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Natalia Rossingol

Essentialism by Greg McKeown: A Book Summary Part by Part

Learn what Essentialism is all about and become an Essentialist yourself - discerning what truly matters and eliminating the non-essential.

The world expects a lot from us. Trying to meet all these expectations can feel like we're constantly running on a hamster wheel. But do we really need to do everything at once? Greg McKeown, a strategist in business and leadership, offers a solution called Essentialism. 

"Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less" by Greg McKeown is a compelling guide that challenges the conventional wisdom of "more is better" and encourages readers to embrace the power of essentialism. In this thought-provoking book, McKeown explores how to discern what truly matters and eliminate the non-essential. 

Through a blend of insightful anecdotes, practical strategies, and thought exercises, he presents a blueprint for a simpler, more meaningful life. By distilling one's focus to the vital few, McKeown contends that individuals can reclaim their time, energy, and passion, ultimately leading to greater fulfillment and success. 

We've condensed the main ideas from his book, so you can grasp his philosophy, part by part.

Part 1: Essence

What is the core mindset of an Essentialist?

Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

The majority of us find ourselves trapped in the Non-Essentialist mindset, spreading our energy thin across a multitude of tasks rather than zeroing in on what truly matters. This can make us stressed and overwhelmed. Yet, there are a few reasons why we do this over and over.

Firstly, our society often praises people who do a lot, even if those things aren't really important. Saying "no" to them is seen as impolite, even though it could give us more time for doing impactful work. 

Secondly, we have so many choices in our lives, but we aren't always good at deciding what's most important. 

Thirdly, we hear so many opinions from different people, like friends and famous people on social media. It's hard to know whose advice to follow. Do they really know what's best for us?

Lastly, there is this ubiquitous, yet erroneous, idea that “you can have it all.” It’s embedded in our culture, and it’s advertised and included in job descriptions and university programs.

As a result, we live with the wrong assumption that “everything” is a priority. But in fact, it’s not. 

Our abilities and resources are limited, and the philosophy of Essentialism recognizes it. Essentialists believe that only a few things matter, and devote their efforts to them, saying “no” to everything else. This way, they feel in control of their lives.

Three main things characterize the core mindset of an Essentialist:      

  • Choose. Essentialists choose carefully how to spend their energy and time.
  • Discern. They know well not all choices and opportunities are equal.
  • Trade-off. Essentialists know they have to sacrifice something less important to get something more valuable. For example, if it takes ten minutes to walk to the office, they don’t spend any of that time answering emails, because otherwise, they will not make it on time.

In addition to that, Essentialism is built on the three principles – explore, eliminate, and execute, which are discussed in more detail in further chapters.

Part 2: Explore

How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?

If you believe being overly busy and overextended is evidence of productivity, then you probably believe that creating space to explore, think, and reflect should be kept to a minimum. Yet these very activities are the antidote to the nonessential busyness that infects so many of us. 

Essentialists choose fewer options, but they spend more time exploring them. While Non-Essentialists pursue every opportunity and react to everything, Essentialists carefully evaluate their options before committing to them.

McKeown provides the following ideas for successful exploration of your options:  


Let yourself be unavailable. Include time for thinking into your schedule. You could also use different time management techniques, like time blocking, to focus exclusively on what’s essential for you, and at the same time reduce distractions – like, hiding in a safe place and turning off notifications.

Also, feel free to embrace boredom. Nowadays, we’re not bored anymore. Waiting in a line or riding, we get online. This way, our brain is constantly busy and does not have time to process information.


Figure out what is essential for you. Filter facts, options, and opinions. This is what journalists do, so use journalist methods to get to the core of things. Keep a journal where you write down your insights. Try to see things from a different perspective and look for unusual details. 


Modern organizations are a product of the Industrial Revolution, whose primary purpose was to achieve efficiency. This is why, on a subconscious level, we’re convinced that anything else but work is non-essential.

However, as McKeown points out, play is very beneficial for our brain. It helps reduce stress and makes us much more creative. This is why play should be included into our lives and, in particular, work.

The element of play can be practiced in improvisation classes, for example, or it can be expressed through physical environments – for example, in the halls of Google offices, you can see a dinosaur covered with pink flamingos, which is supposed to remind people imagination is important.  


Sleep is not a time killer. On the contrary, it drives performance. For Essentialists, it’s not a luxury, it’s a priority. Sleep is not just about rest, it’s more about stimulating our brain activity.


There is an ultra-selective approach to decision-making - a 90 percent rule. It consists in finding one single criterion for a decision and scoring your options between 0 and 100 based on that criterion. If you rate the option lower than 90, then you should reject it altogether.

This may sound radical, but it works well for handling the fear of missing out on opportunities. Sometimes opportunities just present themselves (for example, we get a job we didn’t expect,) and it may not feel right to simply reject them. By using the 90 percent rule, you will see clearer if the opportunity is really what you need.

Part 3: Eliminate

How can we cut out the trivial many?

Ask the essential question: “What will I say no to?” … It is that question that can deliver the rare and precious clarity necessary to achieve game-changing breakthroughs in your career and in your life.

