My Thoughts on Greg McKeown’s Essentialism 💭

What’s the key message?

The most liberating piece of advice I got early into my career was that it’s sometimes okay to say no to opportunities. In fact, in the interest of avoiding burnout, it is essential that you don’t take on too much. One very good point that McKeown makes from the get-go is that if you don’t value your own time then nobody else will. Less is better; eliminate everything non-essential.

What did I get out of it?

Since I’m of Indian descent, I feel like mantras take up a special place in my brain. The single most important mantra I got from the book is: “What’s important now?” Just repeatedly ask yourself this key phrase throughout the day, especially when you feel distracted.

I read this book at the end of 2020 and it’s already helped me prioritize. It’s truly amazing how little mental tricks can have profound effects on your life.

Who is this book for?

You can think of this book as basically minimalism for work. It’s a phenomenal read and by far the best book I read in 2020. Constantly focusing on what is important makes life valuable when you look back on it. After all, life is short, so why not focus on what you actually value? I recommend checking this book out if you’re early or well into their career. My highlights and notes are below.

My Highlights and Notes

  • whatever decision or challenge or crossroads you face in your life, simply ask yourself, “What is essential?” Eliminate everything else.
  • Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?”
  • 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.
  • Less is better.
  • If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
  • We are unprepared in part because, for the first time, the preponderance of choice has overwhelmed our ability to manage it. We have lost our ability to filter what is important and what isn’t. Psychologists call this “decision fatigue”: the more choices we are forced to make, the more the quality of our decisions deteriorates.
  • These three elements — explore, eliminate, execute — are not separate events as much as a cyclical process. And when we apply them consistently we are able to reap greater and greater benefits.
  • When people believe that their efforts at work don’t matter, they tend to respond in one of two ways. Sometimes they check out and stop trying, like the mathematically challenged child. The other response is less obvious at first. They do the opposite. They become hyperactive. They accept every opportunity presented.
  • To discern what is truly essential we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make.
  • It is simply this: I write less than I feel like writing. Typically, when people start to keep a journal they write pages the first day. Then by the second day the prospect of writing so much is daunting, and they procrastinate or abandon the exercise. So apply the principle of “less but better” to your journal.
  • play is an antidote to stress, and 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.
  • By definition this is a process of prioritization. It includes the challenge of filtering options that, at first glance, all look important. Yet as the logic of an Essentialist explains, in reality there are only a few things of exceptional value, with most everything else being of far less importance.
  • But if we ask, “Do I absolutely love this?” then we will be able to eliminate the clutter and have space for something better. We can do the same with other choices — whether big or small, significant or trivial — in every area of our lives.
  • Making our criteria both selective and explicit affords us a systematic tool for discerning what is essential and filtering out the things that are not.
  • begin with the basic assumption that they would rather be understaffed than hire the wrong person quickly. Accordingly, when they are looking for a new employee, they have a rigorous and systematic selection process.
  • Here’s a simple, systematic process you can use to apply selective criteria to opportunities that come your way. First, write down the opportunity. Second, write down a list of three “minimum criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered. Third, write down a list of three ideal or “extreme criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered. By definition, if the opportunity doesn’t pass the first set of criteria, the answer is obviously no. But if it also doesn’t pass two of your three extreme criteria, the answer is still no.
  • “If I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?”
  • So once you have sufficiently explored your options, the question you should be asking yourself is not: “What, of my list of competing priorities, should I say yes to?” Instead, ask the essential question: “What will I say no to?” This is the question that will uncover your true priorities.
  • The problem is, when people don’t know what the end game is, they are unclear about how to win, and as a result they make up their own game and their own rules as they vie for the manager’s favor.
  • Makes one decision that eliminates one thousand later decisions
  • After all, thousands of years ago when we all lived in tribes of hunter gatherers, our survival depended on it. And while conforming to what people in a group expect of us — what psychologists call normative conformity — is no longer a matter of life and death, the desire is still deeply ingrained in us.
  • The only way out of this trap is to learn to say no firmly, resolutely, and yet gracefully. Because once we do, we find, not only that our fears of disappointing or angering others were exaggerated, but that people actually respect us more.
  • Of course, the point is not to say no to all requests. The point is to say no to the nonessentials so we can say yes to the things that really matter. It is to say no — frequently and gracefully — to everything but what is truly vital.
  • But whether it’s “I am flattered that you thought of me but I’m afraid I don’t have the bandwidth” or “I would very much like to but I’m overcommitted,” there are a variety of ways of refusing someone clearly and politely without actually using the word no.
  • I am simply saying everyone is selling something — an idea, a viewpoint, an opinion — in exchange for your time. Simply being aware of what is being sold allows us to be more deliberate in deciding whether we want to buy it.
  • respect is far more valuable than popularity in the long run.
  • Being vague is not the same as being graceful, and delaying the eventual “no” will only make it that much harder — and the recipient that much more resentful.
  • When a request comes to you (obviously this works only in person), just pause for a moment. Count to three before delivering your verdict.
  • 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.
  • the endowment effect,” our tendency to undervalue things that aren’t ours and to overvalue things because we already own them.
  • Whether or not you get any use or enjoyment out of them, subconsciously, the very fact that they are yours makes you value them more highly than you would if they didn’t belong to you.
  • When we feel we “own” an activity, it becomes harder to uncommit.
  • “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?”
  • 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.
  • tendency to continue doing something simply because we have always done it is sometimes called the “status quo bias.”
  • pausing for just five seconds before offering your services can greatly reduce the possibility of making a commitment you’ll regret.
  • one of the obstacles to uncommitting ourselves from a present course is the fear of missing out on something great.
  • The Essentialist looks ahead. She plans. She prepares for different contingencies. She expects the unexpected. She creates a buffer to prepare for the unforeseen, thus giving herself some wiggle room when things come up, as they inevitably
  • Have you ever underestimated how long a task will take? If you have, you are far from alone. The term for this very common phenomenon is the “planning fallacy.”
  • One way to protect against this is simply to add a 50 percent buffer to the amount of time we estimate it will take to complete a task or project (if 50 percent seems overly generous, consider how frequently things actually do take us 50 percent longer than expected).
  • The question is this: What is the “slowest hiker” in your job or your life? What is the obstacle that is keeping you back from achieving what really matters to you?
  • small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.
  • entrepreneurial circles the idea is expressed as creating a “minimal viable product.” The idea is, “What is the simplest possible product that will be useful and valuable to the intended customer?”
  • There are two opposing ways to approach an important goal or deadline. You can start early and small or start late and big.
  • Early and small” means starting at the earliest possible moment with the minimal possible time investment.
  • Take a goal or deadline you have coming up and ask yourself, “What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?”
  • There is something powerful about visibly seeing progress toward a goal. Don’t be above applying the same technique to your own essential goals, at home or at work.
  • the last 15 years, as we’ve learned how habits work and how they can be changed, scientists have explained that every habit is made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward.
  • need to find the cue that is triggering the nonessential activity or behavior and find a way to associate that same cue with something that is essential.
  • What’s important now (WIN)? Focus on the WIN.
  • Multitasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can “multifocus” is.
  • If you’re not sure, make a list of everything vying for your attention and cross off anything that is not important right now.
  • “What might you want to do someday as a result of today?”
  • second is the pathetically tiny amount of time we have left of our lives. For me this is not a depressing thought but a thrilling one. It removes fear of choosing the wrong thing. It infuses courage into my bones.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store