What’s it about?

Essentialism (2014) teaches you how to do better by doing less. By proposing practical solutions for getting your priorities straight, Essentialism helps you eliminate all of the waste that’s keeping you from being truly productive and accomplished.

About the author:

Greg McKeown is an author and management consultant who has coached at companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, and LinkedIn. He holds an MBA from Stanford University, where he co-created the course Designing Life. He is also the author of the best-selling book Multipliers.

The definition of Essentialism and why it is essential:

Two critical questions should be asked when we talk about Essentialism. Can I complete or fulfill this request, given the resources and time I have? Is this the most important thing I should be doing right now?

The author of this book talks about his journey to Essentialism. The first rule is to say no to everything or anything that is not important. His colleagues at work and his friends respected this decision. Consequently, he got more free time to spend with his family and people whom he cared about. Knowing that he is doing what should be done, he started to enjoy his work and get large rewards and bonuses.

The perfect definition for Essentialism is less but better. Concentrate mainly on what is the right thing to do. Is this important? (there are many important things to do, but choosing the right one is the deal-breaker in Essentialism). Filtering what is genuinely essential—deciding where to invest your energy to achieve the best results and performance.

“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it is about getting the right things done.” 

-Greg McKeon

In Non-Essentialism, the same amount of energy is distributed among different activities. An essentialist prefers to invest in fewer activities that matter, making significant progress. The real task is to choose where to invest your energy—choosing the vital few from the trivial many. Remove the obstacles and give your time and energy for the essential things exclusively.

Discipline is the very fuel of Essentialism, where you can be in control of your choices. An essentialist prioritizes the very few important things that matter, so essentialists should know their goals so that they’ll be able to choose what is worth their time. It should be all-important. They live more fulfilled lives because they feel that they are in control of their decisions.

McKeown’s experience with business leaders, tech entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts taught him intelligent people are more likely to have a hard time finding the thing that would make the highest contribution.

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

-Greg McKeon

It happens with the most successful individuals that they get overwhelmed with the multiple opportunities they say yes to. This overwhelming responsibility diffuses their efforts and renders them completely distracted. This is called the paradox of success. The key is to go back to the state of clarity that initially brought this person to success.

While non-essentialism is the opposite approach, and it is common due to several reasons. People often receive too many options increasingly. Because we are swamped, we fail to prioritize. The more choices appear to us, the more the quality of our decisions deteriorates. This state is called “decision fatigue.” Social pressure is also continuously growing on us. We were taught that we could have it all, but as it turns out, we can’t.

The word “priority” in English was singular for over 500 years until 1900 when it became “priorities.” While people now hold several priorities, it doesn’t change the fact that we shouldn’t have more than one. If we don’t consciously choose where to invest our energy, someone else, like a colleague or our boss, will.

Essentialism makes us aware of how to clean up our internal closets and not pile up clutter. Here is how:

  • Explore and evaluate all of your opportunities. Identify whether an activity will make a significant contribution to your goal. You will realize how to apply criteria to filter your choices. Ask, “Do I love this?”
  • Eliminate activities that add a minimal contribution. Learn to say no to better your effectiveness. It needs emotional discipline.
  • Create a system to execute activities that don’t suit you best. Remove obstacles and keep holding on to your system tightly. Make with that the execution effortless.

The very core of Essentialism:

To master Essentialism, you must have the most crucial assumption – “I can do anything but not everything.” On the other hand, it is imperative to get rid of three main assumptions: you have to, you can do both, everything is important. 

We only have limited options, however, you should only choose one among them.

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

-Greg McKeon

Most of the time, we forget that we can choose because choices are tough to make. To make the right decisions, we should exercise the power of choice. We become helpless when we forget our abilities. 

Less is better. People usually act like boxers, thinking that working harder is better, but this hard work often aggravates the problems. McKeown mentions that specific types of efforts bring better results than others. 

The Pareto Principle, which is the 80/20 rule, indicates that 20% of our efforts usually produce 80% of our results. Joseph Moses Jura elaborated this idea by calling it the vital few. Its primary purpose is that by fixing a tiny fraction of the problem, you’ll have a chance to dramatically improve the quality of a product. 

The reality is that you should know that you can’t do it all, so an essentialist needs to understand how to trade off and ask the question, “what is the trade-off I want to make?”

Explore your options and think:

Paradoxically, non-essentialism limits your options. Essentialism, on the other hand, provides numerous choices before going big. An essentialist spends more time questioning, listening, and exploring compared to overworked people.

We must free up time just to think and organize our plans to decide the essential things. Some prestigious universities, like Stanford, have rooms explicitly designated to encourage students to believe differently and more effectively. 

