“Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying ‘yes’ too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” – Josh Billings
Warren Buffett became the most successful investor of all time by being hyper selective. He owes 90% of his wealth to just 10 investments. For every 100 opportunities that comes his way, he says no to 99 of them.
Peter Drucker, the greatest management consultant in the last 100 years, once said, “People are effective because they say ‘no,’ because they say, ‘this isn’t for me.’ ’’
We are all presented with ‘good opportunities’ during our lifetime, but which of those opportunities are truly essential to our lives?
“A non-essentialist thinks almost everything is essential. An essentialist thinks almost everything is non-essential.” – Greg McKeown
“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” – John Maxwell
People today feel like they should pack their schedules to the brim, doing everything they possibly can to expand their horizons and improve their lives. In this age of abundance, we feel like we need to have and do it all. However, this attitude runs headlong with an unfortunate fact: we can’t do it all.
We can’t be an expert in every field, we can’t have every toy, nor can we have every possible experience. Not only that, but having and doing everything won’t necessarily make us more happy. In fact, we’ll find our closets cluttered with junk we never use and our schedules filled with tasks we can’t complete, at least not well.
Instead, we should be focusing on what we should do, thinking instead about what is essential to our happiness and well-being.
In this book summary you’ll learn all about how to identify the essential things in your life and what you can do to cut out everything else, thus giving you the mental and emotional fortitude to perform those most vital tasks to the highest standards possible.
In this summary of Essentialism by Greg McKeown, You’ll learn:
- why you should probably go ahead and throw away that stupid, howling-wolf shirt in your closet;
- what happens when airlines try to have it all and
- what sleep-deprived overachievers and drunks have in common.
Too often, as leadership and business strategist Greg McKeown explains, a brush with success can stall your career. Don’t let your success derail you from the pursuit of your goals. Instead, become an essentialist, and prioritize your life before someone else does. Pursue the “vital few” above the “trivial many.” McKeown shares the essentialist perspective and teaches you to learn to say no to other people as a means of conserving your resources to meet your personal career objectives.
- Success often can unintentionally lead your career to plateau, stagnate and even fail.
- To remain steadfast on the path to your career goals, treat your job as though you work as a consultant for your company.
- Don’t get sucked into a “busyness cycle” by pursuing little victories that are falsely motivating.
- Reclaim your time from others, who will happily prioritize your life on your behalf, if you let them.
Discern the essential from the non-essential (4 habits)
Evaluate the trade-offs
To be one of the best airlines, CEO Herb Kelleher made deliberate trade-offs that allowed him to strategically say ‘yes’ to things that would differentiate Southwest from other airlines and secure its position on top.
“We just say yes because it is an easy reward, we run the risk of having to later say no to a more meaningful one.” – Greg McKeown
Each choice has a trade-off. When we say yes to one thing, we are saying no to another. The next time you want to say yes to an opportunity just remember what other opportunities you are saying no to.
“We can try to avoid the reality of trade-offs, but we can’t escape them. Trade-offs are not something to be ignored or decried. They are something to be embraced and made deliberately, strategically, and thoughtfully.” – Greg McKeown
“Nonessentialists tend to think of boundaries as constraints or limits, things that get in the way of their hyperproductive life. To a Nonessentialist, setting boundaries is evidence of weakness. Essentialists, on the other hand, see boundaries as empowering. They recognize that boundaries protect their time from being hijacked and often free them from the burden of having to say no to things that further others’ objectives instead of their own.” – Greg McKeown
Create black and white rules, like “I don’t take calls between 7-10am, sorry,” or “I don’t check email after 6pm. If it’s something urgent, you’ll need to call me.” People will initially challenge your boundaries, but overtime, people will respect your boundaries. With the right boundaries in place, you can prevent the non-essential from creeping into your life.
Dare to say ‘No’
“We feel guilty. We don’t want to let someone down. We are worried about damaging the relationship. But these emotions muddle our clarity. They distract us from the reality of the fact that either we can say no and regret it for a few minutes, or we can say yes and regret it for days, weeks, months, or even years…Since becoming an Essentialist I have found it almost universally true that people respect and admire those with the courage of conviction to say no.” – Greg McKeown
Develop the courage to say ‘no’ by remembering what you are saying ‘yes’ to:
- “No, I don’t want to take on another project because I want to ensure my current project is a huge success.”
- “No, I don’t want to go out for drinks because I want to spend time with my family.”
Schedule time to journal
Rushing around all day trying to get things done causes us to lose perspective. The more stress we accumulate during the day, the more we mistake non-essential things as urgent and important. To prevent the non-essential from creeping into our lives, we need to schedule a time where we can disconnect and renew our outlook on life. A reliable way to regain perspective is journaling.
