Essentialism: Takeaways and Key Points Book Summary

In today’s fast-paced world, most people are always on the go, striving to do more, and be more to better their existence. With a to-do list that’s full to bursting point, there’s always something more that we feel we need or should be doing.

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown asks a question: “What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance?”

Essentialism is a radical guide on simplifying life so that anyone can achieve their goals by only focusing on what truly matters. His approach champions self-care, minimalism, fiercely protecting time. Central lessons in McKeown’s teachings are taking the time to know what is most important to focus on, then choosing to focus on those things above all else. It may sound obvious to sleep, know your priorities and stop to smell the roses, but in today’s hyper-fast “want more, do more, be more” culture, it is too easy to get swept away in the rat race of business.

Key Takeaways from Essentialism by Greg McKeown:

Takeaway #1: Less Is More

In today's fast-paced world where multi-tasking is the norm and schedules are filled to the brim in an effort to achieve more, get more, and be more (all in the quest for supposed happiness) we need to remember that having 'everything' will not make us happy. Slow down and allow yourself to focus on what is essential for your happiness and well-being as you work on eliminating the junk that keeps you busy!

Takeaway #2: Do Less But Do It Better

Stop taking tiny steps forward in multiple directions instead, make great leaps forward in the things that matter to you and that you can excel in. Question your motives often by asking yourself 'do I choose to or do I have to?' You want to be eliminating items from the 'I have to' or 'I should' list aka the path of helplessness and doing more of what you choose.

Takeaway #3: Accept Tradeoffs

You can achieve a remarkable level of success by doing only a few vital things very well but you have to be able to accept and make tradeoffs. When you're doing your chosen things well, don't fall into the trap of thinking you can now take on more and still do everything well.

Takeaway #4: Schedule Escapism

Boredom can be good for you! Having time to do absolutely nothing except think allows you the time to get off the rat race and think clearly as you work out the bigger picture of what's important in your life and what's not. To help, keep a journal but instead of writing as much as possible, write as little as possible.

Takeaway #5: Schedule Play Time

Just like having time to think, time to play is essential too. Playtime allows you to develop novel connections between ideas resulting in inspiration, it helps you to de-stress, to analyze and then prioritize tasks.

Takeaway #6: Schedule Zzzz's

Some people think of sleep as a waste of time, a luxury they cannot afford but this way of thinking is counterproductive as sleep increases your ability to think and actually results in increased activity the next day!

Takeaway #7: Get Ruthless

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that all of your tasks, responsibilities, and belongings are essential. Use the 90% rule to help eliminate items/tasks - anything that scores less than an 89 out of 100 has to go). Alternatively, say to yourself that if you don't get a strong yes the answer is a strong no.

Takeaway #8: Learn to Say No

In order to get good at saying no to non-essential items you need to learn how to separate the decision from the relationship. 10 minutes of regret, worrying that you've disappointed someone or that you're missing out ensures you don't spend 60 minutes plus regretting something you've said yes to!

Takeaway #9: Admit Your Errors Fast

Have you carried on doing something that you knew wasn't working just because you didn't want to be seen to give up or give in? Forget about fixing failures and instead, admit your errors fast so that you can self-correct and move on with courage.

Takeaway #10: Clarity

How will you know when you've reached your goal? If you can answer this question you have the clarity to succeed.

