Essentialism by Greg Mckeowen

One Sentence Summary

The Essentialist mindset is all about doing less, but better

Two Key Takeaways

  • Focus on your objectives. There's no way to do everything you want to do well, but you can do 1-3 things exceptionally well
  • Saying no is apart of life. Have one decision that makes a thousand. When presented with an opportunity to do something or take on a new task, make sure you are 100% down. If you're even 90% down, it should be an automatic 'No'! (if you have the luxury to do that of course).

Chapter 1: The Essentialist

  • When you spend time focusing on too many objectives, you end up minoring in major activities, which makes work very frustrating
  • Instead of making a millimeter of progress in a million directions, you can begin to make major progress in the things that are truly vital
  • Less but better
  • Essentialism is not about getting more things done, it's about getting the right things done; making the wisest investment of your time to feed the things with the most ROI
  • The way of the essentialist means to make decision based on design, not default. Being able to distinguish the vital few tasks from the trivial many, allow you to do the things you deliberately choose to do
  • "If you don't prioritize your life, someone else will"

Paradox of Success

  • Phase 1 - When you have such clarity on what to do, you do that thing really well
  • Phase 2 - Success leads to a reputation of the 'go-to person' in that field or area. This leads to an increase in options and opportunities.
  • Phase 3 - Increased opportunities, which is really just an increase in demand for your time,
  • Decision Fatigue - The more choices we have to make, the more the quality of our decisions deteriorates.
  • The word 'Priority' came into the world in the 1400s. For 500 years, it remained singular until in the 1900s when people started talking about priorities - you can't have more than three important things you're focusing on
  • To help discern between what to do and what not do, ask yourself, "Will this activity or effort make the highest possible contribution toward my goal?"

Chapter 2: The Invincible Power of Choice

  • Learned Helplessness plays out in two ways either: (1) Sometimes they check out and stop trying, or (2) They become hyperactive, they accept every opportunity presented and throw themselves at every assignment

Chapter 3: The Unimportance of Practically Everything

  • You must understand that certain types of effort yield higher rewards than others
  • The Power Law Theory - certain efforts actually produce exponentially more results than others
  • An Essentialist discerns more so he can do less

Chapter 4: Trade-Off: Which Problem Do I Want?

  • The worst thing an organization, or person, can do is ignore the reality of trade-offs. Every decision you make will be a trade-off to something else.
  • If you don't make the hard choice to decide your trade-offs, someone else is going to make it for you
  • Johnson & Johnsons mission statement says the customers are first, and the shareholders second. That is why when they had to recall Tylenol, even though they lost $100 million, they did it anyway. The customers safety was more important than a price point [[Story]] [[Infinite Game]]
  • Essentialists ask the tougher but more liberating question, "Which problem do I want?"
  • When faced with a decision where one option prioritizes family and another friends, health, or work, you need to be prepared to ask, "Which problem do you want?"

Chapter 5: ESCAPE - The Perks of Being Unavailable

  • 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.
  • Newton, when asked how he discovered the law of universal gravitation, replied, "By thinking on it continually". What he thought on, he thought on continually or nearly exclusively

Chapter 6: LOOK - See What Really Matters

  • In every set of facts, something essential is hidden
  • The problem might not be the problem. You must have the ability to look at the high level picture of what's going on.

Chapter 7: PLAY - Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child

  • Bob Fagan, a researcher who has spent 15 years studying the behavior of Grizzly Bears, discovered bears who played the most tended to survive the longest. In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares the bear for a changing planet
  • Play helps in reducing stress which is key to creativity because stress plays a big role of being an enemy of productivity and other exploratory parts of our brain
  • Stress increases the activity in the amygdala, while reducing the activity in the hippocampus, the thing that's responsible for cognitive function

Chapter 8: SLEEP - Protect the Asset

  • Essentialists choose to do one fewer thing right now, in order to do more tomorrow
  • Read, "Sleep is the New Status Symbol for Successful Entrepreneurs"

Chapter 9: SELECT - The Power of Extreme Criteria

  • If the answer isn't a definite 'Yes' then it should be an automatic 'No'
  • Assigning numerical values to your decisions can help you make the right decision, instead of staying stuck in indecision.
  • Evaluate an option and think about the single most important criterion for that decision. Give that option a score between 0 to 100. If you rate it any lower than 90%, change the score to 0 and say no
  • Don't say yes to something just because it's an easy reward. Doing that runs the risk of having to say no to a more meaningful one down the road
  • Write down the opportunity. Next, write down a list of three 'minimum criteria' the options need to pass in order to be considered. Third, write down a list of 'extreme criteria' they would need to pass in order to be considered. If the opportunity doesn't pass both lists, it's a no

