Essentialism by Greg McKeown Summary

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Essentialism by Greg McKeown
The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

My Thoughts

Essentialism had a profound effect on my mindset and way of life. One of the top 5 books I’ve read in the past several years and I’ve recommended it to multiple friends. It contains a lot of information to digest and apply, I plan to read Essentialism again next year it was so good.

My Favorite Quotes

  • Instead of making a millimeter of progress in a million directions, generate tremendous momentum towards accomplishing things that are truly vital.
  • Focus on the relentless pursuit of less but better.
  • A non-essentialist thinks almost everything is essential; an essentialist thinks almost everything is non-essential.
  • An essentialist discerns more so he can do less.
  • If we do not make sacrifices by design, we will be forced to make sacrifices by default.
  • If you believe being overly busy is evidence of productivity, you probably believe creating space to explore think and reflect should be kept to a minimum.
  • Saying no is its own leadership capability.
  • Admit failure to begin success.
  • To attain knowledge, add things every day; to obtain wisdom, subtract things every day. -Lao Tzu
  • Execution is easy if you work hard at it and hard if you work easy at it.

Best Questions

  • Am I investing in the right activities?
  • Will this activity or effort make the highest possible contribution towards my goal?
  • Stop asking “how can I make it all work?”
    Start asking the more honest question “Which problem do I want to solve?”
  • Three questions to ask for determining your vital few:
    • What do I feel deeply inspired by?
    • What am I particularly talented at?
    • What meets a significant need in the world?
  • If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?
  • Is there a point at which doing more does not produce more?
  • Is there a point at which doing less but thinking more will actually produce better outcomes?
  • Which problem do I want?
  • Instead of asking “What do I have to give up?” Ask “What do I want to go big on?”
  • When did you last take time simply to sit and think?
  • If I weren’t already invested in this project, how much would I invest now?
  • If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?
  • Instead of saying it in two sentences can you say it in one?
  • What might you want to do someday as a result of today?
  • At the end of life would you rather have a long laundry list of accomplishments that don’t really matter, or just a few major accomplishments that have real meaning and significance?
  • Will you choose to live a life of purpose and meaning? Or will you look back on your one single life with twinges of regret?

Part I: Essence

Chapter 1: The Essentialist

The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.
Begin saying no.
People will often respect you more for your refusal, not less.
Instead of making a millimeter of progress in a million directions, generate tremendous momentum towards accomplishing things that are truly vital.
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.
Majoring in minor activities.
Busy but not productive.
The way out is the way of the essentialist.

The way of the essentialist.

Almost everything is noise.
Very few things are essential.
It takes courage to eliminate the non-essential.
Less but better.
The relentless pursuit of less but better.
Pause constantly to ask “Am I investing in the right activities?”
Most activities are trivial, few are vital.
Essentialism is not about how to get more things done, it’s about how to get the right things done.
Live by design, not by default.
Essentialism is a disciplined systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.
Enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

The way of the non-essentialist.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
We have so much more ability inside of us than we often chose to utilize.
How can we make choices that allow us to tap into the potential inside of us and in people everywhere.

The Paradox of Success.
Summed up in Four Phases:

  • Phase 1: when we really have clarity of purpose it enables us to succeed in our endeavor.
  • Phase 2: when we have success, we gain a reputation as a go-to person. We are presented with increased options and opportunities.
  • Phase 3: when we are presented with increased options and opportunities, which is code for demands on our time and energy, it leads to defused efforts. We get spread thinner and thinner.
  • Phase 4: we become distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution.

The pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure.
Falling into the undisciplined pursuit of more is a key reason for failure.

Why is non-essentialism everywhere?
Too many choices.
Leads to decision fatigue. We have lost the ability to prioritize what is important.
Too much social pressure.
The idea that you can have it all.
The word priority was originally only singular. We can only have one most important priority.
We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.
Reduce, simplify and focus on what is absolutely essential by eliminating everything else.
This book will do for your life and career what a professional organizer can do for our closet.

How an essentialist would approach the packed and cluttered closet.

