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Notes on Greg McKeown -Essentialism - The disciplined pursuit of less

img of Notes on Greg McKeown -Essentialism - The disciplined pursuit of less

I found this book on a list of books to read to improve your life and structure your life. It is a really good read and I would recommend you go check it out for yourself.

Greg McKeown has his own website for the book www.essentialism.com

Chapter Notes


“weniger aber besser” (“less but better”) Dieter Rahms

Essentialism is a discipline, an approach to less but better.

Note: This does not mean that you should do less. A large quantity of work will create better results than a small quantity of work.

The biggest question essentialism asks is “Am I investing in the right activities?” - “Am I getting the right things done?”

It is focussing energy on a single task rather than spreading it out over many activities. With this focus, you can achieve more by getting the important things done first.

The Model

ThinksAll things to all PeopleLess but better
“I have to”I choose to
Everything is importantFew things matter
DoesUndisciplined pursuit of moreDisciplined pursuit of less
Reacts immediatelyPauses to think about what really matters
Says ‘yes’ without thinkingSays ‘no’ to everything except the essential
GetsA Life that does not satisfyA Life that really matters
Takes on too much work and suffersChooses carefully in order to do great work
Feels out of controlFeels in control
Unsure whether the right thing gets doneGets the right thing done
Feels overwhelmed and exhaustedExperiences joy in the journey

You are in control of your choices

if you do not prioritize your life, someone else will.

How to clean up your wardrobe

1. Explore and Evaluate

Do not ask “will I wear it in the future?” - ask “do I love this?, does this make me look good?”

Which activities help me towards my goal

2. Eliminate

Divide your things into “must keep” and “probably should get rid of this”

We value things that we already have higher than new things.

3. Execute

Create a system that incorporates all the follow-up activities. That makes it simpler to be sure that all steps get done. (i.e. where do you donate your clothes, when will you carry them out of the house)

The System

Essentialism is about creating a system. It is a disciple to apply every day and every time you are faced with a decision.

This book should show you a way to live a life true to yourself - not the life others expect from you.

Be more efficient and productive in your professional and personal realm. A system to define what is important and eliminating what is not.

Road Map

Essence: The Core mindset

Individual choice: We can choose how to spend our energy and time. (Without choice there is no tradeoff) The prevalence of noise: Almost everything is noise. The reality of trade-offs: We can’t have it all or do it all.


You explore more options to make sure that you are choosing the right option

You do not commit blindly, you make a choice. You ask yourself: “Is this a good opportunity?“. Looking for the highest level of contribution - the right thing the right way at the right time.


To eliminate means to say ‘no’ to someone. It takes courage and compassion. It takes mental and emotional discipline - as you are saying no to social pressure. If we forfeit our right to choose someone else will do it for us.


You have removed all the obstacles to ‘make it happen’. You create a system to ‘make it happen’.

Essence - The Core Mindset

Choice - The invincible power of choice

Did you ever feel stuck because you believed you did not have a choice? - The stress from two contradictory believes - “I can’t do this” and “I have to do this”. Have you ever given up your power to choose - until you follow a path prescribed by another person? Options (things) can be taken away, while our choice (free will) cannot be.

The ability to choose cannot be taken away or given away - it only can be forgotten.

You have to be aware of learned helplessness. You suddenly have the mindset of “I have to” instead of “I choose to”.

Discern - The unimportance of practically everything

The question is there a limit to your work output? Is there a point where doing less is more effective than doing more? You must be aware that in the grand scheme of things most things are unimportant. So focus on the really important things.

Perusing many good opportunities may be less of value than perusing a single great opportunity

You do not have to view every opportunity as equal. You should be distinguishing the vital few from the many.


When choosing between two options you obviously want to do both - you want to do it all. But the reality is that there is a trade-off. You have to make a choice: Which problem do you want? By forcing yourself to weigh both options and strategically choosing and prioritizing one option - you increase the likelihood of actually getting the desired outcome. You do not ask “How can I do it all?” you ask “What can I go big on?”

Every trade-off is a strategic choice. It is something you cannot ignore.


Escape - The perks of being unavailable

You have to create a space where you have the time to disconnect and think. You simply have to set that space aside. In our busy world - it will not happen automatically.

It is important, especially in busy times to take a step back and think. Bill Gates has ‘think weeks’ where he simply reads and thinks about the bigger picture and has no appointments. You should schedule at regular times time to be ‘bored’ or ‘think about things’.

Look - See what really matters

Keep a journal to figure out what you have been doing, and have an overview of what is the point of things.

You have to be clear on what is the point.

Play - Embrace the wisdom of your inner child

Play doesn’t help us explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.

Playing helps you to be more creative and imaginative. Which improves your abilities at work.

Sleep - Protect the asset

In short only when you are rested you can perform incredible feats. Sleep is important and should not be an afterthought. Ensure that you get the right amount of sleep.

Select - The Power of Extreme Criteria

You do not want to waste your time on things where you have a bad feeling it will not work out. Have high standards and select accordingly.

If it is not a definitive yes - it is no.

Eliminate - Can we cut out the trivial many?

Clarity - One Decision that makes a thousand

Having a clear vision and mission statement is much more powerful and inspiring than a vague mission statement.

Teams without clear goal, start playing politic games. If we do not have a clear goal - then we start playing social games, like looking better than others on social media.

By deciding on a goal, you made a thousand follow up decisions. Because it is much clearer what path you should take.

Dare - The power of a ‘graceful no’

We are biologically primed to get along. Saying no -feels wrong. However, it will only give you discomfort for a couple of minutes. Compare that to saying yes that may give you discomfort for a very long period of time, maybe years to come.

