Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less


Summary of “Essentialism”: Essentialism is a system-based discipline to determine where our true contribution lies. Then, to make the execution of these high value-added tasks effortless.

By Greg McKeown, 2018, 272 pages.

Note: This is a guest column written by Matthieu from the blog “Simplement Dans Le Bon Sens.”

Chronicle and Summary of the book “Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown:

The 5 big ideas:

  1. It’s only once you give yourself permission to not want to do everything, to say yes to everyone, that you can channel your input into things that really matter.
  2. Essentialism deliberately seeks to distinguish the essential from the insignificant, eliminate the superfluous, in order to have the time necessary to accomplish the essential.
  3. If you don’t have priorities in your life, someone else will decide them you.
  4. The paradox of success: the more choices we have, the more we feel diverted from what would normally have been a priority.
  5. To understand essentialism, we must replace these false claims with three intrinsic truths: “I choose to”, “Only a few things really matter”, and “I can do anything, but I can’t do everything”

Chapter 1: The Essentialist

Only once you give yourself permission to not want to do everything, to say yes to everyone, can you direct your contribution to the activities that really matter.   

We can do less… but better. The Essentialist’s method lies in their perpetual race to do less but better.

Essentialism always asks the question, “Am I doing the right thing?”

Essentialism is not about how you can always do more. It’s about doing the right things the right way. Nor is it to do less just for the sake of it. It’s about a conscious choice for the best way to use your time and energy to act appropriately on what is truly essential.

The Essentialist’s method rejects the idea that we can do everything. Instead, we must face (real) compromises and make difficult decisions.

The method is to live with conviction, rather than by default. Rather than make choices in reaction to something, the Essentialist deliberately seeks to distinguish the essential from the insignificant, eliminate the superfluous, in order to have the necessary time to accomplish the essential.

It is about the definition of the method in order to control our own choices. It is a path to new success and the search for meaning. And it is a path on which we enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

But, if you don’t put priorities in your life, someone else will do it for you.

The paradox of success

  1. When our goals are (really) clear, it allows us to succeed in business.
  2. When we’re successful, we have a reputation for being essential. We become that “good old [your name]” who is always there when you need them, and we are presented with more and more options and opportunities.
  3. When we have more options and opportunities, which leads to a waste of time and energy, the result is that we try to do too many things. We slowly wear ourselves down
  4. We are diverted from what would otherwise be the most efficient means to contribute. Our success has had the effect to undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

The word priority entered the French language in the 1400’s. It was singular. It meant the very first thing. And it remained singular for the next 500 years. And it was not until the 1900’s that we pluralized the term and started to talk about priorities.

Essentialism time

When we do not consciously choose where to focus our energy and time, others – our leaders, colleagues, clients and even families – will choose for us and soon we will have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important.

Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who cares for people in the last 12 weeks of their lives, recorded their most frequently-mentioned regrets. At the top of the list: “I wish I had had the courage to live a life that is true to myself, not the life that others expected me to live.

Before you say yes to something, ask yourself, “Will this activity or effort contribute as much as possible to my goal?”

Here are the three certainties without which essentialist thinking would be neither relevant nor possible:

  1. Personal choice: we can choose how to spend our energy and time
  2. The importance of noise: everything is noise around us, and few things are really important.
  3. The reality of compromise: you can’t have it all, you can’t do it all.

Once we accept the reality of compromise, we no longer ask the question: “How can I make it all work?

And let’s ask the more honest question: “What problem do I need to solve?”

Essentialists ask themselves: “In what way do I feel deeply inspired?”

And “What am I particularly good at?”

And “What meets an important need in the world?”

Essentialists invest the time they have saved to create a system that removes barriers and makes application as simple as possible.

Essentialism is not a way to do one more thing; it is a different way to do everything. It is a way to think.

We must overcome three deeply rooted assumptions in order to follow the path of the Essentialist:

“I have to”, “Everything is important” and “I can do two things at once”.