Investing time to think and concentrate on what you need to do is part of the Essentialism plan. To free this time for thinking, we also need to create a space for concentration.

For example, the CEO of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner, allocates two hours of his day to think and reflect. At first, he thought it was a waste of time, but he discovered that it helped him be more productive. 

Bill Gates takes a week off just to think and read; he always did it even in his busiest times. Some are not able to get the pleasure of seven days off; the author recommends reading classic literature books for at least 20 minutes a day in the morning.

Explore your options and observe like a journalist:

A good journalist would know not to be satisfied by only conveying the message. He needs to connect the dots, find what matters and what point does it reflect on people. However, how can you observe the bigger picture in life and focus on the things that matter? You have to learn how to decide what is worth your attention. Rather than listening to everything, an essentialist listens to what isn’t being said. You should concentrate on the silence in the noise.

Follow the following steps and develop your inner journalist:

  • Begin writing in a journal. Take notes to remember the important things and plan a routine to spend a little time writing daily. And read it through every once and a while.
  • Get out and start exploring to understand the issue better and make the maximum effort to fix it.
  • Focus on the details to provide multiple perspectives on the same story.
  • Keep in mind what questions you are attempting to answer. 

Explore your options and play:

Other than thinking and reflecting, it is crucial to find some time to play around. Play is “anything we do simply for the joy of doing it rather than as a mean to an end.” Some studies proved that playing betters everything from your ability to be innovative to creativity to relationships and personal health.

Having fun is helpful when it comes to seeing more options and making us open to new ideas. Moreover, it is a great way to reduce stress and improve your brain’s cognitive activity.

Explore your options and sleep:

Not only would sleep deprivation affect your productivity, but it influences your health and well-being as well. It is effortless to push yourself out of your limits; you need to learn to say no to some opportunities and allow your mind and body to rest. For our mind to function correctly, an average individual would need 8 hours of sleep daily. Sleep helps better your productivity, improves your performance, sparks your creativity, and, consequently, should be at the top level of our plans.

There is an invalid belief that the less you sleep, the more you achieve. But researches confirmed the exact opposite. Sleep deprivation compromises our top priority – the capability to prioritize.

Explore your options and select:

“If the answer isn’t a definite yes, then it should be no,” the writer quotes a leader on Twitter. Derek Sivers is a famous ted speaker, and he puts it in this way: “No More Yes. It’s Either HELL, YEAH! Or No.”, it is crucial to understand this as a core principle for Essentialism.

Apply the 90-10 model for decision making. While evaluating this decision, go over the most crucial criterion and score it between 0 and 100. If it scores less than 90, reject it. Using tough and highly selective criteria is the truth of trade-offs. You’d end up accepting only 10% of the opportunities. Some companies apply this system as a hiring process. They evaluate the candidates and send offers to the individuals that fit perfectly into the job.

Explore your options and say no to opportunities:

It is challenging to say no to opportunities that come knocking at our doors. Usually, it happens because of the fear of missing out.

Try this extreme test to filter any option that passes through you. Copy down your opportunity. After that, write three extreme and three minimum criteria this opportunity has to give. If it fails to pass the minimum, it’s a no-no. However, if it fails two of the extreme criteria, it is also a no.

To discover your life calling, ask yourself: “What am I deeply passionate about?” and “What taps my talent?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?”

Eliminate unimportant things:

Studies have found that we often evaluate things that we already own higher than their actual worth. Ask this killer question:” If I didn’t have this already, how much would I spend money to buy it?”

After exploring your options, decide upon your priorities. Consider what you want to choose and what you want to reject. 

It is essential to achieve clarity; companies that lack clarity are vague about what they want to make. Their energy and time are wasted. Two patterns were recognized by the author when teams lack clarity. In the first case: teams try to attract the boss or the manager’s attention; they try to make their own game by looking better than their colleagues. In the second case, teams work without any purpose and concentrate on tasks that might be important, and their work doesn’t add up.  

How to achieve clarity? The writer calls this method an essential intent. It is a mix of “concrete and inspirational and both measurable and meaningful.” Choosing one strategic option will help eliminate 1000 others. When you think about the statement of your purpose, avoid using buzzwords and clichés. The statement should be evident and concrete. 

Have courage. It is one of the hardest things, yet it is so important to master Essentialism. Courage is considered the key to elimination. It is hard to choose between what is essential and what is not because of our uncertainty. Once we have courage, it gives us the strength to reject the non-essentials.  

To say the no without any guilt, and without letting someone down creating an awkward situation, you should do it reasonably, and more importantly, gracefully. Make it clear that you are not rejecting the person; you are rejecting the request. You can reject some requests without saying the word no. Concentrate on the trade-off to make the process easier. Disappointment from your rejection will be eliminated. And eventually, it will change to respect.

