Book Summary: Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Are you looking for a book summary of Essentialism By Greg McKeown? You have come to the right place.

Last week, I finished reading this book and jotted down some key insights from Greg McKeown.

If you don’t have time, you don’t need to read the entire book. This summary will provide you with an overview of everything you can learn from this book.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

In this Essentialism By Greg McKeown book summary, I’m going to cover the following topics:

What is Essentialism By Greg McKeown About?

Essentialism teaches you how to accomplish more by doing less. Essentialism helps you get your priorities straight by providing practical solutions that help you eliminate the junk in your routine that hinders you from being truly productive.

Who is the Author of Essentialism?

Among the companies Greg McKeown has coached are Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, and LinkedIn. 

He has an MBA from Stanford University, where he co-created the course Designing Life, and he has also written the best-selling book Multipliers.

Who is Essentialism By Greg McKeown For?

Essentialism By Greg McKeown is not for everyone. If you are the following types of people, you may like the book:

  • Those who believe they are far too busy without being productive
  • Those who feel there is never enough time
  • Those who have difficulty defining their priorities in life

Essentialism By Greg McKeown Book Summary


Increasingly, people feel they should pack their schedules full of activities, doing everything they can to improve their lives and expand their horizons. The age of abundance has made us feel as if we need to have and do everything. However, such an attitude runs headlong into an unfortunate reality: we cannot do everything.

There is no way we can be experts in every field, have every toy or have every experience. Also, if we do everything, we won’t necessarily be happier. We will be left with a closet filled with junk we never use and a schedule filled with tasks we can’t complete, at least not effectively.

Our focus should instead be on what we should do, considering what is essential to our happiness and well-being.

These insights reveal how to identify the most important things in your life and how to eliminate everything else to be able to perform those most vital tasks to the best of your ability.

Lesson 1: Adopt the principle of essentialism to avoid drowning in unnecessary work

It is so hard to identify which tasks and responsibilities are most important to us, that is, our priorities. It doesn’t matter how hard we try to go through all our tasks and pick out the ones we should prioritize, we still end up with too much to do.

Our productivity is massively hindered by this overload of stuff. However, by adopting essentialism we can get our priorities straight.

Essentialism emphasizes four main points:

Less is more, but better is better. Essentialism emphasizes cutting out the less important things in life and doing what remains to a higher standard.

Choose specific directions in which you can excel rather than attempting to accomplish everything. Efficiency is not about making little progress everywhere. Decide which direction you want to take and focus on what matters most to you.

Continually evaluate your plans and update them accordingly. We are still deciding what to keep and what to let go. Whether what she is doing is actually worthwhile or if she should invest her time and energy in a more productive area is always on the essentialist’s mind.

Having distilled the vital few from the trivial many, the essentialist immediately goes to work implementing the changes.

Although all that seems easy, most of us are far from the mark. You will learn how far from the essentialist approach most of us are in the next few insights.

Lesson 2: If we become overwhelmed by our tasks, we become incapable of making our own decisions

Are you more likely to say “I have to” than “I choose to”? In that case, you are following a non-essential path.

We lose control over our ability to make choices when we become accustomed to the feeling of being overwhelmed, and we approach our lives passively.

As an example, let me give you the following:

A dog experiment gave rise to the term learned helplessness. The dogs were shocked with electricity. Some of them received a lever to stop the shocks, others received a lever that did nothing, and the last group received no shocks at all.

In a later stage, all the dogs were put in a huge box divided in two: one half delivered shocks while the other did not. As part of the earlier experiment, all the dogs who had the chance to stop the shock or had not been shocked at all ran to the shock-free side. However, those whose levers were powerless remained in the shock zone and did not adapt.

As a result, they had learned to be helpless.

When we relinquish our power of choice, we are essentially letting others make our decisions for us. People tend to respond in two ways when they feel their efforts are futile:

The two extremes are either giving up completely or becoming overactive, taking every opportunity presented to them. Their behavior may at first suggest that they haven’t developed learned helplessness. However, these individuals are not exercising their right to choose the opportunity that is most suitable for them. Instead, they choose every opportunity.

In contrast, those who offer options are the ones with real power.

Lesson 3: Accept trade-offs as part of life and embrace the idea of “less but better”

Would you invest in a company if you could go back in time and build a fortune? IBM? Microsoft? Apple?

Despite the success of those companies, Southwest Airlines is actually the best investment for your money.

Southwest Airlines has achieved a great deal of success by focusing on one of the key tenets of essentialism: doing a few things very well.

Rather than offer plenty of options, such as first class seating, meals, and seat reservations, Southwest concentrated on one thing: getting people from point A to point B.

It became obvious to them that if they tried to do everything, they would fail. It may be possible, however, to be successful if they focus on doing a few things very well, such as getting travellers to their destinations.

Using this approach requires making trade-offs, which can be challenging. Although it may sound straightforward to cut out unimportant tasks and leave only the most crucial, in practice, we end up becoming convinced that we can do everything.

Continental Airlines, for example, followed Southwest’s strategy when they became successful. Continental, however, made the mistake of deciding that they could handle everything. To offer the budget service, Continental Lite was created as a separate brand within their traditional airline.

