Book Review - Essentialism - by Greg McKeown

Book Details


Greg McKeown defines Essentialism as “Less but better”. The key takeaway is that only once you give yourself the 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.

My Notes

This is a well organized book, divided in four main parts. The first part establishes the need and mindset of an Essentialist. The second part delves into how to distinguish trivial from the essential. The third part then takes us through the strategies to cut out the trivial, and the final part discuss practical aspects on how to make the essential work an effortless work. The structure of the book is well thought of, and each part builds on the previous one

Part 1 : Essence

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” This part discuss about the need and mindset of an Essentialist, and why we need to pursue this. Three main reasons why we need a disciplined and mindful pursuit of Essentialism:

  1. TOO MANY CHOICES. We have all observed the exponential increase in choices over the last decade. Yet even in the midst of it, and perhaps because of it, we have lost sight of the most important ones. As Peter Drucker said, “In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time—literally—substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.” We have lost our ability to filter what is important and what isn’t. Psychologists call this “decision fatigue”: the more choices we are forced to make, the more the quality of our decisions deteriorates.
  2. TOO MUCH SOCIAL PRESSURE It is not just the number of choices that has increased exponentially, it is also the strength and number of outside influences on our decisions that has increased. While much has been said and written about how hyperconnected we now are and how distracting this information overload can be, the larger issue is how our connectedness has increased the strength of social pressure. Today, technology has lowered the barrier for others to share their opinion about what we should be focusing on. It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload.
  3. THE IDEA THAT “YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL” The idea that we can have it all and do it all is not new. This myth has been peddled for so long, I believe virtually everyone alive today is infected with it. It is sold in advertising. It is championed in corporations. It is embedded in job descriptions that provide huge lists of required skills and experience as standard. It is embedded in university applications that require dozens of extracurricular activities.

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.” To harness the courage we need to get on the right path, it pays to reflect on how short life really is and what we want to accomplish in the little time we have left. As poet Mary Oliver wrote: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Part 2 : Explore

In Explore, Greg delves into strategies on how to distinguish noise/non-essential from the essential. Main argument is we need to pause, allow ourselves some time to think and decide. React, not respond.

Main Notes:

  • Escape : In order to have focus we need to escape to focus. This is very true in corporate life too. Everyone is too busy to even pause and think on what is the strategic area. The speed at which we are running doesn’t matter much, if the direction is not correct. Still how many people dare to escape to focus on the essential.
  • Look :- See what Matters : In the chaos of the modern workplace, with so many loud voices all around us pulling us in many directions, it is more important now than ever that we learn to resist the siren song of distraction and keep our eyes and ears peeled for the headlines.
  • Play : The value of play in our lives can’t be overstated. Studies from the animal kingdom reveal that play is so crucial to the development of key cognitive skills it may even play a role in a species’ survival. Bob Fagan, a researcher who has spent fifteen years studying the behavior of grizzly bears, discovered bears who played the most tended to survive the longest. When asked why, he said, “In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares these bears for a changing planet. Second, play is an antidote to stress, and this is key because stress, in addition to being an enemy of productivity, can actually shut down the creative, inquisitive, exploratory parts of our brain. You know how it feels: you’re stressed about work and suddenly everything starts going wrong. You can’t find your keys, you bump into things more easily, you forget the critical report on the kitchen table. Recent findings suggest this is because stress increases the activity in the part of the brain that monitors emotions (the amygdala), while reducing the activity in the part responsible for cognitive function (the hippocampus)7—the result being, simply, that we really can’t think clearly.
  • Sleep : 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. If we let our type A instincts take over, we will, like Geoff, be swallowed up whole. We will burn out too early. We need to be as strategic with ourselves as we are with our careers and our businesses. We need to pace ourselves, nurture ourselves, and give ourselves fuel to explore, thrive, and perform.
  • Select : In a piece called “No More Yes. It’s Either HELL YEAH! Or No,” the popular TED speaker Derek Sivers describes a simple technique for becoming more selective in the choices we make. The key is to put the decision to an extreme test: if we feel total and utter conviction to do something, then we say yes, Derek-style. Anything less gets a thumbs down. If we search for “a good career opportunity,” our brain will serve up scores of pages to explore and work through. Instead, why not conduct an advanced search and ask three questions: “What am I deeply passionate about?” and “What taps my talent?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?” Naturally there won’t be as many pages to view, but that is the point of the exercise. We aren’t looking for a plethora of good things to do. We are looking for the one where we can make our absolutely highest point of contribution.

