"Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less"

Greg McKeown

October 4, 2018 161 Highlights

Page: 2

“Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?”

Page: 3

He stopped attending conference calls that he only had a couple of minutes of interest in. He stopped sitting in on the weekly update call because he didn’t need the information. He stopped attending meetings on his calendar if he didn’t have a direct contribution to make. He explained to me, “Just because I was invited didn’t seem a good enough reason to attend.”

Page: 3

Instead of spinning his wheels trying to get everything done, he could get the right things done.

Page: 3

Instead of making just a millimeter of progress in a million directions he began to generate tremendous momentum towards accomplishing the things that were truly vital.

Page: 4

In this example is the basic value proposition of Essentialism: 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.

Page: 6

Less but better.

Page: 6

Am I investing in the right activities?” There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in.

Page: 6

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 our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.

Page: 7

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 nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

Page: 8

The Model

Page: 9

The way of the Essentialist is the path to being in control of our own choices.

Page: 10

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

Page: 14

for many, falling into “the undisciplined pursuit of more” was a key reason for failure.

Page: 16

But when we try to do it all and have it all, we find ourselves making trade-offs at the margins that we would never take on as our intentional strategy. 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.

Page: 17

Will this activity or effort make the highest possible contribution toward my goal?

Page: 20


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

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

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

Page: 23

Many of us say yes to things because we are eager to please and make a difference.

Page: 23

To eliminate nonessentials means saying no to someone. Often.

Page: 26

What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?

Page: 32

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

Page: 32

I choose to, only a few things really matter, and I can do anything but not everything.

Page: 35

Our options may be things, but a choice—a choice is an action.

Page: 35

This experience brought me to the liberating realization that while we may not always have control over our options, we always have control over how we choose among them.

Page: 38

choice is at the very core of what it means to be an Essentialist.

Page: 43

What is the most valuable result I could achieve in this job?

Page: 43

Working hard is important. But more effort does not necessarily yield more results. “Less but better” does.

Page: 44

the Law of the Vital Few.

Page: 44

Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.

Page: 45

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.

Page: 50

You have to look at every opportunity and say, Well, no I’m sorry. We’re not going to do a thousand different things that really won’t contribute much to the end result we are trying to achieve.

Page: 52

we can either make the hard choices for ourselves or allow others—whether our colleagues, our boss, or our customers—to decide for us.

Page: 55

As painful as they can sometimes be, trade-offs represent a significant opportunity. By forcing us to weigh both options and strategically select the best one for us, we significantly increase our chance of achieving the outcome we want.

Page: 60

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.

Page: 62

Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking. But their exploration is not an end in itself. The purpose of the exploration is to discern the vital few from the trivial many.

Page: 68

Can you remember what it was like to be bored? It doesn’t happen anymore.

Page: 68

Here’s another paradox for you: the faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule. And the noisier things get, the more we need to build quiet reflection spaces in which we can truly focus.

Page: 74

In every set of facts, something essential is hidden.

Page: 76

Essentialists are powerful observers and listeners.

Page: 78

Capture the headline. Look for the lead in your day, your week, your life. Small, incremental changes are hard to see in the moment but over time can have a huge cumulative effect.

Page: 87

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.

Page: 94

Protecting the Asset

Page: 94

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

Page: 99

In a nutshell, sleep is what allows us to operate at our highest level of contribution so that we can achieve more, in less time.

Page: 102

Sleep will enhance your ability to explore, make connections, and do less but better throughout your waking hours.

Page: 103

“No More Yes. It’s Either HELL YEAH! Or No,” the popular

Page: 103

If the answer isn’t a definite yes then it should be a no.

Page: 107

Making our criteria both selective and explicit affords us a systematic tool for discerning what is essential and filtering out the things that are not.

Page: 115

ELIMINATE How Can We Cut Out the Trivial Many?

Page: 118

If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?” Likewise, in your life, 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?

Page: 118

What, of my list of competing priorities, should I say yes to?

Page: 118

Instead, ask the essential question: what will I say no to?

Page: 120

how to eliminate nonessentials in order to ensure that we can pour our energies into the activities that are most meaningful to us.

Page: 121

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.

Page: 124

In the same way, when individuals are involved in too many disparate activities—even good activities—they can fail to achieve their essential mission. One reason for this is that the activities don’t work in concert, so they don’t add up into a meaningful whole.

Page: 124

When teams are really clear about their purpose and their individual roles, on the other hand, it is amazing what happens to team dynamics.

Page: 126

An essential intent, on the other hand, is both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable. Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions.

Page: 126

One strategic choice eliminates a universe of other options and maps a course for the next five, ten, or even twenty years of your life.

