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Book Notes: “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown


Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown (2014) is a modern classic with a simple message about doing less to achieve more. McKeown asks the reader to consider one question: “What is this the most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?” This is the core message of Essentialism: identify the important things in your life—the things that really matter—and then invest your time and energy in making them happen. It’s a laughably simple idea, but one that most of us—myself included—frequently ignore.

McKeown charts a clear path forward for the would-be Essentialist through a 4 step system dubbed “The Way of the Essentialist.” The core tenants are: (1) Live by design, not by default; (2) Distinguish between the vital few and the trivial many; (3) Eliminate the nonessential; and (4) Make execution frictionless for those essential things. The book is logically structured into 4-parts; each corresponding to a step in McKeown’s system.

One notable aspect of McKeown’s framework is that he spends as much time on subtractive considerations as he does on the additive elements. That is to say that Essentialism is defined as much by the things you do not do as it is by the things you actively do. Cut, edit, delete, subtract—McKeown is constantly reminding the reader that these behaviors are crucial to fostering focus. Distinguishing between the “vital few” and the “trivial many” is one of the lasting takeaways from this book.

I’ve returned to McKeown’s book repeatedly over the years. There is a tremendous amount of wisdom packed into it. While this book won’t give you the answer to living a purposeful life, it will provide some of the essential tools; and that’s a damn good starting point for most of us.

Pros: A comprehensive and practical framework packed into a single short and easy-to-read volume.

Cons: A couple of chapters are underdeveloped (Chapter 13: Edit and Chapter 20: Focus come to mind).

Verdict: 9/10

Notes & Highlights

Chapter 1: The Essentialist

  • Ask yourself: “Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?”
  • “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.”
  • “Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done…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.”
  • The way of the Essentialist:
    – Live by design, not by default.
    – Distinguish between the vital few and the trivial many.
    – Ruthlessly eliminate the nonessential.
    – Make things easy and frictionless for the essential things.
  • “Essentialism is a discipline, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.”
  • “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
  • Reasons for non-essentialism:
    – Abundance of choices.
    – Social pressure.
    – Mistaken belief that “you can have it all.”
  • Top regret from Bronnie Ware’s book “Regrets of the Dying”: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
  • “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?”

Part I: Essence: What is the Core Mind-set of an Essentialist?

  • We need to overcome these following assumptions:
    – “I have to." Replace with “I choose to.”
    – “It’s all important." Replace with “Only a few things matter.”
    – “I can do both.” Replace with “I can do anything but not everything.”

Chapter 2: CHOOSE: The Invincible Power of Choice

  • “The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away—It can only be forgotten.”
  • Author differentiates between external choice (i.e. our options) and internal ability to choose (free will).
  • “The Essentialist knows that when we surrender our right to choose, we give others not just the power but also the explicit permission to choose for us.”

Chapter 3: DISCERN: The Unimportance of Practically Everything

  • Our efforts don’t yield equal outcomes. Some types of efforts or activities yield greater results than others.
  • What is the most valuable result I could achieve in a given situation?
  • The Law of the Vital Few: You can significantly improve the quality of a product by addressing a handful of problems (similar to the Pareto principle, aka the “80-20” rule).
  • What you DON’T do is sometimes as important as what you do.
  • John Maxwell quote: “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”

Chapter 4: TRADE-OFF: Which Problem Do I want?

  • Michael Porter quote: “Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs. It’s about deliberately choosing to be different.”
  • “Straddling” is a flawed approach. Straddling is the phenomenon (coined by Michael Porter) in which a company tries to maintain it’s preexisting strategy while also adopting that of its competitor. Example: United develops United Shuttle to compete against Southwest (but still maintains its legacy United airline offerings).
  • A trade-of involves two things we want. But in the end, you MUST choose one over the other.
  • “As painful as they can sometimes be, trade-ffs 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.”
  • “Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life.”
  • Change your perspective from “What do I have to give up?” to “What do I want to go big on?”

Part II: Explore: How Can We Discern the Trivial Many from the Vital Few?

  • Essentialists should explore many options BEFORE committing to a FEW opportunities.
  • “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.”
  • Let go of the conventional wisdom that being busy and overextended are the markers of productivity.

Chapter 5: ESCAPE: The Perks of Being Unavailable

  • Essentialists deliberately design and create space, time and opportunities for thinking, exploration, questioning, and reflection.
  • “In order to have focus we need to escape to focus.”
  • Set aside distraction-free time in a distraction-free space in order to focus on thinking or your most essential tasks.

