Essentialism by Greg McKeown20 min read

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Essentialism by Greg McKeown

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Essentialism Summary

The Five Big Ideas

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.

Essentialism is about deliberately distinguishing the vital few from the trivial many, eliminating the non-essentials, and then removing obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage.

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

The Paradox of Success: the more options we have, the more we feel distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution.

To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.”

What is Essentialism?

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

Essentialism Summary

Chapter 1: 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.”               

The English translation of “weniger aber besser” is “less is better.”

The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better.

Essentialism 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 rejects the idea that we can fit it all in. Instead, it requires us to grapple with real trade-offs and make tough decisions.”         

“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.”               

“The way of the Essentialist is the path to being in control of our own choices. It is a path to new levels of success and meaning. It is the path on which we enjoy the journey, not just the destination.”

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

The Paradox of Success:

When we really have clarity of purpose, it enables us to succeed at our endeavor.

When we have success, we gain a reputation as a “go to” person. We become “good old

[insert name]

,” who is always there when you need him, and we are presented with increased options and opportunities.

When we have increased options and opportunities, which is actually code for demands upon our time and energies, it leads to diffused efforts. We get spread thinner and thinner.

We become distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution. The effect of our success has been to undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

“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 pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.”               

“When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people – our bosses, our colleagues, our clients, and even our families – will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important.”

“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.’”                

Before saying yes to anything, ask yourself, “Will this activity or effort make the highest possible contribution towards my goal?”               

The three realities without which Essentialist thinking would be neither relevant nor possible.                

Individual choice: We can choose how to spend our energy and time.

The prevalence of noise: Almost everything is noise, and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.

The reality of trade-offs: We can’t have it all or do it all.

“Once we accept the reality of trade-offs we stop asking, ‘How can I make it all work?’ and start asking the more honest question ‘Which problem do I want to solve?’”               

Essentialists ask, “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” and “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?”

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

“Essentialism is not a way to do one more thing; it is a different way of doing everything. It is a way of thinking.”               

“There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist: ‘I have to,’ ‘It’s all important,’ and ‘I can do both.’”

To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.”

Chapter 2: Choose—The Invincible Power of Choice               

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

“While we may not always have control over our options, we always have control over how we choose among them.”               

“The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away—it can only be forgotten.”               

“To become an Essentialist requires a heightened awareness of our ability to choose.”               

“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 other people’s choices—or even a function of our own past choices.”               

Chapter 3: Discern—The Unimportance of Practically Everything               

“We live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.”               

A non-Essentialist thinks almost everything is essential. An Essentialist thinks almost everything is non-essential.               

“Many capable people are kept from getting to the next level of contribution because they can’t let go of the belief that everything is important.”

Chapter 4: Trade-Off—Which Problem Do I Want?

Rather than try to fly to every destination, Southwest Airlines deliberately chose to offer only point-to-point flights. Instead of jacking up prices to cover the cost of meals, they decided they would serve none. Instead of assigning seats in advance, they let people choose them as they got on the plane. Instead of upselling their passengers on glitzy first-class service, they offered only economy.

“We can try to avoid the reality of trade-offs, but we can’t escape them.”               

“A non-Essentialist approaches every trade-off by asking, ‘How can I do both?’ Essentialists ask the tougher but ultimately more liberating question, ‘Which problem do I want?’”

Instead of asking, ‘What do I have to give up?’ Essentialists ask, ‘What do I want to go big on?’”

Imagine a four-burner stove. One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work. In order to be successful, you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two.               

“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.”

Chapter 5: Escape—The Perks of Being Unavailable

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

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

Chapter 6: Look—See What Really Matters

“Being a journalist of your own life will force you to stop hyper-focusing on all the minor details and see the bigger picture.”

“One of the most obvious and yet powerful ways to become a journalist of our own lives is simply to keep a journal.”               

Chapter 7: Play—Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child                

“Play doesn’t just help us to explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.”

Chapter 8 Sleep—Protect the Asset              

“The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves.”               

Essentialists see sleep as necessary for operating at high levels of contribution more of the time.

Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritise.

Chapter 9: Select—The Power of Extreme Criteria

The 90 Percent Rule:

“As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it.”              

“If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

How to Evaluate Opportunities That Come Your Way

First, write down the opportunity.

Second, write down a list of three “minimum criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered.

Third, write down a list of three ideal or “extreme criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered. By definition, if the opportunity doesn’t pass the first set of criteria, the answer is obviously no. But if it also doesn’t pass two of your three extreme criteria, the answer is still no.

“It’s not enough to simply determine which activities and efforts don’t make the best possible contribution; you still have to actively eliminate those that do not.”

The killer question when deciding what activities to eliminate is: “If I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?”

To uncover your true priorities, ask yourself, “What will I say no to?”

Chapter 10: Clarify—One Decision That Makes a Thousand               

“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.”               

An essential intent is both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable.                

Chapter 11: Dare—The Power of a Graceful “No”

“Only once we separate the decision from the relationship can we make a clear decision and then separately find the courage and compassion to communicate it.”               

“The more we think about what we are giving up when we say yes to someone, the easier it is to say no.”               

“Essentialists accept they cannot be popular with everyone all of the time.”               