Page: 126

Has a strategy that is concrete and inspirational Has an intent that is both meaningful and memorable Makes one decision that eliminates one thousand later decisions

Page: 126

To get everyone in the U.K. online by the end of 2012. It was simple, concrete, inspiring, and easily measured.

Page: 127


Page: 127

If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?

Page: 127


Page: 127

we need to remember that concrete objectives have the power to elevate and inspire as

Page: 128

Living with Intent Essential intent applies to so much more than your job description or your company’s mission statement; a true essential intent is one that guides your greater sense of purpose, and helps you chart your life’s path.

Page: 130

It takes asking tough questions, making real trade-offs, and exercising serious discipline to cut out the competing priorities that distract us from our true intention.

Page: 136

A true Essentialist, Peter Drucker believed that “people are effective because they say no.”

Page: 140

The No Repertoire

Page: 140

1. The awkward pause.

2. The soft “no” (or the “no but”).

3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”

4. Use e-mail bouncebacks.

5. Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritize?”

6. Say it with humor.

7. Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.”

8. “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.”

Page: 145


Page: 146

“sunk-cost bias.”

Page: 146

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.

Page: 146

The more we invest in something, the harder it is to let go.

Page: 148

“the endowment effect,” our tendency to undervalue things that aren’t ours and to overvalue things because we already own them.

Page: 149

PRETEND YOU DON’T OWN IT YET Tom Stafford describes a simple antidote to the endowment effect.6 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?”

Page: 151


Page: 151

The tendency to continue doing something simply because we have always done it is sometimes called the “status quo bias.”

Page: 153

“reverse pilot.”

Page: 153

In a reverse pilot you test whether removing an initiative or activity will have any negative consequences.

Page: 154

He simply stopped publishing the report and waited to see what the response would be.

Page: 156

a good film editor makes it hard not to see what’s important because she eliminates everything but the elements that absolutely need to be there.

Page: 156

he thinks of the role of CEO as being the chief editor of the company.

Page: 157

a good editor is someone who uses deliberate subtraction to actually add life to the ideas, setting, plot, and characters.

Page: 157

Likewise, in life, disciplined editing can help add to your level of contribution. It increases your ability to focus on and give energy to the things that really matter.

Page: 158

Thinks that making things better means subtracting something Eliminates the distracting words, images, and details

Page: 158


Page: 159

having fewer options actually makes a decision “easier on the eye and the brain,”

Page: 159

we realize that every additional moment we have gained can be spent on something better.

Page: 160


Page: 160

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

Page: 160

“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?”

Page: 161

We need to eliminate multiple meaningless activities and replace them with one very meaningful activity.

Page: 161

CORRECT An editor’s job is not just to cut or condense but also to make something right.

Page: 161

EDIT LESS This may seem a little counterintuitive. But the best editors don’t feel the need to change everything.

Page: 162

Becoming an editor in our lives also includes knowing when to show restraint. One way we can do this is by editing our tendency to step

Page: 164

get clear with each member of the team about expectations, accountability, and outcomes.

Page: 166

After all, if you don’t set boundaries—there won’t be any.

Page: 166

Essentialists, on the other hand, see boundaries as empowering.

Page: 168

DON’T ROB PEOPLE OF THEIR PROBLEMS I am not saying we should never help people. We should serve, and love, and make a difference in the lives of others, of course. But when people make their problem our problem, we aren’t helping them; we’re enabling them.

Page: 168

Once we take their problem for them, all we’re doing is taking away their ability to solve it.

Page: 169

when we don’t set clear boundaries in our lives we can end up imprisoned by the limits others have set for us.

Page: 170

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.

Page: 170


Page: 174

Essentialists invest the time they have saved by eliminating the nonessentials into designing a system to make execution almost effortless.

Page: 176

A “buffer” can be defined literally as something that prevents two things from coming into contact and harming each other.

Page: 178

The Nonessentialist tends to always assume a best-case scenario. We all know those people (and many of us, myself included, have been that person) who chronically underestimate how long something will really take:

Page: 180

USE EXTREME PREPARATION When I was a graduate student at Stanford I learned the key to receiving top grades was extreme preparation.

Page: 183

simply to add a 50 percent buffer to the amount of time we estimate it will take to complete a task or project (if 50 percent seems overly generous, consider how frequently things actually do take us 50 percent longer than expected).

Page: 185

Constraints, he is told, are the obstacles holding the whole system back.

Page: 187

But if you really want to improve the overall functioning of the system—whether that system is a manufacturing process, a procedure in your department, or some routine in your daily life—you need to identify the “slowest hiker.”