Chapter 10: CLARIFY - One Decision That Makes a Thousand

  • If a team is disorganized and not having results, that's a clear warning sign for a lack of clarity. People are confused about what their roles are and experience stress, confusion, and frustration. When there is a high level of clarity, people thrive.
  • Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions
  • Organizations who can answer, "If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?" will thrive. If all of their employees can answer that question, the games over - they win

Chapter 11: DARE - The Power of a Graceful "No"

  • You can say no and regret it for a few minutes, or you can say yes and regret it for a few days, weeks, months, or even years


  1. Separate the decision from the relationship
  2. You don't have to use the word, "No"
  3. Focus on the trade off
  4. Remind yourself that everyone is selling something
  5. Saying no often requires trading popularity for respect. Be okay with that.
  6. A clear "No", can sometimes be more graceful than a vague or noncommittal "Yes"

  7. Essentialists accept they can't be popular with everyone all of the time

Chapter 12: UNCOMMIT - Win Big By Cutting Your Losses

  • Don't continue investing time, money, or energy into something you know is losing proposition.
  • One helpful question to ask yourself is, "If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?"
  • Ask someone who is not emotionally involved in the situation and unaffected by the choice you make to give
  • Apologize. Be honest and tell the person that when you made the commitment, you thought there would be less responsibilities

Chapter 13: EDIT - The Invisible Art

  • Latin root of the word decision - cis or cid - literally means, "to cut" or, "to kill"
  • When added on to an email thread, or when sitting in a meeting, wait to give your two cents. Observe what other people's ideas are and edit out what you think you need to say.

Chapter 14: LIMIT - The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

  • When asked to do something, it can be intimidating to push back. However, what is worse than defending your priorities is what happens if you don't - the ability to choose what you're doing and eventually what is most essential in your own life
  • Don't solve everyone's problem for them. Forcing people to solve their own problems is equally beneficial for them as it is for you

Chapter 15: BUFFER - The Unfair Advantage

  • Adding buffer into your schedule is an unfair advantage because no one does it
  • Work will expand the time allotted to it - Parkinson's Law - this can be a harmful thing, but also positive if scheduled properly
  • Planning Fallacy - Coined by Daniel Kahneman in 1979, refers to how people often times underestimate how long a task will take, even though they haven't done it before. They feel good because stuff if, 'planned', but not properly. This will just lead to a busy day where nothing gets done
  • I'd rather do one thing incredibly well, then start 5 things and finish none of them in any given day
  • Add a buffer into your schedule of 50%. If you think a task will take two hours, schedule three hours to accomplish it

Chapter 16: SUBTRACT - Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles

  • Constraints (bottlenecks) hold the entire organization and company up. You can improve everything else, but if the bottleneck isn't improved, nothing will flow more efficiently.
  • Instead of focusing on the efforts and resources that need to be added, an Essentialist focuses on removing the constraints or obstacles that needed to be removed. First, you must be able to determine what the clear, desired outcome is. Until then, you don't know what's constraining you.
  • Ask yourself, "What are the obstacles standing between me and getting this done?" and "What is keeping me from completing this?" Make a list of those obstacles, and prioritize them based off the question, "what is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?"

Chapter 17: PROGRESS - The Power of Small Wins

  • Don't go for the big, flashy wins. They don't matter. Instead, go for the small, everyday wins that have consistent results
  • Two primary internal motivators for people are achievement and recognition for achievement.

Chapter 18: FLOW - The Genius of Routine

  • "Routine in an intelligent man is a sign of ambition" - W.H. Auden
  • Routine is essential to being an essentialist. Without it, non-essentials distractions will always win
  • Every habit is made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward
  • Cue - A trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use
  • Routine - The behavior itself; can be physical, mental, or emotional
  • Reward - This helps your brain figuring out whether the habit is worth repeating or not

Chapter 19: FOCUS - What's Important Now?

  • The only way to operate at your highest level of contribution, you must deliberately tune into what is important in the here and now
  • Don't get so caught up in past mistakes, or future opportunities that you can't focus and dominate the present
  • "Execution is easy if you work hard at it and hard if you work easy at it"
  • "In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present." - Lao Tzu

Chapter 20: BE - The Essentialist Life

  • Don't get caught up in the paradox of success.
  • Choose your priorities, do everything that accomplishes those and nothing that doesn't
  • Choose essential.


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