Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

by Greg McKeown

Less but better.

Essentialism is the relentless and disciplined pursuit of less but better.

Essentialism is not about getting more done in less time. It's about getting only the right things done.

WIN = What's Important Now? [see section 19 for more information on how to WIN]

Part 1: Essence – What is the core mindset of an Essentialist?

1) The Essentialist

Basic Value Proposition of Essentialism: 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.

Do only those things that you deem essential.

Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now? Am I investing in the right activities? How do I get the right things done?

People will respect you more. You can step back and let others jump in. You can buy yourself space, and in that space, you can find creative freedom. Concentrate your efforts on one project at a time. Generate tremendous momentum towards accomplishing the things that are truly vital. Make 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.

Essentialism requires us to grapple with real trade-offs and make tough decisions. Learn to make one-time decisions that make a thousand future decisions.

Essentialism means living by design (not by default). Essentialists deliberately distinguish the vital few from the trivial many and removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution is, and then making execution of those things almost effortless.

The way of the Essentialist is the path to being in control of our own choices. Enjoy the journey. Disciplined pursuit of less but better.

Essentialist THINKS LESS BUT BETTER = “I choose to.” + “Only a few things really matter.” + “What are the trade-offs?”

Essentialist DOES THE DISCIPLINED PURSUIT OF LESS = Pauses to discern what really matters + Says ‘no' to everything except the essential + Removes obstacles to make execution easy

Essentialist LIVES A LIFE THAT REALLY MATTERS = Chooses carefully in order to do great work + Feels in control (autonomy) + Gets the right things done + Experiences joy in the journey

“If you don't prioritize your life, someone else will.”

Paradox of Success in Four Phases

Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it enables us to succeed at our endeavor.

Phase 2: When we have success, we gain a reputation as a “go to” person who is always there when you need him. This creates increased options and opportunities.

Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities (aka demands upon our time and energy), it least to diffused efforts and getting spread thinner and thinner.

Phase 4: We become distracted from our highest level of contribution. The effect of our success has been to undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

Essentialist approach to cleaning out your closet

You ask more disciplined, tough questions like “Do I love this?” or “Do I look great in it?” or “Do I wear this often?” or “Does it bring me joy?”

“If I didn't already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?”

Essentialism is about creating a system for handling the closet of our lives. It is a discipline you apply each and every time you are faced with a decision about whether to say yes or to politely decline. Tough trade-offs between lots of good things and a few really great things. Learning how to do less but better to achieve the highest possible return on every precious moment of your life.

Highest level of contribution = the right thing the right way at the right time

Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking. What is we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives? You can learn to better tap into more of your intelligence, capability, resourcefulness, and initiative to live more meaningful lives. Enjoy the essential.

Mental Time Travel / Five Wishes = What would you trade then to be back here now for once chance – this chance – to be true to yourself? On that day, what will you hope you decided to do on this one?

2) CHOOSE: The Invincible Power of Choice

“It is the ability to choose which makes us human.” – Madeleine L'Engle

Individual choice: We can choose how to spend our energy and time.

If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do? Value the way this changes your view about choices. We always have control over how we choose among our options and act. Create a heightened awareness of our ability to choose. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.

Essentialist = “I choose to.” + Exercises the power of choice

3) DISCERN: The Unimportance of Practically Everything

“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” – John Maxwell

The prevalence of noise: Almost everything is noise, and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.

Emotional discipline is necessary to say no to social pressure.

What really counts is the relationship between time and results.

What is the most valuable result I could achieve in this job? (i.e., winning back customers who wanted to cancel/quit/churn).

Power law theory = certain efforts actually produce exponentially more results than others.

Essentialist = Thinks almost everything is nonessential + Distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many

4) TRADE-OFF: Which Problem Do I Want?

“Strategy is about making choices and trade-offs. It's about deliberately choosing to be different.” – Michael Porter

The reality of trade-offs: we can't have it all or do it all.

Which problem do I want to solve?

Straddling is a bad strategy. Straddling means keeping your existing strategy intact while simultaneously also trying to adopt the strategy of competitor. A strategic position is not sustainable unless there are trade-offs with other positions. (What prevents others from adopting your strategy?)

You cannot do both because the reality of saying yes to any opportunity by definition requires you to say no to several others.

