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Book Summary: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown

Article reading time: 13 min

Book reading time: 3 hours and 17 min

Essentialism is a book written by Greg McKeown. The content is in the title.

It’s a book I wanted to read for a long time. While the beginning got me super-enthusiastic, the author ironically drags on and repeats himself towards the end. The book also, is too broad, and speaks about topics that don’t have much to do with essentialism.

As such, I believe that my summary of Essentialism will be enough for you.

Still, I give this book 8/10. It would have been a 10 if it had been 20% shorter.

Find the summary below!


Essentialism is about doing only the things that really matter and saying no to everything else. Its mantra is “less but better”.

An essentialist invests time at the right moment in the right activity. He is able to tell what is essential from what isn’t. He doesn’t seek to get more done, but less done, in a better way. The essentialist prioritizes.

There are so many different ones in the world (and most of them are useless) that we must choose which ones to focus on.

Becoming an essentialist is being able to tell the difference between what’s essential, and what isn’t. It’s not about getting more things done, but about getting the right things done. It’s about prioritizing.

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

So why do intelligent people say yes to everything and end up overworked and underutilized?

It is because society rewards us for bad behavior (saying yes) and punishes us for good behavior (saying no).

It is due to the paradox of success:

  1. One has a clear goal and focuses, and becomes successful at it.
  2. That person earns a reputation that pushes them to keep on being successful.
  3. This leads us to do more stuff – and becoming ineffective at them
  4. We become distracted

The pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure.

Why is Non-Essentialism Everywhere?

  • Too many choices which lead to decision fatigue and an unability to manage oneself
  • Too much social pressure: social media has lowered the barriers of entry for people telling us what to do
  • The idea that “you can have it all”: by spreading everywhere, nothing gets done

Here’s the essentialist way to combat non-essentialism.

  1. Explore and evaluate: by evaluating, we mean asking “will this activity or effort make the highest contribution toward my goal?” If the answer is no, get rid of it. Essentialists are qualitative people. It is important to explore ALL options and to go big on a few only. The essentialist does the right thing for the right reason at the right time. Most people do evertything now because it’s popular.
  2. Eliminate: it is about saying no and getting back into control of our lives. When we say yes to everything, we lose control. To eliminate, ask yourself “if I didn’t own this, how much would I pay for it?”
  3. Execute: once you know which activities to keep and which ones to eliminate, you can create a system to keep it this way.

The time of the essentialist has come. Most people do things they hate to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t like. This needs to stop.


Essence

What Is the Core Logic of an Essentialist?

Essentialism is a philosophy difficult to practice as its core principles go against the mainstream ideas we were taught.

The essentialist must get rid of and replace three assumptions with three others:

  1. I have to ➝ I choose to
  2. It’s all important ➝ Only a few things really matter
  3. I can do both ➝ I can do anything but not everything

Chapter 2: Choose

You can choose. Few people realize that. They make the choice not to choose…which is a bad choice. If you don’t choose, someone else will.

A choice is not a thing. It’s an action, it’s something we do.

We usually focus on option (extrinsic) for too long, instead of focusing on choosing (intrinsic). You can choose whether you want to choose.

Why? Because of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness happens in animals after they are subject to pain they cannot escape.

Once they are in an environment where they could escape the pain, they don’t, because they have internalized due to the first trauma, that they cannot escape it.

Many people live in such a state, persuaded they have no control over their lives. So they don’t choose, they just follow.

The first step to becoming an essentialist is to learn you always have a choice.

Nonessentialist: I have to

Essentialist: I choose to

When we forget we can choose, we learn to be helpless and become a function of other people’s choices.


Chapter 3: Discern (The Uninmportance of Practically Eveything)

Working is important, but effort does not necessarily yield more results. It all depends on what you do.

Eg: you can wash dishes for €12/hour, work as a software engineer for €150/hour, or build a company and earn €2000/hour (if not more). All of these three activities are hard work. But some yield more than others.