  1. Explore and evaluate.
    Instead of asking “will I wear this someday?
    Ask “Do I love this? Do I look great in this?”
    Equivalent in your personal life.
    Will this activity or effort make the highest possible contribution towards my goal?
  2. Eliminate.
  3. Execute.
    You need a regular routine for organizing.
    Your closet, your life, priorities, etc.
    Once you figure it which activities and efforts to keep, the ones that make your highest level of contribution, you need a system to make executing your intentions as effortless as possible.
    Essentialism is a discipline you apply every time you are faced with a decision.

Four parts of the book.
Part one outlines the core mindset of an essentialist.
Essence: what is the core mindset of an essentialist?
Three realities without which essentialist thinking would be neither relevant or possible.

  1. Individual choice.
  2. The prevalence of noise.
  3. The reality of trade-offs.

The effort to find the most important things to work on is worth it.
Stop asking “how can I make it all work?”
Start asking the more honest question “Which problem do I want to solve?”

The Method

Step One: Explore

Discerning the trivial many from the vital few. Systematically explore and evaluate many options.
Ask three questions:

  1. What do I feel deeply inspired by?
  2. What am I particularly talented at?
  3. What meets a significant need in the world?

We are not looking for a plethora of good things to do, we are looking for our highest level of contribution.
The right thing, in the right way, at the right time.

Step Two: Eliminate

The key to making our highest contribution may be saying no.
People are effective because they say no, because they say “this isn’t for me.” -Peter Drucker
To eliminate non-essentials takes saying no to someone, and often. It takes courage and compassion.

Eliminating non-essentials is about mental disciple but also about the emotional discipline necessary to say no to social pressure.
The real question is, who will get to chose what I do and don’t do.

Step Three: Execution

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

Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Victor Hugo

We do things we detest, to buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.

Eliminate one good, but non-essential, activity and replace it with something essential.

Three fallacies of non-Essentialism.
I have to.
It’s all-important.
I can do both.

Replace the false assumptions with these truths.
I chose to.
Only a few things really matter.
I can do anything but not everything.

Chapter 2: Choose

The invincible power of choice.
It is the ability to choose which makes us human.
If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?
When we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone else will choose for us.
A choice is an action.
We may not have control of our options but we always have control of how we choose among them.
The invincible power of choosing to choose.
Options can be taken away while our core ability to choose cannot be taken away.
The problem of learned helplessness.
The first and most crucial skill you will learn on this journey is to develop your ability to choose choice in every area of your life.

Chapter 3: Discern

The un-importance of practically everything.
A few things work incredibly well and have tremendous impact.
Is there a point at which doing more does not produce more?
Is there a point at which doing less but thinking more will actually produce better outcomes?
Certain types of effort yield higher rewards than others.
Working hard is important but more effort does not necessarily produce more results. Less but better does!
Pareto principle. 80/20 rule.
Joseph Moses Duran: the law of the vital few.
Warren Buffett investment philosophy and decision making. He owes 90% of his wealth to 10 investment decisions.
Certain actions produce exponentially better than others.
A non-essentialist thinks almost everything is essential; an essentialist thinks almost everything is non-essential.
Many good opportunities we pursue are often far less valuable than the few truly great opportunities.
An essentialist discerns more so he can do less.
Practice this skill starting at simple levels, once it becomes second nature for everyday decisions, we can begin to apply it to broader areas.
To master it fully will require a massive shift in thinking.

Chapter 4: Trade-Off

Which problem do I want?
Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs, it is about deliberately choosing to be different.
Southwest Airlines’ financial results. Strategy and trade-offs made.

  • Only point to point flights.
  • No meals on flights.
  • No first-class.

Other airlines tried to “straddle” strategy and do both things at once.
Operating by two incompatible strategies will undermine your efforts.
Ignoring the reality of trade-offs is a terrible strategy.
If we do not make sacrifices by design, we will be forced to make sacrifices by default.
Advice from Peter Drucker to Jim Collins: You can build a great company or great ideas but not both. Collins chose to build great ideas.
Trade-offs are a part of life but not necessarily a negative part.
Instead of asking “What do I have to give up?” Ask “What do I want to go big on?”
Essentialists commit and go big on only the vital few items.
Explore more options at first to ensure you pick the right one later.
You must have the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices you make.