Do you want more pay or more vacation time? Do you want to finish this next email or be on time for your next meeting?

Peter Drucker told Jim Collins (author of Good to Great) that he could either build a great company, or build great ideas, but not both. Jim chose ideas. As a result there are still only three employees at his company, and his ideas (books) have reached millions of people.

Four Burner Theory = to be successful, you must cut off one of your burners and to be really successful, you must cut off two of your burners:

  1. Family
  2. Health
  3. Work
  4. Friends

Trade-offs must be embraced and made deliberately, strategically, and thoughtfully.

Essentialist = Asks “what is the trade-off I want to make?” + Asks “what can I go big on?”

Part 2: ExploreHow can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?

5) ESCAPE: The Perks of Being Unavailable

“Without great solitude no serious work is possible.” – Pablo Picasso

We need space to escape in order to discern the essential few from the trivial many.

Essentialist focuses the way our eyes focus – not by fixating on something buy by constantly adjusting and adapting to the field of vision.

Design your life, essentially. Practice deliberately discerning the essential few from the many good.

Paradox = the faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule

Create a sense of gratitude in your own thinking time. Use space you create to recharge yourself emotionally. Allow yourself to shift from problem-solving mode and coaching mode to self-reflection mode.

Bill Gates annually takes a week off from his duties at Microsoft to simply think and read for “Think Week.” How can you put a little “Think Week” into every day? When can you read or listen to Marcus Aurelius's Meditations? When can you make space to escape your busy life?

Essentialist = Creates space to escape and explore life

6) LOOK: See What Really Matters

A lead contains the why, what, when, and who of a story. It covers the essential information.

Filter for the fascinating (Purple Cow to be remarkable).

Keep a journal.

Think of a journal as like a storage device for backing up your brain's faulty hard drive. The faintest pencil is better than the strongest memory.

Counterintuitive method: write less than you feel like writing. Restrain yourself from writing more until daily journaling has become a habit.

Experiment: Design for Extreme Affordability = how would you solve this problem with 1% of the traditional cost?

What question are you trying to answer?

Essentialist = Pays attention to the signal in the noise + Hears what is not being said + Scans to find the essence of the information

7) PLAY: Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child

“A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.” – Ronald Dahl

Mary Poppins illustrates the powerful effects of restoring play to our daily lives.

School is derived from the Greek word schole, meaning “leisure.”

Shakespeare played with iambic pentameter his whole life.

Play = Anything we do simply for the joy of doing rather than as a means to an end

Play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity. Nothing fires up the brain like play. Play doesn't just help us to explore what is essential. Play is essential in and of itself.

The brain's executive functions include planning, prioritizing, scheduling, anticipating, delegating, deciding, and analyzing.

Improv forces people to stretch their minds and think more flexibly, unconventionally, and creatively.

Essentialist = Knows play is essential + Knows play sparks exploration

8) SLEEP: Protect the Asset (you)

“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning when I wake up, I am reborn.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Assets = Our minds, our bodies, and our spirits

We need to pace ourselves, nurture ourselves, and give ourselves fuel to explore, thrive, and perform.

Without sleep, it is impossible to discern the essential from the trivial. Essentialists choose to do one fewer thing right now in order to do more tomorrow.

Essentialist = One hour more of sleep equals several more hours of much higher productivity + Sleep is for high performers + Sleep is a priority + Sleep breeds creativity + Sleep enables the highest levels of mental contribution

9) SELECT: The Power of Extreme Criteria

No More Yes. It's either HELL YEAH! or No.

90% Rule = As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score 0 to 100. If < 90%, then 0 and reject the option.

Deliberately apply selective criteria to your work.

Systematic Process for Evaluating Opportunities:

  1. Write down the opportunity
  2. Write down a list of three “minimum criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered
  3. Write down a list of three ideal or “extreme criteria” the option would need to “pass” in order to be considered


Ask yourself 3 questions:

  1. What am I deeply fascinated and motivated by?
  2. What taps my talents?
  3. What meets a significant need in the world?

Essentialist = Says yes to only the top 10% of opportunities + Uses narrow, explicit criteria like “Is this exactly what I am looking for?”

Part 3: Eliminate How can we cut out the trivial many? Who will get to choose what we do and don't do?