Chapter 6: LOOK: See What Really Matters

  • “The best journalists do not simply relay information. Their value is in discovering what really matters.”
  • “Being a journalist of your own life will force you to stop hyper-focusing on all the minor details and see the bigger picture.”
  • “The best journalists listen for what others do not hear.” Sometimes this means listening for what is UNSAID.
  • Listen deliberately for what is not being explicitly stated.
  • Ways to cultivate your inner journalist:
    1. Keep a journal.
    2. Get out into the field.
    3. Look for abnormal or unusual details.
    4. Clarify the question.

Chapter 7: PLAY: Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child

  • Modern school system (born from the industrial revolution) has removed the element of pleasure from the process of learning.
  • Play is essential and sparks exploration and creativity.
  • Play is fundamental to living the way of the Essentialist because it fuels exploration in at least three specific ways:
    1. Broadens the range of options available to us.
    2. Counters stress.
    3. Stimulates important brain functions: planning, prioritizing, scheduling, anticipating, delegating, deciding, etc.

Chapter 8: SLEEP: Protect the Asset

  • Our greatest asset is ourselves: “If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies, and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution.”
  • Lack of sleep is a fundamental way that we damage our most crucial asset.
  • Treat sleep as: necessary for high-performance, as a priority, essential for creativity, alertness and optimal productivity.

Chapter 9: SELECT: The Power of Extreme Criteria

  • Derek Sivers’ famous quote: “If it’s not a HELL YEAH, it’s a no.”
  • The 90% Rule: “As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it.”
  • Essentialists say “yes” only to the very best opportunities.
  • Narrow or very specific criteria is essential to achieving effective selection decisions.
  • Jim Collins in “Good to Great” contends that “if there’s one thing you are passionate about—and that you can be best at—you should do just that one thing.”
  • One way to do this is by focusing on the work that nobody else is doing or wants to do.

Part III: Eliminate: How can we cut out the trivial many?

  • When considering the range of activities or options in front of you, consider what you will say “no” to just as carefully as what you will say “yes” to.
  • Uncover your priorities via subtraction.

Chapter 10: CLARIFY: One Decision That Makes a Thousand

  • “When there is a lack of clarity, people waste time and energy on the trivial many.”
  • Patterns that emerge when individuals or groups lack clarity:
    1. Playing politics.
    2. “It’s all good (which is bad).”
  1. “Essential Intent”: Something that is concrete and inspirational (and measurable and meaningful).
  2. Essential intent is a deliberate choice that narrows a universe of options and maps the way forward.
  3. Ask this essential question: “If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?”

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

  • Courage is key to the process of elimination: “Anyone can talk about the importance of focusing on the things that matter most but to see people who dare to live it is rare.”
  • If we lack clarity about what is essential, we will fail to say to nonessential things in the moment when we are defenseless.
  • Saying “no” with grace is the way to overcome feelings of guilt and social pressure.
  • Avoid saying yes just to please others.
  • Techniques for saying “no” with grace:
    – Separate the decision from the relationship. Denying a request is not the same as denying the person.
    – Saying “no” doesn’t mean you have to use the word “no.” Examples: “I am overcommitted” or “I don’t have the bandwidth” are other ways to give a clear no.
    – Focus on the trade-off.
    – Understand that saying “no” means trading popularity for respect.
    – Remind yourself that everyone is selling something.
  • A clear “no” can be more graceful than a vague or noncommittal “yes.”
  • The “no” repertoire:
    1. The awkward pause: pause for a moment before giving your answer.
    2. The soft “no.” I short-term no coupled with a long term maybe: “I am consumed with writing my book right now but I would love to get together once it is finished…”
    3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”
    4. Use e-mail bouncebacks (autoresponders, e.g. vacation messages, out of town, etc.).
    5. “Yes, what should I deprioritize?”: Effective for work situations so that you can make the trade-off explicit to your manager.
    6. Say it with humor.
    7. “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.” Example: “You are welcome to borrow my car. I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you.” For when you are also saying “I won’t be able to drive you.”
    8. “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.”

Chapter 12: UNCOMMIT: Win Big by Cutting Your Losses

  • Josh Billings quote: “Half of the troubles in this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.”
  • Sunk-cost Bias: Investing more time, money or energy into something because we have already done so previously.
  • “An essentialist has the courage and confidence to admit his or her mistakes and uncommon, no matter the sunk costs.”
  • The Endowment Effect: the tendency to overvalue things we own and undervalue things we don’t.
  • Experiment with reverse pilots: “In a reverse pilot you test whether removing an initiative or activity will have any negative consequences.”