Key Activities of an Essentialist:

  • Space
  • Listening
  • Playing
  • Sleeping
  • Selecting

If you believe being overly busy is evidence of productivity, you probably believe creating space to explore think and reflect should be kept to a minimum.

Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning and thinking. The purpose is to discern the vital few from the trivial many.

Part II: Explore

Chapter 5: Escape

The perks of being unavailable.
Without great solitude no serious work is possible. Pablo Picasso
Frank O’Brien, founder of Conversations, marketing services company.
Schedules the first Monday of every month to turn off phones & email, no work and no agenda.
If you are too busy to think, you are too busy period.
We only get space by design, not by default.
A non-essentialist is too busy doing to think about life.
Create space to escape and explore life.
Space to design.
Stanford Life Design Lab story.
In order to have focus, we need to escape to focus.
Space to explore 100 questions and possibilities.
Designing life essentially, a class offered at Stanford Design Lab School.
Space to concentrate.
When did you last take time simply to sit and think?
The faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule.
CEO of LinkedIn schedules two hours of thinking time every day.
Space to read.
Bill Gates think week: schedules one week per year to think and read.
Read something from classical literature for the first 20 minutes of each day.

Chapter 6: Look

See what really matters.
Stories and anecdotes about journalism.
You must know what something means and why it matters.
Stop hyper-focusing on minor details and see the big picture.
Listen for what is not being said.
A non-essentialist listens to the loudest voice.

A few ways to tap into your inner journalist.

  1. Keep a journal. Take an hour every 90 days to read through your journal.
  2. Get out into the field.
  3. Keep your eyes peeled for abnormal or unusual details.
  4. Clarify the question.

Chapter 7: Play

Embrace the wisdom of your inner child.
Restoring play to our everyday lives has a powerful effect.
Fuel creativity through play.
Play is essential.
National Institute for Play
Play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity.

Play fuels exploration in three ways:

  1. Broadens the range of options available to us.
  2. An anecdote to stress.
  3. Has a positive effect on the executive functions of the brain.
    Executive functions of the brain are planning, prioritizing, deciding, delegating, scheduling, anticipating, analyzing.
    Key breakthroughs in thinking have taken place during play.
    Businesses are embracing play in the workplace.

Chapter 8: Sleep

Protect the asset.
The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves.
If we underinvest in ourselves, our minds, bodies and spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution.
One of the most common ways people damage this asset is through a lack of sleep.
Most people are so used to being tired have forgotten what it feels like to be fully rested.
Systematically build sleep into your schedule.
Essentialists choose to do one fewer thing right now in order to do more tomorrow.
An Essentialist knows:
One hour more of sleep equals several more hours of much higher productivity.
Sleep is for high performers.
Seep is a priority.
Sleep breeds creativity.
Sleep enables the highest levels of mental contribution.
Best violinists in the world had more practice hours than those who were only good and they also got more sleep than the average person.
Sleep deprivation undermines high performance.
Sleep is more about the brain than about the body.
A full night sleep may increase brain power and enhance our problem-solving ability.
While we sleep our brains are hard at work encoding and restructuring information.
Creating and opening new neural connections.
Champions of getting sleep:
Jeff Bezos
Marc Andreessen

