Essentialism by Greg McKeown



In order to do your best work, you must learn to focus on that which is absolutely essential. Too many people try to accomplish too many things at the same time. With discipline and a concentrated effort, you can set your sights on the key things that really matter.

17 lessons


– by Greg McKeown –

1) Filter your life

There are far more activities and opportunities 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.

2) Get the right things done

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.

3) If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will

When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and tie, other people – our bosses, our colleagues, our clients, and even our families – will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.

4) The freedom to choose is yours

Everything changes when we give ourselves permission to be more selective in what we choose to do. There is tremendous freedom in learning that we can eliminate the non-essentials, that we are no longer controlled by other people’s agendas, and that we get to choose.

5) Success can be a catalyst for failure

When we have success, we gain a reputation as a ‘go to’ person. This leads to increased options and opportunities, which is actually code for demands upon our time and energies. We end up getting spread thinner and thinner. Success can distract us from focusing on the essential things that produce success in the first place.

6) Take the time to explore possibilities

Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating questions, and thinking. But their exploration is not an end in itself. The purpose of the exploration is to discern the vital few from the trivial many.

7) Learn to say no

To eliminate non-essentials means saying no to someone. Often. It means pushing against social expectations. To do it well takes courage and compassion. So eliminating the non-essentials isn’t just about mental discipline, it’s about the emotional discipline necessary to say no to social pressure.

8) Set boundaries

When we don’t set clear boundaries in our lives we can end up imprisoned by the limits others have set for us. When we have clear boundaries, on the other hand, we are free to select from the whole area – or the whole range of options – that we have deliberately chosen to explore.

9) Do less but better

Working hard is important. But more effort does not necessarily yield more results. ‘Less but better’ does. Getting used to the idea of ‘less but better’ may prove harder than it sounds, especially when we have been rewarded in the past for doing more and more. Yet at a certain point, more effort causes our progress to plateau and even stall.

10) Playing is not a waste of time

Play makes us more inquisitive, more attuned to novelty, and more engaged. It helps us to see possibilities we otherwise wouldn’t have seen and make connections we would otherwise not have made. It opens our minds and broadens our perspective. It helps us challenge old assumptions and makes us more receptive to untested ideas. It gives us permission to expand our own stream of consciousness and come up with new stories.

Play is also an antidote to stress. This is key because stress, in addition to being an enemy of productivity, can actually shut down the creative, inquisitive, exploratory parts of our brain.

11) Invest in yourself

The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. If we under-invest in ourselves – our minds, bodies, and spirits – then we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution. We need to pace ourselves, nurture ourselves, and give ourselves fuel to explore, thrive, and perform. Stay healthy and get enough sleep, or you will burn out too early.

12) Don’t fall victim to ‘sunk-cost bias’

Sunk-cost bias is the tendency to continue to invest time, money, or energy into something we know is a losing proposition simply because we have already incurred, or sunk, a cost that cannot be recouped. But of course this can easily become a vicious cycle: the more we invest, the more determined we become to see it through and see our investment pay off. The more we invest in something, the harder it is to let go.

13) Be willing to admit failure

Only when we admit we have made a mistake in committing to something can we make the mistake a part of our past. When we remain in denial, on the other hand, we continue to circle pointlessly. There should be no shame in admitting to a mistake; after all, we really are only admitting that we are now wiser than we once were.

14) Get a neutral second opinion

When we get so emotionally hung up on trying to force something that isn’t right, we can often benefit from a sounding board. Someone who is not emotionally involved in the situation and unaffected by the choice we make can give us the permission to stop forcing something that is clearly not working out.

15) Build momentum

Instead of starting big and then flaring out with nothing to show for it other than time and energy wasted, to really get essential things done we need to start small and build momentum. Then we can use that momentum to work toward the next win, and the next one, and so on until we have a significant breakthrough – and when we do, our progress will have become so frictionless and effortless that the breakthrough will seem like overnight success.

16) There is only now

It’s natural and human to obsess over past mistakes or feel stress about what may be ahead of us. Yet every second spent worrying about a past or future moment distracts us from what is important in the here and now. Of course, we learn from the past and can imagine the future. Yet only in the here and now can we actually execute on the thing that really matter.

17) Prevent regret by pursuing meaning

If you have correctly identified what really matters, if you invest your time and energy in it, then it is difficult to regret the choices you make. You become proud of the life you have chosen to live. Will you choose to live a life of purpose and meaning, or will you look back on your one single life with regret?