Essentialism22 min read

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Essentialism Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: Essentialism shows you an entirely new way of productivity and life, by giving you a systematic discipline to help you be extremely selective about the essential things in your life and then ruthlessly cutting out everything else.

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Essentialism Summary

Published in early 2014, this is one of the most recent books on how to get more out of your life by doing less. Remember how Steve Jobs said focus was about saying no? This book is all about how you can take this concept and apply it to your whole life.

Comparing essentialist with non-essentialist from chapter to chapter, this book slowly, but surely gives you a set of principles and tools to identify everything in your life that’s not important and cut it it out.

Here are 3 great starting points:

Doing nothing and doing everything are both signs of learned helplessness.

Become the editor of your own life with the 90% rule.

Always give yourself a buffer of 50%.

Ready to step on to the essentialist path? Let’s take a hike!

Lesson 1: Doing nothing and doing everything are both signs of learned helplessness.

If you’re not doing anything, that of course means you’re not getting important things done.

However, so does doing everything.

Both camps are equally bad and a result of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a concept first observed by Martin Seligman, happiness researcher and author of Learned Optimism.

It was originally observed in an experiment where dogs were administered electric shocks. All dogs had a lever they could pull, which would stop the shocks for one group, but not for the other.

Later both groups of dogs were placed in a large box with a low divider between a shock zone and a shock free zone. The dogs who had had the chance to stop the shocks before instantly jumped to the shock free zone – the ones where the lever had been of no use didn’t.

They had learned to be helpless and just accepted their fate.

Whether we’re doing nothing or trying to do everything, we’re giving up our power to choose, just like the dogs.

When you find yourself throughout your day, saying “I have to do X, I have to do Y”, over and over again, it’s likely you’ve to some extent given others the power to choose for you.

Here’s how to go from “I have to” to “I choose to”.

Lesson 2: Become the editor of your own life with the 90% rule.

Jack Dorsey explained the job of being the CEO of Twitter as being like an editor.

He has to edit teams, financials, and the company’s vision on a consistent basis. Being an editor is about adding, but mostly about removing what’s not adding.

Essentialism teaches you to become the editor of your own life, and one of the rules it gives you to do so is the 90% rule.

For every item, to do, or decision you consider, only look at the most important criterion and give it a value between 0 and 100.

Everything that’s under 90 is considered a 0, and has to go.

For example, when sorting out your closet, you could calculate the likelihood of ever wearing a piece of clothing again – if it’s below 90%, why keep it?

Similarly, for your to-do list, you can ask: “How likely is this to really help me make progress towards my most important goal?”

This is very similar to Steve Jobs’s advice about focus and Derek Sivers’s “It’s either hell yes, or no” approach and will help you say no more often, to leave only the things in your life which are adding the most value to your overall story.

Lesson 3: Always add 50% of the time you think you need as a buffer.

You know what the most beautiful part about saying no is?

The feeling of having enough time to attend to the things that you do say yes to.

However, focusing on few things does not mean you’ll end up idle. You still have to plan them.

For example even when you just pick 3 tasks for your day, it’s easy for them to take more time than you expect. Thinking we’re able to estimate how much we can get done in a day and that everything will go as expected is one of our major flaws as humans.

That’s why McKeown suggests always adding 50% of the time you think a task takes as buffer, in order to account for the unexpected.

When you think writing an article will take you 1 hour, plan 1.5 hours in your calendar. Estimate a Skype call to go for 30 minutes? Plan 45.

And so on.

This buffer will leave you room to breathe and help you not freak out when things run long, which they often do.

But for the essentialist, this is okay, because he or she knows that planning extra time for the unplannable, is the essentialist way of making time for what is, well, truly essential.

My personal take-aways

The very core idea of the book is embedded in one beautiful and utterly clear graphic, which I used as the foundation of a guest post for Productivityist.

It shows 12 arrows for the 12 hours in your day. In one case they all point in different directions, in the other they all point in one direction, showing the magnitude of focus.

A lot of time management books are about prioritizing, but do it in the form of “Do this, then that.” This book says “Do this, and nothing else.”

In theory we all know what really matters to us, we just tend to overestimate ourselves and lift a lot of things from “nice to have” to “this is important”. Essentialism helps you stop doing that.

Essentialism   –   Greg Mckeown


  • What’s it about?
  • Learn to distinguish reality from false social narratives
  • Remember that you do have a choice
  • Reflection is crucial: make time to think, in order to exploreyour options
  • Clarity is key: refine your criteria for what is important
  • Seemingly good opportunities can be distractions in disguise
  • Devise an effective routine for carrying out your essentialactivities with ease
  • Final summary
  • Now read the book
  • Key takeaways

What’s it about?