Chapter 9: Select

The power of extreme criteria.
An inner process stands in need of outward criteria. -Ludwig Vitkenstien
Derek Sivers. No more yes, it’s either “Hell yes!” or no.
Design life essentially class the author teaches.
The 90% Rule.
When evaluating a decision think about the single most important criterion for that decision. Give the option a score from 0-100. Any score below 90 is a 0, reject it.
Sometimes you will have to turn down a seemingly very good option and have faith that the perfect option will soon come along.
Make decisions by design rather than by default!
Applying numeric values to decisions forces us to make decisions consciously, logically and rationally.
An Essentialist says yes only to the top 10% of opportunities.
Use criteria like: Is this exactly what I am looking for?
Make criteria selective, explicit and right.
606 Universal Shelving System.
Vitsœ has decided they would rather be understaffed than hire the wrong person quickly.
Has a rigorous hiring process. Asks themselves questions like “would we absolutely love working with this candidate?” And “would this candidate absolutely love working with us?”
They do a workday trial run.
Is this person someone I would want to work with every day?
Is this personal a natural fit to work for us?
If it isn’t a clear yes than it is a clear no.
Be wary of FOMO (fear of missing out).
Systematic process to apply selective criteria to opportunities that come your way:

  1. Write down the opportunity.
  2. Write down a list of three minimum criteria the options would need to pass in order to be considered.
  3. Write down a list of three ideal or extreme criteria.
    If the opportunity doesn’t pass two of three extreme criteria it should be a no.
    The difference between a google search for “good restaurant in New York City” and “best slice of pizza in downtown Brooklyn.”

When searching for a career ask these three questions:

  1. What am I deeply passionate about?
  2. What taps my talent?
  3. What meets a significant need in the world?
    We are looking for the one opportunity to make our absolute highest contribution.

Eliminate. How can we cut out the trivial many?
Ask yourself “What will I say no to?”

Part III: Eliminate

Chapter 10: Clarify

One decision that makes a thousand.
The first thing to learn to eliminate is any activity that is misaligned with what you are intending to achieve.
You must be really clear about what your purpose is in the first place.
From pretty clear to really clear.
Ask people: What do you really want out of your career over the next five years?
Clarity of purpose consistently predicts how people will do their jobs.
Motivation and cooperation deteriorate when there is a lack of purpose.
There must be clarity of goals and roles.
Lack of clarity leads to confusion, stress, frustration, and time-wasting.
Common patterns that emerge when teams lack clarity of purpose:
Pattern 1: Playing Politics
Team becomes overly focused on winning the attention of the manager.
We do the same things in our personal life as our careers.
When we are unclear about our real purpose in life, no clear idea of our goals, aspirations, and values, we make up our own social games. Wasting time and energy on trying to look good in comparison to other people and overvalue non-essentials.
Pattern 2: It’s All Good (which is bad)
Teams without purpose become leaderless.
People pursue things that advance their own short-term interests, with little awareness of how their activities contribute to the long term mission of the team as a whole.
When individuals are involved in too many disparate activities, even gold activities, they can fail to achieve their essential mission.
One reason is the activities do not work in concert, so they don’t add up to a meaningful whole.
Pursuing something because it is good is not good enough without clarity and purpose.
One way to achieve clarity is to decide on an
essential intent.
Essential Intent
First, establish what an essential intent is not.
Make a 2×2 matrix.
Top left: vision and mission statements.
Bottom left: vague general values like leadership, innovation, and teamwork. Typically too bland and generic to inspire passion.
Bottom right: shorter-term quarterly objectives. Like increase profits 5% over last year’s results.
An essential intent is one decision that settles 1,000 later decisions.
An Essentialist has a strategy that is concrete and inspirational.
An Essentialist has an intent that is both meaningful and memorable.
Example: “Get everyone in the U.K. online by 2012.”
Stop wordsmithing and start deciding.
It is the substance, not the style that counts.
Ask. If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be? How we will know when we have succeeded?
Brad Pit example on rebuilding New Orleans started an organization Make It Right with this essential intent: To build 150 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the lower 9th ward.
Cut out competing priorities that distract us from our true intention.

Chapter 11: Dare

The power of a graceful no.
Courage is grace under pressure. Ernest Hemingway
The right no spoken at the right time can change the course of history.
Rosa Parks’ story.
Courage is key to the process of elimination.
Anyone can talk about the importance of focusing on the things that matter most, and many people do, but to see people who dare to live it is rare.
Stephen Covey was an Essentialist.
Why is it so difficult to choose the essential over the non-essential in the moment?
One reason is we are unclear about what is essential.
A second reason is an innate fear of social awkwardness.
We can say no (to the non-essential) and regret it for a few minutes or say yes and regret it for days, weeks, months or even years.
People admire those with the courage and conviction to say no.
Peter Drucker’s graceful “no” response to the Hungarian professor known for his work on Flow.
People are effective because they say no.
Dare to say no firmly, gracefully and resolutely.
General guidelines for saying no gracefully.