Journaling allows us to get the petty stuff down on paper so we can start focusing on the bigger picture. By spending a few minutes journal each day, we increase our introspection and start to question why we do what we do. “Being a journalist of your own life will force you to stop hyper-focusing on all the minor details and see the bigger picture.” – Greg McKeown
“Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize.” – Greg McKeown
In order to avoid drowning in unnecessary work, you need to adopt the principle of essentialism.
Our lives are so jam-packed with tasks and responsibilities that we struggle to identify which of them are the most important to us, that is, our priorities. Even if we make a concerted effort to go through all our tasks and pick out the ones we should prioritize, we still end up with too much on our hands.
This overload of stuff massively hinders our productivity. Luckily, however, we can get our priorities straight by adopting essentialism.
Essentialism focuses on four main points:
Do less, but do it better. The cornerstone of essentialism is the never-ending task of identifying the less important things in your life to cut out, and doing what’s left over to a higher standard.
Reject the notion that we should accomplish everything, and choose instead specific directions in which you can excel. Essentialism isn’t about making tiny progress in many directions. Instead, choose a direction and make great strides in the things that matter most to you.
Constantly question yourself and update your plans accordingly. The process of deciding what’s worth doing and what should be let go is ongoing. The essentialist is always deciding whether what she is doing is actually worth her time or if she should invest her time and energy in a more productive area.
Finally, once those few vital tasks have been distilled from the trivial many, the essentialist wastes no time in ensuring that the changes are put in place.
While all that might seem easy, most of us are actually far from the mark. In the next few book summarys you’ll discover how far away most of us are from the essentialist approach.
If we become overwhelmed by our tasks, then we lose our ability to make choices for ourselves.
Do you tend to say ‘’I have to” rather than “I choose to”? If so, then you are following the non-essential path.
So many of us lose control of our ability to choose through learned helplessness, that is, becoming so used to the feeling of being overwhelmed that we approach our lives with passivity.
To explain this a bit more, here’s an example:
The term learned helplessness originates from experiments on dogs. In the experiments, the dogs were given electric shocks. Some of them were given a lever that would stop the shocks, others received a similar lever which had no effect and the last group received no shocks at all.
Later, the dogs from all groups were put together in a huge box divided in two: one half administered shocks and the other emitted none. All the dogs from the earlier experiment who had the chance to stop the shock or had experienced no shock at all ran to the shock-free side. The ones whose levers were powerless, however, stayed in the shock zone and did not adapt.
In other words, they had learned to be helpless.
If we surrender our power to choose, we essentially give others permission to choose for us. When people think that their efforts are futile, they tend to respond in two ways:
They either give up completely or become overly active, accepting every opportunity presented to them. At first, their activity might indicate that they have not developed learned helplessness. However, these people aren’t actually exercising their power to choose the opportunity which is best for them. They simply do everything.
The ones who offer the possible choices, on the other hand, are the ones who hold the real power.
Embrace the idea of “less but better” and accept trade-offs as an inherent part of life.
If you had the power to travel back in time and build a fortune by investing in a company, which would you choose? IBM? Microsoft? Apple?
While the success of those companies might make them an obvious pick for some, the biggest return on your investment would actually come from Southwest Airlines.
In fact, Southwest Airlines displayed a remarkable level of success for a period by concentrating on one of the key tenets of essentialism: doing only a few vital things very well.
Rather than offering their customers lots of choices, such as first class seating, meals and seat reservations, Southwest concentrated on one thing: flying people from point A to point B, and that’s it – no frills necessary.
They realized that if they tried to do everything, they would undoubtedly fail. However, by concentrating on doing a few things very well, like getting travellers to their destinations, then they could be successful.
Adopting this approach means being willing and able to make trade-offs, which can prove to be difficult. While it might seem simple enough to cut out unimportant tasks and leave only the most vital, in practice, we just end up becoming convinced that we can do it all.
For example, when the success of Southwest became apparent, Continental Airlines decided to imitate their strategy. However, instead of cutting back to a few vital essentials, Continental erroneously decided that they could do it all. Their solution was to carry on with their traditional airline and create the separate brand, Continental Lite, to offer the budget service.
However, the operational inefficiencies caused by pursuing both strategies meant that Continental Lite wasn’t price competitive. In the end, because they couldn’t sacrifice the nonessential and focus on what was vital, they lost millions.
Now that you have a good idea of how far people often stray from the path of essentialism, the following book summary will show you what you can do to find the path again.
Giving yourself space to escape and seeing the bigger picture will help you pick out the vital from the trivial.
Nowadays, hardly anyone has time to be bored. Modern technologies like our smartphones mean that we have access to a wealth of communication and entertainment. Since no one actually likes being bored, this sounds like a great thing.
However, boredom can actually be good for you. A period of time in which you have nothing to do can give you an opportunity to think clearly about what needs to be done.
