Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Essentialism summary

Essentialism is the systematic discipline of focusing on the things that matter while eliminating everything else. Unlike shallow activities, applying ourselves wholeheartedly to what we value offers lasting satisfaction and fulfillment.

Essentialism notes & quotes

Here are my notes and quotes on Essentialism by Greg McKeown. My notes are casual and include what I believe are the essential concepts, ideas, and insights from the book, along with direct quotes from the author.


  • Are you stretched too thin? Busy but not productive? Overworked but underutilized?
  • Perhaps you’re majoring in minor activities.
  • Most things are trivial, but few are vital.
  • We cannot fit everything in. Eliminating the nonessential frees us to focus on the essentials.
  • Instead of making minimal progress in many directions, why not make significant progress on the things you value?
  • Permitting yourself to stop doing it all allows you to contribute significantly toward the things that matter.
  • Dieter Rams, who inspired Apple’s design ethic, sees almost everything as noise.
  • His job is filtering through the noise to the essence.
  • “The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better.”
  • Essentialism is not about getting more done; it’s about getting the right things done.
  • Essentialism is living deliberately, distinguishing “the vital few from the trivial many,” removing obstacles, and applying yourself fully to what’s left.
  • Trying to do everything and everything perfectly is the path to failure.
  • Ask yourself regularly: “Am I investing in the right activities?” and “Will this activity or effort make the highest possible contribution toward my goal?”
  • For every decision, ask yourself, “Which choice will allow me to make the highest contribution to the things that matter to me?”
  • The highest point of contribution: The intersection between “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?”
  • Peter Drucker said, “People are effective because they say ‘no, this isn’t for me.’”
  • We can’t always control our options, but we can always choose.
  • Choice is never taken away, only forgotten.
  • Studies show that humans, like dogs, learn helplessness.
  • Forgetting our ability to choose leads to helplessness.
  • “…certain efforts product exponentially better results than others.”
  • “A non-essentialist thinks everything is essential. An essentialist thinks almost everything is nonessential.”
  • Pursuing many things is often far less valuable than pursuing many genuinely great ones.
  • Saying yes to any opportunity requires saying no to several others.
  • When making choices, a nonessentialist asks, “How can I do both?”; an essentialist asks, “What do I want to go big on?”
  • (I’m reminded that the principle of essentialism applies to all areas of life, including investing. For example, Warren Buffett once said, “I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it so that you had 20 punches—representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punched through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all.”)


  • A journalist constructs the whole from the sum of its parts.
  • Thinking like a journalist helps us see the big picture, listen for what is not being said, and filter the essential from the nonessential noise.
  • For kids, play is natural, but nonessentialist culture sees space, listening, playing, sleeping, and selecting as trivial distractions. And yet they are vital to well-being.
  • “Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking.”
  • The noisier life is, the more quiet is needed for reflection and focus.
  • Restoring play in our daily lives is restorative.
  • The essence of play can be incorporated into any activity.
  • “Nothing fires up the brain like play,” says Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play
  • Humans are the most prominent players of all animals, and play is enormously valuable for seeing connections, broadening perspectives, and well-being.
  • Play is the purest expression of our humanity.
  • Stress is the enemy of productivity.
  • What is play? Play is anything we do simply for the joy of doing it.
  • Sufficient sleep is vital to caring for our assets—our body and mind.
  • Lack of sleep, especially for ambitious people, is perhaps the most common way we damage these assets.
  • The challenge for hard workers is not working hard.
  • Sleep makes us more productive, not less.
  • Sleep is particularly beneficial for the mind.
  • “Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize.”
  • When making decisions, what is the most crucial criterion? Assign a score between 0 and 100; if less than 90, reject the option.
  • A tool is systematic when the criteria are selective and explicit.
  • For example, when hiring, ask, “Would I want to work with this person every day?” or “Could this person have been one of the team's founding members?”