Chapter 13: EDIT: The Invisible Art

  • Jack Dorsey (Twitter, Square founder founder) sees the role of CEO as a “chief editor”: “I am constantly taking these inputs and deciding the one, or intersection of a few, that make sense for what we are doing.”
  • “A good editor is someone who uses deliberate subtraction to add life to the ideas, setting, plot, and characters.”
  • “The Latin root of the word decision—cis or cid—literally means ‘to cut’ or ‘to kill.’”

Chapter 14: LIMIT: The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

  • “If you don’t set boundaries—there won’t be any. Or even worse, there will be boundaries, but they’ll be set by default—or by another person—instead of by design.”
  • Learn to view boundaries as sources for empowerment. They protect the priorities in your life from interruption, encroachment and inattention.
  • Don’t let other people make their problem your problem. Don’t take away their ability to solve their problems.

Part IV: Execute: How Can We Make Doing the Vital Few Things Almost Effortless?

  • Having a system is necessary to ensure that execution of your essential tasks is routine and effortless.

Chapter 15: BUFFER: The Unfair Advantage

  • “A buffer can be defined literally as something that prevents two things from coming into contact and harming each other.”
  • Buffers are effective strategies for dealing with the unknown and circumstances beyond our control.
  • “The essentialist looks ahead. She plans. She prepares for different contingencies. She expects the unexpected. She creates a buffer to prepare for the unforeseen, thus giving herself some wiggle room when things come up, as they inevitably do.”
  • Extreme preparation vs. ideal circumstances as illustrated in the story of Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott in the race to the South Pole. Amundsen build slack and buffers into his plan with food/supply caches, redundant supplies and frequent trail markers. Scott’s planned for the best-case scenario and once external circumstances upended Scott’s plan, his team paid the ultimate price.
  • As a rule-of-thumb: Double your time estimates.
  • Planning Fallacy: Human tendency to underestimate how long a task will take (even if they’re familiar with the task and have done it before).
  • Questions to ask when building buffers for personal projects:
1. What risks do you face on this project?
2. What is the worst-case scenario?
3. What would the social effects of this be?
4. What would the financial impact of this be?
5. How can you invest to reduce risks or strengthen financial or social resilience?

Chapter 16: SUBTRACT: Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles

  • “The nonessentials is always reacting to crises rather than anticipating them, he is forced to apply quick-fix solutions: the equivalent to plugging his finger into the hole of a leaking dam and hoping the whole things doesn’t burst.”
  • “Essentialists don’t default to Band-Aid solutions. Instead of looking for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, they look for the ones slowing down progress. They ask, ‘What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?’…the Essentialist simply makes a one-time investment in removing obstacles.”
  • Adopt a “done is better than perfect” mindset. This does not mean you cannot put out good work. It does mean that you can, for example, put out a first draft and THEN go back and revise it over and over.

Chapter 17: PROGRESS: The Power of Small Wins

  • Nonessentialists attempt big goals and get small results or fail.
  • Essentialists start small and work their way up to big results over time or incrementally.
  • “A small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.”
  • Start small and build momentum. Use the momentum to string additional sequential wins together and eventually hit upon a significant breakthrough.
  • Minimum Viable Progress: Play on the Silicon Valley concept of a Minimum Viable Product. “What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?”
  • Start at the earliest possible moment with the minimal possible time investment.

Chapter 18: FLOW: The Genius of Routine

  • “Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles.”
  • “If we create a routine that enshrines the essentials, we will begin to execute them on autopilot. Instead of consciously pursuing the essential, it will happen without our having to think about it.”
  • “Instead of spending our limited supply of discipline on making the same decisions again and again, embedding our decisions into our routine allows us to channel that discipline toward some other essential activity.”

Chapter 19: FOCUS: What’s Important Now?

  • “To operate at your highest level of contribution requires that you deliberately tune in to what is important in the here and now.”

Chapter 20: BE: The Essentialist Life

  • “Today Essentialism is not just something I do. An Essentialist is something I am steadily becoming. At first it was a few deliberate choices, then it grew into a lifestyle, and then it changed me, at my very core. I continue to discover almost daily that I can do less and less—in order to contribute more.”
  • “The life of an Essentialist is a life lived without regret. If you have correctly identified what really matters, if you invest your time and energy in it, then it is difficult to regret the choices you make. You become proud of the life you have chosen to live.”

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