Book Summary: Essentialism by Greg McKeown

A book summary of the key ideas from Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, along with the view from the blog.

Book Summary: The Key Ideas

#1: The Importance of Choice and Discernment. Essentialists embrace their right to choose, the power of trade-offs, and the reality that more effort doesn’t necessarily yield better results.

#2: The Art of Exploring, Identifying and Selecting the Essential. By exploring and evaluating our options, we can identify the essential and apply extreme criteria in selection.

#3: The Tool-Sharpening Power of Play and Sleep. Our evaluation of the alternatives can be enhanced through embracing the creative power of play and protecting our wellbeing through sleep.

#4: Eliminating the Non-Essential. Elimination of the non-essential begins by identifying our essential intent (or purpose). This then provides the clarity to say no to opportunities and own our mistakes.

#5: Editing, Limiting and Refining Your Essentials: Essentialism should be a process of continual refinement, editing and setting boundaries that support our essential intent.

#6: Essentialism in Practice: Preparation, Routine and Progress. To make essentialism a way of life and not a one-off exercise, essentialists embrace extreme preparation, develop routines that support a ‘flow state’, and celebrate small progress.

Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail

Premise of the Book

The book introduces the concept of essentialism: pursuing the principles of less but better as a disciplined way of life. McKeown believes this change in approach can allow us to achieve our highest possible contribution towards the things that matter.

As he puts it:

“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.”

In a world of abundant choice and increased social pressures, McKeown believes essentialism is made for the modern world. It can ensure we get the right things done in this field of choice, making the wisest investment of our time and energy, and enjoying the journey along the way.

The book details both the basic essence of essentialism and the key stages of essentialism: (1) explore and evaluate, (2) eliminate, and (3) execute.

The Importance of Choice and Discernment

As human beings, we tend to overemphasise our options and underestimate our ability to choose. Yet options can be taken away, but our core ability to choose (free will) cannot.

Essentialism requires us to develop the ability to exercise our power to choose, something our degree of learned helplessness makes more challenging. McKeown recognises an important pitfall of avoiding choices: that if we don’t choose, someone will choose for us. Or as he puts it: “If you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will.”

Essentialism also requires that we evaluate the problem we want rather than trying to do it all in the face of trade-offs. Essentialists see trade-offs as an opportunity to weigh options and strategically select the best one for us. That also means avoiding reflections on what we are giving up and thinking instead about the choice we are investing our time and energy towards.

An essentialist’s choices also require appropriate discernment. Essentialists recognise that more effort doesn’t necessarily yield better results. Indeed, the Pareto (80/20) principle is often a more useful guide (i.e. 20% of our efforts influencing 80% of our results).

The key to changing how we work is recognising that almost everything is non-essential. Once this idea clicks, we can start to focus on those vital few tasks and opportunities, rather than what McKeown calls the “trivial many”. This mindset shift triggers a scanning and evaluation of our environment, which a crucial step in the stages of essentialism.

The Art of Exploring, Identifying and Selecting the Essential

Essentialists explore and evaluate a broad range of options before “going big” on a few ideas. McKeown puts forward some techniques and ideas for getting the most from this exploration phase.

First, we need to create space to explore ideas. Focus, in the eyes of an essentialist, isn’t thinking about one thing obsessively. It’s about creating space to explore multiple questions and possibilities.

We should all set time aside to do absolutely nothing except think. The paradox, however, is that as we get busier, we need this thinking time more and more. McKeown recommends taking time to read and embracing the power of boredom.

Second, we need to get better at seeing the essential. As McKeown puts it, “In every set of facts, something essential is hidden.”

McKeown recommends some techniques for identifying the essential:

  • Keep a journal: Write less than you feel like writing and read your entries every 90 days. Capture the headlines; don’t obsess over detail.
  • Get out into the field: Explore the problem in practice.
  • Look for the unusual: Build knowledge to spot gaps and problems that others don’t see.
  • Clarify the question: Evading hard questions can be tempting but clarifying the question can help us out of that pattern.

Finally, essentialists use extreme criteria to select opportunities. McKeown puts forward a concept he calls the 90 Per Cent Rule. It suggests that when evaluating an option, you should think of the most important criterion, and then score the option between 0 and 100. If you rate it lower than 90 per cent, it should be treated as a zero and consequently rejected.

When opportunities arrive unexpectedly, McKeown recommends the following approach:

  1. Write down the opportunity
  2. Write down the three minimum criteria
  3. Then write down three ideal/extreme criteria

If it doesn’t meet 3 out of 2 of the extreme criteria, the answer is no. If is doesn’t meet the minimum, the answer is clearly no.

The Tool-Sharpening Power of Play and Sleep

To enhance the quality of our evaluation of opportunities, McKeown also extols the virtues of two underestimated areas: play and sleep.