In order to ensure that you have that time, clear a break in your schedule every day to give yourself time to escape: to think.
Creating a space in your schedule just to think about your life – what options, problems or challenges you face – will help you assess which are vital and which aren’t.
In fact, some of humanity’s greatest minds, such as Newton and Einstein, used this technique. Both of them confined themselves in solitude in order to escape, thus allowing themselves time to think about their groundbreaking theories.
Many of today’s most successful CEOs do the same, scheduling a few hours of “blank space” in their calendar every day in order to do some thinking.
However, escaping isn’t just a way to isolate vital tasks from the rest; you can also use it to ensure that you remain focused on the big picture.
People often get so lost in the small, day-to-day tasks that they lose track of the reason they are doing those things in the first place. In order to maintain focus on what’s important, essentialism teaches us to always concentrate on the bigger picture.
One way to do so is by keeping a journal, but instead of writing down everything you experience, force yourself to write as little as possible. This will require you to think through everything you’ve done and sift out only what you consider essential. And as you read back through your journal entries you will see the big picture emerge.
Get your creative juices flowing by playing – just don’t forget to give yourself time to rest.
Unfortunately, we adults tend to make a sharp distinction between work and play, having decided that play is something that is trivial and unproductive. It is there purely for entertainment, and doesn’t help us to advance our goals. In other words, it’s a waste of time.
The essentialist, however, recognizes that play is a vital tool for inspiration. If you want to discover what’s vital in your life, you can use play to free your mind so that you can approach this subject creatively.
Play can serve this purpose because:
it helps us to develop novel connections between ideas that we would have never otherwise considered;
it is an antidote to stress, which is one of the key factors in unproductivity and
it helps us to prioritize and analyze tasks.
We see the importance of play reflected in the culture of companies such as Twitter, Pixar and Google, who promote play by doing things like offering improv comedy classes or by decorating the office with a huge dinosaur or thousands of Star Wars figurines.
Why do they do this? Because they know that a playful employee is an inspired and productive one.
But as important as play is, it should never take priority over rest and sleep. Non-essentialists view sleep the same way they do play – as a luxury, a waste of potentially productive hours.
This approach is totally backwards, as sleep increases your ability to think, connect ideas and maximize your productivity during your waking hours. One hour of sleep actually results in several more hours of higher productivity the following day!
In fact, studies have shown that going 24 hours without sleep or getting a weekly average of just four to five hours of sleep per night causes a cognitive impairment equivalent to what you would have with a 0.1 percent blood alcohol level – enough to get your driver’s license suspended!
Be ruthless in cutting away things that aren’t essential.
Often, we fall into the trap of thinking that all of our tasks and responsibilities are vital in one way or another.
Surely you’ve experienced something similar when you’re going through your closet during spring cleaning: you start with the mindset that “if I never wear it, it’s got to go,” yet, you soon find yourself making exceptions, and telling yourself things like: “I know I never wear this howling-wolf shirt, but I might want to one day!” So, you keep it and your closet remains as crammed as ever.
So how can you avoid this trap?
In short, be extreme with your criteria. One way to do so is by adopting the 90-percent rule. Start by considering the most important criterion for the decision you are making. For example, if you’re cleaning the closet, that criteria might be, “Will I ever wear this again?” Then, give it a score between zero and 100.
With the 90-percent rule, anything that is less than 90 (even an 89) is a zero. After considering all the options, discard everything that scored less than 90.
Another method is to decide that “if it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.” A simple way to put this into action is to list the three minimum things that something must have in order to keep it, as well as three ideal criteria that you want it to meet.
Then when deciding on what to keep, something must pass the three minimum requirements as well as at least two of the ideal ones.
Thinking this way will hopefully allow you to avoid having trivial matters slip through. For example, there is absolutely no way that the howling-wolf shirt in your closet would pass the three minimum requirements: (1) “Is it stylish?” (2) “Would I wear it everyday?” (3) “Will no one laugh at me for wearing it?”
Say “no” to nonessential tasks and plan the essential ones carefully.
So what do you do once you’ve made a list of everything that needs to go, that is, everything that is not essential to achieve your goals? It’s relatively easy to part with a shirt you never wear, but these decisions become more complicated when other people are involved.
We tend to fear saying no, feeling both socially awkward as well as pressured not to disappoint the people around us, and are concerned that saying no might damage our relationships.
However, often times we should say no, and reserve yes only for the things that really matter.
To do so, you’ll need to separate the decision from the relationship. The pain of saying no may cause regret for ten minutes or so as you worry about someone else’s disappointment or that you’re missing out on something, but you might regret saying yes for way longer.
Always remember, failing to say no to the things which aren’t vital can lead you to miss out on the opportunities that truly are.
Once you’ve gotten used to saying no when it’s in your best interest, you can focus on planning the vital tasks that are left over.