  • Separate the decision from the relationship.
    It doesn’t mean using the word “no.”
  • Focus on the trade-off.
  • Look at the opportunity cost.
  • Remind yourself that everyone is selling something.
  • Make peace with the fact that saying no often requires trading popularity with respect.

Saying no distinguishes the professional from the amateur.
Designer Paul Rand had the guts to say no to Steve Jobs on logo design for Next.
Paul Rand created only one logo for Jobs instead of several options.
A clear no can be more graceful than a vague no or noncommittal yes.

The No Repertoire
8 responses for your no repertoire.

  1. The awkward pause. Wait 3 seconds before responding.
  2. The soft no; or the “no, but…”
  3. Let me check my calendar and get back to you.
  4. Use email bounce back. Why limit them to vacations and holidays?
  5. Say “Yes, what should I de-prioritize?” “Given my other commitments, I wouldn’t be able to do a job I was proud of if I took this on.”
  6. Say it with humor.
  7. You are welcome to X, I am willing to do Y.
  8. I can’t do it, but X might be interested.

Saying no is its own leadership capability.
As with any ability, we start with limited experiences saying no and slowly learn more skills for saying no.
We need to learn the slow yes and the quick no.

Chapter 12: Uncommit

Win big by cutting your losses.
Half of our troubles can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough. -Josh Billings.
Sunk cost bias.
Throwing good money after bad.
Ask: If I weren’t already invested in this project, how much would I invest now?
An Essentialist is comfortable with cutting losses.
Several common traps and tips for how to extricate yourself.
Avoiding commitment traps, beware of the endowment effect.
Tendency to undervalue things that aren’t ours and overvalue things we own.
When we feel we own an activity it becomes harder to uncommit.
Tip: pretend you don’t own it yet.
Ask: If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?
Get over the fear of waste.
Abandoning a project we have already invested in feels like waste. It is not necessarily waste.
Admit failure to begin success.
Only when we admit to a mistake can we make that mistake a part of our past.
There is no shame to admitting a mistake. We are only admitting we are now wiser than we were before.
Stop trying to force a fit.
Illustration from movie Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman.
Solution: get a second opinion.
Stop forcing something that is clearly not working out.
Beware of the status quo bias.
One cure for the status quo bias is to apply zero-based budgeting. Use zero as the baseline for every budget line item each year.
Apply zero-based budgeting to your own endeavors.
Instead of trying to budget your time based on existing commitments, clear all commitments and start from zero.
Begin from scratch asking which you would add today.
Do this with financial obligations, friendships, projects, etc.
Every use of time, energy or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.

Stop making casual commitments.
From now on pause before you speak.

Get over FOMO.
Run a reverse pilot to fight this fear.
Use the same idea in reverse.
Test whether removing an activity or initiative will have any negative consequences.
Stop doing something and see what the response is.
You can quietly eliminate or at least step back a little.
Un-committing can be harder than saying no in the first place.

Chapter 13: Edit

The invisible art.
Academy Awards. Since 1981 not a single film has won best picture without at least being nominated for best editing.
Editing involves the strict elimination of the trivial, unimportant or irrelevant.
What makes a good editor?
The next stage in the essentialist process is eliminating non-essentials.
Jack Dorsey illustration. Sees himself as the chief editor.
Use deliberate subtraction.
Lends the most meaningful relationships and activities more space to blossom.
An editor asks: will this detail make it better?

Four simple principles inherent in editing that apply to editing the non-essentials out of our lives.
Editing life.

