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Essentialism - The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Book Note.

Patrick Ralph

Essentialism - The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Book Note.

My score: 10/10. I discovered this book on productivity in 2021 and have reread it several times since. A must if you ever find yourself wondering where your time disappears to. And what you can do about that. The new mantra is ‘Less But Better’.

Part I: Essence. What is the core mind-set of an Essentialist?

1 The Essentialist.

“The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials” Lin Yutang

Weniger aber besser = Less but better. Dieter Rams, lead designer at Braun.

Only a few things really matter. Almost everything else is noise.

By investing time and effort in less things we have a greater chance of making significant progress in the things that matter the most.

Essentialism can be defined as the discipline of determining where our peak contribution lies, and making the execution of this almost effortless.

A non-essentialist may say “I have to”, but an essentialist will say “I choose to”.

Clarity of purpose leads to success leads to reputation leads to increased opportunities leads to distraction leads to failure.

There are too many choices in the world. Too much social pressure. You can’t have it all.

Reduce, simplify, focus.

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come” - Victor Hugo. Do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.  


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

Too often we forget our ability to choose. When we forget that our ability to choose exists, we learn to be helpless.


“Most of what exists in the universe - our actions, and all other forces, resources, and ideas - has little value and yields little results; on the other hand, a few things work fantastically well and have tremendous impact”. - Richard Koch

Story of the horse called Boxer in the book Animal Farm. Boxer’s answer to every problem is to work harder. This philosophy leads him to end up broken, exhausted and a tragic end. We can fall into the same trap. We already work hard and if the solution to every setback is to try to do more then this will ultimately lead to burnout and failure. At some point we need to question our plan and refocus our work in a more fruitful direction. There is a point when doing more does not produce more and doing less can produce a better outcome.

Certain types of effort will produce more rewards than others. Move away from thinking about the ratio between time spent and rewards and think in terms of time spent and results.

Pareto Principle: 20 percent of our effort produces 80 percent of our results.

You can massively improve the quality of a product by resolving a fraction of the problems.

Certain efforts produce exponentially better results than others.


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

What do I want to put all my effort into? What do I have to give up on?

Part II: Explore. How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?


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

In order to focus, we need to escape. Eg. before 1pm; no email, no calls, no appointments and no interruptions.

By getting rid of the opportunity to be bored we have lost the opportunity to have time to think and process. The busier we get, the more noise there is in our life, the less time we have to focus or reflect. We need to build protected space into our schedule.


“Where is the knowledge we have lost in the information?”. - T. S. Elliot

Find out what really matters in your life. Pay attention to the signal in the noise.

Keep a journal. Your memory is not that good.


“A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men”. - Roald Dahl

Remember how to be a child. Curiosity and play sparks ideas, and leads people to behave flexibly and creatively. Play broadens the list of options available, it is an antidote to stress, and enhances brain function.


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

We need to invest in ourselves. Biggest mistake is lack of sleep. Quality sleep leads to higher productivity, better decisions, better creativity and a longer life.  


“An inner process stands in need of outward criteria”. - Ludwig Wittgenstein

When we make a decision to do something we should be thinking “HELL YEAH!!” or else it is an emphatic “NO!”. There are no grey areas here. Ditch everything else.

When making a decision you should rate the choices/options/outcomes from 1 to 10. 7 or 8 means good enough. 6 or below mean a no. Using the essentialist’s 90% rule you should only choose 9s or 10s. Good enough is not worth the effort. Say Yes to only the top 10% of opportunities.

If it isn’t a clear YES, then it is a clear NO.

So, ask yourself?

What am I deeply passionate about?

What taps my talent?

What meets a significant need in the world?

Part III: Eliminate. How can we cut out the trivial many?


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

Clarity of purpose consistently predicts how people do their jobs.

An essentialist’s intent must be concrete and inspirational.

11 DARE.

“Courage is grace under pressure”. - Ernest Hemingway

The right ‘NO’ said at the right time a can change the course of history. Only say yes to things that really matter.

When people ask us to do something, we can confuse their request with our relationship with them. Saying yes or no should not alter the relationship. But sometimes you need to be prepared to trade popularity for respect.


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

Ask yourself. ‘If I wasn’t invested in this project, would I invest in it now?’. Be comfortable cutting your losses and moving on.

If you didn’t own it, would you buy it?

13 EDIT.

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

Things usually get better when you subtract things from them.

Eliminate distracting words, images and details. Are you saying what you would like to say and are you saying it as concisely as possible.

Having fewer options makes it easier to make a decision.


“No is a complete sentence”. - Anne Lamott

Boundaries can be liberating. Setting rules in advance can eliminate the need to say ‘no’ later.

Part IV: Execute. How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?


“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four hours sharpening the axe”. - Abraham Lincoln

Build in contingency for unexpected events. Add 50% to your time and cost estimates.


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

Remove obstacles to progress. Find the ‘slowest hiker’ in your project and fix this. The slowest hiker determines the pace of the whole group. Fix this and the group will move faster.


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

Start with small wins and move towards big results. Celebrate progress. ‘Done is better than perfect’. Do the minimal viable preparation before starting. Start early and small.

18 FLOW.

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

Find out your own natural rhythms for eating, sleeping and working, and stick with them. Make them your default position.

Search for the power of the right routine. Do the most difficult thing first.


“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 Hanh

What is the most important thing now? Focus on now, don’t be trapped by historic mistakes. Don’t live in the past. Focus your mind on the present.

20 BE.

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

Make it a life that really matters. Don’t overlook important relationships. Your partner, your family, your children.

Appendix on Leadership

“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

For the leader, the mantra of ‘less but better’ still applies. It should be used to decide direction, selection of members, communication and accountability.

When a team has a shared high level of clarity about its purpose then it can thrive.

A lack of clarity of roles or goals will lead to confusion, stress, frustration and ultimately failure.

The leader must be extremely selective in choosing members. Hiring the wrong person comes at a high cost. Hold out for the perfect hire. Otherwise results will be mediocre.

Empower everyone in their roles. It should be clear to everyone what each person is responsible for contributing.

Check often that meaningful progress is being made.