Be clear about your goals by having an essential intent: one main objective that is both inspirational and concrete.
Imagine, for example, that your goal is to end world hunger. Although this goal is certainly inspirational, it’s not at all concrete, and thus fails as your essential intent. Trying to follow an objective of this magnitude will become cumbersome due to its vagueness.
Now consider this goal: build 150 affordable, environmentally friendly, storm-resistant homes for families living in the lower ninth ward. Not only is this goal inspirational, but it’s also specific and concrete. In other words, your objective is abundantly clear.
One way of checking whether your goal is clear is by asking yourself: How will I know when I’ve reached my goal? If you can reasonably answer this question, then you know you have clarity about what you are doing.
Stop doing unnecessary things by withdrawing from failures and setting boundaries.
Have you ever ended up doing something that you knew was a waste of effort simply because you committed to it? A lot of people fall into this sunk-cost bias.
The sunk-cost bias is the tendency to continue investing money, time, effort and/or energy into something we already know is unlikely to succeed. Unfortunately, every little investment makes it harder for us to let go, while simultaneously increasing the amount we are sure to lose.
To illustrate this, consider the spectacular failure of the Concorde jet. Although it was an astonishing engineering achievement, the cost made it unprofitable and doomed to commercial failure. Regardless, the French and British governments fell into a sunk-cost bias, and continued investing in it for four decades, fully aware that most of their money would never be recuperated.
You can easily avoid this trap by developing the courage to admit your errors and mistakes and let them go. If it’s clear that something isn’t going to work out, then don’t be afraid to cut your losses and abandon ship.
Moreover, you can avoid this entire scenario by setting clear boundaries. While a non-essentialist sees boundaries as unnecessary constraints, boundaries are in fact liberating on a fundamental level.
Imagine, for example, a schoolyard on a busy street: at this school, children are only allowed to play in a small part of the yard next to the school buildings, and the teachers have to keep a watchful eye that the children stay within this boundary.
But what if a fence was installed that clearly demarcated where the children can safely be? Then the teachers could use their time better, since they wouldn’t have to be so concerned with children being near traffic, and the children could play freely within that space.
Boundaries are not there to constrain you, but to make your life easier and more enjoyable. For example, you could consider setting a clear boundary between work and family. If your kids aren’t allowed in the office, then work shouldn’t be allowed in your home.
Keeping on top of what’s important requires that you eliminate what slows you down and that you prepare carefully.
Once you’ve committed to the principles of essentialism, it’s time to grapple with the last step: execution.
Becoming an essentialist requires you to identify what’s slowing you down and then eliminate it, rather than simply finding ways to work around it.
For example, imagine that you’re a boy scout leader and need to get your troop to camp before nightfall. In order to keep things fair, each scout is carrying equal provisions in his backpack. But, you’ve got a problem: some of the scouts are much faster than others, and thus the group spreads out and the kids in the back risk getting left behind.
Your first (non-essential) solution is to make stops every so often so that the stragglers can catch up. Next, you try taking the kids from the back and putting them at the front so everyone stays together, but this just slows everyone down.
Finally, you see the essentialist solution: you take some of the weight out of the slower kids’ backpacks and put it in the fast kids’ backpacks. By thinking with the principles of essentialism, you’ve eliminated the problem!
In addition, you can prevent unnecessary obstacles by being prepared. One of our biggest mistakes is assuming that our plans will go as expected. An essentialist, however, does not think this way. Instead, he assumes that things might go wrong and thus makes the right preparations.
Whatever you do, whether it’s taking your kids to school or delivering a presentation at work, always give yourself a buffer of 50 percent of the time you expect it to take. This way you can always leave room to correct anything that ends up slowing you down.
An essentialist life centers around yourself, a routine and proceeding step-by-step.
If you’ve ever achieved something in one fell swoop, then you experienced luck first hand. Most of the time, it won’t work out that way. In reality, creating success is all about building upon your previous progress with small, incremental steps.
Small wins create momentum, which gives you the confidence to further succeed. Moreover, they allow you to stay on track by giving you the opportunity to check whether you are heading in the right direction.
While it might be frustrating to take small steps, remember that the consequences of even small steps can be far-reaching. Take the police department in Richmond, Canada, for example. For years they tried to lower the rate of recidivism by using sweeping measures, such as more stringent laws and stronger punishments, with poor results. Then they decided to totally reshape their reforms by taking small steps towards crime prevention:
When police saw young people doing something good, like putting their trash in bins instead of throwing it on the street, they gave them a small reward, such as free tickets to movies and youth events. These measures helped keep the young people off the streets, and after a decade of this policy, the rate of recidivism dropped from 60 to only eight percent.
But no matter what your approach, you’ll need to ensure that you stick with it by designing a routine.