Part 3: Eliminate

In previous parts author makes the case for why essentialism is needed, and how to identify what is essential and what is not. In this part, strategies on how to cut down on the non-essential. I particularly liked the emotional aspects of saying no, as we humans are hard-wired to strive in a society, and saying no is not easy.

Main Notes:

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. But find it you must, because remember that anytime you fail to say “no” to a nonessential, you are really saying yes by default. 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. It is the question that will reveal the best path forward for your team. It is the question that will uncover your true purpose and help you make the highest level of contribution not only to your own goals but to the mission of your organization. It is that question that can deliver the rare and precious clarity necessary to achieve game-changing breakthroughs in your career, and in your life.

  • Clarify : 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. 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. The problem is, when people don’t know what the end game is, they are unclear about how to win, and as a result they make up their own game and their own rules as they vie for the manager’s favor. Instead of focusing their time and energies on making a high level of contribution, they put all their effort into games like attempting to look better than their peers, demonstrating their self-importance, and echoing their manager’s every idea or sentiment. These kinds of activities are not only nonessential but damaging and counterproductive. 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. We overvalue nonessentials like a nicer car or house, or even intangibles like the number of our followers on Twitter or the way we look in our Facebook photos. As a result, we neglect activities that are truly essential, like spending time with our loved ones, or nurturing our spirit, or taking care of our health.
  • Dare to say no : Saying no is not easy - We can’t bear the thought of disappointing someone we respect and like. None of this makes us a bad person. It’s a natural part of being human. Yet as hard as it can be to say no to someone, failing to do so can cause us to miss out on something far more important.
  • Edit :
    • Editing aids the effortless execution of the Essentialist by removing anything distracting or unnecessary or awkward. Or, as one book editor put it: “My job is to make life as effortless as possible for the reader. The goal is to help the reader have the clearest possible understanding of the most important message or takeaway.”
    • When making decisions, deciding to cut options can be terrifying—but the truth is, it is the very essence of decision making.In fact: The Latin root of the word decision—cis or cid—literally means “to cut” or “to kill.”
  • Limit - Setting the Boundary : Nonessentialists tend to think of boundaries as constraints or limits, things that get in the way of their hyperproductive life. To a Nonessentialist, setting boundaries is evidence of weakness. If they are strong enough, they think, they don’t need boundaries. They can cope with it all. They can do it all. But without limits, they eventually become spread so thin that getting anything done becomes virtually impossible. 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. They know that clear boundaries allow them to proactively eliminate the demands and encumbrances from others that distract them from the true essentials.

Part 4 : Execute

Now when we’ve identified what is essential, eliminated the non-essential, this final part goes into how to make it work. This part is mainly focussed on productivity tips on how to get essential work done with the highest quality. This part is cumilation of many productity books.

Main Notes:

  • Buffer - The unfair advantage: A “buffer” can be defined literally as something that prevents two things from coming into contact and harming each other. These days the pace of our lives is only getting faster and faster. As a result, execution is often highly stressful, frustrating, and forced. Here are a few tips for keeping your work—and sanity—from swerving off the road by creating a buffer.
    • Use Extreme Preparedness.
    • Add 50% to your time estimate.
  • Subtract things every day: Instead of focusing on the efforts and resources we need to add, the Essentialist focuses on the constraints or obstacles we need to remove.
  • Progress - The power of small win - The key is to start small, encourage progress, and celebrate small wins. Some tips
    • Do the Minimal Viable Preparation every day
    • Visually reward progress
  • Flow - The genius of routine - 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. Multitasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can “multifocus” is.
  • Be - The Essentialist Life : 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. For me, a key benefit of being more present in the moment has been making joyful memories that would otherwise not exist. I smile more. I value simplicity. I am more joyful. As the Dalai Lama, another true Essentialist, has said: “If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness.”


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