However, Continental Lite couldn’t compete on price due to the operational inefficiencies caused by pursuing both strategies. Ultimately, they lost millions of dollars because they couldn’t sacrifice the nonessential and focus on what was important.

Having now gained an understanding of how far people often deviate from the path of essentialism, let’s look at what you can do to get back on track.

Lesson 4: Allowing yourself time to escape and seeing the big picture will help you separate the important from the trivial

There is very little time for boredom nowadays. We have access to a wealth of communication and entertainment thanks to modern technologies, such as our smartphones. This sounds like a fantastic idea since no one likes to be bored.

It is possible, however, to benefit from boredom. When you are idle for a while, you have the chance to think clearly about what needs to be accomplished.

If you want to ensure that you have time to think, you should schedule a break from your schedule every day.

Taking the time to think about your life – what options, challenges or problems you face – will help you decide what’s important and what’s not.

Newton and Einstein, two of humanity’s greatest minds, used this technique. The two of them confined themselves in solitude to escape, which gave them time to think about their groundbreaking theories.

Several of today’s most successful CEOs schedule a few hours of “blank space” into their calendars each day so they can think.

You can, however, use escaping not just to separate essential tasks from the rest; you can also use it to remain focused on the big picture.

We often spend so much time doing the small, day-to-day tasks that we lose sight of why we do them in the first place. By focusing on the bigger picture, essentialism teaches us to keep our focus on what’s important.

You can achieve this by keeping a journal, but instead of writing down everything you experience, try to write as little as possible. This will require you to sift out only the things that you consider most important from everything you have done. You will see the big picture as you read back through your journal entries.

Lesson 5: Playing can inspire your creativity – just don’t forget to rest as well

We adults tend to make a sharp distinction between work and play, considering play a frivolous and unproductive activity. It is purely for entertainment, and does not contribute to the achievement of our goals. Simply put, it’s a waste of time.

However, essentialists recognize that play is an essential tool for inspiration. You can use play to free your mind so that you can approach the subject of what’s vital to your life in a creative way.

This can be accomplished through play because:

  • Through it, we can discover novel connections between ideas that we would never have thought of otherwise;
  • Stress is one of the leading causes of unproductivity, and yoga is an antidote to it
  • Prioritizing and analyzing tasks is made easier with it.

Play is central to the culture of companies like Twitter, Pixar and Google, which encourage it by offering things like improv comedy classes or decorating the office with dinosaurs and Star Wars figurines.

What motivates them to do this? Knowing an inspired and productive employee is one who is playful.

Even though play is important, it should never take priority over rest and sleep. Sleep is viewed by non-essentialists the same way as play – as an unnecessary luxury.

The approach is backward, as sleep increases your ability to think and connect ideas, allowing you to be more productive while awake. After one hour of sleep, you’re likely to be more productive the next day!

Study after study shows that going 24 hours without sleep or getting four to five hours of sleep per night can cause cognitive impairment equal to what you get with a 0.1 percent blood alcohol level – enough to get your driver’s license suspended!

Lesson 6  Eliminate anything that isn’t absolutely necessary.

Our tendency is to think that all of our tasks and responsibilities are equally important.

I know you’ve experienced something similar when going through your closet during spring cleaning: you start with the mindset that “if I never wear it, it has to go,” but you soon find yourself making exceptions and telling yourself things like, “I know I never wear that howling-wolf shirt, but I might wear it one day!” You keep it and your closet remains crammed.

What is the best way to avoid this trap?

Don’t be stingy with your criteria. Adopting a 90-percent rule is one way to do so. Consider the most important criteria when making your decision. 

If you were cleaning your closet, for example, you might ask yourself, “Will I wear this again?”. Then, give it a score between 0 and 100.

The 90-percent rule says that anything below 90 (even an 89) is a zero. Discard any options with a score below 90.

Another method would be to decide that “if it’s not a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.” In order to do this, simply list three minimum requirements that something must meet in order to keep it, and three ideal requirements you would like it to meet.

As a result, when deciding what to keep, at least two of the ideal requirements must be met as well as the three minimum ones.

By thinking this way, you should be able to avoid allowing trivial matters to slip through the cracks. If you look at the howling-wolf shirt in your closet, it would not pass the following three tests: (1) “Is it stylish?” (2) “Would I wear it everyday?” (3) “Will no one laugh at me for wearing it?”

Lesson 7:  Say no to unimportant tasks and carefully plan the essential ones

What do you do after you have compiled a list of everything that needs to go, that is, everything that is not essential for achieving your goals? A shirt you never wear is relatively easy to part with, but when other people are involved, the decision becomes more complex.

People tend to be averse to saying no out of social awkwardness and a desire not to disappoint others, as well as a fear that saying no might damage our relationships.

Sometimes, however, it’s better to say no and say yes only when it really matters.

You must separate the decision from the relationship in order to do so. For ten minutes or so, saying no may cause regret as you worry about someone else’s disappointment or that you’re missing out on something, but saying yes might cause you regret for hours.