  • Cut out options
  • Condense
  • Correct
  • Edit less

Cut out options!
Cutting options is the very essence of decision making.
Instead of saying it in two sentences can you say it in one?
Can you use one word instead of two?
Are you saying what you want to say?
Are you saying it as clearly and concisely as possible?
Condensing allows us to do more with less.
Story of Graham Hill moving into a 420 sf apartment in New York.
Started his business called
Lower the ratio of words to ideas, square feet to usefulness, effort to results.
Eliminate multiple meaningless activities and replace them with one very meaningful activity.
Have a clear sense of the overarching intent when correcting.
Make course corrections by coming back to your core purpose.
Compare your activities and behavior to your real intent.
Edit less
Edit our tendency to step in.
Resist the urge to reply all to an email thread.
Resist the urge to add your two cents in a meeting.
Wait and observe, see how things develop.
Waiting too long to edit will force us to make major cuts not always of our choosing.
Make more minor but regular cuts along the way.
Edit continuously. Make it a natural part of your daily routine.

Chapter 14: Limit

The freedom of setting boundaries.
No is a complete sentence. -Ann Lamont
Set boundaries.
Boundaries can come at a high price but not pushing back can cost more.
An Essentialist knows that if you have limits you will become limitless.
An Essentialist sees boundaries and liberating.
An Essentialist sets rules in advance that eliminate the need for a direct no.
Relationship guidelines for consideration:

  • Don’t rob people of their problems.
  • Put up fences to protect your time.
  • Find your deal breakers. Types of requests or activities you will refuse to say yes to.
  • Craft social contracts.

Part IV: Execute

How to make execution effortless.
Two ways of thinking about execution.
Non-Essentialists force execution.
Essentialists invest time they have saved by eliminating non-essentials into designing a system to make execution almost effortless.

Chapter 15: Buffer

The unfair advantage.
Story of Joseph saving Egypt from famine.
The only thing we can expect with any great certainty is the unexpected.
We can either wait for the moment and react or we can prepare and create a buffer.
Reduce friction by creating a buffer.
An Essentialist practices extreme and early preparation.
Use the good times to create a buffer for the bad times.
Norway invested extra oil money into an endowment now worth more than 700 billion.

Tips for keeping your work and sanity by creating a buffer:

  • Use extreme preparation
  • Add 50% to your time estimate
  • The planning fallacy. Most people underestimate the time needed to complete tasks.
  • Conduct scenario planning

Start risk assessment by asking 5 questions:

  1. What risks do we face and where?
  2. What assets and populations are exposed and to what degree?
  3. How vulnerable are they?
  4. What financial burden do these risks place on individuals, businesses, and the government budget?
  5. How can you invest to reduce risks or strengthen financial and social resilience?
    The answer to the fifth question will point you to buffers.

Chapter 16: Subtract

Bring forth more by removing obstacles.
To attain knowledge, add things every day; to obtain wisdom, subtract things every day. Lao Tzu
Illustration from book The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt.
Finding constraints.
What is the obstacle keeping you back from achieving what really matters to you?
A non-essentialist approaches execution in a reactive haphazard manner.
Because a non-Essentialist is always reacting to crises rather than anticipating them, he is forced to apply quick-fix solutions.
Make a one-time investment in removing obstacles to progress.
Produce more by removing more.

Three kinds of work Aristotle discussed:

  1. Theoretical work – goal is truth
  2. Practical work – goal is action
  3. Poetical work – bringing forth

Remove more instead of doing more.
Stop to think about which efforts will produce results and which will not.

How to focus on constraints and the obstacles you need to remove:

  1. Be clear about the essential intent
  2. Identify the slowest hiker. Make a list of obstacles keeping you from doing the highest priority goal.
  3. Remove the obstacle

Ask “what obstacles are holding you back and how can I remove them?”

