our too-many-things-all-the-time society is an act of quiet revolution.

Here are some of the ways the disciplined pursuit of less can change your life for the better.

More Clarity

More Control

  • You will gain confidence in your ability to pause, push back, or not rush in. You will feel less and less a function of other people’s to-do lists and agendas.

More Joy in the Journey

  • With the focus on what is truly important right now comes the ability to live life more fully, in the moment.

The Essential Life: Living a Life That Really Matters

  • The life of an Essentialist is a life of meaning. It is a life that really matters.
  • This story captures the two most personal learnings that have come to me on the long journey of writing this book. The first is the exquisitely important role of my family in my life. At the very, very end, everything else will fade into insignificance by comparison.
  • The second is the pathetically tiny amount of time we have left of our lives. For me this is not a depressing thought but a thrilling one. It removes fear of choosing the wrong thing. It infuses courage into my bones. It challenges me to be even more unreasonably selective about how to use this precious—and precious is perhaps too insipid of a word—time.
  • 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.
  • Will you choose to live a life of purpose and meaning, or will you look back on your one single life with twinges of regret?
  • If you take one thing away from this book, I hope you will remember this: whatever decision or challenge or crossroads you face in your life, simply ask yourself, "What is essential?" Eliminate everything else.

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