Key Points From Essentialism

  • Very few things are vital to achieving your goals and maintaining your wellbeing. By doing less you can achieve better, more fulfilling results.
  • Focus on these 4 points of essentialism: 1. Do fewer things, but do them well; 2. Excel in your chosen direction rather than making tiny steps in multiple directions; 3. Continue to question if what you’re doing is a productive use of your time and energy; 4. Put changes in place to ensure you accomplish your vital tasks.
  • If you feel you “should” or “have to” do something you are weakening your ability to choose. When you only say ‘Yes’ to the things that serve you and no to everything that doesn’t, you hold the power.
  • Choose trade-offs and concentrate on what you’re good at. Practice the key of doing a few things exceptionally well rather than trying to do everything.
  • Schedule time and space in your daily routine to reflect and simply think about life. Ponder where your energy and time have been miss-spent. It will allow you to get creative and refocus on the bigger picture.
  • Be ruthless when it comes to cutting unnecessary things out of your life. Use the 90% rule (everything that is less than 90% certainty that you’d use again) to clear the clutter in all areas of your life.
  • Let go of non-essential responsibilities, tasks, and habits that stop you from reaching your goals. Set an essential intent so that you’re clear about your goals. Make sure your essential intent is both inspirational and clear by asking yourself ‘how will I know when I’ve reached my goal?
  • Elevate your listening and observation skills. (Essentialists are powerful observers and listeners. They read between the lines and listen deliberately for what is not being explicitly stated. In contrast, Nonessentialists listen while preparing to say something).
  • Play is an antidote to stress. It is a vital tool for inspiration and can be used to free your mind so you can work out what’s important to you.
  • Sleep is a priority; sleep breeds creativity and enables the highest levels of effectiveness and contribution. (“An hour of sleep is equal to several hours of productivity;)
  • Embrace “Hell Yes or No” - if you feel total and utter conviction to do something, then you say yes. Otherwise it’s a graceful No.
  • Set clear boundaries so you don’t continue to invest in something that is not working. Set the rules in advance to eliminate the need for a direct no.
  • As you execute the principles of essentialism, be prepared for unexpected obstacles and for essential tasks to take longer to complete than you thought. Give yourself a 50% buffer of time. (People have the tendency to underestimate how long a task will take, even when they have done the task before.)
  • Build upon your previous progress with small, incremental steps. Small wins give you the confidence to continue and allow you to make sure you’re on the right track.
  • Be clear about what your purpose is. Otherwise you would not know what to clear and how to prioritize.
  • Courage is a key in the process of elimination. Essentialists have the courage and confidence to admit their mistakes and uncommit.
  • Learn to cut your losses, whether it is relationships or money.
  • Build routines that prioritize the essential and design systems to make execution effortless. Reduce the friction from executing what is essential.

In-Depth Lessons

Lesson #1. Stop Drowning In The Unessential Things

In today’s fast paced world, we are extremely overloaded with responsibilities, tasks, and belongings that it can be difficult for us to prioritize which are the most important. This results in a lack of effectiveness and productivity as we try to keep up with everything.

Applying the 4 points of essentialism to the seemingly never-ending tasks and responsibilities that come up in daily life allows you to get your priorities straight.

Less Is More - Do less, but do it well. This is the cornerstone of essentialism, cut out the less important things so that you can focus on doing the important things to the highest possible standard.
Focus and Excel In Something - When you select 1 specific thing that matters the most to you, you’ll be able to make great strides in accomplishing and excelling in your chosen direction rather than making tiny steps in multiple directions.
Question Yourself Constantly - Deciding what’s worth doing and what’s not is an ongoing process. Keep asking yourself ‘is this a productive use of my time and energy’?
Just Do It - Once you have zeroed in on your vital task/s, put changes into place to ensure you achieve them.

Lesson #2. Let Go of Shoulds

Do you say ‘I should’ or ‘I have to’ rather than ‘I chose to’? If yes, it’s safe to say you’re on the non-essential path of learned helplessness having lost control of your ability to choose. What this means is that you’ve become so conditioned to the feeling of overwhelm that you let society and others tell you what you need or should be doing.

When power of choice has been surrendered and people think that their efforts are pointless they respond in one of two ways, by giving up totally (not making any choices) or by becoming overly active in taking every opportunity that comes their way (choosing everything).

When you make conscious aligned choices, saying yes to the things that serve you and no to everything that doesn’t, you hold the power.

Lesson #3. Focus and Accept the Trade-Offs

Southwest Airlines might not be as famous as Microsoft or Apple but it had a period of success to rival that of the tech giants by applying one of the key parts of essentialism; doing a few things well.

Unlike other airlines, Southwest Airlines didn’t offer its customers first class seating, seat reservations, or meals, it just concentrated on flying people from A to B. The company realized that they couldn’t be everything to everyone and do it well so rather than failing miserably, they chose some trade-offs and concentrated on what they were good at.

Continental Airlines saw Southwest’s success and tried to imitate their strategy but they still thought they could do it all so didn’t cut back on what they already offered, instead they created a new budget brand called Continental Lite. Because both strategies were pursued, Continental Lite had operational inefficiencies with the new basic airline not being price competitive. The company lost millions because they couldn’t cut the nonessential items and just focus on the vital components.