Routines create a habit, thus making difficult things become easier over time. It’s therefore prudent to create a routine that aligns with your goals.
For example, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’s coach got him to follow a routine during his training. Every time Phelps went to bed and as soon as he woke up in the morning, he had to visualize a slow-motion video of what he imagined to be the perfect race. Phelps then tried to replicate this video during training.
Sure enough, he did this for so long that, when the Olympics came, his habits took over and swam the perfect race again and again, winning him a number of medals.
Success often can unintentionally lead your career to plateau, stagnate and even fail.
Capable, driven people work hard to attain success, yet they often become mired in the many options and opportunities that accompany success. The “noise” of success sometimes derails a high achiever’s focus and stalls career momentum. Why?
“Success can become a catalyst for failure.”
Your success signals to co-workers that you have valuable input and generate reliable outcomes. As you solve problems and repair the failures of others, you sacrifice the time and energy that you once devoted to your own success. If you find yourself stalled in your career after what seemed like promising success, it may be time to change your perspective to that of an “essentialist” – someone who excels at stripping away nonessential activities to focus unwaveringly on his or her personal goals.
To remain steadfast on the path to your career goals, treat your job as though you work as a consultant for your company.
Consultants maintain focus by the nature of their role in a company. They are hired to meet a specific goal, not to serve the needs of everyone around them. Thus, colleagues don’t copy them on every email or invite them to every meeting. Be selective about how you expend your time. When considering whether you should perform a given task, ask yourself whether a high-paid consultant would agree to do it. Adopt this perspective to focus on your progress essentials – activities pertaining specifically to your role and goals. Replace the pursuit of more with the pursuit of “less, but better.”
“You can either do many, many things averagely well, or you can do a few things superbly well. And if you do the right few things superbly well, you’re far more likely to be acknowledged for what you’ve done and to make a significant contribution.”
Becoming a go-to person can be as taxing as it is rewarding. When you are the person to whom everyone turns, you damage your own drives and ambitions. You make the sacrifice before you even realize it, and you can’t recover lost time.
Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse, found that the two top regrets dying patients rued were living to meet others’ expectations rather than living true to self and allowing work to trump family and relationships. Extricate yourself from the trivial nonessentials to live your most satisfying life.
Don’t get sucked into a “busyness cycle” by pursuing little victories that are falsely motivating.
Crossing items off an extensive to-do list is inherently rewarding but never-ending. Don’t get tricked into adding trivial detours to your path by agreeing to help other people when they drop the ball. Instead, focus on creating better habits for yourself.
“You’ve got to learn to jettison the activities, and even the relationships from your life that are less meaningful to you…so that you can invest your time and energy into the things that are truly meaningful to you.”
By routinizing the essential, your default position becomes the pursuit of your goal, not the thing you hope to get around to completing after you’ve met everyone else’s needs.
Reclaim your time from others, who will happily prioritize your life on your behalf, if you let them.
When the word “priority” entered the English lexicon in the 1400s, it was a singular noun. The plural form, “priorities,” emerged only in the 1900s. Essentialists don’t permit the diluted plural definition of priorities to impede progress toward a primary goal. Instead, streamline and focus: less, but better.
While rescuing people may feel temporarily gratifying, doing so gives others the power to determine your time and direction. Saying no causes an initial tension between your goals and social expectations, but it also provides the freedom necessary to pursue your own needs. By saying no, you clarify your own essential path. Discard nonessential activities and relations by saying yes to yourself first.
“We need to design our lives deliberately, or they will end up being designed for us by people that aren’t as invested in us achieving the essential mission of our lives.”
Model yourself after accomplished people like Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi and Steve Jobs, who listened first to the voice inside, not the noise outside, in order to meet their essential purpose. Don’t simply become a function of other people’s lives. Live your meaningful life through essentialism.
The key message in this book:
In spite of how it might seem, only a few things are actually vital to our goals and well-being, and everything else is unimportant. By focusing on these few essential things and learning to do better by doing less, we can craft a life that is far more productive and fulfilling.
Be an editor.
Rather than constantly adding more and more responsibilities and material possessions to your life, try instead to find ways to cut things out. The more trivial things you can eliminate from your thinking and routine, the better you’ll be at what’s left; the things that truly matter.
About the author
Best-selling author and speaker Greg McKeown is a leadership and business consultant focused on helping others succeed by saying no. He is the author of Essentialism, Effortless and Multipliers.
Greg McKeown writes, teaches, and speaks around the world on the importance of living and leading as an Essentialist. He has spoken at companies including Apple, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Salesforce, Symantec, and Twitter and is among the most popular bloggers for the Harvard Business Review and LinkedIn Influencer’s group. He co-created the course, Designing Life, Essentially at Stanford University, was a collaborator of the Wall Street Journal bestseller Multipliers and serves as a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum. He holds an MBA from Stanford University.