“If your manager comes to you and asks you to do X, you can respond with ‘Yes, I’m happy to make this the priority. Which of these other projects should I deprioritise to pay attention to this new project?’               

Chapter 12: Uncommit—Win Big by Cutting Your Losses               

“Sunk-cost bias is the tendency to continue to invest time, money, or energy into something we know is a losing proposition simply because we have already incurred, or sunk, a cost that cannot be recouped.”               

“An Essentialist has the courage and confidence to admit his or her mistakes and uncommit, no matter the sunk costs.”               

“Tom Stafford describes a simple antidote to the endowment effect. Instead of asking, ‘How much do I value this item?’ we should ask, ‘If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?’”

Don’t ask, “How will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity?” but rather, “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?” Similarly, we can ask, “If I wasn’t already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?”               

Chapter 13: Edit—The Invisible Art               

The next stage in the Essentialist process, eliminating the non-essentials, means taking on the role of an editor in your life and leadership.               

The Latin root of the word decision—cis or cid—literally means “to cut” or “to kill.”               

Joke: “I must apologize: if I had more time I would have written a shorter letter.”               

“Alan D. Williams observed in the essay ‘What Is an Editor?’ there are ‘two basic questions the editor should be addressing to the author: Are you saying what you want to say? and, Are you saying it as clearly and concisely as possible?’”               

Chapter 14: Limit—The Freedom of Setting Boundaries               

“Think of one person who frequently pulls you off your most essential path. Make a list of your dealbreakers—the types of requests or activities from that person that you simply refuse to say yes to unless they somehow overlap with your own priorities or agenda.”      

A quick test for finding your deal breakers is to write down any time you feel violated or put upon by someone’s request. It doesn’t have to be in some extreme way for you to notice it.                

Chapter 15: Buffer—The Unfair Advantage               

“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.”               

Chapter 16: Subtract—Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles               

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”—Lao-Tzu             

“Instead of looking for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, they look for the ones slowing down progress. They ask, ‘What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?’”               

“Aristotle talked about three kinds of work, whereas in our modern world we tend to emphasize only two. The first is theoretical work, for which the end goal is truth. The second is practical work, where the objective is action. But there is a third: it is poietical work. The philosopher Martin Heidegger described poiesis as a “bringing-forth.” This third type of work is the Essentialist way of approaching execution.”

“An Essentialist produces more—brings forth more—by removing more instead of doing more.”               

“Instead of focusing on the efforts and resources we need to add, the Essentialist focuses on the constraints or obstacles we need to remove.”               

Instead of just jumping into a project, take a few minutes to think. Ask yourself, “What are all the obstacles standing between me and getting this done?” and “What is keeping me from completing this?” Make a list of these obstacles. They might include: not having the information you need, your energy level, your desire for perfection. Prioritise the list using the question, “What is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?”

Chapter 17: Progress—The Power of Small Wins

“Instead of trying to accomplish it all—and all at once—and flaring out, the Essentialist starts small and celebrates progress. Instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter, the Essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.”               

“In his 1968 Harvard Business Review article entitled ‘One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?’ among the most popular Harvard Business Review articles of all time, Frederick Herzberg reveals research showing that the two primary internal motivators for people are achievement and recognition for achievement.”               

“Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer gathered anonymous diary entries from hundreds of people and covering thousands of workdays. On the basis of these hundreds of thousands of reflections, Amabile and Kramer concluded that ‘everyday progress—even a small win’ can make all the difference in how people feel and perform. ‘Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work,’ they said.”               

Adopt a method of “minimal viable progress.” Ask yourself, “What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?”               

Take a goal or deadline you have coming up and ask yourself, “What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?”               

Chapter 18: Flow—The Genius of Routine

“The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential to the default position.”

Chapter 19: Focus—What’s Important Now?

To operate at your highest level of contribution requires that you deliberately tune in to what is important in the here and now.

“The ancient Greeks had two words for time. The first was chronos. The second was kairos. The Greek god Chronos was imagined as an elderly, grey-haired man, and his name connotes the literal ticking clock, the chronological time, the kind we measure (and race about trying to use efficiently). Kairos is different. While it is difficult to translate precisely, it refers to time that is opportune, right, different. Chronos is quantitative; kairos is qualitative. The latter is experienced only when we are fully in the moment—when we exist in the now.”

“Multi-tasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can ‘multi-focus’ is.”               

“When faced with so many tasks and obligations that you can’t figure out which to tackle first, stop. Take a deep breath. Get present in the moment and ask yourself what is most important this very second—not what’s most important tomorrow or even an hour from now. If you’re not sure, make a list of everything vying for your attention and cross off anything that is not important right now.”               

Chapter 20: Be—The Essentialist Life               

“If you allow yourself to fully embrace Essentialism—to really live it, in everything you do, whether at home or at work—it can become a part of the way you see and understand the world.”               

“As these ideas become emotionally true, they take on the power to change you.”               

“The Greeks had a word, metanoia, that refers to a transformation of the heart.”               

“In many ways, to live as an Essentialist in our too-many-things-all-the-time society is an act of quiet revolution.”               

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

Recommended Reading

If you like Essentialism, you may also enjoy the following books:

Deep Work by Cal Newport

The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday

The ONE Thing by Gary Keller

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