“When we push back effectively, it shows people that our time is highly valuable. It distinguishes the professional from the amateur.”

-Greg McKeon

Do not commit. The British-French Concorde jet could fly more than twice faster than the regular planes, and somehow the project failed. The governments were still investing in the project even though it’s a losing proposition. The first reason is because of sunk-cost bias, which is a tendency to continue to invest because we’ve already incurred, and the cost cannot be returned. People tend to be vulnerable to this bias. They continue to invest instead of walking away when it is not turning out well. Ask the question: “How much would I invest in the project if I wasn’t already invested?”  

The endowment effect is when people overvalue an object they own already and undervalue the same thing they don’t have. This applies to personal belongings and, more importantly, non-essential activities. As an antidote, admit your failures and pretend that you don’t have the items yet. Get a second opinion from a person who doesn’t have an emotional attachment to your project.  

“Every use of time. Energy or resources has to justify themselves anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.”

 -Greg McKeown

Try the “a reverse pilot,” an approach that the director of LinkedIn, Daniel Shapero, talks about. Eliminate the activity for some time to see if it makes a difference or nobody cares.

Edit, you must master the craft of editing by removing the unnecessary things. Jack Dorsey, the Twitter CEO, says that his job is about being the chief editor of the company. He decides that the company should eliminate a lot of things. Subtraction is important for a good editor. 

Another critical principle is considering or at least saying everything concisely and transparently. Eliminate the meaningless and replace them with meaningful ones. 

Boundaries should be built. The author compares boundaries to the wall of a sandcastle. If we allow it to collapse and fall, the rest will drop as well. People think that boundaries are limiting, but in fact, they are liberating and empowering. When you have limits, you become limitless.  

To force people to solve their problems instead of coming to you, put boundaries in advance. The freedom you get with boundaries should be exposed. When schools put fences for the children playing on a busy road, they give them so much more space to play safely.

“When we have clear boundaries, we are free to select from the whole area – or the whole range of options – that we have deliberately chosen to explore.”

 -Greg McKeown

Make a list of the moments when you felt your boundaries were violated so you can define your deal breakers.

How should you develop an effortless system of execution and maintain it?

Create a buffer for a lousy time in advance. Prepare better to reduce the friction, or “unexpected things.” Norway and Britain discovered oil in the North Sea, but only the first one that invested made a profit out of it. 

Studies show that we tend to underestimate the amount of time we usually need to accomplish a task. It is useful sometimes to add an extra 50% time to your usual estimate. 

This is the plan the author recommended, which concentrates on removing constraints instead of focusing on the efforts. 

  1. Identify the outcome you desire.
  2. Think about the obstacle. Identify the main one.
  3. The main obstacle should be removed. 
  4. Focus on the progress.

In Richmond, Canada, a police officer came up with the idea of positive tickets; those tickets were given to people when they do something good. After one decade, this method reduced recidivism from 60% to 80%. 

Mckeown concentrates on the progress because it forms sufficient motivation. Achievement recognition creates more and more prominent achievements.

To get important things done, we need to start small. Start early preparation, so when the project is due, you won’t feel stressed out. Use visuals to see progress.

It is important to develop a routine. The Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has a specific routine that he follows in every race. His coach taught him always to visualize every moment of a perfect race before he went to sleep. He used to call it a videotape. 

Routine is powerful against obstacles. Repetition builds connections between neurons through synapses. When those connections get more reliable, the brain simplifies them and activates them. 

At Duke University, research showed that 40% of our decisions are unconscious. The key to eliminating bad habits is to set a good routine. To establish a correct routine, do the hardest thing in the morning so that you would get a good reward. After achieving the hardest thing in the day, you will get motivated to do other things. 

Focus and concentrate. Do the thing that is important now. This will force you to focus on the present moment. You don’t have any control over future success or past mistakes.

When you are overwhelmed with many tasks, ask yourself what is crucial right now at this very moment. If you are having struggles to decide, write them down.

Pay attention to meaningful moments throughout the day. Live them all through, and then write them down in your journal. That will make you achieve a much better level of contribution and make you genuinely happy.

Be present in your life. You might live life as an essentialist in two ways; one is to do it regularly. Two is to embrace it in your lifestyle.

We are both Essentialists and non-essentialists at the same time, but the question is, what is dominant? If you begin embracing your way towards Essentialism, little by little, these ideas will start coming to you more naturally and in an instinctive sense. Essentialism provides you with more clarity, more control, and more joy in your life and actions. You will get an experience that matters.

“Once the essence of Essentialism enters our hearts, the way of the Essentialist becomes who we are. We become a different, better version of ourselves.” 

-Greg McKeon