Chapter 2: Choosing – The invisible power of choice

Ask yourself, “If I could do one thing now in my life, what would I do?

While we don’t always have control over the options available to us, we always have control over how we choose between them.

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

To become an Essentialist, one must have a heightened awareness of our ability to choose.

Essentialism time

When we forget our ability to choose, we become powerless. We lose our power bit by bit, until we become the result of other people’s choices, or even the result of our own past choices.

Chapter 3: Discerning – The superficiality of almost everything

We live in a world where almost everything is insignificant and very little has exceptional value.

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

Many otherwise successful people never reach a higher level of contribution. Not least because they can’t give up the idea that everything is important.

Chapter 4: Compromises – What problem do I want to have?

Rather than try to serve all destinations, Southwest Airlines has deliberately chosen to offer only city-to-city flights. Instead of an increase in prices to cover the cost of meals, they decided to serve nothing. Or, rather than assign seats in advance, they let people choose seats as they get on the plane. Rather than offer their passengers first-class service, they only offer an economy-class flight.

We can try to avoid the reality of compromise, but we cannot escape it.

A non-Essentialist approaches each compromise with the question, “How can I do both?”

The Essentialists ask the more difficult, but more liberating question: “What problem do I want?”

Instead of asking, “What should I give up? “the Essentialists ask, “What should I invest in?”

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

To discern what is truly essential, we need space to think, time to look and listen, time to play, time to sleep, and real discipline to apply very selective criteria to the choices we make.

Chapter 5: Escape – The benefits of being unavailable

We need space to escape in order to distinguish the essential from the insignificant.

To obtain concentration, we must escape. For example, we can take breaks during the day, or meditate, etc.

The non-Essentialist is too busy to think about his life, where the Essentialist creates space to escape and explore life.

Chapter 6: Watch – See what really matters

As a journalist in your own life, you will be forced to no longer focus on all the minor details and see the big picture.

One of the most obvious and powerful ways to become a journalist in one’s own life is simply to keep a diary.

Essentialism time

The non-Essentialist pays attention to the one who shouts the loudest, listens to everything that is said about them, and is overwhelmed by all the information.

Conversely, the Essentialist is able to distinguish the true signal among the ambient noise, listens to everything that is not said, and scans slowly around them to pick up only the essential.

Chapter 7: Play – Rediscover the wisdom of one’s inner child     

If we play it doesn’t just help us explore what’s essential. To play is essential in itself.

The non-Essentialist thinks that it’s childish, unproductive, and a pure waste of time to play.

The Essentialist knows that it’s essential to play because it opens doors to exploration.

Chapter 8: Sleep – Protect this asset

To begin with, the best asset we have to contribute to the world is ourselves.

Essentialists consider that sleep is necessary to be at their highest level of contribution as often as possible.

Our highest priority is to protect our ability to set priorities.

Non-Essentialists believe that one hour less sleep equals one hour more productivity. They think that sleep is for slackers and that it creates laziness. Sleep hinders the road to “be able to do everything in the day”.

Thus, the Essentialist knows that one hour more sleep is worth several hours of intense productivity. Sleep is for people who perform, it must be a priority. Sleep delivers and nourishes creativity, and it allows one to reach high levels of intellectual performance.

Chapter 9: Choose -The Power of selective criteria

The Rule of 90:

When you evaluate an option, consider the most important criterion for that decision, and then give it a score between 0 and 100. If you give it a score of less than 90, automatically change the score to 0 and reject it.

If it’s not a firm yes, then it’s a firm no.

How to evaluate your opportunities:

  1. Give the opportunity a score to start with.
  2. Second, write a list of three “minimum criteria” that the options have to meet in order to be considered.
  3. Third, write a list of three ideal or “essential criteria” that the options must have in order to be considered. By definition, if the opportunity does not pass the first set of criteria, the answer is obviously no. But if it does not pass two of your three extreme criteria either, the answer is still no.

