Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Read in November 2016

Rating 8/10

Discern the vital few from the trivial many. Pause, think, design. This book is more of a reminder than a guidebook, to realize that our lives are not just *happening* but are formed by our decisions – either automatic or with attention – and by the things we choose to invest our energy in.

My notes from the book

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.

It is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?”

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 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 non-essentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage.

Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

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

Decision fatigue: the more choices we are forced to make, the more the quality of our decisions deteriorates.

It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload.

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralise the term and start talking about priorities.

“If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?”

Essentialists invest the time they have saved into creating a system for removing obstacles and making execution as easy as possible.

Explore, Eliminate, Execute

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

Three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.”

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

When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless.

Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life.

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.

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.

We need space to escape in order to discern the essential few from the trivial many.

We don’t get that space by default – only by design.

For some reason there is a false association with the word focus. As with choice, people tend to think of focus as a thing. Yes, focus is something we have. But focus is also something we do.

An Essentialist focuses the way our eyes focus; not by fixating on something but by constantly adjusting and adapting to the field of vision.

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

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.

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?”

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.

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.

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

Anyone can 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.

Emotional clarity: They distract us from the reality of the fact that either we can say no and regret it for a few minutes, or we can say yes and regret it for days, weeks, months, or even years.

“people are effective because they say no.”

Being aware of what is being sold allows us to be more deliberate in deciding whether we want to buy it.

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

We can reduce the friction of executing the essential in our work and lives simply by creating a buffer.


Identify the part of the process that is slower relative to every other part

Martin Heidegger described poiesis as a “bringing-forth.”

“What is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?”

“What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?”

“What’s important now?”

The ancient Greeks had two words for time. The first was chronos. The second was kairos.

Chronos is quantitative; kairos is qualitative. The latter is experienced only when we are fully in the moment – when we exist in the now.

What we can’t do is concentrate on two things at the same time. When I talk about being present, I’m not talking about doing only one thing at a time. I’m talking about being focused on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can “multi-focus” is.

“What might you want to do someday as a result of today?”

This was not a list of firm commitments, just a way to get all of the ideas out of my head and on paper. This had two purposes. First, it ensured I wouldn’t forget about those ideas, which might prove useful later. Second, it alleviated that stressful and distracting feeling that I needed to act upon them right this second.

Lao Tzu: “In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.”

There is a big difference between being a non-Essentialist who happens to apply Essentialist practices and an Essentialist who only occasionally slips back into some non-Essentialist practices. The question is, “Which is your major and which is your minor?”

An Essentialist is something I am steadily becoming.

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