10) CLARIFY: One Decision That Makes a Thousand

“To follow, without halt, one aim: there is the secret to success.” – Anna Pavlova

People thrive with a high level of clarity.

If we could be truly excellent at one thing, what would it be?

Essentialist = Has a strategy that is concrete and inspirational + Has an intent that is both meaningful and memorable + Makes one decision that eliminates one thousand later decisions

11) DARE: The Power of a Graceful “No”

“Courage is grace under pressure.” – Ernest Hemmingway

“People are effective because they say ‘no' because they say ‘this isn't for me.'” – Peter Drucker

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

Clarity is key.

Separate the decision from the relationship. Saying no more often requires trading popularity for respect.

No Repertoire

  1. The awkward pause – you can use this as a tool.
  2. The soft no (or the “no but”)
  3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”
  4. Use email autoresponses
  5. Say “Yes, what should I deprioritize?”
  6. Say it with humor.
  7. Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.” (i.e., “You are welcome to borrow my car. I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you.” – which also says I won't be able to drive you)
  8. Say “I can't do it, but X might be interested.” (because your help is not uniquely valuable and they can get help from someone else)
  9. Say “I am flattered that you thought of me but I'm afraid I don't have the bandwidth.”
  10. Say “I would very much like to but I'm over-committed.”
  11. Say “I am going to pass on this.”

Essentialist = Dares to say no firmly, resolutely, and gracefully + Says yes only to the things that really matter

12) UNCOMMIT: Win Big by Cutting Your Losses

“Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” – Josh Billings

Beware of the endowment effect (thinking things are more valuable because you already own them – how much would you pay for a new one?)

Pretend you don't own it yet. Get over the fear of waste. Admit failure to begin success. Stop trying to force it. Get a neutral second opinion. You're not married to this. Be aware of the status quo bias. Apply zero-based budgeting. Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. Stop making casual commitments. From now on, pause before you speak. Get over the Fear Of Missing Out. Run a reverse pilot if opposite was true. Is this essential?

Essentialist = Asks “if I weren't already invested in this project, how much would I invest in it now?” + Thinks “what else could I do with this time or money if I pulled the plug now?” + Comfortable with cutting losses

13) EDIT: The Invisible Art

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” – Michelangelo

Take on the role of editor in your own life and practice deliberate subtraction.

Condense. Correct. Edit less. Lower the ratio of words to ideas, square feet to usefulness, or effort to results.

Essentialist = Thinks that making things better means subtracting something + Eliminates the distracting words, images, and details

14) LIMIT: The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

“No is a complete sentence.” – Anne Lamott

“I am so sorry. I have made the commitment that every Saturday is a day to be with my wife and children.” “I appreciate you trying to do that, but Sunday will not work. I have given Sunday to God and so I won't be able to come.”

Their problem is not your problem.

If you can't express your boundaries, then others can't respect your boundaries.

Craft social contracts. Because when we first got together I made it a point to lay out my priorities and what extra work I would and would not be willing to take on over the life span of the project. “Let's just agree on what we want to achieve… Here are a couple of things that really matter to me… Here's what I am not willing to take on…”

Essentialist = Knows that if you have limits you will become limitless + Sees boundaries as liberating + Sets rules in advance that eliminate the need for the direct “no”

Part 4: ExecuteHow can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?

15) BUFFER: The Unfair Advantage

“Give me 6 hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first 4 sharpening my axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

Make vital few effortless.

Allow at least 15 minutes for every task to create buffer.

Big issues arise when you planned 5 minutes for something that takes 2 hours.

Risk management strategies:

  1. What risks do we face and where?
  2. What assets and populations are exposed and to what degree?
  3. How vulnerable are they?
  4. What financial burden do these risks place on individuals, businesses, and the government budgets?
  5. How best can we invest to reduce risks and strengthen economic and social resilience?

Then ask these five questions:

  1. What risks do you face on this project?
  2. What is the worst-case scenario?
  3. What would the social effects of this be?
  4. What would the financial impacts of this be?
  5. How can you invest to reduce risks or strengthen financial or social resilience?

Essentialist = Builds in buffer for unexpected events + Practices extreme and early preparation

16) SUBTRACT: Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles

“To attain knowledge add things every day. To attain wisdom subtract things every day.” – Lao Tzu

Be clear about the essential intent

Identify the “slowest hiker” and remove the obstacles for them.