  • Determining what is nonessential is the first step, and eliminating them is the second step.
  • Studies show we value things we own more highly than they are worth, making them challenging to eliminate.
  • Killer question: “If I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?”
  • People thrive in clarity.
  • Without clarity, people experience confusion, stress, and frustration and waste time on the trivial.
  • When people don’t know the game and how to win, they make up their own game and rules and vie for their manager’s attention.
  • Without a clear sense of our goals, aspirations, and values, we make up social games like looking good and overvaluing unnecessary things—like a bigger house, more followers on Twitter, and how we look in Facebook photos.
  • Without purpose, we neglect essentials, like nurturing our spirit, spending time with people we love, and staying healthy.
  • When crafting a statement of purpose, make it concrete, inspiring, meaningful, and memorable.
  • Substance counts, not style.
  • “If we could truly be excellent at only one thing, what would it be?”
    Essential intent is a way of guiding your purpose and charting your life’s path.
  • Focusing on the things that matter is rare.
  • Choosing what is essential over nonessential is hard at the moment because we are unclear about what is necessary.
  • Courage and clarity of purpose enable us to say no to the nonessential.
  • Saying no to others is difficult because we are wired to get along. Saying no brings up physical discomfort, and we feel guilty.
  • But people respect and admire us when we . Once the initial annoyance or disappointment wears off, the respect kicks in.
  • “…people are effective because they say no.” — Peter Drucker
  • Saying no to the nonessential is saying yes to the things that matter.
  • “Denying the request is not the same as denying the person.”
  • The more awareness of what we are giving up when saying yes to someone, the easier it is to say no.
  • Respect is more durable than popularity.
  • Due to sunk-cost bias, “The more we invest in something, the harder it is to let go.”
  • “An Essentialist has the courage and the confidence to admit his or her mistakes and uncommit, no matter the sunk costs.”
  • Beware the “status quo bias” or doing something because we’ve always done it that way.
  • Sometimes we say yes because we fear missing out.
  • Use “reverse pilot” to test whether removing an activity will have negative consequences.
  • “The Latin root of the word decision—cis or cid—literally means “to cut” or “to kill.”
  • We live in an increasingly boundary-less world where we are expected to be available at all hours to all people.
  • Boundaries protect our time from being hijacked.
  • When we take on other people’s problems, we’re enabling them and taking away their ability to solve their problems.


  • Life is unpredictable. Preparing for contingencies buffers us from disruption.
  • For example, if you know there may be traffic on the way to an appointment, create a buffer by adding 50 percent to the amount of time it would take with no traffic.
  • “What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?”
  • “An essentialist produces more—brings forth more—by removing more instead of doing more.”
  • Essentialists remove obstacles getting in the way of the essential.
  • “How will we know when we are done?”
  • “What is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?”
  • “Done is better than perfect.”
  • “The way of the nonessentialist is to go big on everything: to try to do it all, have it all, fit it all in.”
  • Small, simple wins compound over time into significant gains.
  • Research shows that progress is the most powerful form of human motivation.
  • At work, the most powerful motivators are achievement and recognition of achievement.
  • “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” -
  • Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.
  • Focus on the minimal viable progress: “What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?”
  • Two ways to do things: start early and small or start late and big.
  • Routine makes hard things easier.
  • “Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles.”
  • Repetition strengthens connections in the brain so that the brain can work less and less for the same results.
  • Routines help free up creativity.
  • Every habit is made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward.
  • If you want to change a nonessential habit, find the cue that triggers the unwanted behavior.
  • A single rule governs routine: Do the most challenging thing first.
  • Focusing on the essential is a habit that builds over time.
  • The essentialist lives a life of meaning and purpose.
  • Keeping mortality front and center helps clarify what is essential.
  • “Clarity equals success.”

Related Resources

Here is a list of resources, including authors, books, websites, podcasts, and concepts mentioned in Essentialism, which might be helpful for further learning.


  • Richard Koch
  • Jeremy Utley
  • Richard S. Westfall
  • Jeff Weiner
  • Thomas Friedman
  • Mariam Semaan
  • Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play
  • Albert Einstein
  • Edward M. Hallowell
  • Bob Fagan, researcher
  • Anders Ericsson
  • Malcolm Gladwell
  • Paul Rand, designer
  • Daniel Kahneman
  • Tim Stafford
  • Dieter Rams
  • Hal Arkes, professor of psychology
  • Aristotle
  • Martin Heidegger
  • Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer
  • Frederick Herzberg
  • Henry b. Eyring
  • Philip Zimbardo
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • Dalai Lama
  • Ela Bhatt

Books and Publications

  • Quality-Control Handbook by Joseph Moses
  • The Tao of Warren Buffett by Mary Buffett and David Clark
  • Ned Davis research
  • Good to Great by Jim Collins
  • Make Space by Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft
  • Principa Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton
  • Zen, the Reason of Unreason by Timothy Hugh Barrett
  • The Wisdom of Confucius by Confucius
  • The Torah
  • The Holy Bible
  • Tao, to Know and Not Be Knowing
  • As a Man Thinketh by James Allen
  • The Essential Guide to Gandhi
  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  • Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau
  • The Book of Mormon
  • The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • The Upanishads
  • Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions by Jaak Panksepp
  • Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer by Charles A. Czeisler
  • The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
  • Boundaries by Henry Cloud
Thanks for reading.  You can get more insights into the self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering in my email newsletter. Each week, I share a popular book summary or an in-depth article with practical ideas on personal freedom and showing up as yourself with courage, curiosity, and self-compassion.
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