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

Short Summary

We try to do too much. Get pulled in all directions. ‘We major in minor activities’. Learn the art of doing less but better by becoming an Essentialist.

Date Read: 26/12/2018
Rating: 7/10

The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Essentialism is about recognising what is important and high priority in life and taking action to reduce our commitments, projects, goals and choices in a disciplined way.
  2. Learn to filter noise and distractions from real meaningful contributions to ultimately do less … but better.
  3. Change your identity to become someone who lives life more intentionally and not under the pressure of other people and the clock.

Overall Thoughts

This is not time management, task management or productivity book. I would, in fact, call this a psychology book because at the core of the message of this book is developing a new identity for yourself. The identity of an essentialist.

Essentialism is not something you do once in a while, it is a way of life. It is a practice that you cultivate and carry out on a regular basis. It is something you become. Something you are.

Essentially what this book does is teaches us the art of saying no. Saying no to the noise, to the irrelevant. Saying no to all the things that are not vital to your goals and not a priority for you at this time and your life as a whole. Saying no gracefully and mindfully so that we can say a conscious yes to the important things in life.

Who is this book for?

Anyone who feels:

  • stretched and overwhelmed
  • overcommitted
  • they are underperforming
  • rushing through life
  • the need to simplify life
  • they are not being productive and living life on their terms
  • being pulled in too many different directions
  • socially pressured to say yes when they actually want to say no

This book is particularly useful for managers and leaders as Greg McKeown is a business consultant and coach and uses lots of business and leadership examples in the book.

Also, people who want to declutter their life – not just in terms of material possessions but also in terms of over committing and having too many goals and projects.

Main Points & Ideas

  1. Saying yes to too many (nonessential) things will cause you to miss the opportunity of saying yes to the essential and most important things. Hence it is better to say an honest no than a half-hearted yes. People often think that by saying no, they will miss out, burn bridges, disappoint and upset someone – saying no might lose you popularity in the short term but will earn you respect in the long run – most importantly self-respect, for prioritising yourself and putting your own needs first.
    • We might feel social pressure to say yes, to please someone, to make it less awkward but saying no is important especially when it is not a true yes. There might be some internal resistance hence saying no can take courage.
    • When saying no to someone, separate the relationship from the decision. You are not denying the person but denying their request or invitation and this is why it is important to learn to say no with grace.
    • Saying yes to something means saying no to everything else – always think of the trade-off you are making because ultimately everything is a trade-off – there is always something else you could be doing with your time.
  2. More important than doing things right is doing the right things. So we must constantly ask ourselves; am I doing the right activities that will make the highest contribution to my life and my goals? Think of the 80/20 rule or the Pareto principle, which states that 80% of your contributions come from 20% of tasks and efforts.
  3. Live life by design, by intention, by consciously choosing what to do and work on rather than living by default as though life is just happening to you. However, having intentions is good but if you don’t have a system to realise your plans and intentions then those intentions are not going to be very beneficial. Systems will enable those plans and intentions to get done.
  4. Not every challenge and setback means we need to push through and work harder – sometimes we need to take a step back and actually ask ourselves; is this really a priority? Is this really worth my time and effort? When you’re doing too many different things at the same time, it is difficult to stop and ask yourself these questions. Hence it is vital to single task – doing one thing at a time.
  5. An essentialist actually discerns more so he/she can do less – but better. An essentialist makes the one decision that will eliminate a thousand decisions in the future.
  6. Sunk cost bias keeps many people invested in a losing/failing endeavour. In the investing world, the expression is to not throw good money after bad. In our personal lives, we can say don’t throw good time/effort after bad. Adults are particularly prone to sunk cost bias as opposed to kids – because adults have a lifetime exposure to the concept of ‘Don’t Waste’. Whether it’s time, money or resources, we are always told not to waste and not to be wasteful. This lack mentality reinforces the sunk-cost bias in various areas of life.
  7. To make progress, whether as a team or in a particular area in your personal life, always identify your weakest player or the weakest link in your chain. Then, do everything in your power to remove all obstacles from it’s path to eliminate all resistance in doing the job. Once you are able to identify and fix your weakest link the whole system is able to improve.