Business, Management, Leadership, Time Management, Decision-Making and Problem Solving, Success Self-Help, Productivity, Personal Development, Psychology, Philosophy, Organization Management Skills, Stress and Anxiety Management, Motivation, Self-Esteem
Table of Contents
Part I Essence: What is the core mind-set of an Essentialist?
1 The Essentialist 1
2 Choose: The Invincible Power of Choice 33
3 Discern: The Unimportance of Practically Everything 41
4 Trade-Off: Which Problem Do I Want? 49
Part II Explore: How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?
5 Escape: The Perks of Being Unavailable 63
6 Look: See What Really Matters 73
7 Play: Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child 83
8 Sleep: Protect the Asset 91
9 Select: The Power of Extreme Criteria 103
Part III Eliminate: How can we cut out the trivial many?
10 Clarify: One Decision That Makes a Thousand 119
11 Dare: The Power of a Graceful “No” 131
12 Uncommit: Win Big by Cutting Your Losses 145
13 Edit: The Invisible Art 155
14 Limit: The Freedom of Setting Boundaries 163
Part IV Execute: How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?
15 Buffer: The Unfair Advantage 175
16 Subtract: Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles 185
17 Progress: The Power of Small Wins 193
18 Flow: The Genius of Routine 203
19 Focus: What’s Important Now? 215
20 BE: The Essentialist Life 225
Appendix: Leadership Essentials 239
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • More than one million copies sold! Essentialism isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done.
Have you ever:
- found yourself stretched too thin?
- simultaneously felt overworked and underutilized?
- felt busy but not productive?
- felt like your time is constantly being hijacked by other people’s agendas?
If you answered yes to any of these, the way out is the Way of the Essentialist.
Essentialism is more than 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 toward the things that really matter.
By forcing us to apply more selective criteria for what is Essential, the disciplined pursuit of less empowers us to reclaim control of our own choices about where to spend our precious time and energy—instead of giving others the implicit permission to choose for us.
Essentialism is not one more thing—it’s a whole new way of doing everything. It’s about doing less, but better, in every area of our lives. Essentialism is a movement whose time has come.
“A timely, essential read for anyone who feels overcommitted, overloaded, or overworked.”—Adam Grant
“Essentialism will give you richer, sweeter results and put you in real control, giving greater precision to the pursuit of what truly matters.”—Forbes
“In this likeable and astute treatise on the art of doing less in order to do better…McKeown makes the content fresh and the solutions easy to implement. Following his lucid and smart directions will help readers find ‘the way of the essentialist.’”—Success
“Do you feel it, too? That relentless pressure to sample all the good things in life? To do all the ‘right’ things? The reality is, you don’t make progress that way. Instead, you’re in danger of spreading your efforts so thin that you make no impact at all. Greg McKeown believes the answer lies in paring life down to its essentials. He can’t tell you what’s essential to every life, but he can help you find the meaning in yours.”—Daniel H. Pink, author of To Sell is Human and Drive
“Entrepreneurs succeed when they say ‘yes’ to the right project, at the right time, in the right way. To accomplish this, they have to be good at saying ‘no’ to all their other ideas. Essentialism offers concise and eloquent advice on how to determine what you care about most, and how to apply your energies in ways that ultimately bring you the greatest rewards.”—Reid Hoffman, co-founder/chairman of LinkedIn and co-author of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Start-up of You
“As a self-proclaimed ‘maximalist’ who always wants to do it all, this book challenged me and improved my life. If you want to work better, not just less, you should read it too.”—Chris Guillebeau, New York Times bestselling author of The $100 Startup
“Great design takes us beyond the complex, the unnecessary and confusing, to the simple, clear and meaningful. This is as true for the design of a life as it is for the design of a product. With Essentialism, Greg McKeown gives us the invaluable guidebook for just such a project.”—Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO
“In Essentialism, Greg McKeown makes a compelling case for achieving more by doing less. He reminds us that clarity of focus and the ability to say ‘no’ are both critical and undervalued in business today.”—Jeff Weiner, CEO, LinkedIn
“Essentialism is a powerful antidote to the current craziness that plagues our organizations and our lives. Read Greg McKeown’s words slowly, stop and think about how to apply them to your life—you will do less, do it better, and begin to feel the insanity start to slip away.”—Robert I. Sutton, Professor at Stanford University and author of Good Boss, Bad Boss and Scaling Up Excellence
“Essentialism is a rare gem that will change lives. Greg offers deep insights, rich context and actionable steps to living life at its fullest. I’ve started on the path to an Essentialist way of life, and the impact on my productivity and well-being is profound.”—Bill Rielly, Senior Vice President, Intel Security
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The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.
Sam Elliot1 is a capable executive in Silicon Valley who found himself stretched too thin after his company was acquired by a larger, bureaucratic business.
