Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Key insights from Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Enjoy the cliff notes version if you don't have time to read the full book.
Essentialism Book

Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Core Takeaways

  1. In order to make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter you must learn to say NO. Stop trying to do it all. If you try and boil the ocean, you will fail. 
  2. Learn to distinguish the critical few from the trivial many.
  3. If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
  4.  The more options we have, the more we feel distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution.
  5. To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.”

From the mind of Greg McKeon

“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 your highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.”

“Once we accept the reality of trade-offs we stop asking, ‘How can I make it all work?’ and start asking the more honest question ‘Which problem do I want to solve?’”           

“While we may not always have control over our options, we always have control over how we choose among them.”     

“Many capable people are kept from getting to the next level of contribution because they can’t let go of the belief that everything is important.”

Rather than try to fly to every destination, Southwest Airlines deliberately chose to offer only point-to-point flights. Instead of jacking up prices to cover the cost of meals, they decided they would serve none. Instead of assigning seats in advance, they let people choose them as they got on the plane. Instead of upselling their passengers on glitzy first-class service, they offered only economy.

Instead of asking, ‘What do I have to give up?’ Essentialists ask, ‘What do I want to go big on?’”

Imagine a four-burner stove. One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work. In order to be successful, you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two.     

Essentialists see sleep as necessary for operating at high levels of contribution more of the time.

“As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it.”               

“If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

The killer question when deciding what activities to eliminate is: “If I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?”

“Essentialists accept the reality that we can never fully anticipate or prepare for every scenario or eventuality; the future is simply too unpredictable. Instead, they build in buffers to reduce the friction caused by the unexpected.”        

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”—Lao-Tzu         

“Instead of looking for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, they look for the ones slowing down progress. They ask, ‘What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?’”    

“Instead of trying to accomplish it all—and all at once—and flaring out, the Essentialist starts small and celebrates progress. Instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter, the Essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.”  

“In his 1968 Harvard Business Review article entitled ‘One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?’ among the most popular Harvard Business Review articles of all time, Frederick Herzberg reveals research showing that the two primary internal motivators for people are achievement and recognition for achievement.”      

Adopt a method of “minimal viable progress.” Ask yourself, “What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?”      

“Multi-tasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can ‘multi-focus’ is.”   

“Whatever decision or challenge or crossroads you face in your life, simply ask yourself, “What is essential?” Eliminate everything else.”




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