Lesson #4. Create Space To See The Big Picture

Did you know that being bored, having a period of time in which you have nothing to do, can be good for you?

Unfortunately in the age of smartphones, social media and 24/7 news, we rarely have time to be bored nowadays - there’s always another page to scroll, video to watch, and notification to look at but being bored allows you time to think about what you need and want to do.

Schedule time and space in your daily routine to simply think about life - Think about challenges or problems you’re facing, what options you have, and whether they’re actually worth worrying about or not, whether they should be pursued or not. Think about where you want to be and what you need to do to reach your goal. Perhaps last night’s Netflix session could have been better spent elsewhere?! Ponder where your energy and time have been miss-spent.

This time to think will allow you to refocus on the bigger picture. If you struggle with this thinking time, use it to keep a journal but instead of writing everything down, write down as little as possible - this forces you to reflect on what you’ve done and sort out the nonessential items from the essential ones.

Lesson #5. Allow Yourself Time To Play & Rest

Many of us decided at some point in our lives that play is unproductive, purely a form of entertainment and that our time is better spent on more important tasks such as work. This just isn’t true. Play is a vital tool for inspiration and can be used to free your mind so you can work out what’s important to you. Play helps you to develop novel connections between ideas that you would never have considered otherwise and is also an antidote to stress.

Companies such as Google, Pixar, and Twitter know the importance of play, that’s why they provide staff with inspiring workspaces and playful experiences whether improv comedy classes or filling the office with thousands of Star Wars figures!

There’s one thing that play shouldn’t take priority over though and that’s sleep. Sleep is not a luxury, it’s a necessity as it increases your ability to think, to connect ideas, and actually increases your productivity during the day. 1 hour of sleep allows you several hours of high productivity the next day with those people who are only getting 4-5 hours sleep per night having a cognitive impairment equivalent to a 0.1% blood alcohol level (that’s enough to get your driving license taken away). Stop borrowing from your sleeping time to cram more in.

Lesson #6. If it isn't a clear yes, then it's a clear no

Not all of your responsibilities, tasks, and belongings are essential but you have to be ruthless when it comes to cutting things out. Think about the last time you cleared your closet, you’ve probably heard of the rule that states, ‘if you haven’t worn it in a year, get rid of it’ but putting that into practice is much harder than it seems. You’ve likely made exceptions for certain items of clothing that you haven’t worn in far longer than a year such as that wedding outfit, or the item of clothing that no longer fits you resulting in the closet remaining much fuller than it would be if you’d stuck firmly to the 1 year rule.

The only way to beat this mindset is to be extreme, ruthless. Apply the 90% rule to clear the clutter in all areas of your life. This means giving everything a score of 0-100, using the closet scenario you would pick up an item and ask yourself ‘Am I ever going to use this again?’ and give the item a score between 0-100, 0 being a firm never and 100 being a definite yes. Anything that scores less than 90 gets discarded.

You could also use the ‘clear yes / clear no’ method which says that if your decision isn’t a clear yes (yes I’ll definitely wear that again) then it becomes a clear no and goes. Try putting it into action by making a list of 3 minimum things that an item must have in order to keep it i.e it’s stylish, it fits me well, I’m not embarrassed to wear it plus 3 ideal things that you want the item to meet i.e I wear it often, it’s in good condition, I look good in it. In order for an item to remain in your closet, it must meet the 3 minimum requirements as well as 2 or more of the ideal requirements.

Lesson #7. Be Clear In What You Want

Using the same methods as outlined to clear your unneeded items you’ll be able to let go of non essential responsibilities, tasks, and habits that stop you from reaching your goals, just remember that it gets more complicated when other people become involved as most of us fear saying no.

Learn to separate your decision from your relationship with the person i.e because the person asking is your best friend of 20 years and you’ve always said yes before, doesn’t mean that you continue saying yes. You may regret saying no for a short time, especially when you feel that you’re missing out on something or worry about the other person being disappointed but by keeping the bigger picture in mind, your goal, you can recognize that saying no now will hurt far less than saying yes and your dream getting further and further away. Remember, every non-vital thing you say yes to, means you miss out on an opportunity that is truly vital.

