Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Author: Greg McKeown
Publisher: Crown Business
Published: 4/15/2014
The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done.  It is not  a time management strategy, or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.

Essentialism By. Greg McKeown

Key Insights

Don’t you wish you could eliminate all the tasks, obligations, and duties in your life that aren’t moving you forward?

By reading “Essentialism” by. Greg McKeown, you will learn to do just that.

McKeown gives readers a “how-to” about focusing on the right goals and what’s truly valuable to your life while eliminating meaningless tasks.

You will learn how to ignore the meaningless, and refocus your life to make it successful, satisfying, and fulfilling.

“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. 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.”- Greg McKeown

Leaders in business will also benefit from this method that will help to create a clear focus, communicate efficiently, and delegate tasks to their employees that best meet their strengths.

Key Points

  • True Priorities Aren’t Getting the Attention They Need

Nonessentialists go through 4 steps:


  1. They succeed in their goals.
  2. They gain a good reputation which results in more opportunities.
  3. Then they less energy to devote to each new opportunity that they say ‘yes’ to.
  4. As a result, they stray from their original goal and end up working on meaningless side projects.


These 4 steps can be summed up into one sentence: Nonessentialist people and organizations give energy in too many directions, leading to very little progress.

An essentialistic person or organization put all their energy in one direction to reap the most benefits.

Many businesses believe in the power of multitasking to get things done. However, this often results in emails and calls being dropped because the person was not fully focused. Humans are truly only capable of performing one task at a time.

The only way multitasking can work with a human is if one of the tasks is automatic, such as breathing.

It is important for companies to eliminate tasks on their to-do lists to focus their attention. But, this can be hard to do in big companies that have to focus on many different avenues such as revenues, shareholders, customers, operations, etc.

  • What Is Essentialism?

Essentialism is the method of limiting your goals, putting unnecessary tasks aside, and learning how to say ‘no’ to tasks that will not help you to move forward.

Essentialists have very small lists of tasks to do. That is because they know what tasks truly matter. They turn down tasks that do not propel them toward their goals.

Essentialists do not rush or neglect their prioritized tasks. It is not a race toward the finish line, rather a strategized and focused plan.

The focus of essentialists helps to increase their productivity. It is not the number of tasks they are accomplishing, but rather the quality of the ones that they are accomplishing.

An essentialist targets their focus on one task at a time, rather than spreading themselves thin. This ensures that the effort they are putting into something is quality.

  • Make Decisions About What To Take On For Yourself

If people wait too long to make a decision about what to prioritize, other people will end up making the decision for them.

When you are passive about your goals and the priorities leading up to them, you give up the responsibility of decision-making. And, therefore, others will make decisions for you.

“Remember that if you don’t prioritize your life someone else will.”― Greg Mckeown

Advertisements are a great example of these external stimuli that influence people. Restaurants often use chalkboards with specials to influence people on what to eat. Though this is an innocent example, people should be aware that these external stimuli are everywhere.

Another example of this is family pressuring you to study something at university even if you have no interest in it because it is a “smart” career choice. If a person decides to study this specific topic they have no interest in, they are dropping their priorities to fulfill another’s.

  • Understand That Less Can Be Better

In order to label what is an important priority, you must eliminate priorities. And, you must understand that the idea of “less” is actually better because it is focused.

“If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”― Greg McKeown

To go about this easily, a person should simply look at their list of priorities and cut out what isn’t directly propelling them toward their goals. If something is between essential and nonessential toward their goal, they should cut that too. Their to-do list should be made as concise as possible.

People may have a hard time with this if they are used to saying ‘yes’ to all side-projects. But, by saying ‘yes’ to small projects, your time is compromised. You have to use the energy that was saved for higher-level projects and distribute them equally to all of your tasks.

By eliminating the small tasks, or delegating them to others, you will have more time for the projects that matter. And, as a result, be more efficient.

  • Don’t Be Afraid To Abandon Other Goals

Having too many goals can oftentimes be a bad thing. That’s because you are stretching yourself too thin and aren’t able to give total focus to any one thing.

To be successful, you must abandon side-goals to increase efficiency and target your focus. This is called making a trade-off. You are choosing one priority over another.

“Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?”― Greg McKeown

An example of a trade-off when it comes to personal and professional life is choosing to go to your son’s school play rather than attend a business dinner. Making a choice about your priority is essential.

  • Get Rid Of Distractions

It’s hard to cut yourself off from new obligations and duties. Especially in a world where we are constantly being asked to do things via phone, email, and text.

In another one of McKeown’s books entitled, “Monk Mode,” he describes the importance of isolation for creativity and stress relief. When you remove yourself from distractions such as media and phone, you will aid your productivity.

“Sleep will enhance your ability to explore, make connections, and do less but better throughout your waking hours.”― Greg McKeown

For example, a writer may use a writing retreat in order to finish a novel.

  • Learn to Say ‘No’

Learning to say ‘no’ to opportunities can be a hard thing to learn. Especially in a society that has told us to take new opportunities that the universe presents us.

Factors such as pressure from co-workers, family, or ourselves can easily pressure us into saying ‘yes’ to things that will not help us in the long-run.

If a person cannot say ‘no’ straightforwardly, they can either take a priority off their to-do list. Or, they can ask that the task be given to them in the future.

By not saying ‘no’, you are not hurting anyone. Especially, when you offer suggestions on how to get the task done without hurting your current priority list.

  • Define the Main Goal Clearly

The main goal should be defined clearly by a person or an organization so that when it is complete, you will know.

A lot of time organizations have a mission statement or a goal that is not well-defined, so deciding when it is done can be tricky.

Say one of your main goals is family. That is something that can not be easily defined as being accomplished when complete. But, if you decide how much of your time should be spent with family every day or every week, it is easier to define if you are meeting your goal.

  • Make the Essential Priorities Clear

If you get rid of everything that is nonessential to your life, then you will have an easier time seeing the essential parts.

People must also set boundaries around their clear priorities. For example, turning off your work phone when you are with your family.

People often get stuck in tasks that are not driving them forward if they have already invested money into it. But, it’s important to let things go that are not serving you and move on.

For example, if a business owner spent a lot of money on a marketing campaign that isn’t putting out the desired results, it’s best to let it go and move onto another solution for profits.

  • Create Buffers For Time and Resources

Your priorities should have clear task to-do lists that are concise and focused.

Each priority should have small steps that lead up to reaching the end-goal.

Buffers within each goal are important as there are things you cannot account for that may take more time than expected. By creating these buffers, you give yourself more freedom and can reach your goal with less stress.

An example of creating a buffer: Let’s say you are a sandwich maker and you usually make 100 sandwiches at lunchtime. If you make sure you have the resources for double the amount of sandwiches, you won’t suffer and lose business if you get an unexpected rush.

Preparing for the unexpected is important to a successful business. And, it reduces stress.

In order to make a process more focused and productive, it’s important to eliminate any steps that may hinder it or slow down the process. Just like unnecessary priorities, unnecessary steps should be thrown away!

  • Essentialism Should Be the Key to Every Decision

You cannot choose when you want to be essentialistic and when you don’t. You must make it the focus of every decision in your life. This will help to establish a routine.

It is also important to be present. That way, you can decide what tasks and priorities are valuable and which are not.

Consistency is also key. When you create a routine based on essentialism, you must adhere to it.

Breaking your routine because of a distraction is not essentialistic.

  • Leaders Must Choose the Best Members for Their Teams

When you are leading a team as an essentialist, you must pick the best members for your team. Unnecessary team members will not help you move toward your goal.

For example, if you have a friend who is toxic in your personal life, get rid of them. They are not serving you.

To choose the best team members, your goal must be defined clearly. Only then will you understand the people you absolutely need on your team.

Leaders should pick members who are essentially and not hire two people that are alike in their skills. Redundancy is not necessary.

Essentialistic leaders will not communicate with their team unless it’s absolutely necessary. Unnecessary talk is a time-waster and not essential to the end-goal.

These leaders will be mostly hands-off and trust that their team members know what they are doing.

Employees on essentialistic teams often manage themselves and only check-in with their supervisors when they need more resources or when the project is complete.

The Main Take-Away

By adapting the essentialism method of eliminating unnecessary tasks and priorities, you will be able to focus your time and resources on the things that matter the most to you and reach your goals in a much more efficient fashion.


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