What is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?

Essentialist = Removes obstacles to progress + Brings forth more

17) PROGRESS: The Power of Small Wins

“Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow.” – Doug Firebaugh

Token system = kids get 10 tokens on Monday, which add up to $5 or 5 hours of screen time. If kid reads a book for 30 minutes, then earn an extra token

Start small. Encourage progress. Celebrate small wins.

MVP = Minimal Viable Progress

Essentialist = Starts small and gets big results + Celebrates small acts of progress

18) FLOW: The Genius of Routine

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.” – W. H. Auden

Invest the time you save into creating a system for removing obstacles and making execution as easy as possible.

There is a cognitive advantage to routine as well. Once the mental work shifts to the basal ganglia.

Overhaul your triggers. Cue is a trigger.

Habit = cue + routine + reward

Essentialist = Designs a routine that enshrines what is essential, making execution almost effortless + Makes the essential the default position

19) FOCUS: What's Important Now? (WIN)

“Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply.” – Thich Nhat Hanah

WIN = What's Important Now

Coach Larry Gelwix coached the Highland High School rugby team to 418 wins with only 10 losses and 20 National Championships. He describes his success this way: “We always win.” WIN (What's Important Now) guides what he expects from his players. Coach keeps his players fully present in the moment and fully focused on what is important now. Players apply the question (What's Important Now?) constantly throughout the game. Coach encourages his players to focus only on the play they are in right now.

What's Important Now (WIN) helps the players stay focused on how they are playing. Coach believes a huge part of winning is determined by whether the players are focused on their own game or on their opponents game. By focusing on their game in the here and now, the players can all unite around a single strategy. This level of unity makes execution of their game plan relatively frictionless.

Coach has a fundamentally Essentialist approach to winning and losing. He tells his players, “There is a difference between losing and being beaten. Being beaten means they are better than you. They are faster, stronger, and more talented. If you lose, it means you lost focus. It means you didn't concentrate on what was essential.” This is all based on a simple and powerful idea: “to operate at your highest level of contribution requires that you deliberately tune in to what is important in the here and now.”

The execution is easy if you work hard at it and hard if you work easy at it.

We should complete an essential action (i.e., eat) slowly and deliberately, fully focused on the present. Notice your breathing. Be calm and present on the tasks at hand, so each one flows naturally.

When feeling anxiety and tension rise, stop. Take a breath. Ask yourself, “What's Important Now?” What do you need to do to be able to go to sleep peacefully? Perhaps it is to connect with your wife and children. Perhaps it is to write down a list of anxious thoughts to get them out of your head. Take another deep breath.

The pause that refreshes. This technique is easy. As you get to the door to your house, stop for just a moment. Close your eyes. Breath in and out once; deeply and slowly. As you exhale, you let the work issues fall away. This allows you to walk through the front door to your family with more singleness of purpose.

“In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.” – Lao Tzu

“Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Essentialist = Mind is focused on the present + Tunes in to what is important right now + Enjoys the moment

20) BE: The Essentialist Life

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” – Socrates

Deliberately choose to fully embrace the way of the Essentialist.

Greek word, metanoia, refers to a transformation of the heart.

Live a life of meaning and purpose. Build a career of meaning. Live a life of impact and fulfillment.

Over time, saying no feels less uncomfortable and decisions get much clearer.

Essentialism is not just something you do. An Essentialist is something you are steadily becoming.

Outcomes = More clarity + More control + More JOY in the journey

Make joyful memories. Smile more. Value simplicity. Be more joyful.

The life of an Essentialist is a life lived without regret. Will you choose to live a life of purpose and meaning? What is essential?

FCS = FOCUS = “Fewer things done better” + “Communicating the right information to the right people at the right time” + “Speed and quality of decision making”

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Appendix for Essentialists

Mindset = Less but better.

Talent = Ridiculously selective on talent and removes people who hold the team back.

Strategy = Defines an essential intent by answering the question, “if we could only do one thing, what would it be?” Eliminates the nonessential distractions.

Empowerment = Focuses on each team member's highest role and goal of contribution.

Communication = Listens to get to what is essential.

Accountability = Checks in with people in a gentle way to see how he or she can remove obstacles and enable small wins.

Result = A unified team that breaks through to the next level of contribution.

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