Page: 189

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

Page: 190

IDENTIFY THE “SLOWEST HIKER” Instead of just jumping into the project, take a few minutes to think. Ask yourself, “What are all the obstacles standing between me and getting this done?”

Page: 195

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.

Page: 196

Research has shown that of all forms of human motivation the most effective one is progress. Why? Because a small, concrete win creates momentum and

Page: 196

affirms our faith in our further success.

Page: 199


Page: 199

Done is better than perfect.

Page: 199

What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?

Page: 200


Page: 207

But the right routines can actually enhance innovation and creativity by giving us the equivalent of an energy rebate.

Page: 212

the tips above to develop a routine of doing your hardest task in the day first thing in the morning.

Page: 212

Jack Dorsey, the cofounder of Twitter and founder of Square, has an interesting approach to his weekly routine. He has divided up his week into themes. Monday is for management meetings and “running the company” work. Tuesday is for product development. Wednesday is for marketing, communications, and growth. Thursday is for developers and partnerships. Friday is for the company and its culture.

Page: 215


Page: 215

What’s important now?

Page: 216

What’s important now?

Page: 220

in fact we can easily do two things at the same time: wash the dishes and listen to the radio, eat and talk, clear the clutter on our desk while thinking about where to go for lunch, text message while watching television, and so on. What we can’t do is concentrate on two things at the same time.

Page: 220


Page: 222

GET THE FUTURE OUT OF YOUR HEAD Getting the future out of your head enables you to more fully focus on “what is important now.”

Page: 224

the sentiment attributed to Lao Tzu: “In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.”

Page: 224

Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.

Page: 226

Living Essentially There are two ways of thinking about Essentialism. The first is to think of it as something you do occasionally. The second is to think of it as something you are.

Page: 228

MAJORING IN MINOR ACTIVITIES There is a big difference between being a Nonessentialist who happens to apply Essentialist practices and an Essentialist who only occasionally slips back into some Nonessentialist practices.

Page: 230

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.

Page: 232

building a career of meaning.

Page: 234

What if?

Page: 236

The Essential Life: Living a Life That Really Matters The life of an Essentialist is a life of meaning. It is a life that really matters.

Page: 240

But when teams lack clarity of purpose, it becomes difficult if not impossible to discern which of these myriad opportunities are truly vital.

Page: 241


Page: 242

Everything to everyone Essentialist Less but better TALENT Nonessentialist Hires people frantically and creates a “Bozo explosion.” Essentialist Ridiculously selective on talent and removes people who hold the team back. STRATEGY Nonessentialist Pursues a straddled strategy where everything is a priority. Essentialist Defines an essential intent by answering the question, “If we could only do one thing, what would it be?” Eliminates the nonessential distractions. EMPOWERMENT Nonessentialist Allows ambiguity over who is doing what. Decisions are capricious. Essentialist

Page: 242

Focuses on each team member’s highest role and goal of contribution. COMMUNICATION Nonessentialist Talks in code. Essentialist Listens to get to what is essential. ACCOUNTABILITY Nonessentialist Checks in too much or is so busy he or she checks out altogether. Sometimes does both: disrupting the focus of the group and then being absent to the group. Essentialist Checks in with people in a gentle way to see how he or she can remove obstacles and enable small wins. RESULT Nonessentialist A fractured team that makes a millimeter of progress in a million directions Essentialist

Page: 242

A unified team that breaks through to the next level of contribution

Page: 243


Page: 243

“Bozo explosion”—a term he uses to describe what happens when a formerly great team or company descends into mediocrity.

Page: 243

An Essentialist, on the other hand, is ridiculously selective on talent. She has the discipline to hold out for the perfect hire—no matter how many résumés she has to read, or interviews she has to conduct, or talent searches she has to make—and doesn’t hesitate to remove people who hold the team

Page: 243

The result is a team full of all-star performers whose collective efforts add up to more than the sum of their parts

Page: 243


Page: 244


Page: 244

An Essentialist understands that clarity is the key to empowerment. He doesn’t allow roles to be general and vague. He ensures that everyone on the team is really clear about what they are expected to contribute and what everyone else is contributing.

Page: 245


Page: 246

By checking in with people frequently to reward small wins and help people remove obstacles, he bolsters the team’s motivation and focus and enables them to make more meaningful progress

Page: 246

Out of all virtues simplicity is my most favorite virtue. So much so that I tend to believe that simplicity can solve most of the problems, personal as well as the world problems. If the life approach is simple one need not lie so frequently, nor quarrel nor

Page: 246

steal, nor envy, anger, abuse, kill. Everyone will have enough and plenty so need not hoard, speculate, gamble, hate. When character is beautiful, you are beautiful. That is the beauty of simplicity.