More than ever, we’re sold the idea that we can “have it all” and that we should also attempt to “do it all” in order to achieve our maximum potential. The temptation is to accept as much work as we are offered, and to seize any opportunity that arises—yet this attitude can be incredibly counterproductive. Trying to pack in numerous tasks and attempting to simultaneously complete them all with perfection is not only extraordinarily tiring, but it means that the quality of all your endeavors inevitably suffers. The contradiction within the logic of this modern “must fit it all in” outlook is that you can end up expending a lot of effort on various projects, yet make minimal progress in any of them.

In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown proposes an alternative method for maximizing your capacity to succeed by doing less, while ensuring that the activities you do carry out are the essential ones: those that matter the most in relation to your ultimate aims. Applying the essentialism framework to your life allows you to achieve greater autonomy, as it forces you to distinguish what is really important and meaningful from what is not, and to take control of how best to utilize your time and energy.

If you find yourself continuously swamped with an eternal to-do list, yet feel like you rarely move forward with anything, then Essentialism will teach you how to unpick the social expectations that impel you to say yes to everything, and instead consider what exactly is essential to you. It will show you the value of restraint and the importance of clarity in determining what matters the most, and help you to progress more easily. Most importantly, the teachings in Essentialism will enable you to remove unnecessary distractions and put your most important missions into practice.

Learn to distinguish reality from false social narratives

Though we rarely question them, strong social pressure is exerted on us to tick multiple boxes. This pressure is present in various forms—from advertising and media, which glamorize individuals who successfully juggle many ventures and embody the “do it all” existence, to job specifications and university applications that demand a diverse array of skills and proficiencies. We are confronted with increasingly higher expectations that are neither realistic nor beneficial for our mental and physical health, which both inevitably suffer as we strive to satisfy a growing list of requirements.

It is these social pressures that explain why “nonessentialism”sis so deeply ingrained in our way of thinking: we blindly take on more work without considering the effect on our current priorities, and make the assumption that a heavy workload will gain us more respect and improve our status. We jump on any opportunity that comes our way in the belief that declining would be a negative decision. We tend to desire more in general, because we are led to believe that moreequals better.

But we have forgotten the truth, which is that only a few aspects of our lives are of genuine importance; most parts of it are not. Spending quality time with our loved ones will have lasting memory and meaning, whereas constantly checking our work emails does not have significant purpose. Following the laws of essentialism means making a crucial distinction so that we can reclaim some control over how we spend our time and what we choose to focus on.

Essentialism is inherently oppositional to the social pressures that say we must “do it all” because it recognizes that juggling many different activities automatically makes it harder to improve very rapidly in any one of them. Furthermore, most of these activities are simply distractions that detrimentally affect what is most vital—yet we don’t realize this because we are so busy trying to fit everything in.

In reality, petty distractions (like social media) and many of the things that we put enormous effort into (such as attending extra meetings or networking events) are ultimately unimportant—and yet they take up a lot of mental space, time, and energy. As soon as you have accepted that this is the case, you can begin to deconstruct social expectations and start to take steps toward establishing what is and what is notessential for you.

Remember that you do have a choice

When you begin to accept that you cannot do it all, it is also important to realize you are not obliged to. As we are increasingly presented with more choices, we forget that we are not compelled to agree to every request made of us: we have acquired “learned helplessness”. Essentially, this means that we fail to remember our own free will; we have become accustomed to the belief that we have to say yes to requests every time—even if we regret it later.

We naturally want to please others and prove ourselves worthy, but in the process of agreeing to every favor, we sacrifice our autonomy over how we use our time, and end up sidelining what should be our focus. Saying no is difficult, as we don’t want to be labeled a “letdown.” However, learning to politely decline is more beneficial for us in the long term: we are able to fully apply ourselves to the tasks that matter, and though the person in question may be initially disappointed that we have refused their request, in the long run they will see that we are organized and professional—that we are consciously managing our time in order to concentrate on our essential focus, which will be of a superior quality as a result.

When McKeown’s wife gave birth, he faced a dilemma: a colleague requested that he attend a meeting with a client that day. McKeown felt terrible about leaving his wife and child, but he also felt compelled to go to the meeting due to intense social pressure. Yet his attendance did not garner him respect from the client—if anything, they were surprised that he was there. McKeown had given in to the fear and guilt that many of us feel when faced with a proposition, and he had felt obliged not to let his colleague down. In doing so, he had lost sight of the essential: spending time with his wife and baby daughter.

If we let social pressure dominate, and abandon our ability to consciously make a choice, we end up passively allowing the requests of others determine our path, just like McKeown did when he agreed to go to that meeting. Essentialism allows us to reclaim autonomy over our lives, and by learning to decline the nonessential, we demonstrate that we are focused, conscientious individuals—which is more worthy of respect in the long term.

