Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

by Greg McKeown

Essentialism is about doing more with less, and more importantly, it’s about doing the right things and not wasting time on the things that don’t matter. Your time and energy are precious; this book will teach you how to spend it in the ways that benefit you the most.

We’ve compiled all the advice in this book into habits and actions that will increase your happiness, improve your productivity, hone your problem-solving skills, and more! Implementing even one of these habits/actions in your life will make a significant positive difference.

Summary Notes

The Essentialist

“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.”

Many of us stretch ourselves too thin trying to take on more work than we can handle. We say yes to requests before really thinking about it, we commit to doing things simply to please or to avoid trouble, etc. However, this can cause us to feel overworked, busy and stressed. More importantly, fulfilling all the requests of others means we won’t have much time to spend on working towards our own goals.

Essentialists relentlessly pursue less but pursue better. They pause constantly to ask themselves, “Am I investing in the right activities?” After all, they know they only have a limited amount of time and resources; no one can “do it all”. Essentialists eliminate the nonessential and trivial tasks from their to-do lists and instead focus on the vital few that bring them closer to their goals.

Actions to take

Essence - What is the core mind-set of an Essentialist?

“The overwhelming reality is: we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.”

You have the power to choose what you want to do. No matter how stuck in a situation you feel, no matter how little control you have over your options, you always have the control over how you choose what to do. When you do not embrace the power to choose, you are actually surrendering the power for someone else to choose for you.

Exercise this power to choose by discerning between the essential and nonessential activities in your life. Most activities are unimportant and it is not necessary that you engage in them: they are only taking precious time and energy away from the activities that will help you achieve your goals.

Remember that sometimes, you will have to make trade-offs. For example, you may have to drop a project to focus on another more important one. Trade-offs are necessary because if you try to “do it all”, you will likely end up with poor results. However, if you evaluate your options and select the best one, you will see much better results!

Actions to take

Explore - How Can We Discern The Trivial Many From The Vital Few?

It’s critical to set aside time to take a breath, look around, and think. You need that level of clarity in order to innovate and grow.

To understand what you need to focus on, you need to filter the essential facts, options, and opinions from the nonessential. You will have to pay attention to what is not being said, ie. the information you do not have, and the various details that show you different perspectives of the same situation to gain a more objective understanding of your situation.

An effective way to do this is to look at situations in the context of the real world that they are happening in. Take the creation of the “Embrace Nest” for example. Incubators for low-birth-weight newborns were too expensive for many people in developing countries, and many infants were dying. 

However, when researchers visited rural villages in Nepal, they realized that many babies were born in homes without electricity. This means that even a cheaper incubator would not have solved the problem. Instead, the researchers developed a substitute incubator that did not require electricity to be used. It’s essential to truly understand a problem before attempting to solve it - and the real-world context the problem is occurring in often provides the best information. 

Another important aspect of life is play - It stimulates the parts of your brain involved in both logical reasoning and carefree exploration. When you play, you not only reduce stress, you help your mind see new possibilities and connections. 

Additionally, sleep is important too! If you do not get sufficient sleep, you may realize your brain doesn’t function as well as it normally does. It will get harder to think, plan, prioritize, see the bigger picture, make decisions, etc. Remember, going 24 hours without sleep or sleeping four to five hours a night for one week induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.1%.

Actions to take

Eliminate - How Can We Cut Out The Trivial Many?

“Only with real clarity of purpose can people, teams, and organizations fully mobilize and achieve something truly excellent.”

A high level of clarity about what your team stands for, what their goals and roles are is necessary for you to consistently work towards achieving them. A lack of clarity, on the other hand, leads to confusion, stress, and frustration. There are two common patterns that typically emerge when teams lack clarity of purpose. 

The first results in team members putting all their effort into looking better than their peers, rather than actually getting essential work done. The second results in team members working on tasks that advance their own short-term interests without considering the big picture, ie. the overall results the team needs to achieve. 

Additionally, many teams and individuals tend to fall prey to the sunk-cost fallacy. This refers to investing time, money, or energy into something that has a cost that cannot be recouped. However, falling into this pattern will cause you to lose time, money and energy that you will not get back.

It is therefore important to regularly “edit” your life regularly, i.e., make necessary changes to eliminate distracting words, images, and details. Authors edit unnecessary details out of their novels to present a clear story. Similarly, you must edit your life to ensure it progresses in the direction you desire. 

Actions to take

Execute - How Can We Make Doing The Few Vital Things Almost Effortless?

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

We live in an unpredictable world where we constantly face the unexpected. Dealing with problems that keep cropping up will keep you distracted and busy. You will not be able to function as productively and efficiently as normal. 

To achieve long-term overall improvements, you will need to identify your biggest obstacle, which is the part of your system that is functioning the most poorly. Once it has been identified, you can remove it from your life. 

Removing obstacles does not have to be difficult. In fact, it’s similar to dislodging a boulder at the top of a hill. All you need is to give it a small push, and the momentum will build. Soon, the boulder will be rolling away.

Staying grounded is one of the most important qualities of the Essentialist. It is important to focus on small, realistic goals. When you feel like you are making progress in meaningful work, you will feel like you are achieving countless small wins. Additionally, each small win allows you to build the momentum necessary to achieve the next small win and so on until you hit a “breakthrough” point leading you to achieve the success you desire. 

In fact, building a routine that focuses on the essential habits and actions required to achieve success will help remove obstacles and get those small wins. This is backed by science - when you repeatedly do a certain task, the nerve cells in your brain make and strengthen the synapses, which is how nerve cells communicate with each other. After sufficient repetition, these synapses will be activated with little to no effort.

The present is in your control. Work hard at what you can do right now and you will get the results you desire.

Actions to take

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