It’s hard to get rid of things we’re used to. We don’t know what might happen without them. We have a sense of ownership, too, which makes us value things we have more than they’re worth. But by saying “yes’” to everything, you say “no” to what’s essential. 


Lack of clarity brings about purposelessness and politics. For instance, in teams where things are not clarified, people try to win the attention of a manager and make up their own rules, simply because they don’t know the real rules.

Essentialists have a crystal clear intent, which is inspirational, concrete, and measurable. This intent is a decision that makes all further decisions easier. A good intent, according to McKeown, is not about picking the right stylistics to make it sound great. It’s about seeing which activities and efforts you need to pursue to meet your goals.     


We often say “yes” to avoid conflict. However, it’s possible to say “no” gracefully, without offending anyone. McKeown recommends using several tricks:

  • Separate the decision from the relationship. Denying the request doesn’t mean denying the person.
  • Rephrase your “no.” Say something like “I’m flattered but I’m overcommitted.”
  • Remember that by saying “no,” you trade popularity for respect.


We tend to overvalue things that are ours. This is called “the endowment effect.” To fight overcommitment, we can use different methods:

  • We can pretend that we don’t own something at all and instead of asking ourselves how much we value it, ask how much we’re ready to pay for it. 
  • We could ask for a neutral opinion. 
  • We could also try to understand the status-quo bias, which makes us value things that sometimes are not worth valuing at all, but which are still important to us because it has always been so.


Like book editors work on texts, removing anything unnecessary, we can edit our lives. We can eliminate meaningless activities and replace them with meaningful ones. We can correct our actions, once we notice they do not support our intent.


If we don’t set boundaries, we spread ourselves too thin. Boundaries are powerful because they let us focus on our essentials. We shouldn’t rob people of the opportunity to solve their own problems – this will help them grow.

Part 4: Execute

How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?

There are two ways of thinking about execution. While Non-Essentialists tend to force execution, Essentialists invest the time they have saved by eliminating the nonessentials into designing a system to make execution almost effortless.

Once you’ve decided which activities you want to keep, you have to introduce them into your life and practice them regularly. This means creating a system that would transform these activities into a routine.  


The future is uncertain. You can never fully predict what exactly will happen. However, it's possible to prepare yourself, by creating a buffer. A simple example is allocating more time at the end of the question session during a workshop, in case things will come up – and they inevitably will.

To be able to cope with unforeseen events, you can use different types of buffers. One is extreme preparation – preparing much in advance, so that you do not get overstressed later and have some extra time to fix things when they go wrong. 

Then, you can also add 50 percent to your time estimate. Finally, you can do some planning: ask yourself about possible risks, worst-case scenarios, what social and financial impact they would have, and how you can reduce these risks.


Non-Essentialists develop solutions, and essentialists remove obstacles. Very often, to improve the overall functioning of the system, it’s enough to remove a single element that slows it down – the “slowest hiker.” 

Try to think about what is standing between you and your goal. Maybe you lack information. Maybe you’re demotivated, or simply tired. Make a list of your obstacles and look for one that, if you remove it, would make other obstacles disappear. 


Even small wins inspire, so we should always celebrate progress. Think about the minimal progress that would make a difference, and focus on it. Start small, and start early, so that you will have enough time for preparation. Also, remember to reward progress – positive reinforcement will provide you with enjoyment. 


For removing obstacles, routine is one of the most powerful instruments. By embedding our most important activities and decisions into our daily routine, we execute them on autopilot. It both lets us make sure that we do the essential things and relieves energy for creativity.

McKeown mentions the research conducted at Duke University, according to which almost 40 percent of our choices are subconscious. This means that our routine defines more than we could think, and it really makes sense to deliberately develop it.

To change our behavioral habits, we need to remove triggers incompatible with our goal or use them for activities we want to practice. For example, if the morning alarm is a trigger that provokes you to start checking your email, you can start taking it as a trigger to read.


The ancient Greeks used two different words for time. One word was chronos, and it meant chronological time that could be measured. The second one was kairos, and it referred to qualitative time, which you get to experience when you’re in the moment.  

Non-Essentialists look back to past successes or failures and are preoccupied with future opportunities and challenges. They live in chronos. On the contrary, essentialists live in the present and focus on what is happening now. They live in kairos.

Being in the now, you cannot truly concentrate on two different things. This is why Essentialists don’t multitask - they know they can’t multifocus. They focus on what matters right now, not in the future.


Essentialism is not about success, it’s about meaning and purpose. We all can write a list of our past accomplishments, but do they really matter to us?

To be an essentialist, you have to change your lifestyle. Adding Essentialism to your already overstuffed life is not productive. It’s not easy because you may need to struggle with yourself, getting rid of old but deeply rooted habits. But if you succeed, your whole personality will change – the way you intended it to change.

There is nothing too complicated in McKeown’s philosophy of Essentialism. But it’s always easier said than done. We get to hear too many voices, and it’s not always possible to say if our decision is really ours, or imposed on us. It’s hard to break habits, too. 

But trying to figure out what matters to you and - deliberately moving towards your purpose - is probably the only way to live your own life, on your terms.

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