Impacts On My Life

  1. I realised after reading this book that I cannot have multiple top priorities. The word priority itself was singular up until the 1900s and then it became plural – ‘priorities’, thanks to the industrial age. Having multiple first things is an oxymoron.
  2. Ever since I first read this book back in 2018, I was introduced to the idea that I have been carrying around ever since – Make that one decision that will eliminate a thousand decisions in the future.
    • This is a very powerful statement and a very succinct way of looking at things. Greg McKeown argues that making decisions are the hardest things that we do in life so it’s important to simplify the process as much as possible and remove as many of the options as possible – a process of elimination to reach the best decision.
    • One example, as a result of this, is that I eliminated almost 80% of my wardrobe and replaced everything with black crew-neck T-shirts (much to my wife’s continued disapproval and horror). I made that one decision that eliminated a thousand in the future. Now I don’t need to decide every day what to wear- the decision is already made – it’s a black crew-neck every day. (I later read that Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama also wear the same clothes every day – Read more here).
    • If you want to learn more about decision fatigue and how this one statement has led me to automate most repeated decisions, I recommend you read this article here.
  3. I started saying no to almost all social invitations and engagements (again, much to my wife’s continued disapproval and dislike). I have 2 very simple criteria that a social event, where I am meeting people in a group and not one-on-one need to check; entertainment OR knowledge/information. If I feel I will not be gaining either or if the invite clashes with another commitment – the answer is a polite no.
  4. In saying no I also realised that no doesn’t need to be rude and more importantly I don’t need to apologise for turning down an invite or a request. Before reading this book, I wouldn’t say no very often and when I did, I often felt very guilty and found myself apologising for doing so. I have recognised that I don’t need to be sorry for prioritising my life, my time and putting my needs and myself first.
  5. Another big change in my life after reading this book was the creation and discipline of routine. I used to think that routines are boring, mundane and repetitive. However, after reading this book I realised that routines can automate daily decision making to free up the mind to do more important work. I have written an article in the past detailing the benefits and the process of creating routines which you can read here.
  6. I started setting smaller daily/weekly goals for myself as opposed to longer term, bigger goals. And where I did have bigger goals I broke them up into smaller goals with regular check ins. The reason? Of all the human motivations the most effective is progress – this is the power of small wins. I want to win every day. Not just a few times a year with the big goals. That’s why I will be putting small goals for myself every day and once I complete that goal – I have a win. It motivates me to do more.
    • I am teaching my little girl how to ride a bike, however, due to a lack of skill, practice and confidence she keeps pushing the brake and bringing the bike to a complete stop very often. This causes me to think about momentum. It’s easier to keep going once you get started instead of starting over and over. In life – keep the momentum going. Small wins create momentum to realise big goals in life.
    • For bigger goals, I constantly ask myself; What is the smallest form of progress I can make on this goal? What is the minimum viable progress?

Practical Takeaways

  1. Too many choices cause decision fatigue. Eliminate the choices first then make a decision.
  2. Essentialism is a discipline that is not practised periodically but applied every time we face a decision.
  3. Focus is not only something we have but also something we do – it is a verb.
  4. Good enough is not good. You can do better by committing to and doing less.
  5. Everyone is selling something; an idea, a viewpoint, an opinion – in exchange for your time. Protect your time.
  6. The endowment effect – our tendency to undervalue things that aren’t ours and to overvalue things because we already own them.
  7. Take inputs from everywhere but like a good editor, decide what stays in the final cut and what doesn’t.
  8. Master the art of deliberate subtraction.
  9. Writing more, doing more, saying yes to more things is lazy. Being thoughtful about condensing your writing, action, commitments, project and intentions of life takes time and effort that most people don’t invest.
  10. Don’t rob people of their problems. Once you solve their problems for them, you are also taking away their ability to solve problems. They will always look for your help.
  11. Effort and results don’t have a linear correlation. More efforts don’t always produce more results. Ask yourself; Is there a point at which doing more does not produce more? Is there a point at which doing less (but thinking more) will actually produce better outcomes? More is not always more. sometimes ‘less but better’ is a sounder approach to life.
  12. Set distraction-free time in a distraction-free zone to do nothing else but think.
  13. Doing less is actually harder and not easier because you need to weigh up all the options and make a decision to go big on and then you need to live with that decision.

Things I have/will be implementing after reading this book:

  1. Saying; I choose to do X instead of, I have to (we always have the ability to choose, we may not control the options but we have the ability to choose between them).
  2. Building a system to execute things and more importantly, asking myself; How will I know I am done? How will I measure it?
  3. In the book, the author runs an exercise to clean up your wardrobe and when you have items you are undecided on, he suggests asking; If I didn’t already own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it now? This same questioning can be applied to opportunities and commitments.
  4. Over prepared is always better than underprepared. Always be accurately prepared.
  5. Allowing buffer and extra time for tasks – as a rule of thumb – always allowing 50% extra time.
  6. Produce more, bring forth more, not by doing more but eliminating the resistance to doing and eradicating noise.

My Favourite Quotes

  • “If you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will”
  • “The pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure. Success can distract us from the things that produce success”
  • “Do the right things at the right time for the right reasons.”
  • “Essentialism is not a way to do more things – it is a different way to do everything”
  • “You can do anything, but not everything”
  • “More is not always more. Sometimes ‘less but better’ is a healthier approach to life.”
  • “Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important to what you do”
  • “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible – Pablo Picasso”
  • “If you are too busy to think and reflect – then you are just too busy to improve and learn.”
  • “Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritise.”
  • “No is a complete sentence – Anne Lamott”
  • “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day – Lao Tzu”
  • “We may be able to multitask but we cannot multi-focus”