Reflection is crucial: make time to think, in order to explore your options

Despite the fact that free time is considered a luxury rather than a necessity by many—especially those in the corporate world—the opposite is in fact true. Without utilizing time and space specifically to contemplate what we are doing and process what is going on around us, we deny ourselves crucial access to establishing the essential from the nonessential. And in this fast-paced modern world in which we are surrounded by infinite technological distractions, taking time out to do nothing but think is becoming increasingly difficult.

The value of pausing to question your objectives and consider your options is great. From the broadest perspective, you ultimately have only one life, and you need to establish what you want to do in it—and how. These are massive questions that deserve a significant amount of time and devotion to determine the answers. And, with regard to your working life, pausing in order to question what you really want to achieve helps you channel your energy and not get caught up focusing too much of it on less important requests or generally minor tasks.

The benefits of taking time to think is demonstrated by the CEO of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner, who allocates two hours in 30-minute slots over the course of each day in which he can simply reflect. Without this thinking time, he would not be able to analyze what is going well and why, nor would he remember what the critical objectives are for his company. Not only is he refreshed with clearer headspace between meetings, he is also able to streamline his goals and ensure he is not indulging any distractions. He discerns the essential from the nonessential, and by deliberately taking the time to do this, he maintains autonomy over the structure of each day, determining how he spends his time, rather than being passively swept up in the course of various situations.

Try to set aside time each day to sit quietly, thinking over and remembering what really matters to you. Allowing yourself time to do this is the first step in achieving that all-important clarity that is key to essentialism: recognizing what is meaningful from what is not. By consciously putting aside time to think and explore your options, you are able to work towards the vital aim of essentialism more easily: distinguishing the important from the trivial—and this in turn will make future decisions more straightforward.

Clarity is key: refine your criteria for what is important

When it comes to achieving any set mission, distinguishing a clear aim is crucial. If a business has an overlong list of competing priorities, then each operation effectively loses its importance, and consequently the team is likely to feel confused, overwhelmed, and significantly more stressed. There is no single, distinct focus to work toward, and the business is less likely to succeed.

The same rule applies when you are establishing what is essential in your life, and what you seek to achieve. Instead of vague, general aims, such as, “I will produce unique and inspiring designs,” your goals should be specific, in order to be effective: “I will ensure that my designs are distinctive by maintaining my signature printing technique.” By being selective, you dramatically increase your chances of carrying out an ambition successfully, because you have clear direction and are less likely to become occupied by other unimportant factors.

Additionally, when you are trying to make a decision, you need to again apply strict criteria: if you are not immediately wanting to say yes, then the answer should be no. You should establish the single prime factor for making that decision, and then apply the 90 percent rule—if the offer doesn’t fulfill at least 90 percent of your criteria, you know that you can dismiss it as nonessential. You might ask yourself, “If this opportunity had not appeared, how much would I be willing to pursue it?” If you are only 60 percent sure that you would be interested, then this particular offer is unlikely to be worth your valuable time and energy.

The 90 percent rule might seem harsh, but by ensuring that you only expend energy on what is relevant and useful, you are far more likely to find success in your endeavors. Compromise is inevitable, but this way you determine the result of that compromise yourself, rather than passively allowing external factors to govern your direction—as is the case when social pressures cause you to agree to every demand, regardless of their relevance to your aims.

By establishing the core essence of what you want to achieve, you maximize your chances of fulfilling that objective, and not getting lost among the many trivialities that will prove unhelpful in achieving your essential aim. Clarity thus has a dual purpose: it focuses your energy, and equally enables you to recognize the nonessential more easily, so that you can avoid it.

Seemingly good opportunities can be distractions in disguise

When we succeed in our work, we gain credibility, and it is likely that we will later be offered more opportunities because of our achievements. Initially, this might seem like a positive outcome. Yet a greater number of opportunities can lead to us growing confused due to the sheer multiplicity of options, and we can lose sight of our original focus: that which made us successful in the first place.

Furthermore, success becomes harder to achieve the more we attempt to straddle various tasks: our energy gets dispersed, and our essential priorities confused. Rather than letting excitement or social expectation get the better of you, and instantly accepting any opportunity, consider whether it really fits with your essential criteria for what is most important. Remember that the more you commit to, the less likely you are to carry out each commitment with your maximum ability, as your time and energy are rationed into competing fractions.

In your social life, too, the fear of missing out can lead you to accepting every invitation you receive. But have you ever found yourself double-booked and awkwardly trying to please both parties? By failing to accept that you cannot be in two places at once, you are left unable to fully enjoy both occasions, as you have to leave one event early and arrive late to another—and so you are unable to satisfy either party.

Rather than attempting to include everything in a chaotic, nonessentialist fashion, the essentialist way promotes making a fair compromise so that you can be fully present in whatever you are doing—both in your social life and in your work. You might decline an extra project and reasonably suggest delegating it to someone with a smaller workload, so you can focus fully on completing your current work to the highest standard. You could attend one friend’s party, and take the other friend out for dinner the following week—or even occasionally decide to prioritize time for yourself over social engagements.

