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Essentialism Explained

Essentialism Explained

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

This is just one example of many of the a-ha moments triggered whilst reading Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism: The Discipline of Pursuing Less.

This blog aims to serve as a summary of the book – not an original article proposing an opinion thereof. 

Greg believes that our society is consumed with wanting more and that’s why we consistently take on additional things. 

How many of these statements ring true for you?

  • How often have you responded yes to a request without really thinking about it?
  • How often have you signed up for something and then resented it?
  • How often have you said yes simply to please?
  • How often have you said yes simply to avoid trouble?

Greg recognises that we face an unholy alliance between social media, smartphones, and consumerism. He suggests that “it’s not all bad, but certain forces that have come together are producing an unintended result for all of us.” 

“Our whole society has become consumed by the undisciplined pursuit of more. The only way to overcome this problem is to change the way we think, adopt the mindset of only doing the things that are essential. Adopt this mindset now.”



The Logic of Essentialism


An Essentialist is driven by the idea that almost everything is noise and few things are essential. His job is to filter noise to get essence, to understand the crux of that which is important. This implies living our lives by design, not by default.

In order to do so you have to conquer these three core beliefs:

  • I have to.
  • It’s all important.
  • I can do both.

Replace these false assumptions with three truths:

  • I have to” –> “I choose to“.
  • It’s all important” –> “Only a few things really matter“.
  • I can do both” –> “I can do anything but not everything“.


How do we do this? How do we filter what’s really important? 


1. Escape:

“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: in order to have focus, we must escape to focus”.

Use Bill Gates’ famous Think Weeks example: he is known to take regular weeks where he disengages from all digital media and simply takes time out to read and think.

2. Don’t abolish boredom:

By abolishing boredom, you also abolish your opportunities to think and reflect, which means you start going about your life in default mode. 

3. Learn to say NO:

Only once you stop saying yes to everyone and start using NO more often, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.  

Choosing an essentialist mindset means fueling the belief that you are capable of doing anything that you set your mind to by accepting that you can’t do everything. Thus, saying no to things that don’t serve your goals becomes the key to making room in your life for the things that really matter.


The Invincible Power of Choice

Choice is at the core of becoming an Essentialist.  This requires a heightened acknowledgement of our power to choose.  It’s important to remember that options are potential events that appear for us, but a choice is an action i.e. not something we have but something we do.

 We may not always have control over our options, we always have control of how we choose among them.



What should I be saying yes to?


Apply the 90% rule. As you evaluate an option, think of the most important criteria to evaluate that option on, and then score it. If it scores below a 90, simply turn the score into a 0 and toss it out.

If your reaction to a request isn’t ‘Hell yes!’ then it’s likely not worth your time, and will detract and distract you from applying yourself to things you really do care about.

If something isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.

“If you could be truly excellent at one thing, what would it be?”

Ask yourself 3 questions:

1. What am I deeply inspired by?

2. What am I particularly talented at?

3. What meets a significant need in the world?

Once you know the one thing you want to be excellent at, and you choose to pursue your dream, it will take a lot of gumption to not stray and get distracted from our goals.

McKeown suggests that you create deal-breakers and rules for yourself so that decision making is easier.

Make trade-offs deliberately don’t think “How can I do both?” but rather “Which problem do I want?”.

Trade-offs 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.

Trade-offs are an inherent part of life. It’s not about choosing what you have to give up, it’s deciding what you want to go big on.


Protect the Asset


If we underinvest in ourselves — our minds, bodies, and spirits — we damage the tool we need to make our highest contribution. One of the most common ways people damage this asset is through a lack of sleep.

Sleep is what allows us to operate at our highest level of contribution so that we can achieve more, in less time. By “protecting our asset”, we are able to go about our daily lives with a reserve of energy, creativity, and problem-solving ability to call upon when needed. 

Science shows that even a nap can increase creativity. One hour more of sleep equals several more hours of much higher productivity. Sleep is for high performers. Sleep is a priority, breeds creativity, and enables the highest levels of mental contribution.

An Essentialist produces more and brings forth more, by removing more instead of doing more. Instead of focusing on the efforts and resources, we need to add, the Essentialist focuses on the constraints or obstacles we need to remove. But how?

Be clear about the essential intent: we can’t know what obstacles to remove until we are clear on the desired outcome. When we don’t know what we’re really trying to achieve, all change is arbitrary. So ask yourself, “How will we know when we are done?”

Identify the “Slowest Hiker”: make a list of the obstacles standing between you and getting something done. Prioritize this list by asking “What is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?” Keep in mind is that even activities that are “productive” — like doing research, or emailing people for information — can be obstacles. Remember, the desired goal is to get a draft of the report finished. Anything slowing down the execution of that goal should be questioned

Remove the obstacle: shift to a mentality that “Done is better than perfect” rather than aiming for perfection.


The Art of the Graceful No


If the thought of having to say no to people makes you anxious, McKeown does a great job of providing some solid ways of saying no without ruining relationships.

Repertoire of NOs

Awkward pause: Don’t be afraid of it. Control it. Let the other guy fill the silence.

Soft “no”/No, but: “I can’t now, but let me know after_”.

Let me check my calendar and get back to you: Gives you time to think/consider.

Yes, what should I deprioritize?: Sometimes you cannot say no. If your boss asks for help with one project, say Yes, and what other projects should I deprioritize?

You are welcome to X, I am willing to Y: Say what you are not willing to do in terms of what you ARE willing to do. E.g.: “You are welcome to my keys, I am willing to lend you my car so you can drive yourself, but I will not drive you.”

I can’t do it, but X may be interested.

“I’m flattered you thought of me, but I’m overcommitted”. 

Complementary reading.


Why We Sleep 

Deep Work