Book Notes #14: “Essentialism” By Greg McKeown

by | May 26, 2023

This is the book I needed to read at this moment in my life. Because I feel like I’m living according to its principles. It may even be that I feel a little guilty, and I’m looking for reassurance.

Maybe it’s my own confirmation bias. I wanted to hear I was living as an essentialist.

These days I spend most of my days reading, composing, writing, practicing, meditating. I’m in a creative zone because that’s where I’m happiest. I have very few meetings. I’m not doing traditional corporate work.

The message of this book is focus on what’s essential. Don’t get caught up in the random stuff that doesn’t matter. Yeah, that sounds basic. But it’s such a great and minimalist principle that you can adhere.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
By Greg McKeown

Here are my main takeaways from the book.

  • Less But Better
    This book was published years before “quiet quitting” became a phenomenon. But the book begins with a story about someone who works at a corporate job who feels burned out. He turns to a mentor who gave this advice:

    Stay, but do what you would as a consultant and nothing else. And don’t tell anyone.

    I read this as a type of quiet quitting. Push back on the random stuff that people ask you to do at the office. The worker decides not to go to every meeting that he’s invited to. This gave him space to do actual work, to have some freedom. And his performance started to increase overall. Sometimes when you pull back, you can start to achieve greater things. There are very few things that are consequential.

    The author Greg McKeown defines essentialism a few different ways. But I like how he boils it down to “less but better.”

    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…Essentialism is 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.

  • Design Your Life
    You can design your life so that there is less stuff. You can adopt a minimalist approach and focus on the consequential tasks. When you start to ask yourself, “Does this matter?” you’ll start to see just how trivial everything is. McKeown posits that essentialism is actually a systemic approach to life so that you can focus more on execution of the essential activities and tasks.

    If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will…

  • The Paradox of Success
    When you become successful and more well known in your area, it starts to create more opportunities.I can relate to this phenomenon. I’m a musician and record producer, and I hear from several artists/managers/labels every week about the possibility of working together.

    While well intentioned, these invitations also are demands for my time and energy. And lately I’ve been feeling overwhelmed, so I just went underground: I deactivated my social media accounts. I even didn’t respond to emails for a while, and it’s a big deal for me!

    But I realized that if I take on these projects, I will get spread thinner and will be distracted from the essential projects that I want to focus on. I have had to learn how to say no.

    Success can distract us from focusing on the essential things that produce success in the first place.

  • A single priority
    I didn’t know the history of the word priority. What’s your priority? Your single priority? What is essential?

    The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular…Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start taking about priorities.

  • The 3 E’s
    Many of us have overstuffed closets. We only wear a small percentage of what’s in there. The essentialist framework to purging your closet is 1. Explore/evaluate, 2. Eliminate, 3. Execute.It takes discipline to pursue less. Trade-offs are an important part of life.Actually, essentialists explore more than non-essentialists because of their high curiosity. They are looking for their next big opportunity.

    Essentialism is about creating a system for handling the closet of our lives…Remember, when we forfeit our right to choose, someone else will choose for us…

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

  • Stop celebrating busyness
    I’ve written about this. People want to talk about how busy or tired they are, as if that’s a badge of honor. “Look how hard I’m working.”I tend to go to the other extreme: “I’m extremely unbusy and have no meetings on my calendar.”This usually shocks people, but it’s true. I’m going through a stretch in my life where I’m in a creative zone, and I earn via passive income. McKeown mentions how sleep is seen as a new status symbol among successful entrepreneurs.

    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?

    While other people are complaining (read: bragging) about how busy they are, you will just be smiling sympathetically, unable to relate…to live as an Essentialist in our too-many-things-all-the-time society is an act of quiet revolution.

  • Leveraged Work
    Do the work that is going to have a high pay off. Evaluate whether what you’re doing right now is going to matter in a week or a year. This is why I’m more selective about the creative projects that I take on. Is this something that I want to spend the next 2 to 3 years of my life working on?Think of what Warren Buffet who says, “Our investment philosophy borders on lethargy.” Remarkably, 90% of his wealth is attributed to just 10 investments.Once you make the big, essential decision, then the little things fall into place.

    A few weeks ago, I finally had some space in my calendar. I thought to myself, “What do I want to do next?” Do I want to write a book or record a guitar album? I thought about it for a few days, and then I made my decision. I set a deadline, and in a couple months I recorded a guitar album. During those months, I practiced, changed my strings (for the first time in years), and got to it!

    The overwhelming reality is: we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.

  • The Courage to Say No (And set boundaries)
    This is something I needed to hear. I like to help people and take on projects. But lately I’ve been feeling unfulfilled with some of the projects I’ve been involved with.The giant, epic projects are the ones that get me going. I like to swing for the fences and level up.

    Without courage, the disciplined pursuit of less is just lip service…
    We’re scared of rocking the boat, stirring things up, burning bridges…
    We are worried about damaging the relationship…
    The only way out of this trap is to l earn to say no firmly, resolutely, and yet gracefully.

    There are multiple (and elegant) ways to say no and you don’t have to actually say the “no” word. Make sure to remember: “Their problem is not your problem.”

  • Find your routine
    Yet another self-help book that talks about the importance of routine. But there’s obvious power and logic to creating a routine. There is an examination of Michael Phelps and his intense routine.
    I liked this quote: “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” said W. H. Auden.McKeown ends the book with clarity: “‘What is essential?’ Eliminate everything else.”