1 Name has been changed.
He was in earnest about being a good citizen in his new role so he said yes to many requests without really thinking about it. But as a result he would spend the whole day rushing from one meeting and conference call to another trying to please everyone and get it all done. His stress went up as the quality of his work went down. It was like he was majoring in minor activities and as a result, his work became unsatisfying for him and frustrating for the people he was trying so hard to please.
In the midst of his frustration the company came to him and offered him an early retirement package. But he was in his early 50s and had no interest in completely retiring. He thought briefly about starting a consulting company doing what he was already doing. He even thought of selling his services back to his employer as a consultant. But none of these options seemed that appealing. So he went to speak with a mentor who gave him surprising advice: “Stay, but do what you would as a consultant and nothing else. And don’t tell anyone.” In other words, his mentor was advising him to do only those things that he deemed essential–and ignore everything else that was asked of him.
The executive followed the advice! He made a daily commitment towards cutting out the red tape. He began saying no.
He was tentative at first. He would evaluate requests based on the timid criteria, “Can I actually fulfill this request, given the time and resources I have?” If the answer was no then he would refuse the request. He was pleasantly surprised to find that while people would at first look a little disappointed, they seemed to respect his honesty.
Encouraged by his small wins he pushed back a bit more. Now when a request would come in he would pause and evaluate the request against a tougher criteria: “Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?”
If he couldn’t answer a definitive yes, then he would refuse the request. And once again to his delight, while his colleagues might initially seem disappointed, they soon began respecting him more for his refusal, not less.
Emboldened, he began to apply this selective criteria to everything, not just direct requests. In his past life he would always volunteer for presentations or assignments that came up last minute; now he found a way to not sign up for them. He used to be one of the first to jump in on an e‑mail trail, but now he just stepped back and let others jump in. He stopped attending conference calls that he only had a couple of minutes of interest in. He stopped sitting in on the weekly update call because he didn’t need the information. He stopped attending meetings on his calendar if he didn’t have a direct contribution to make. He explained to me, “Just because I was invited didn’t seem a good enough reason to attend.”
It felt self-indulgent at first. But by being selective he bought himself space, and in that space he found creative freedom. He could concentrate his efforts one project at a time. He could plan thoroughly. He could anticipate roadblocks and start to remove obstacles. Instead of spinning his wheels trying to get everything done, he could get the right things done. His newfound commitment to doing only the things that were truly important–and eliminating everything else–restored the quality of his work. Instead of making just a millimeter of progress in a million directions he began to generate tremendous momentum towards accomplishing the things that were truly vital.
He continued this for several months. He immediately found that he not only got more of his day back at work, in the evenings he got even more time back at home. He said, “I got back my family life! I can go home at a decent time.” Now instead of being a slave to his phone he shuts it down. He goes to the gym. He goes out to eat with his wife.
To his great surprise, there were no negative repercussions to his experiment. His manager didn’t chastise him. His colleagues didn’t resent him. Quite the opposite; because he was left only with projects that were meaningful to him and actually valuable to the company, they began to respect and value his work more than ever. His work became fulfilling again. His performance ratings went up. He ended up with one of the largest bonuses of his career!
In this example is the basic value proposition of Essentialism: only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.
What about you? How many times have you reacted to a request by saying yes without really thinking about it? How many times have you resented committing to do something and wondered, “Why did I sign up for this?” How often do you say yes simply to please? Or to avoid trouble? Or because “yes” had just become your default response?
Now let me ask you this: Have you ever found yourself stretched too thin? Have you ever felt both overworked and underutilized? Have you ever found yourself majoring in minor activities? Do you ever feel busy but not productive? Like you’re always in motion, but never getting anywhere?
If you answered yes to any of these, the way out is the way of the Essentialist.
The Way of the Essentialist
Dieter Rams was the lead designer at Braun for many years. He is driven by the idea that almost everything is noise. He believes very few things are essential. His job is to filter through that noise until he gets to the essence. For example, as a young twenty-four-year-old at the company he was asked to collaborate on a record player. The norm at the time was to cover the turntable in a solid wooden lid or even to incorporate the player into a piece of living room furniture. Instead, he and his team removed the clutter and designed a player with a clear plastic cover on the top and nothing more. It was the first time such a design had been used, and it was so revolutionary people worried it might bankrupt the company because nobody would buy it. It took courage, as it always does, to eliminate the nonessential. By the sixties this aesthetic started to gain traction. In time it became the design every other record player followed.
Dieter’s design criteria can be summarized by a characteristically succinct principle, captured in just three German words: Weniger aber besser. The English translation is: Less but better. A more fitting definition of Essentialism would be hard to come by.
The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better. It doesn’t mean occasionally giving a nod to the principle. It means pursuing it in a disciplined way.
