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.

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

Choose, Discern, Trade-off

“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


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 distinguish between the essential and nonessential, you must first explore the options available to you. When you spend the bulk of your time working, you leave very little time (and energy) to explore, to ponder life, or to talk and debate about what you need to do next to achieve your goals. You may even realize that while you’ve been working, the world has been changing around you, but you’re still stuck in the same place.

Actions to take


In every set of facts, something essential is hidden.

Have you ever felt overwhelmed and lost? Have you ever been bombarded with so much information that you aren’t sure how to identify what is essential and what isn’t? When we are in situations like this, it’s important to look at the big picture and understand what the information you have actually means.

To do this, you will have to filter the essential facts, options, opinions, and such from the nonessential so you can find the essence of the information. You will have to pay attention to what is not being said, ie. the information you don’t have, and any various details that show you different perspectives of the same situation. Then you will be able to ignore irrelevant and gain an objective understanding of what is really happening.

Take the creation of the “Embrace Nest” for example. The problem was that incubators to keep low-birth-weight newborns warm were too expensive for the many people in developing countries, resulting in these infants dying. Instead of just creating a cheaper alternative, the researchers on this project actually visited rural villages in Nepal and realized that most babies were born in homes that had no electricity - a cheaper electric incubator would not have been of use to them. So, they developed an alternative incubator which did not require electricity to be used.

Actions to take


Play has the power to significantly improve everything from personal health to relationships to education to organizations’ ability to innovate.

Play refers to any activity you do simply for the joy of doing it, instead of as a means to an end. 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.

In fact, most of the key breakthroughs in thinking have taken place during times of play. For example, Newton was at play when he saw the apple tree and discovered the force of gravity.

Actions to take


Most of us do not know how important sleep truly is. We view it as a necessary evil, a waste of time that could otherwise be spent productively. However, 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.

There are 5 important facts about sleep:

One extra hour of sleep equals several more hours of higher productivity.

Sleep is for high performers.

Sleep is a priority.

Sleep breeds creativity.

Sleep enables the highest levels of mental contribution.

When you get enough sleep, you may have less time to be productive, however, you will be a lot more efficient during the time. 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


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 is the pattern of playing politics. This is when the team is extremely focused on getting into the manager’s good graces. However, without clarity of purpose, the team members will not be able to identify what exactly they need to do to achieve the desired results. Instead, they will likely end up putting all their effort into making themselves look better than their peers, demonstrate their self-importance, etc, while not actually getting the essential job done!

The second pattern shows how teams without clarity of purpose become leaderless. Without a clear direction to proceed toward, the team members will begin to work on tasks that advance their own short-term interests without considering the big picture, ie. the overall results the team needs to achieve.

The best way to achieve clarity of purpose is to define your team’s essential intent. This essential intent will provide the foundation and structure your team will work with to ensure they stay on-track.

Actions to take

Select, Dare, Uncommit, Limit

If we feel total and utter conviction to do something, then we say yes. Anything less gets a thumb down.

Many of us fall into the trap of doing what we think we should be doing. We say yes to tasks that we really want to say no to out of awkwardness or to avoid conflict. However, this causes our lives to get overly cluttered with tasks and activities we don’t really want to do but feel like we have to.

To eliminate the clutter in your life, first you have to be more selective about the choices you make, ie. what you say yes to. Keep in mind that if you set clear limits and boundaries, you will prevent a lot of clutter from entering your life.

However, just because a choice you made was right at one point in time does not mean it will continue to be the right option forever. In fact, sticking to a choice that is turning into the wrong one is a very common psychological phenomenon called “sunk-cost bias”. This refers to investing time, money, or energy into something that has cost and cannot be recouped. People fall prey to the sunk-cost bias when they believe they “own” the thing they’re investing in, and therefore, cannot give it up. Alternatively, they might just be used to doing things a certain way. However, falling into this pattern of the sunk-cost bias will cause you to lose time, money and energy that you will not get back.

Actions to take


Clearly, editing - which involves the strict elimination of the trivial, unimportant, or irrelevant - is an Essentialist craft.

Editing your life refers to making the 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


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 - we constantly face the unexpected. For example, you don’t know if the train will be on time or run late, if a colleague will drop the ball on an important project, etc. Therefore, it is important to prepare for the unexpected by building buffers in your life. Here, buffers refer to actions and habits that will make it easier to deal with the unexpected.

If you don’t prepare for the unexpected and instead choose to face each problem as it comes up, you will deal with a lot of problems. Dealing with all those problems will keep you distracted and busy. You will not be able to function as productively and efficiently as normal.

Actions to take


While the Nonessentialist is busy applying more and more pressure and piling on more and more solutions, the Essentialist simply makes a one-time investment in removing obstacles.

Short-term improvements are usually achieved by fixing minor issues as they come up. However, this is just like plugging a leaky dam with a finger. It might hold back the flow of water for a bit, but sooner or later, it will burst.

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.

Actions to take

Progress, Flow

The more we reach for the stars, the harder it is to get ourselves off the ground.

Staying grounded is one of the most important qualities of the Essentialist. When we aim to achieve big, flashy goals, we often end up with small results. However, when we focus on achieving small, realistic goals, we progress much further.

Not only does this approach improve productivity and success, it can boost your emotions and motivation! 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.

Remember, there is power in steadiness and repetition. Your ability to execute the essential improves with practice, just like any other one.

Actions to take


The more we reach for the stars, the harder it is to get ourselves off the ground.

Losses can be attributed to a lack of focus on what is truly important. This may be due to reliving past mistakes or focusing on future choices. Both cases are situations in which you have no control - the past is over and the future is unknown. Focusing on the past or future will cause you to miss the present moment.

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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