Play – which McKeown defines as anything we do “simply for the joy of doing” – is increasingly trivialised in modern schooling. This trivialisation of play only gets worse as we enter our working lives.

This means we’re missing out on some important benefits, such as brain plasticity, adaptability, creativity, and stress reduction (all benefits supported by research).

Essentialists embrace the idea of play to enhance evaluation of ideas and idea generation. And McKeown believes one of the keys to unlocking this value is “memory mining” for play memories and working out how we can recreate that today.

But while play can enhance our creativity, we also need to “protect the asset”. And as McKeown puts it, “The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves.”

If we underinvest in ourselves, we damage our highest contribution. The biggest cause of such damage is a lack of sleep.

A wide range of research suggests a good amount of sleep is linked to higher creativity, enhanced productivity and neural plasticity, among other benefits. Essentialists recognise this. Sleep, from an essentialist perspective, is crucial for peak performance. This requires a mindset shift that accepts the idea of doing one fewer thing today to get more done tomorrow.

Eliminating the Non-Essential

To eliminate the non-essential, we first need to identify our essential intent. This is a purpose which is both inspirational and concrete, and meaningful and measurable. Once we have identified this essential intent, it provides the clarity we need to foster innovation and take decisions that eliminate thousands of later decisions.

Having identified what is non-essential, we should be better equipped to say no. But this is easier said than done:

“Anyone can talk about the importance of focusing on the things that matter most – any many people do – but to see people who dare to live it is rare.”

The clarity we have about what is most essential, however, can give us the strength to say no – despite saying no running against some of our inherent psychology (normative conformity). What’s more, when we say no firmly but gracefully, people often respect us more for it.

Here’s how to say no more:

  • Separate the decision from the relationship
  • Know that you don’t necessarily need to use the word “no”
  • Focus on what you’re giving up by saying yes.
  • Be aware that everyone is selling something – ideas, opinions, etc.
  • Accept that a “no” may mean trading popularity for respect.

As well as saying no, essentialists have the confidence to admit their mistakes and uncommit. McKeown suggests a range of techniques for avoiding commitment traps, such as getting a neutral second opinion, avoiding the traps of status quo bias, applying zero-based budgeting, and running a “reverse pilot” (getting rid of something without asking and seeing if it makes any difference to others).

Editing, Limiting and Refining Your Essentials

Disciplined editing can also increase our focus and energy towards the things that really matter.

McKeown sets out four simple principles of editing:

  1. Cut out options: While eliminating can be painful, it frees up space for something better.
  2. Condense: This allows us to do (and say) more with less, replacing multiple meaningless activities with one meaningful activity.
  3. Correct: We can use our essential intent to check ourselves and course correct.
  4. Edit less: We must also know when to show restraint.

The key point is that editing should be a continuous process, and not a reactive one when we become overwhelmed.

Essentialism also requires clear boundaries. Not setting boundaries costs more than setting them, and essentialists recognise that boundaries protect our time and wellbeing.

“When people make their problems our problem, we aren’t helping them; we’re enabling them.”

Essentialists don’t rob people of their problems. They recognise instead that boundaries can be liberating.

Essentialism in Practice: Preparation, Routine and Progress

To make essentialism a way of life and not just a one-off exercise, essentialists rely on preparation, routine and the celebration of small incremental progress.

Essentialists prepare for the unexpected by creating a buffer in what they do. They acknowledge that you can’t predict the unexpected and they prepare for it. McKeown builds on the case for preparation by suggesting we add 50% to our time estimates to counter the planning fallacy, as well as conducting scenario planning to understand and mitigate the risks of the worst-case scenario.

Essentialism also embraces the idea of creating routines to achieve a ‘flow state’. By making these routines our default, we expend less effort trying to sustain them. This in turn frees up energy for other creative pursuits.

To overhaul bad routines and replace them with good ones, McKeown suggests tapping into our habit loops, identifying our cues and finding ways to associate them with our essential habits.

Finally, essentialism “starts small and celebrates progress.” Of all the types of motivation, progress is the most effective, because small wins create momentum.

McKeown suggests several ideas to embrace this idea of small progress:

  1. Minimal viable progress: Here we ask ourselves, “what is the smallest amount of progress that will be valuable to the essential task we are carrying out?” This permits us to try ideas at small scale first.
  2. Minimum viable preparation: Here we ask ourselves, “what is the minimum amount I could do right now to prepare?” Again, the idea is to focus on small steps of improvement.
  3. Visual rewards: Visualisation can have a powerful role in motivating towards goals, providing immediate satisfaction linked to completion of a smaller task.

You can buy the book here or you can find more our book notes here. For further related reading, check out Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and Stuffocation by James Wallman.

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