It is not enough to determine which activities do not make the best possible contribution; you must always actively eliminate those that do.

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

To find establish your true priorities, ask yourself, “What am I going to say no to?”

Chapter 10: Clarify – The decision worth a thousand

When there is a lack of clarity about what the team stands for, as well as its goals and roles, people become confused, stressed and frustrated.

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

Non-Essentialists have a vague vision of their strategy. They may have quarterly objectives, but none of their goals inspire or motivate. They have values but no defined system that can help implement them.

Conversely, Essentialists have a concrete strategy that inspires. They remember their motivations at all times, because they have real meaning for them. They can take a decision that will save them the need to take thousands more later.

Chapter 11: Dare – The power of a tactful “No”

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

Focus on what you will have to have to do and endure and say yes to someone. With these thoughts in mind, it will be much easier for you to say no.

Essentialists assume that they cannot be popular with others at every moment of their day.

If your manager comes to you and asks you to do X, you can answer “Yes, I’m happy to make it a priority. Which of these other projects do I need to de-prioritize to complete this new one?”

Chapter 12: Disengage – Win big and cut your losses

Sunk cost bias is the tendency to continue to invest time, money or energy in a project that we know loses money, simply because we have already invested and spent money that cannot be recovered.

Essentialists shoulder their choices and responsibilities, admit that they were wrong and take a step back from their past decisions, no matter what it will cost them.

Tom Stafford proposes a simple antidote to the endowment effect. Rather than ask, “How do I value this item?” we should ask, “If I didn’t have this item, how much would I pay for it?”

Don’t ask yourself, “How will I see myself if I miss this opportunity,” but rather, “If I am denied this opportunity, what price would I have to pay to get it?”

Similarly, we can ask ourselves: “If I wasn’t already involved in this project, how much work would I have to do, to make it happen?”

Chapter 13: Self-edit – The invisible art

The next step in the Essentialist process, through the elimination of non-essential elements, is to take on the role of editor of your life and leadership.

First of all, the word “decision” comes from the Latin “cid” which means “to cut”, but also “to kill”.


Alan D. Williams observed in his essay “What is a Publisher?” that the editor must address two fundamental questions to the writer: “Do you say what you mean?” and, “Do you say it as clearly and concisely as possible?”

The non-Essentialist thinks that to do things better means you add even more criteria. He is attached to every word, image or detail.

The Essentialist believes that to do things better means to do less. They eliminate superfluous words, pictures and insignificant details.

Chapter 14: Limitations – The freedom to set barriers

Think of someone who frequently takes you off your essential path. Make a list of the demands this person makes that you simply refuse to say yes to, unless they somehow overlap with your own priorities or agenda.

A quick test for this is to take note of whenever you feel uncomfortable after someone’s request.

Chapter 15: Delay -The Unfair Advantage

Essentialists realistically accept that they can never fully prepare for every scenario or eventuality. The future is simply too unpredictable. Instead, they build in time delays to reduce the friction caused by the unexpected.

Chapter 16: Subtract – Do more and remove barriers

“To gain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, take things away every day” – Lao Tzu

Rather than look for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, Essentialists look for those that slow progress. They ask, “What prevents us to achieve the Essential?”

Aristotle spoke of three types of work, whereas in our modern world we tend to emphasize only two. The first is theoretical work, for which the ultimate goal is truth. The second is practical work, where the goal is action. But there is a third: it is poetic work. The philosopher Martin Heidegger has described poetry as “emphasis”. This third type of work is the Essentialist’s way of execution.

An Essentialist produces more, delivers more, and removes more rather than does more.

Instead of a focus on the efforts and resources to be added, the Essentialist focuses on the constraints or obstacles that need to be removed.

Rather than dive straight into a project, take a few minutes to think about it. Ask yourself these questions: “What are all the obstacles that stand in the way of what I want to do?” and “What stops me from completing this?”