Set an essential intent so that you’re clear about your goals, this will help you to continue saying no. You should have 1 main objective that is both crystal clear to you as well as inspirational. A goal of ending world hunger is inspirational but too vague so fails. A goal of building 50 eco friendly, low-cost family homes for people living in a 50 mile radius of your own home, on the other hand, is both inspirational as well as clear. Make sure your essential intent is both inspirational and clear by asking yourself ‘how will I know when I’ve reached my goal?’ If you can answer this question you’ll know you have the clarity to achieve your goal.

Lesson #8. Set Boundaries and Cut Your Losses

How often have you proceeded to do something that you knew was a waste of time simply because you’d committed to it? This sunk-cost bias can apply to everything from relationships to start-up businesses with people investing more money, more time, and more effort/energy into something that won’t succeed simply because they don’t want to admit failure and walk away. To make matters worse, every further investment in time, money, or energy makes it harder for us to let go of yet by continually investing, our future loss increases.

To avoid falling into this trap you should set clear boundaries. You might say that if, after 18 months your business hasn’t made a profit, you’ll quit. Alternatively, your boundary might be that the kids are in bed by 9pm. Boundaries don’t constrain you, they make your life easier. If you recognize that you’ve already fallen into the trap without having set boundaries, have the courage to admit your mistakes and failures and don’t be afraid to cut your losses and jump ship.

Lesson #9. Figure Out What Slows You Done & Eliminate It

Having read through, understood, and committed to the principles of essentialism it’s time to execute them. Identify what’s slowing you down, what’s keeping you from achieving your goals, and remove the obstacles in your way. Your job isn’t to find ways around the obstacle, but to eliminate it!

As you eliminate one obstacle, more will show up - Be prepared for this and know that your well-thought-out plans will almost always hit a problem and your essential tasks take longer to complete than you thought. Give yourself a buffer of 50% of your time so that you have the time and space to eliminate and correct things that pop up along the way.

Lesson #10. Small & Steady Steps Win The Race

To elevate and reach the height of success you must build upon your previous progress with small, incremental steps, after all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

A routine that aligns with your goals will need to be created as routines instill habits which, although tricky to implement in the beginning, make things easier for you in the long run. Making small steps towards progress can be frustrating but small wins give you the confidence and momentum to continue whilst also allowing you to make sure you’re still on the right track.

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Essentialism Chapters

Chapter One - The Essentialist
Chapter Two - Choose: The Invincible Power of Choice
Chapter Three - Discern: The Unimportance of Practically Everything
Chapter Four - Trade-Off: Which Problem Do I Want?
Chapter Five - Escape: The Perks of Being Unavailable
Chapter Six - Look: See What Really Matters
Chapter Seven - Play: Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child
Chapter Eight - Sleep: Protect the Asset
Chapter Nine - Select: The Power of Extreme Criteria
Chapter Ten - Clarify: One Decision That Makes a Thousand
Chapter Eleven - Dare: The Power of a Grateful "No"
Chapter Twelve - Uncommit: Win Big by Cutting Your Losses
Chapter Thirteen - Edit: The Invisible Art
Chapter Fourteen - Limit: The Freedom of Setting Boundaries
Chapter Fifteen - Buffer: The Unfair Advantage
Chapter Sixteen - Subtract: Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles
Chapter Seventeen - Progress: The Power of Small Wins
Chapter Eighteen - Flow: The Genius Routine
Chapter Nineteen - Focus: What's Important Now?
Chapter Twenty - Be: The Essentialist Life

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My Favorite Quotes from Essentialism

"..It's 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 our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential."

"Just because I was invited didn’t seem a good enough reason to attend.. 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."

"Done is better than perfect."

"Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do."

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

"What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?"

"Remember that if you don’t prioritize your life someone else will... The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default."

"Today, technology has lowered the barrier for others to share their opinion about what we should be focusing on. It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload."

"What do I feel deeply inspired by?"
"What am I particularly talented at?"
"What meets a significant need in the world?"

"Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?

― Greg Mckeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

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Editor and Founder

Tal Gur is a location independent entrepreneur, author, and impact investor. After trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, he spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His most recent book and bestseller, The Art of Fully Living - 1 Man, 10 Years, 100 Life Goals Around the World, has set the stage for his new mission: elevating society to its abundance potential.

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