Essentialism by Greg McKeown Book Summary

Many of my blog posts are about getting more done. Setting goals and then making plans to ensure they happen. I advocate using productivity tools like journals to keep track of the many priorities. In Essentialism Greg McKeown offers a different approach. A promise of being more effective by doing less. Much less.

Essentialism promised to be opposite to my recent post on balance and stretch so made an ideal accompaniment to my recent trip to the Scottish west coast. It did not disappoint with advice for personal leadership, corporate success and mindful decision making.

“The result is that by investing in fewer things we have the satisfying experience in making significant progress int he things that matter most”

Essentialism consists of four parts:
1) Essence: What is the core mindset of an essentialist?
2) Explore: How can you discern the trivial many from the vital few
3) Eliminate: How to cut out the trivial many
4) Execute: How can we make dong the vital few things almost effortless.


The key mindset of the essentialist is in making choices, living by design: not by default. A frequently reiterated phrase in the book is “if you don’t prioritise your life someone else will”. McKeown does not dispute that we can do anything but asserts we can not do everything. To make meaningful progress we must focus.

The paradox of success is presented: the more success you have in life, the more distracted you get and then the more unsuccessful you become. This is a similar concept to one from Jim Collins in How the Mighty Fall – the undisciplined pursuit of more. The counter view to this is South West airlines whose vision to become THE low-cost airline provided a focus that enabled them to buck the airline trends of falling profits.

The essentialist takes the time to explore all the options and to discern what is important, discern more to do less. Explore before committing.


In addition to taking the time to explore options a key part of the explore section is getting more sleep. This is something I struggle with. The 10,000-hour rule popularised by Malcolm Gladwell is often quoted. Lost in the noise is the fact that the best performers also got significantly more sleep each night than the rest. Sleep is about protecting the asset. Essentialist intentionally builds sleep into their schedules so that can operate at peak performance when awake.

Exploring is about working out what the vital few is. A method for this is the 90% rule: score things out of 100 and anything getting less than 90 is not undertaken. An easier alternative is Derek Sivers approach – Either “Hell Yeah!” Or “NO.”

Play is put forward as a powerful tool for opening our minds and broadening our perspectives. It helps us challenge old assumptions and makes us more receptive to trying new things. Play is also an antidote to stress. Stress is the enemy of productivity. Stress undermines good sleep. Good sleep is essential.

Exploring is also about escaping. Not in a literal into the wilderness context. Making time to be unavailable for distractions so that you have space to design, to concentrate, to think and to plan. This is a bit like my journal practice I know if I spend a little time at the start of the week and a few minutes at the start of every day I can be more intentional about what I get done. If I need to think something through I’ll often escape on my bike and let the cogs in my brain turn over while my legs turn the pedals over.


Elimination is a challenge that Daniel Kahneman points out in Thinking, Fast and Slow. We have an endowment effect for the things we already own and the things we already do. A clever approach to addressing this is the reverse pilot, a technique Daniel Shapero of LinkedIn fame uses. Remove something from your life temporarily (something you do or something you own) and see if it is really missed. To make time for the essential few it is necessary to remove the trivial many.

The key to the ability to eliminate is being clear on what you want to achieve. Anything that does not contribute is clearly something to abandon. The book Grit deals with this in more depth. Where there is clarity of purpose (as in THE low-cost airline) it is easier to determine what to peruse and what to eliminate. When this clarity is lacking there is a recipe for stress, frustration and confusion.

Management guru Peter Drucker asserts that “people are effective because they say no”. By saying no to the non-essential space is created to make significant contributions to the essential. A useful skill to learn is saying no gracefully. It’s easier to say no than to uncommit later…

Uncommitting is a way to cut your losses and recover time to focus on the essential few. The sunk cost bias is the tendency to continue investing in things we know are not working simply because of the time or money already invested in them (like the financially failing Concorde). Rather than asking how would I feel if I miss out on this opportunity instead consider how much would I sacrifice to seize this opportunity if I didn’t already have it.

Essentialists set boundaries. Boundaries, like structure and routine counter-intuitively, create flexibility and freedom. Boundaries are empowering.


Essentialists develop successful habits and invest in preparation to make execution effortless. Michael Phelps coach, Bill Bowman, created a habit in Phelps that would make him the strongest mental swimmer in the pool. Before going to bed and on waking Phelps would visualise a swim race in great detail in a practice called watching the videotape. On race day it was simply a case of playing the tape and executing what he had visualised so many times before.

To make execution effortless you must plan ahead and build in buffers for the unexpected. This gives room to manoeuvre when things don’t go to plan. Thinks often take longer than we expect so plan for that to be the case.

McKeown references a book called The Goal by Eli Goldratt (a fantastic book written like a novel) and the phenomenon of the slowest hiker. On a Scout hike with a pack staying together they all move at the pace of the slowest walker. Any improvement to the hiking speed of any of the Scouts other than the slowest will not make the group get to camp earlier. What are the things slowing you down and what can you do to address them?

We are all motivated by progress. This is the power of small wins. This is why training for big events is broken down into micro cycles and mesocycles. Small wins create momentum and help to build success. Exploit this. Think about minimal viable progress – what is the smallest thing you could do to move your priority along. Then do it. Repeat and watch the small successes build into big achievements.

Be: The Essential Life

Essentialism is more than a thing you do. It is a thing you are. It is a lifestyle. If you are not ready to go all in just ask – “what is essential?” Then eliminate everything else.

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