The way of the Essentialist isn’t about setting New Year’s resolutions to say “no” more, or about pruning your in-box, or about mastering some new strategy in time management. It is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” There are far more activities and opportunities in in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital. The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference–learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential.
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.
The difference between the way of the Essentialist and the way of the Nonessentialist can be seen in figure 1 above. In both images the same amount of effort is exerted. In the image on the left, the energy is divided into many different activities. The result is that we have the unfulfilling experience of making a millimeter of progress in a million directions. In the image on the right, the energy is given to fewer activities. The result is that by investing in fewer things we have the satisfying experience of making significant progress in the things that matter most. The way of the Essentialist rejects the idea that we can fit it all in. Instead it requires us to grapple with real trade-offs and make tough decisions. In many cases we can learn to make one-time decisions that make a thousand future decisions so we don’t exhaust ourselves asking the same questions again and again.
The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.
The way of the Essentialist is the path to being in control of our own choices. It is a path to new levels of success and meaning. It is the path on which we enjoy the journey, not just the destination. Despite all these benefits, however, there are too many forces conspiring to keep us from applying the disciplined pursuit of less but better, which may be why so many end up on the misdirected path of the Nonessentialist.
The Way of the Nonessentialist
On a bright, winter day in California I visited my wife, Anna, in the hospital. Even in the hospital Anna was radiant. But I also knew she was exhausted. It was the day after our precious daughter was born, healthy and happy at 7 pounds, 3 ounces.1
Yet what should have been one of the happiest, most serene days of my life was actually filled with tension. Even as my beautiful new baby lay in my wife’s tired arms, I was on the phone and on e‑mail with work, and I was feeling pressure to go to a client meeting. My colleague had written, “Friday between 1–2 would be a bad time to have a baby because I need you to come be at this meeting with X.” It was now Friday and though I was pretty certain (or at least I hoped) the e‑mail had been written in jest, I still felt pressure to attend.
Instinctively, I knew what to do. It was clearly a time to be there for my wife and newborn child. So when asked whether I planned to attend the meeting, I said with all the conviction I could muster . . .
To my shame, while my wife lay in the hospital with our hours-old baby, I went to the meeting. Afterward, my colleague said, “The client will respect you for making the decision to be here.” But the look on the clients’ faces did not evince respect. Instead, they mirrored how I felt. What was I doing there? I had said “yes” simply to please, and in doing so I had hurt my family, my integrity, and even the client relationship.
As it turned out, exactly nothing came of the client meeting. But even if it had, surely I would have made a fool’s bargain. In trying to keep everyone happy I had sacrificed what mattered most.
On reflection I discovered this important lesson:
If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
That experience gave me renewed interest–read, inexhaustible obsession–in understanding why otherwise intelligent people make the choices they make in their personal and professional lives. “Why is it,” I wonder, “that we have so much more ability inside of us than we often choose to utilize?” And “How can we make the choices that allow us to tap into more of the potential inside ourselves, and in people everywhere?”
My mission to shed light on these questions had already led me to quit law school in England and travel, eventually, to California to do my graduate work at Stanford. It had led me to spend more than two years collaborating on a book, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. And it went on to inspire me to start a strategy and leadership company in Silicon Valley, where I now work with some of the most capable people in some of the most interesting companies in the world, helping to set them on the path of the Essentialist.
In my work I have seen people all over the world who are consumed and overwhelmed by the pressures all around them. I have coached “successful” people in the quiet pain of trying desperately to do everything, perfectly, now. I have seen people trapped by controlling managers and unaware that they do not “have to” do all the thankless busywork they are asked to do. And I have worked tirelessly to understand why so many bright, smart, capable individuals remain snared in the death grip of the nonessential.
What I have found has surprised me.
I worked with one particularly driven executive who got into technology at a young age and loved it. He was quickly rewarded for his knowledge and passion with more and more opportunities. Eager to build on his success, he continued to read as much as he could and pursue all he could with gusto and enthusiasm. By the time I met him he was hyperactive, trying to learn it all and do it all. He seemed to find a new obsession every day, sometimes every hour. And in the process, he lost his ability to discern the vital few from the trivial many. Everything was important. As a result he was stretched thinner and thinner. He was making a millimeter of progress in a million directions. He was overworked and under-utilized. That’s when I sketched out for him the image on the left of figure 1.
He stared at it for the longest time in uncharacteristic silence. Then he said, with more than a hint of emotion, “That is the story of my life!” Then I sketched the image on the right. “What would happen if we could figure out the one thing you could do that would make the highest contribution?” I asked him. He responded sincerely: “That is the question.”
1. A version of this story was published in a blog post I wrote for Harvard Business Review called “If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will,” June 28, 2012, https://blogs.hbr.org/2012/06/how-to-say-no-to-a-controlling/.