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Essentialism has been on my “to read” list for quite a while and I’m glad that I finally took the opportunity to dive in. In this book, subtitled The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author and British business strategist Greg McKeown challenges some norms that many people don’t even think to question.

For example, he writes, “The overwhelming reality is that we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.” Quoting John Maxwell that “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” What an attention-grabber!

McKeown identifies the principle of Essentialism as “Less but better” and the basic value proposition of Essentialism as: only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter. And he challenges the reader to consider that “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

Essentialism is described as a “discipline you apply each and every time you are faced with a decision about whether to say yes or whether to politely decline.” And as a method for making the tough trade-offs between lots of good things and a few really great things.

Part 1: Essence. What is the core mind-set of an Essentialist?

Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done, and that the result of investing our time and resources in fewer things is to make significant progress in the things that matter most. The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default; distinguishing the vital few from the trivial many; eliminating the nonessentials; and removing obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage.

McKeown asks his readers to consider questions such as:

  • Are you driven by the myth that “you can have it all”?
  • Do you ever feel busy but not productive?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What is your purpose in life?
  • What are your boundaries?
  • How often do you say yes simply to please? Or to avoid trouble?
  • What is the very most important thing you should be doing with your time and resources right now?

Part 2: Explore. How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?

McKeown discusses the criticality of setting aside time to take a breath and look around: a Nonessentialist is too busy to think about life while an Essentialist creates space to escape and explore life.

The author explains that a Nonessentialist thinks almost everything is essential and views opportunities as basically equal while an Essentialist thinks almost everything is nonessential and distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many.

Believing that “our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize,” McKeown writes that Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life and that instead of asking “What do I have to give up?” they ask “What do I want to go big on?”

The power is in the choices that we make and the key is to only commit ourselves to the things that we feel totally and utterly convicted to do (it’s either hell yeah! or no). Consider: do I absolutely love this? As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, rate the option against that criterion, and anything below a score of 90 out of 100 gets rejected.

It’s critical to make decisions consciously, logically, and rationally, rather than impulsively or emotionally. In applying highly selective criteria (rather than broad, implicit criteria), all areas of our lives should be clear and we should pass on seemingly very good options and have faith that even better options will come along.

Part 3: Eliminate. How can we cut out the trivial many?

In this section, the author emphasizes the importance of having a clear purpose in one’s life, writing that an Essentialist has a strategy that is concrete and inspirational, has an intent that is both meaningful and memorable, and makes one decision that eliminates one thousand later decisions.

An Essentialist sets rules in advance, sees boundaries as liberating, and knows that if you have limits you will become limitless. A Nonessentialist sees boundaries as constraining and thinks if you have limits you will be limited.

An important aspect of “living” one’s purpose is having the conviction to say “no” when necessary and the author describes ways to do so, including that “a clear “no” can be more graceful than a vague or noncommittal “yes”.” A Nonessentialist says yes to everything and avoids saying no to avoid feeling social awkwardness and pressure. An Essentialist, however, says yes only to the things that really matter and dares to say no firmly, resolutely, and gracefully.

Lin Yutang is attributed with saying “The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”

Part 4: Execute. How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?

The author contends that, to become an Essentialist, you should look ahead, plan for different contingencies, practice “extreme” and early preparation, and build in a buffer for unexpected events. Whereas, a Nonessentialist forces execution at the last minute and assumes the best-case scenario will happen.

McKeown discusses the concept of producing more by removing more, which involves being clear about your goals and removing the obstacles to achieving them. He also stresses the power of small wins: an Essentialist starts small and gets big results, and celebrates small acts of progress. While a Nonessentialist starts with a big goal and gets small results, and goes for the flashiest wins.

To create small wins, the author suggests starting small and building momentum, and he stresses the power in steadiness and repetition. The Essentialist designs a routine that enshrines what is essential, making achieving what you have identified as essential the default position, resulting in execution that is almost effortless. That our ability to execute the essential improves with practice and, with the right routine in place, each effort yields exponentially greater outcomes.

A near-final chapter of the book stresses the importance of focusing on WIN (What’s Important Now) and living accordingly. That a Nonessentialist’s mind is spinning out about the past or the future, thinks about what was important yesterday or tomorrow, and worries about the future or stresses about the past. Conversely, the Essentialist’s mind is focused on the present, tunes in to what is important right now, and enjoys the moment.

The Dalai Lama has said “If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness.”

I hope this summary sparks your interest to further explore the book Essentialism and its concepts.