So, make a list of these obstacles. They may include: a lack of the information you need, your energy level, your desire for perfection. Then prioritize with this question: “What is the barrier that, if removed, would make most of the other barriers disappear?”

Chapter 17: Progress – The power of small victories

Rather than try to accomplish everything – and everything at the same time – and get excited, Essentialists start small and celebrate progress. Rather than achieve the big, spectacular victories that don’t really matter, Essentialists pursue small victories in essential areas.

In his 1968 article entitled “Again: How do you motivate employees?” published in the Harvard Business Review, Frederick Herzberg reveals research that shows the two most important internal motivators for employees are success and recognition of that success.

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer collected anonymous diary entries from hundreds of people covering thousands of work days. Based on these hundreds of thousands of thoughts, Amabile and Kramer concluded that “daily progress – even a small victory” can make all the difference in the way people feel and behave. “Of all the things that can stimulate emotions, motivation and perceptions during a workday, the most important thing is to make progress in meaningful work,” they said.

Adopt a “minimal viable progress” approach. Then ask yourself, “What is the smallest amount of progress that is useful and valuable for the essential task we are trying to accomplish?”

Set a goal or a deadline. Then ask yourself, “What is the one small thing I could do now to prepare?”

Chapter 18: The flow – The genius of routine

Non-Essentialists force themselves to perform the essential things, because for them the superfluous corresponds to their default state.

Essentialists design a routine that achieves what they have identified as essential. This routine becomes their default position.

Chapter 19: Focus – What’s important now?

To function at your highest level of contribution, you must deliberately connect to what is important in the here and now.

Essentialism time

The Greeks had two words for time. The first was “chronos”. The second was “kairos”. The Greek god Chronos was depicted as an elderly, grey-haired man, and his name evokes the time clock, chronological time, the type of time we measure (and try to use effectively). Kairos is different. Although it is difficult to translate accurately, it refers to a timely, correct, different kind of time. Chronos is quantitative; kairos is qualitative. The latter is experienced only when we are fully in the moment when we exist in the present.”

Multitasking is not the enemy of Essentialism. Its enemy is the pretention that we can “multi-concentrate”.

When you’re faced with so many tasks and obligations that you can’t determine which one you should tackle first, stop. Take a deep breath. Be in the moment and ask yourself what is most important at that very second, not what is most important tomorrow or even in an hour. If you’re not sure, make a list of everything you’re interested in and cross off anything that doesn’t matter right now.

Chapter 20: Being – The Essentialist Life

If you allow yourself to fully adhere to Essentialism, to really live it, in everything you do, at home or at work, it can be part of how you see and understand the world.

When these ideas become emotionally true, they take on the power to change you.

The Greeks had a word, metanoia, which refers to a transformation of the heart.

In many ways, living as an Essentialist in our society where too much happens at the same time, is an act of quiet revolution.

But whatever decision, challenge or crossroads you encounter in your life, just ask yourself, “What is essential?”. Cut out everything else.

Book critique of “Essentialism”:

First of all, for me “Essentialism” was like a 2nd “4-hour week”, there was a before and after. I hadn’t imagined that one could implement a refusal system, a real mechanism to eliminate superfluous things.

After you read Essentialism, you will always keep in mind the pursuit to get to the point, and nothing else. To maximize your contribution and add value. Everything you do will be well done, much better so than if you had done other things in parallel without really committing yourself.

For me, this notion is very important. I have created a blog where I share articles to act with simplicity and efficiency. I am convinced that common sense remains our best weapon to find simple solutions acceptable to everyone!

Strong Points:

  • Gets to the point! Makes sense, given the title of the book Essentialism…
  • Essentialism is a fast and memorable read
  • The examples are very good

Weak Points:

  • Sometimes a little too teacher-like
  • Sometimes utopian in the way he presents things, especially to express his refusals.

My rating : Essentialism time Essentialism time Essentialism timeEssentialism timeEssentialism timeEssentialism timeEssentialism timeEssentialism timeEssentialism time

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