People will respect you more for saying no - it takes courage and conviction to say no.

You are more effective when you are saying no.

You do not have to say yes to everything. You only say yes to the things that really matter.

You can say no gracefully:

  • separate the decision from the relationship
  • You do not have to use the word ‘no’ - you can use other phrases like “I am flattered, but I do not have the bandwidth” - “I would like to but I’m overcommited”
  • focus on the trade-off
  • Saying no - trades popularity with respect
    • Paul Rand only developed a single logo for Steve Jobs - He said: “No, I will solve the problem for you - you pay me - you do not have to use the solution. - If you want options go and talk with other people. I will solve the problem the best I can.
  • Saying No is better than a Noncommittal ‘yes’

There are many different variants of saying ‘No’:

  • The No. but … variant - “No I cannot grab a coffee I am working on X, but let’s get coffee in a couple of weeks”
  • Let me check my calendar and get back to you
  • “What should I de-prioritize?” - This is especially useful when dealing with a person with higher seniority. You are obligated to do your best work. Adding something new will make your work suffer. Thus it is now the decision of the manager to think about what you should be working on. - You can say “I am happy to work on this project, which project should I work less on? - This indicates to the manager that you are organized, and he will maybe not assign you this meaningless task.
  • I can’t do it but X would be interested - most people do not care who helps them but that they get help. This is a very nice way of saying no because you are still helping that person.

You have to learn the ‘slow’ yes and a ‘quick’ no.

Un-commit - Win Big by Cutting your losses

Be aware of the ‘sunk-cost bias.

Ask yourself “If I weren’t already invested in this project - would I invest in it now?”

Be comfortable to cut losses. Be comfortable to admit failure.

Edit - The Invisible Art

An essentialist thinks that he can make things better by subtracting things. Eliminating distracting words, images, and details.

Editing can condense, correct and clarify your texts.

Limit - The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

If you have limits you will become limitless, boundaries are liberating.

Their problem is not your problem. There are people that tend to overstep boundaries. They only care about their own agenda.

Do not rob people of their problems - they have to learn on their own how to solve their problems - If not you suddenly created a co-dependent situation. Letting them solve their own problems benefits both parties.

When we set boundaries, we are select from the whole area and the whole range of options, from the area we have chosen to explore.

Figure out what your deal breakers are. Make note of all the instances when you refuse to say yes.

Create social contracts. Tell other people what your priorities are. By communicating and acknowledging your priorities - it makes it easier for people to work with you. With practice - enforcing your limits will become easier.

Execute - How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?

Buffer - The unfair advantage

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax - Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

You have to have buffers to compensate for unforeseen events. You want to prepare as early as possible

Most of your estimations are too low. Many simple tasks like ‘going shopping for 5min’ take 20min or more. You can add a buffer of 50% to almost everything and be on the safe side.

You should also conduct scenario planning. i.e. to account for scenarios where things do not go smoothly.

Subtract - Bring Forth More by removing Obstacles

You cannot improve a system if the constraints are not removed. You must identify constraints and remove them. You have to remove all the small things that hinder your progress.

It does not matter if you are doing more if you are still restricted and slowed down by the same things as before. You do not have to start with removing the biggest obstacle. Start by removing the smaller obstacles and then let the momentum build.

Progress - The power of small wins

Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow - Dough Firebaugh

Focus on minimal viable progress.

Create a “minimal viable product” - what would be useful and valuable for an intended customer?

For writing a book, I would share an idea on Twitter and if it resonated, I would continue to write a blog post. This process revealed what was the highest relevancy for peoples lives

We don’t actually finish our films, we release them - John Lasseter (Pixar)

Do the minimal amount of preparation needed.

Think about it, if you do the absolute minimum of preparation for your project. Just a few seconds of early preparation can pay you a valuable dividend. (Avoiding stress and having a clearer overview of the entire project)

Visualize your progress

There is a lot of excitement and reward in seeing your progress. It positively reinforces your success and keeps you engaged and makes the entire process more enjoyable

Flow - The Genius of Routine

You should design a routine that makes execution almost effortless.

Having good routines eliminates all the workaround planning, and it becomes automatic. The routine helps you to get the unimportant things out of the way and focus more on the harder part.

You should rethink your habits and work on your triggers for specific habits.

It can be boring following your routine - you can mix it up by having specific routines for each day of the week.

Focus - What is important now?

Be in the current moment, the past and the future are not important. By focusing only on what is the current moment you can achieve greatness.

Have a routine, a pause to let go of all the work-related thoughts before you enter the house and spend time with your family. Focus on that what is important at that moment.

Be - The Essentialist life

Focusing on the essentials is a choice. It is your choice. The benefits of becoming an essentialist are endless.

  • More clarity what is going on in your life
  • More control - you have the ability to pause, push back and not always rush in.
  • More joy in the journey - When you focus on the right now, being present in the moment - You can be more joyful


The entire book is designed that you have a plan on how you can slowly transform your life into a more meaningful life. It demands from you that you take control over your life. that you start to make choices and not just follow the path other people have provided for you.

It wants you to rethink aspects of your life. So you accept that life is meaningless but it can be fulfilling if you start to do the things that have meaning for you.

As with every book it goes to the extremes. In the end, everyone will have no choice to do some things (i.e. paying taxes) and you will have to follow some rules that other people have defined for you. But it askes the question is it really the case and do you have an alternative to that?

By simply asking yourself “What is the most important thing today?” and doing that thing can radically change your life.