Chapter 17: Progress

The power of small wins.
Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow. -Doug Firebaugh
Illustration of Richmond Canada Police Department started giving out positive tickets for good behavior. Ward Clapham was the new superintendent to start this.
Prevention instead of punishment.
The essentialist starts small and celebrates progress.
Pursue small and simple wins in areas that are essential.
An Essentialist starts small and gets big results.
Celebrate small acts of progress.
The most effective form of motivation is progress.
Achievement and recognition of achievement are the best motivators for employees.
To really get essential things done we need to start small and build momentum.
The best place to look for making improvements is for small changes in things you do often. (Henry B Eyring)
The Heroic Imagination Project.
The author implemented a token system for his children to limit screen time. 5 tokens per week to be redeemed for 30 minutes of screen time or .50 at the end of each week. Reading for 30 minutes earned another token.
Three keys to creating a system for making progress:

  1. Start small
  2. Encourage progress
  3. Celebrate small wins

Focus on Minimum Viable Progress
What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?
“We don’t actually finish our films, we release them.” John Lassiter of Pixar

Do the Minimal Viable Preparation
Two opposing ways to approach an important goal or deadline:

  1. Start early and small
  2. Start late and big

Late and big means doing it all at the last minute, pulling an all-nighter.
Early and small means starting at the earliest possible moment with the minimum possible time investment.
Often 10 minutes invested in a project or assignment two weeks before it is due can save much frantic and stressed out scrambling at the eleventh hour.
Ask yourself. What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare? (About a goal or deadline you have coming up)
If you have a big presentation coming up, open a file right now and spend 4 minutes writing ideas down. Then close the file. No more than 4 minutes, just start it!
Colleague spends 15 seconds preparing for a phone call writing down key talking points.
Visually reward progress.

Chapter 18: Flow

The genius of routine.
Routine in an intelligent man is a sign of ambition. -William Orton
Michael Phelps pre-race swimming routine. Designed by his coach Bob Bowman. Includes what to think about before going to sleep and first thing when he awoke. Phelps would visualize the perfect race in slow motion.
The essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position.
With the right routine in place, each effort yields exponentially better results.
Design a routine that makes execution of the essential almost effortless.
An Essentialist makes the essential the default position.

Making it look easy.
Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles.
Spend a small amount of initial energy designing the routine, then just follow it.
Routine enables difficult things to become easy.
Our ability to execute the essential improves with practice.
There is a cognitive advantage to routine.
References to book The Power of Habit.
Find your best rhythms for sleeping, eating and working. Abide by them even when it is tempting to do otherwise.

The power of the right routine.
Nearly 40% of our choices are deeply unconscious according to Duke University studies.
This can be good or bad.
Examples of unconscious habits:

  • checking email the second you get out of bed every morning.
  • Spending your lunch hour trolling the internet instead of recharging.

Overhaul your triggers.
Changing even the smallest habit can be amazingly hard.
Every Habit is made of a queue, routine and reward.
Find the queue for bad habits and change the queue and attach it to a different routine and reward.
Create new triggers.
Do the most difficult thing first.
Mix up your routines.
Jack Dorsey divides his week into daily themes.
Tackle or routines one by one. Don’t try to overhaul them all at once.
To make big change we must start small.
Start with one change in your daily or weekly routine and build on your progress.
This will not be easy.
Learning essential new skills is never easy. Once we master them and make them automatic, we have won an enormous victory because they stay with us the rest of our lives. The same is true with routines. Routines are gifts that keep on giving.

Chapter 19: Focus

What’s important now?
Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply. -Thích Nhất Hạnh

Larry Gelwix coach of Highland High School rugby team. 480 wins and 10 losses. Describes themselves as “we always win.”
WIN = what’s important now
Keeping his players fully present in the moment.
Apply the WIN question constantly.
There is a difference between losing and being beaten.
To operate at your highest level of contribution requires that you deliberately tune in to what is important in the here and now.
There is only now.
Every second spent worrying about a past or future moment distracts us from what is important in the here and now.
Chronos and Kairos.
Execution is easy if you work hard at it and hard if you work easy at it.
Multi-tasking vs multi-focusing.
How to be in the now:
Figure out what is most important right now.
Until you know what is most important right now, the most important thing is to figure out what is important right now.
Stop, take a deep breath, get present in the moment, ask WIN. Make a list of everything vying for your attention.
Get the future out of your head.
The author opened a new page in his journal and wrote down a list. What might you want to do someday as a result of today?
You will execute better and faster because you are focused.
The pause that refreshes.
In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present. -Lao Tzu
Mindfulness. Thích Nhất Hạnh
Try to recreate moments and bring you happiness and put you into cairos.

