Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown is like a manual for the Stretched Too Thin. If you’ve ever felt guilty about wanting to do it all but can’t, the Essentialist way of life is for you. You’ll realize that it’s impossible to do everything and do it well, and that’s AOK.

A do-everything mindset is tough to unlearn — especially if you’re a woman, a DIYer, or an ambitious person who’s drunk the Work Harder Not Smarter kool-aid (I’m all of the above). I’m here to tell you that Essentialism is possible, if you’re patient enough to take small steps.

In true Essentialist spirit, I’ve summarized some of the top takeaways from the 246-page book, either directly in McKeown’s words or edited slightly for actionability. Think of this as a curated refresher to revisit whenever you’ve fallen back into the NonEssentialist trap.

Tip: Note the nuances between focusing on the present and preparing for the future.

What is Essentialism?

  • The relentless pursuit of less but better.
  • A different way — a simpler way — of doing everything. Essentialism becomes a lifestyle as opposed to something you do occasionally.
  • Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.
  • Essentialism 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.

Why Essentialism?

As McKeown explains, becoming an Essentialist is a long process, but the benefits are endless.

  • “If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness.” — The Dalai Lama
  • Life as an Essentialist is a life of meaning—a life that really matters.
  • Once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, you can make your highest contribution toward the things that really matter.
  • Some things are so much more important — the effort in finding those things is worth it.
  • Essentialists invest the time they have saved into creating a system for removing obstacles and making execution as easy as possible.
  • When other people are saying yes, you’ll find yourself saying no. When other people are doing, you will find yourself thinking. When other people are speaking, you’ll find yourself listening. When other people are in the spotlight, vying for attention, you’ll find yourself waiting on the sidelines until it’s time to shine. (page 232 of Essentialism)

Pause to ask yourself these questions

  • Am I investing in the right activities?
  • What would happen if we could figure out the one thing you could do that would make the highest contribution?
  • Will this activity or effort make the highest possible contribution toward my goal?
  • What do I feel deeply inspired by? 
  • What am I particularly talented at?
  • What can I do that meets a significant need in the world?
  • Is there a point at which doing less (but thinking more) will actually produce better outcomes?
  • Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?”, ask, “What do I want to go big on?” The cumulative impact of this small change in thinking can be profound. (page 56 of Essentialism)
  • When you look back on your career and life, would you rather see a long laundry list of accomplishments that don’t really matter or a few major accomplishments that have real meaning and significance?

How to be an Essentialist

  • Don’t try to do it all. It’s impossible.
  • Don’t be a people-pleaser. Muster up courage to live a life true to yourself, not the life others expect of you.
  • Accept that you cannot be popular with everyone all of the time.
  • Deliberately distinguish the vital few from the trivial many, eliminate nonessentials, and remove obstacles so the essential things have a clear, smooth passage.
  • Learn how to do less but better so you can achieve the highest possible return on every precious moment of your life.
  • As an Essentialist, you should explore more options than your Nonessentialist counterparts. Commit and “go big” on one or two ideas or activities after deliberately exploring more options at first to ensure that you’ve picked the right one later.
  • Give yourself permission to be more selective in what you choose to do.
  • “Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs. It’s about deliberately choosing to be different.” — Michael Porter
  • Be a journalist of your own life. This will force you to stop hyperfocusing on all the minor details and see the bigger picture.
  • Play. Play has a positive effect on the executive function of the brain. “The brain’s executive functions include planning, prioritizing, scheduling, anticipating, delegating, deciding, analyzing — in short, most of the skills any executive must master in order to excel in business.” — Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatrist who specializes in brain science. (page 87)
  • Do the one thing that you are most passionate about and that you can be best at. — Good to Great by Jim Collins
  • Make one decision that eliminates 1,000 later decisions. (page 125)
  • Create a strategy that is concrete and inspirational.
  • If your boss asks you to do something that is super important, say, “Yes. What should I deprioritize?” Remind your superiors what you would be neglecting if you say yes and force them to grapple with the trade-off.
  • In your work, make like an editor and use deliberate subtraction to add life to ideas, setting, plot, and characters. Eliminate distracting words, images, and details.
  • Get to the point. Make life as effortless as possible for your audience. The goal is to help your audience have the clearest possible understanding of the most important message or takeaway.
  • Gain a clear sense of the overarching purpose of your work or mission.
  • Set limits to become limitless.
  • Don’t take on other people’s problems. As Greg McKeown explains, once we take someone’s problem for them, all we’re doing is taking away their ability to solve it. Instead, enable people to solve their own problems.
  • Set clear boundaries in your life. Otherwise, you’ll end up imprisoned by the limits others have set for you.
  • Don’t force execution. Instead, invest time that you’ve saved by eliminating nonessentials into designing systems to make execution almost effortless.
  • Look ahead and plan. Prepare for different contingencies. Expect the unexpected. Create a buffer to prepare for the unforeseen, providing yourself wiggle room when things come up, as they inevitably do.
  • Acknowledge that you cannot predict the unexpected. Prepare for the unexpected.
  • Produce more — bring forth more — by removing more instead of doing more.
  • Identify the “slowest hiker” in your job or life. What is the obstacle that blocks you from achieving what really matters to you? Even activities that are productive — like doing research, emailing people for information, or rewriting the report in order to get it perfect the first time around — can be obstacles. Remove anything that slows down execution.
  • To get essential things done, start small, build momentum, and reward progress. By starting small, you’ll end up achieving more than when you set big, lofty, often impossible goals. To make improvements, the best place to look is for small changes we could make in the things we do often. There is power in steadiness and repetition. 
  • In business and working with people, encourage and reward heroic acts. Deliberately create a system where heroic acts eventually become natural and effortless.
  • Focus on minimal viable progress. Create the simplest possible product that will be useful and valuable to the intended customer. 
  • Got an important goal or deadline? Start “early and small” by starting at the earliest possible moment with the minimal possible time investment. In other words, don’t go “late and big” by doing it all at the last minute. (page 200)
  • Design a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential to the default position. Start with one change in your daily or weekly routine and build on your progress from there.
  • Develop a routine that enshrines the essentials and you’ll begin to execute them on autopilot. Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles — without it, the pull of nonessential distractions will overpower you. The right routines can actually enhance innovation and creativity by giving you the equivalent of an energy rebate. (page 207)
  • When it comes to competition (in business, sports, etc.), don’t obsess about the other team. Consciously or not, you’ll start wanting to play the way the other team is playing. Instead, focus on your own game. To operate at your highest level of contribution requires that you deliberately tune in to what is important in the here and now. (page 216)
  • Don’t try to multi-focus. Focus on one thing at a time. When faced with so many tasks and obligations that you can’t figure out which to tackle first, stop. Take a breath. Get present in the moment and identify the most important thing this very second — not what’s most important tomorrow or even an hour from now.

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