Essentialists do not deny the inevitability of compromise; instead they ensure that they have agency in determining how that compromise works, so that they get the best possible outcome. Part of essentialism is accepting that although an opportunity may be appealing, it can still interfere with your key aims. The challenge is acknowledging this fact, and focusing on your essential priorities—because they are what matter most.

Devise an effective routine for carrying out your essential activities with ease

Having established some clarity of purpose, it is important that you are able to put your chosen engagements into practice with minimal obstruction. The most effective method of achieving this is to create a routine that reflects your distinction between the essential and the nonessential by firmly implanting the most-critical activities within the structure of your day.

It has been repeatedly shown that any task becomes easier with repetition, because practice makes your ability to perform an activity gradually more automatic. As tasks become less difficult, you will find that this opens up more mental space, and your energy will be boosted. And, despite a reputation for dull tedium, routine can actually be stimulating for creativity and innovation, thereby increasing your chances of further success. Not only this, but by having a firm routine with only your most essential activities embedded within your day, you will find that you actually have more free time as a result. Instead of getting caught up in nonessential emails, distractions, or favors, you can spend more time with your friends and family, or a leisure activity you enjoy—which will only further benefit your well-being.

The effectiveness of a strict routine in stimulating creativity and boosting productivity is exemplified by one of the most successful companies in Silicon Valley. At this company, the CEO has made it the rule that there is a three-hour meeting every Monday morning, for everyone to attend. It might seem tedious, but as the meeting is regular and universal, and no planning is necessary about when or where it takes place or who is involved, all attendants can simply apply themselves to thinking about the most-pressing questions at hand. The CEO has ensured that the setup for the generation of ideas is preprogrammed, and the result is that the most-innovative suggestions always come out of this regular Monday meeting.

Whereas a nonessentialist assumes that their priorities will only be achieved as a result of hard graft—which is made infinitely more difficult by the fact that they are straddling many objectives at once—an essentialist looks for ways to automatize their more selective and disciplined agenda, and is able to enjoy the added benefits of greater mental space for new ideas, and more free time to spend at leisure. Routine therefore not only ensures a degree of focus, but can lead to positive change in the form of innovation as well.

Final summary

Essentialism is about establishing an effective system for best utilizing your time and energy so as to get the most out of your concentrated efforts. It is about recognizing your ability to choose amid the hubbub of social pressures to perform and the fear of missing out, which so often make declining requests difficult.

Following the laws of essentialism means being honest with yourself about the limitations of what you can realistically achieve, and making an informed judgment about what you most want to focus on in life. It runs counter to the normalized idea that you should strive to juggle seamlessly, and instead promotes establishing clarity in your aims. This crucial factor in achieving success has been forgotten by individuals caught up in the expectations of others, and by businesses who have lost their sense of purpose in trying to take on too much, ending up with vague mission statements that only confuse and hinder.

By ensuring that your goals are succinct and tangible, you are more likely to meet them. Recognizing what is truly essential to you and learning to remove the “nonessential” is a discipline that has great rewards: by reducing and refining what you do, you will inevitably do it better. A truly essentialist system will return your sense of autonomy to you, and will anchor you so that you are not cast adrift among the many choices that arise in life. You will learn to achieve “less but better”—quality over quantity—as you determine your own path with confidence.

Now read the book

Greg McKeown’s Essentialism is a thoroughly useful guide on how to adjust our common way of thinking about success—namely, trying to “do it all”—toward a more sensible attitude that promotes clarifying our aims and reducing our activities to the essential ones.

McKeown demonstrates his theory concisely, breaking the book into sections that show us how to rediscover our options, ways to remove obstacles, and how to carry out our essential goals. Diagrams feature as visual aids to McKeown’s key points, and he provides anecdotes and examples of successful essentialist entrepreneurs. McKeown offers practical tips on many aspects of essentialist practice, such as decision-making and the art of gracefully saying no, as well as methods for maximizing one’s ability to think clearly: constructing an effective routine, getting good sleep, being “unavailable,” and maintaining time for play as well as work.

Each chapter begins with a quotation from a prominent historical figure—from Mahatma Gandhi, to Ernest Hemingway—which neatly captures McKeown’s message and reinforces his argument that the essentialist way is the best way. His teachings are not limited to individuals; the book demonstrates how to apply essentialism within a broader context, provides tips for leadership, and illustrates ways that essentialism can improve a business strategy. McKeown’s writing is accessible and his stories are relatable, making this book as enjoyable as it is helpful. Essentialism will make you reconsider what truly matters; McKeown provides a powerful argument for following essentialist practice in living a productive and meaningful life without regret.

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