It’s important to realize that failing to say no to the things that aren’t vital can lead to you missing out on the opportunities that are.

You can then focus on planning the essential tasks that are left over once you’ve learned how to say no when it’s in your own best interest.

Clear your goals by having an essential intent: one main objective that is both inspiring and concrete.

Consider, for example, the goal of ending world hunger. This goal is inspiring, but is not at all concrete, and thus fails to fulfill your essential purpose. Due to its vagueness, an objective of this magnitude will be difficult to follow.

Imagine building 150 affordable, environmentally-friendly, storm-resistant homes for families living in the lower ninth ward. Besides being inspirational, this goal is also specific and concrete. You are crystal clear about what you want.

You can check whether your goal is clear by asking yourself: How will I know when I’ve achieved it? You have clarity about what you are doing if you can answer this question reasonably.

Lesson 8: Refrain from doing things that are unnecessary and set boundaries

Did you ever commit to something that, in the end, turned out to be a waste of time, effort, and money? Sunk costs are a big problem.

Investing money, time, effort and/or energy into something we already know is unlikely to succeed is a sunk-cost bias. Unfortunately, every little investment makes it harder to let go, while simultaneously increasing the amount we will lose.

Concorde’s spectacular failure serves as an example. While it was a remarkable engineering achievement, the cost rendered it unprofitable and doomed to failure. 

In spite of this, the French and British governments became sunk-cost optimists and invested in it for four decades, fully aware that most of their money would never be recouped.

Acknowledging your mistakes and errors and letting them go will help you to avoid this trap. When you realize something isn’t going to work, don’t be afraid to cut your losses and abandon ship.

Furthermore, you can avoid the entire scenario by setting clear boundaries. In fact, boundaries are liberating for a non-essentialist on a fundamental level, whereas they are constraining to a non-essentialist.

Think of, for instance, a schoolyard on a busy street: at this school, the children are only allowed to play in a small area next to the school buildings, and the teachers must ensure the children stay within these boundaries.

What if there was a fence that clearly indicated where the children could be safely contained? Therefore, the teachers would be able to use their time better, since they would not have to worry so much about the children being near traffic, and the children could play freely within that area.

Rather than constraining you, boundaries are there to make your life easier and more enjoyable. It might be a good idea to set a clear boundary between work and family. You shouldn’t allow work in your home if your kids aren’t allowed in the office.

Lesson 9: You need to eliminate what slows you down in order to stay on top of what’s important

Following your commitment to essentialism, it’s time to tackle the last step: execution.

You need to identify what is slowing you down and eliminate it in order to become an essentialist, rather than simply finding ways to work around it.

Let’s say you’re a boy scout leader and you need to get your troop to camp before dusk. The scouts carry equal provisions in their backpacks to keep things fair. Yet, there’s a problem: some scouts are faster than others, so the group spreads out, and the kids in the back are at risk of getting left behind.

The first (non-essential) solution is to make stops frequently so that the stragglers can catch up. The next step is to move the kids from the back to the front so everyone stays together, but this only slows everything down.

Finally, you realize that the essentialist solution is to take some weight out of the slower children’s backpacks and put it in those of the fast children. You have eliminated the problem by using the principles of essentialism!

By being prepared, you can also avoid unnecessary obstacles. Oftentimes, we make the mistake of assuming our plans will go as planned. Essentialists, however, do not assume this. By assuming that things could go wrong, he makes the right preparations.

Always allow yourself a buffer of 50% of the time you anticipate it will take, whether you’re taking your children to school or giving a presentation at work. If anything slows you down, you will always have room to rectify it.

Lesson 10: An essentialist life is centered around yourself, a routine, and taking small steps

You’ve experienced luck if you’ve accomplished something in one fell swoop. Usually, this won’t happen. Making progress with small, incremental steps is the key to creating success.

Small wins give you confidence to continue succeeding. Additionally, they provide you with the opportunity to make sure that you are moving in the right direction and stay on track.

Although it may be frustrating to take small steps, keep in mind that even the smallest actions can have far-reaching effects. An example is the Richmond, Canada, police department. 

With sweeping measures like stricter laws and more severe punishments, they’ve tried to reduce recidivism for years without success. After taking small steps towards crime prevention, they decided to completely reshape their reforms:

Young people who do something good, such as putting their trash in bins instead of dumping it on the street, are rewarded with free tickets to movies and youth events. As a result of these measures, after a decade of this policy, recidivism dropped from 60 to eight percent.

Whatever your approach, you must ensure that you stick to it by developing a routine.

By creating a routine, difficult things become easier over time. It is therefore prudent to establish a routine aligned with your goals.

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps followed a routine during his training, for example. Phelps had to visualize a slow-motion video every night and every morning as soon as he went to bed. During training, he attempted to reproduce the video.

He did this for so long that when the Olympics came, he continued to swim the perfect race and won a number of medals.

Final summary

The truth is that only a few things are actually vital for our goals and well-being, and everything else is unimportant. 

The more we focus on these few essential things and learn to do better by doing less, the more productive and fulfilling our lives become.

Further Reading

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