• Toby Sinclair

Book Summary: Essentialism - The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown


Essentialism Book Cover

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⭐ Toby's Rating: 6/10 - Recommended For: Overachievers


3 Big Ideas


  • By focusing on the few vital things over the trivial many, you can increase your contribution to the world.

  • Almost everything in life is noise. Very few things are essential.

  • If you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will.


2 Most Tweetable Quotes


If you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will.
Live by design, not by default.


1 Top Takeaway


This book is a great reminder that so many things in life distract us from making a meaningful contribution. Greg McKeown clearly articulates this challenge and describes a Philosophy called Essentialism as a way to increase your contribution to the world. There were many examples from the book that resonated with me. In particular, the examples where leaders find it difficult to say No. Here is just one example:


I once worked with an executive team that needed help with their prioritisation. They were struggling to identify the top five projects they wanted their IT department to complete over the next fiscal year, and one of the managers was having a particularly hard time with it. She insisted on naming eighteen “top priority” projects. I insisted that she choose five. She took her list back to her team, and two weeks later they returned with a list she had managed to shorten – by one single project! (I always wondered what it was about that one lone project that didn’t make the cut.) By refusing to make trade-offs, she ended up spreading five projects’ worth of time and effort across seventeen projects. Unsurprisingly, she did not get the results she wanted. Her logic had been: We can do it all. Obviously not.

After reading this book I've started to reflect on many parts of my own life. What are the vital few things?


Greg shares that many capable people are kept from getting to the next level of contribution because they can’t let go of the belief that everything is important. This book is an important reminder not to fall into that trap.


The Big Ideas from Essentialism Expanded


What is Essentialism?


A focus on the vital few rather than the trivial many. So that you can make your highest contribution to the world.


The opposite, more common approach is majoring in minor activities. Staying busy on the trivial many. As a result, your contribution to what really matters to you and the world is limited.


Why is Essentialism Important?


When you focus on the vital few over the trivial many you increase your contribution to the world. You increase your happiness and satisfaction. You find flow, meaning and joy.


What are the principles of Essentialism?

  • 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.

  • Almost everything is noise. Very few things are essential.

  • More is less. Eliminate the non-essentials.

  • The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better.

  • It is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?”

  • Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.

  • In many cases, we can learn to make one-time decisions that make a thousand future decisions so we don’t exhaust ourselves by asking the same questions again and again.

  • If you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will.


What is the core logic of an Essentialist?


There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist:

  • “I have to,”

  • “It’s all-important,”

  • “I can do both.”

Like mythological sirens, these assumptions are as dangerous as they are seductive. They draw us in and drown us in shallow waters.


Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths:

  • “I choose to,”

  • “Only a few things really matter,”

  • “I can do anything but not everything.”


The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the non-essentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.


What are the steps to become an Essentialist?


  1. Explore: Discerning the Trivial Many from the Vital Few

  2. Eliminate: Cutting out the Trivial Many

  3. Execute: Removing Obstacles and making execution effortless


The challenge in becoming an Essentialist:


One reason is that in our society we are punished for good behaviour (saying no) and rewarded for bad behaviour (saying yes). The former is often awkward in the moment, and the latter is often celebrated in the moment. It leads to what I call “the paradox of success”


The Paradox of Success:


  • PHASE 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it enables us to succeed at our endeavour.

  • PHASE 2: When we have success, we gain a reputation as a “go-to” person. We become “good old [insert name],” who is always there when you need him, and we are presented with increased options and opportunities.

  • PHASE 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, which is actually code for demands upon our time and energies, it leads to diffused efforts. We get spread thinner and thinner.

  • PHASE 4: We become distracted from what would otherwise be 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.


Why Non-Essentialism Is Everywhere

  • Too many choices

  • Too much social pressure

  • The idea that you can have it all

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”