What matters is to work hard on that one thing that will yield the highest results.

“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything”.

This leads us to understand that the many good opportunities aren’t as great as the few great opportunities. This is why you should take your time to explore all of your options. You should discern more, so you can do less.

Nonessentialist: everything is essential. All opportunities are equal.

Essentialist: Almost everything is nonessential. Only a few opportunities are worth it.


Chapter 4: Trade-off

Southwest Airlines was one of the best-performing companies on Wall Street. Why? Because of their strategy to accept trade-offs.

Meals increase price of tickets → they served none.
People don’t like being assigned a seat → let them choose.
Difficult to sell first-class tickets → let’s cancel it.

The thing about trade-offs is that you need to be aware of what you lose to gain what you gain. You also have to be willing to lose something, or it will not work.

Saying yes to one thing = saying no to the rest.

Trade-off are real. Until you accept it, you will be doomed.

Nonessentialist: How do I do it all?

Essentialist: Which problem do I want (to solve)? What can I go big on?

The author tells the story of a great couple with a great marriage and great kids. The secret to that greatness was the fact that they had joined no social clubs – they invested more of their time in their family.

Explore

The paradox of essentialists is that they explore more options than nonessentialists. The reason is that they want to make sure to find the right one they will go BIG on.


Chapter 5: Escape

Without great solitude no serious work is possible.

We need time and space to escape the busyness and reflect and think.

Nonessentialist: Too busy to think and reflect

Essentialist: make space and time to explore and reflect

The best way to make time and space is to escape to a place with no tech and no distraction whatsoever.


Chapter 6: Look

In every set of facts, something essential is hidden. The job of a journalist is to find that meaning and expose it. It is to look at the elements and figure out the relationship in-between them.

Essentialists listen for what is not said. They focus on the conversation and filter out the interesting bits. They look for the essence.

Nonessentialists wait for their turn to speak.

How to become a “journalist”

  • Write a journal. Write less than you want so you can cement the habit. Read your journal every 90 days to look for the essence and patterns.
  • Get out into the field to see the root of the problem
  • Seek abnormal and unusual details
  • Clarify the question

Chapter 7: Play

Do you remember how you liked to play as a child? What suddenly happened? One day, you learned play was unnecessary and childish, and you stopped.

Nonessentialist: does not (like) play.

Essentialist: plays.

Out of all the animals, humans are the ones most suited to play. Our best memories and emotions come in time of play.

The brain feeds off play, and most, if not all discoveries were made during play. Play is essential.


Chapter 8: Sleep

The best asset we have to make a positive impact on the world or simply, achieve our goals, is ourselves. And one of the ways we damage ourselves is by not getting enough sleep.

Get a full 8 hours of sleep per night. You will be sharper and more productive.

Nonessessentialists: think that less sleep → more productivity

Essentialists: know that one more hour of sleep → more productivity


Chapter 9: Select: The Power of Extreme Criteria

Whatever you have the opportunity to do, if the answer isn’t a definite yes, then it should be a no.

This enables you to avoid being stuck in a situation you didn’t want at first, and it also helps you make your choice.

The 90% rule will help you. It states that anything below 9/10 is a no.

This rule enables you both to have quality, and to say no until the option you want comes long – it enables you to decide!

Nonessentialist: say yes to everything

Essentialist: say yes to 10% or less of what he is offered

When you are offered an opportunity and hesitate to take it, write it down, then write down three criteria the opportunity needs to pass. The opportunity should have 2/3 to be accepted.


Eliminate

Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where you should get rid of something. Here are questions that help you do so:

  • If I didn’t already own this, would I buy it? How much would I buy it for?
  • If I hadn’t been offered this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?

The key to uncover your true priorities isn’t to ask what you will say “yes to”…but what you will say “no to”.


