Greg McKeowen’s “Essentialism” is in the pantheon of most highly influential books on my life. It is blends practical, implementable wisdom with a consistent and convincing philosophical position:

Less, but better.

Ironically, I took a TON of notes while reading this book about not doing so darn much.

Book cover

Book Summary below.

Executive Summary

  • Avoid “Majoring in minor work”
  • It is worse to be making a millimeter of progress in a million directions than it is to make great progress in a few
  • Less, but better
  • Saying “No” is the essence of your ability to choose. People will respect you for saying no.
  • You can do anything, but not everything. Don’t ask “how can I do it?”, ask “what needs done?”
  • Find the coincidence of what’s valuable, what you’re good at, and what you enjoy
  • “Priority” used to not have a plural form. It was THE ONE thing
  • If you get rid of everything you own that doesn’t spark joy, then everything you own will spark joy
  • Essentialists actually get way more options. By saying yes to everything you don’t have time to find the things that are actually worthwhile
  • Use the Pareto Principle in all things
  • If you’re not choosing what trade-offs you’re making, then someone else is choosing for you
  • To filter out what’s not worth your time & energy, ask yourself these questions:
    • If I didn’t already own this, what would I spend to buy it right now?
    • If I didn’t already have this opportunity, what would I give to earn it?

That’s the book in short. Read that section slowly. If you’re interested in more, below is a more detailed summary of the main concepts covered in the book.

Book Notes


Create space for yourself. You need time to think. You need time to get traction. Deliberately set up time by yourself in a distraction-free space, without a phone or computer. Make room for boredom (see my eventual book summary of “Bored and Brilliant”). Bill Gates has “think weeks” in which he does just this. If you don’t have the luxury of being able to take a week to yourself, just create a routine to set aside some time each day (or week) to simply sit and think - or read classic literature.

Big Picture

Think a like a journalist reporting on your life. Don’t bury the lead. Look for it explicitly. What is in the big picture is what is important, and too often in life we are worried about the details.
Keep a journal. Write in it less than you feel like you should. People who start journaling tend to overdo it, then get daunted and not pick it up again. Cover the highlights, then move on.


“Play” is hard to define. Greg’s rough definition is: the partaking of activities for fun, with no end in mind.
Play is essential. It sparks exploration. It opens you up to ideas, options, and opportunities. It relieves stress, and makes life worth living.


Sleep is essential. Do one less thing tonight and you’ll be able to do more tomorrow. You must prioritize sleep. Sleep deprivation inhibits your ability to prioritize anything else. It is a vital component in the balance of Production and the Capability to Produce (see my eventual book summary of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”). Sleep protects your mind, body, and spirit. The best asset we have to contribute to the world is ourselves, and we need to protect that asset.


There’s a TED talk out there that says “if the answer isn’t ‘Hell Yes’ then it should be ‘No’.”1 Your closet shouldn’t be full of clothes you might wear someday in teh future. It should have only those clothes you absolutely love.

Come up with selective criteria, and make them explicit. When evaluating options (for anything, really), ensure that the choice meets at least 90% of those criteria. This is The 90% Rule - if an option is less than a 90% fit to your criteria, it’s not good enough.

Make decisions by design, not by default.

It can be more fulfilling and more financially lucrative to be the best at one thing, rather than being good at everything.

Clarify the Mission

Really clarify. When setting out to accomplish an endeavor, develop a statement of purpose that’s actually useful. Don’t use vague, meaningless statements. Make a decisions that informs all subsequent decisions.


Brad Pitt started an organization after Hurricane Katrina whose mission was “to build 150 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward.” The marketing for the iPod wasn’t “to make a 1gb MP3 player” - it was “to put 1000 songs in your pocket”.


It takes great courage to say no when it matters most. Be courageous. Don’t go against your convictions. Learn to say no gracefully, and forcefully. Steven Covey said no to a long-lost friend to take his daughter on their weekly father-daughter date. His daughter remembered that small demonstration of commitment to their relationship until the day he died.


Beware the Sunk Cost Bias. A huge part of success is getting out of failures early. If an endeavor is going to be a failure, bail out. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve given to it already. Admit failures to begin succeeding.
Ask yourself If I wasn’t already involved with this project, what would I give to be on it?

Beware the Status Quo Bias. When looking at budgets, for example, don’t carry over debts and commitments from previous periods. Start from zero. Force yourself to recommit to the previously chosen options. Don’t limit yourself to the best options left. This is called zero-based budgeting.


Condense. Clarify. Editing is making the essential even more essential. See the executive summary for an example of that in action. Edit continuously your projects and decisions.


Boundaries are freeing, not restricting. Set your own boundaries, or other people will build them around you according to their needs. Bound not only your time, but the problems you’re willing to bring on. If someone asks you to do something, and you feel resentful about doing it… you’d both have been better off if you applied a graceful and forceful “no”.


Create space between things. Create time in advance. Front-load work. Don’t fall victim to The Planning Fallacy. Prepare prepare prepare. Add 50% to your time estimates. You won’t be any better than anyone else at prediction the future, so allow yourself resources to deal with contigencies. They will happen to you the same way they always have.


Find the bottlenecking factor. Work solely on the obstacles it is facing. On a group hike you move the speed of the slowest hiker. Make that person’s load lighter and everyone goes faster & further.

Small Wins = Progress

Small and simple wins in essential areas are huge. They are much better than big flashy wins in the wrong areas. In order to make progress, start small. Improve the things you do the most often. Even small improvements there will result in huge gains as you iterate on them over time. Eventually you’ll hit a tipping point, and it will look like an overnight success to any outside observers.
Look for minimum viable progress. What’s the smallest thing you can do to move forward toward the goals that really matter to you. This is what you should focus on, and what you should do first. Doing 10 minutes many weeks before a deadline can save you days of work just before it hits.

Flow & Habits

Michael Phelps had a rigorous and long pre-race routine. He started the race hours before the race. By the time the race starts, he’s already been racing for hours. It is just the next step.
Essentialists define a routine that enables execution of the essential by default. Routine keeps the nonessential distractions of everyday life at bay. This staves off decision fatigue. Embedding decisions into the routine frees the mind to make decisions later. Routine enables difficult things to become easy. Soon you can autopilot the accomplishment of one essential task while devoting the mind to work on the next essential thing.
See my notes on Atomic Habits for more about habits & routine.

What’s Important Now

Don’t think about the past or the future. Focus on what’s important now (W.I.N.). That is how you do your best work. Dwelling on the past and worrying about the future doesn’t help you now and doesn’t feel good. Focusing on W.I.N. give you the best future.
Contrary to most Productivity Advice - it is possible to multi-task. It’s not trying to do multiple things at once that you should avoid, it’s trying to focus on multiple things at once. you cannot multifocus. See my summarization of Todoist’s summarization of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” for some additional thoughts.


Mahatma Gandhi knew what was essential. Essentialism is either something you do occasionally, or something you are. Live a life of meaning and purpose. Don’t look back and see the laundry list of unimportant accomplishments. You don’t see on a tombstone “He was good at checking email.”
Ask yourself what are those few things that are truly valuable. Hope to look back and see a life full of a few, very important accomplishments in those areas. As you become more of an essentialist, you’ll focus less on accomplishing all the things on your to-do list, and instead on what makes it on there in the first place.

It’s as simple as keeping it simple.

  1. I found several TED talks that might be the one he was referring to, none of which particularly grabbed me, hence no link to said talk.