Essentialism – by Greg McKeown

Essentialism – by Greg McKeown

‘The Disciplined Pursuit of Less’


Why are people so ‘busy’? Why do people feel like it’s a badge of honour to have a calendar full of meetings? It’s important that there is a MASSIVE difference between ‘activity’ and ‘productivity’ – just because someone tells you they’re so busy, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re actually achieving anything.

Centred around the German maxim weniger aber besser, ‘less but better’, Essentialism is all about finding what is truly essential and cutting away everything that is not. It’s about doing less, but achieving more.


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Here is a dot point summary of the book!


The disciplined pursuit of less


Value Proposition

  • When you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, you can make your highest contribution to the things that really matter
  • When we have the unfulfilling experience of making a millimetre of progression in a million directions, you make no progress
  • By investing in fewer things we have the satisfying experience of making significant progress in the things that matter most
  • The way of the essentialism rejects the idea that we can fit it all in
  • The way of the essentialism means living by design, not by default


Essentialist vs Non Essentialist



Non essentialist  “I have to” “It is all important” “How can I fit it all in”

Essentialist – “I choose to” “Only a few things really matter” “What are the trade offs”



NE – reacts to what is most pressing

  • Says yes to people without thinking
  • Tries to force execution at the last moment

E – pauses to discern what really matters

  • Says no to everything but the essential
  • Removes obstacles to make everything easy



NE – takes on too much and work suffers

Feels out of control

Is unsure whether the right things got done

Feels overwhelmed and exhausted


E – Chooses carefully in order to do great work

  • Feels in control
  • Gets the right things done


The Way of the Non Essentialist

Greg said yes to a meeting missed his kids birth



Our society punishes good behaviour (saying no) and rewards bad behaviour (saying yes)

Saying no is more awkward in the moment, and saying yes is celebrated in the moment



Priority came from the English language in the 1400’s and meant ‘singular’, or the ‘prior thing’

Some leaders label priorities 1 -10 these days


Core mindset of essentialist

Individual choice – we choose how we spend out time and energy. Without choice there is no trade offs

The prevalence of noise – everything is noise and a few things have exceptional value

Reality of trade offs – We can’t have it or do it all


  1. Explore
  • Essentialists actually explore more options than their non essentialist counterparts
  • Systematically explore and evaluate a few options before they pick the right one later
  • Combination of right thing, right reason, right time


  1. Eliminate

“People are effective because they say no”

To eliminate non essentials means saying no to someone

It is about emotional discipline necessary to say no to social pressure


  1. Execute
  • Removing obstacles and making execution effortless



  • What if schools eliminated busywork and replaced it with important projects?
  • What if students had the time to think of their highest contribution to their future so that when they left secondary school they were not just starting on the race to nowhere?



  • What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measure of importance?




Chapter 2 – Choose

  • Greg when he was in law school wrote down all the things he wants to do in his life
  • Was amazed to see law wasn’t on it
  • He read the best business books at night and studied hard during the day. Whilst not failing at anything, he wasn’t succeeding either

Asked himself

“If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?” He realised

By refusing to choose, not law school, he actually chose law school



  • Our options may be things, but a choice – is an action


Learned Helplessness

  • We experience learned helplessness
  • A young person tries at mathematics and gives up because it is too hard
  • 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 theirs choices


Chapter 3 – Discern – the unimportance of practically everything

  • For the people already working hard, are their limits to the value of hard work?
  • Is there a point in which doing more doesn’t produce more?
  • There is a point in which doing less, but thinking more produces better outcome
  • Certain types of effort yield higher rewards than others!
  • Not all input is equal
  • Space to choose what is more effective


Pareto Principle

  • 20% of effort yields 80% of results
  • Warren Buffet owes 90% of his wealth to just 10 investments


Chapter 4 – Trade off, which problem do I want?

  • As painful as they may be, trade-offs represent a significant opportunity
  • By forcing us to weigh both options and strategically select what is best for us, we improve the chance of achieving the outcome we want


Essentialists don’t say ‘what do I have to give up?’, they say, ‘what do I want to go big on?’


Ch 5 – Escape – the perks of being unavailable


Non essentialist – is too busy to think about life

Essentialist – creates space to escape and explore life

“In order to have focus, we need to escape to have focus”

Create space to escape your busy life


Ch 6 – look – see what really matters


Ch 7 – embrace the wisdom of your inner child

  • As we get older we start to believe play is trivial
  • Play broadens the range of options available to us
  • It gives us the chance to expand our own stream of consciousness and come up with new stories
  • CEO of Twitter promotes play through comedy introducing improve
  • Improve forces people to stretch their minds and think more flexibly , unconventionally, creatively


Ch 8 – sleep protect the asset


NE – one hour less of sleep equals one more hour of productivity

E – one hour more of sleep equals several more hours of higher productivity


Ch 9 – select – the power of extreme criteria

  • If the answer isn’t a definite yes then it should be a no


NE – if my manager asks me to do the work, I do it

E – say yes to only the top 10% of opportunities


If it isn’t a clear yes then it is a no



Ch 10 – clarify – one decision that makes a thousand

  • To follow without halt, one aim, is the secret to success


Companies mission statements

“Profitable growth through superior customer service, innovation, quality and commitment”

“To be a leader in every market by benefiting our customers”


Without purpose or clarity

Pattern 1 – people play politics

  • When people are unclear about the end game and it is unclear how to win, they make up their own game and their own rules

Pattern 2 – It is all good (which is bad)

  • Without purpose teams become leaderless


Ch11 – dare – the power of a graceful “no”

  • The key to the process of elimination is courage
  • Without courage, the disciplined pursuit of less is just lip service
  • When we have a strong internal clarity it is a force field protecting us from the non essentials
  • When you say no, your fears of their concerns are over exaggerated and they will actually respect you more


The no repertoire

  1. The awkward pause
  2. The soft no (no but)
  3. Say yes, “but what should I deprioritize?”
  4. I can’t do it, but X might be interested


Ch12 – win big by cutting your losses


Sunk cost bias

  • Is the tendency to continue to invest time, money and energy into something we already know is a losing proposition
  • Simply because we have already incurred a sunk cost that cannot be recouped
  • This can be a vicious cycle
  • This explains why we will sit through a terrible movie because we have paid for it
  • Or why we pour money into a shit home reno


NE – “Why invest now when I’ve already invested so much in this project”

E – If I weren’t already invested, how much would I invest now?

E – What else could I do with this time or money if I pulled the plug now?


Ch13 – edit

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” – Michelangelo


  • A good film maker makes it hard not to see what’s not important because she eliminates everything but the elements that absolutely need to be there


NE – thinks making things better means adding things

E – thinks making things better means subtracting something


Ch14 – limit – the freedom of setting boundaries



Ch15 – buffer – “give me 6 hours to cut down a tree and I will spend the first 4 sharpening the axe”

Planning fallacy – Daniel Kahneman


Ch 16 – subtract

Ch17 – progress

  • Focus on minimal viable progress


Ch18 – flow – the genius of routine

“Routine in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition”


Ch19 – focus – what is important now?

There is only now

It is mind bending to consider that in practical terms, we only ever have now.


Ch20 – be

“beware the barrenness of a busy life”

Being an essentialist is best illustrated by the little moments

Focusing on the essentials is a choice

  • Choosing to not watch television when travelling in business , so time to think and rest
  • Choosing to spend a whole day on the priority, even if not on your to do list
  • Choosing to push back a work deadline to go camping with my children

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