Chapter 10: Clarify: One Decision That Makes a Thousand

In business, performances depend on goals’ clarity, and most goals are “pretty clear”. This isn’t enough.

A goal should be extremely clear. Indeed, motivation and dynamics decrease, and stress and frustration increase in the absence of a goal or clarity.

How do we achieve clarity of purpose? By choosing an essential intent.

The essential intent

Nonessentialist: has a vague direction

Essentialist: has a concrete strategy. Makes one decision that eliminates thousands

A real intent is one that drives your greater sense of purpose. But it takes hard work. You need to get rid of everything that does not contribute to your intent. It is mandatory to achieve success.


Chapter 11: Dare: The Power of a Graceful “No”

We must be courageous to say “no” and stand for what we believe in the face of both adversity and social pressure.

Many of us feel too scared or timid to say no. Yet being able to refuse is one of the most important skills for an essentialist to master – and one that requires courage and effort.

But why is it so hard?

It’s because in the moment, we are unclear about what is essential.

The second reason is that we are wired to get along with others – to say yes to them. We fix this problem by understanding that saying no to a request isn’t saying no to a relationship.

Furthermore, no doesn’t have to be expressed as “no”. It can be “I’m sorry, but I am afraid I am currently over-committed”.

Saying no is often trading popularity for respect. Essentialists accept they cannot be popular with everyone all the time. The respect they get is far more valuable.

Finally, don’t say “maybe” with the idea to never get back to people. Be clear that no is no.

Nonessentialists: avoid saying no

Essentialists: say no to almost everything and yes to what really matters


Chapter 12: Uncommit

We often keep commitments that are losing us money due to the sunk-cost bias. This bias gets us to keep on spending simply because we have already spent so much and we don’t want to let that money go, hoping to recoup our investment.

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

Nonessentialist: why stopping now, I have already invested so much!

Essentialist: comfortable with cutting losses

Another bias is the endowment effect. It is giving more value to what we have than to what we don’t have (which explains loss aversion).

How to fight it? By asking the right questions.

Don’t ask how much you value what you own. Ask how much you would pay for it if you didn’t own it.

Don’t ask how sad you will feel to miss out on an opportunity. Ask what you would do to get it.

Get over the fear of waste. Admit failure quickly, so you can focus on what will make you successful.

It is only once you admit you made a mistake committing that you can uncommit, or solve the problem you weren’t solving. The habit of doing something because you have always done it is the status quo bias. The way to avoid it is to apply zero-based budgeting.

Most of the time, budgets are based on the previous year. With zero-based budgeting, you start the budget from scratch. Everything must be justified. That enables to break habits inherited from the past, habits that no one ever questioned.

You can do this with everything, from budget to relationships, to activities.

Some more ways to uncommit.

  • Stop making casual commitments
  • Pause before you speak. This will decrease your chances to make commitments you can’t keep.
  • Get over FOMO
  • Reverse pilot: reverse piloting is removing something to see if it has any negative impacts. If it doesn’t, then get rid of it.

Chapter 13: Edit

Editing a movie is the art of getting rid of everything that is unimportant. It is filtering to leave only the essentials.

Nonessentialist: think that adding improves quality

Essentialists: think that subtracting improves quality

Here’s how to edit your life.

  • Cut out options. It may seem terrifying, but it is the very essence of decision making. The latin root of decision means “to kill”. We must have the discipline to cut out activities that may be really good, but that get in the way.
  • Condense: it means saying it as clearly and consicely as possible
  • Correct: an editor’s job is also to make things right. Don’t do what you are being told. Do to get the expected result.
  • Don’t abuse of editing

Chapter 14: Limit: The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

The absence of boundaries is part of our era. Technology gets you connected 24/7, and almost at work constantly.

Weirdly, while your boss does not expect you to take your children to work, he has no problem asking you to come to the office during the weekend.

Likewise, some people seem to know no limit to getting our time and attention.

The best way to avoid that is to set boundaries (aka saying no). While it could cost a lot to say no, saying yes often costs more.