Chapter 20: Be

The essentialist life.
Beware the barrenness of a busy life. -Socrates
Gandhi, reducing himself to zero.
He owned less than 10 things when he died.
Living essentially.
Two ways to think about essentialism:

  1. Think of it as something you do occasionally
  2. Think of it as something you are

Living a life of simplicity.
Examples are Moses, Jesus, Buddha, etc.

Majoring in minor activities.
Which is your major and which is your minor?
The benefits of essentialism are cumulative.
At the end of life would you rather have a long laundry list of accomplishments that don’t really matter, or just a few major accomplishments that have real meaning and significance?
When you become an Essentialist you will find that you aren’t like everybody else.
When others are saying yes, you will find yourself saying no.
When other people are doing; you will be thinking.
When other people are speaking; you will be listening.
When other people are in the spotlight vying for attention; you will be waiting on the sidelines until it is time to shine.
While other people are padding their resume and building their LinkedIn profiles; you will be building a career of meaning.
While other people are complaining (bragging) about how busy they are; you will be smiling sympathetically unable to relate.
While other people are living a life of stress and chaos; you will be living a life of impact and fulfillment.

To live as an Essentialist is an act of quiet revolution.

Some ways the disciplined pursuit of less can change your life for the better.

  1. More clarity
  2. More control
  3. More joy in the journey

Two major personal lessons learned by the author on the journey of writing this book:

  1. The important role of his family in his life
  2. The pathetically tiny amount of time left of our lives

If you have correctly identified what really matters, if you invest your time and energy in it, then it it’s difficult to regret the choices you make. You become proud of the life you have chosen to live.
Will you choose to live a life of purpose and meaning? Or will you look back on your one single life with twinges of regret?


Leadership essentials.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has. -Margaret Meade
Fewer things done better is the most powerful mechanism for leadership. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner.
FCS acronym.
Fewer things done better.
Communicating the right information to the right people at the right time.
Speed and quality of decision making.

Essentialist teams.
Clarity equals success.
Non-Essentialist managers try to have their teams pursue too many things and try to pursue too many things themselves.

The elements of leading as an Essentialist.
Be ridiculously selective in hiring people.
One wrong hire is far costlier than being one person short.
The wrong person will tend to attract wrong people. Guy Kawasaki calls this “bozo explosion.”
Debate until you have established a really clear, not pretty clear, essential intent.
Go for extreme empowerment.
People can become obsessed with trying to look busy instead of getting real work done.
Clarity is the key to empowerment.
An essentialist does not allow roles to be general and vague, he ensures that everyone on the team is really clear about what they are expected to contribute.

Non-Essentialist communication is usually to general to be actionable, or changes so quickly that people are always caught off guard.
Essentialist leaders speak succinctly, when they do speak they are crystal clear, and their message is so consistent it seems almost boring.

Check-in often to ensure meaningful progress.
The non-Essentialist leader is not great on accountability.
By taking the time to get clear about the one thing that is really required, the essentialist leader makes follow up so easy and friction-less that it actually happens.
Check-in with people frequently to reward small wins and help remove obstacles.

Simplicity can solve most problems.

My Action Steps After Reading

  • Start asking myself the WIN question frequently.
  • Stepped down from a non-essential role I was performing.
  • Mindset shift toward designing and living an essential life.
  • Removed other non-essential elements from my life.
  • On several occasions I stop myself from sending email that is non-essential.
  • Recommended this book to several friends.

Related Book Summaries

Hope you enjoyed this and got value from my notes.
This is the 62nd book read in my 2018 reading list.
Here is my complete list of book summaries.

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6 thoughts on “Essentialism by Greg McKeown Summary

  1. Thank you for this eye opening notes. I took print out and read every single line. Very impactful. I will keep reading this whenever I need some clarity. The WIN is powerful. Appreciate it and thank you again.

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