Nonessentialists see boundaries as limits. Essentialists see boundaries as empowering.

Here’s how you can set boundaries.

  • Don’t rob people of their problems: when they make their problems ours, we aren’t helping them.
  • Find your dealbreakers: these are activities you will de facto say no to.

Chapter 15: Buffer: The Unfair Advantage

The only constant in life is uncertainty. Therefore, we can whether react to whatever bad thing happens, or we can create a buffer so we’re ready when the unexpected hit. Essentialists choose the latter.

A buffer is leaving 10 minutes ahead on schedule “in case something happens”. It is planning, making extra room and time to have enough resources to come up with a solution.

Essentialists use good times to save up for bad times, so when bad times eventually arrive, they are ready.

A general rule to observe is to add 50% to your time estimate. It won’t take you one hour, but one hour and a half. We often underestimate how long or difficult something will be. So inflate your estimations – they will be closer to reality.


Chapter 16: Subtract

Essentialists, when confronted with a problem in a system, look at the one obstacle, the one point of friction that has a negative impact on the whole.

They don’t tape-fix. They remove the obstacle.

Aristotle talked about three types of work:

  • Theoretical work where one seeks the truth
  • Practical work where one seeks action
  • Poietical work where one seeks to create that which does not yet exist (going from Zero to One)

That latter type of work is the essentialist’s way to solve problems. The essentialist produces more by removing than by adding.

How do we remove obstacles?

  1. Be clear about the essential intent: you can’t know which obstacles to remove if you don’t know your main objective.
  2. Identify the slowest/worst element: instead of jumping straight into it, think and see which obstacles you’ll have to deal with so you can prepare accordingly. Make a list of the the things that would prevent you from reaching your goal. It can also include yourself, such as your tendency to be lazy.
  3. Remove the obstacle. If the obstacle is someone not doing their job, ask them what prevents them from doing it and how you can take this obstacle out of their path.

Chapter 17: Progress: The Power of Small Wins

The longest trip started with a single step. The essentialist makes recurrent small steps that get him towards his goal. The nonessentialist just wants to get there right away.

The author recommends never to start big as we easily get discouraged by the task at hand. Instead, we should start small and get proof of progress as fast as possible since it creates momentum and motivates us further.

The best way is to create systems that encourage us to make progress towards the intent.

Eg: the police giving “positive tickets” in Canada to reward citizens.


Chapter 18: Flow

This chapter is about designing a routine that gets you to execute the essential flawlessly.

Nonessentialist: Execute everything by force

Essentialists: Design a routine (and stick to it) that makes the execution of the essential effortless

While some routines can be healthy and beneficial, some can be hurtful (eg: checking Youtube automatically when one is bored). It is important to be mindful of the routines we have developed whether consciously or unconsciously.


Chapter 19: Focus

The present is all you have. If you want to make the most of it, you need to focus on what is important now.

Is it studying? Spending time with the family? Relaxing?

Whatever it is, do that. Just that.

Nonessentialists: They think about the future and past too much.

Essentialists: They focus on what matters now.

If you don’t know what would be the most important to do because you think of too many things, write them all down as a list and carefully think about each of the items.

Take your time.


Chapter 20: Be

When Gandhi decided to make people’s liberation from oppression his sole purpose, he got rid of everything that would prevent him from achieving his purpose.

He stopped reading the newspaper, wore one piece of clothes, got rid of all material possession. He “simplified” himself to the extreme to serve his purpose to the best of his abilities.

Gandhi, in a way, embodied the essence of essentialism. And there are two ways to practice it. Doing essentialism sometimes. And being an essentialist.

All major business, political, athletic, and religious figures, from Jesus to Warren Buffet, lived a simple life to focus on their main task.

The way of the essentialist isn’t about success. It is about fulfilling your meaning and purpose, and doing so as well as you can.

Picture credits: Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

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