Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Book Notes: Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Rating (7 / 10)


An essentialist is one who whittles away the unnecessary demands of time and attention in order to focus on what matters. He or she works in the opposite direction – where most people add tasks and responsibilities to make their work feel more productive, an essentialist understand that most “busywork” is just that – work to keep you busy. The goal of this book is to help you identify what moves your needle forward, and then to set up a daily habit to make sure the most important activities get done.

Direct Quotes:

Page 10 – The Prioritization Maxim

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

Page 63 – Create a Space for Work

-Pablo Picasso”

Page 101 – The #1 Priority

“Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize.”

Page 189 – The Definition of an Essentialist

“An Essentialist produces more -brings forth more-by removing more instead of doing more.”

Analysis of Key Passages:


Page 15 – Decision Fatigue

“We are unprepared in part because, for the first time, the preponderance of choice has overwhelmed our ability to manage it. We have lost our ability to filter what is important and what isn’t. Psychologists call this “decision fatigue”: the more choices we are forced to make, the more the quality of our decisions deteriorates.”

Analysis: I feel this all the time. When I get a moment to myself, I often don’t know what to do because there’s a book I want to read, a course I’m halfway through, and several YouTube videos vying for my attention. I’ve got so many options, that I get overwhelmed and do none of them.

Page 103 – Hell Yes!

“In a piece called “No More Yes. It’s Either HELL YEAH! Or No,” the popular TED speaker Derek Sivers describes a simple technique for becoming more selective in the choices we make. The key is to put the decision to an extreme test: if we feel total and utter conviction to do something, then we say yes, Derekstyle. Anything less gets a thumbs down.”

Analysis: This concept gets a lot of airtime, and I think it’s because we’re all so bad at it. I would love to get better at pausing before each decision to see if it’s merely interesting, or if it’s a “Hell Yeah!” kind of idea. Turning down most things that interest me would pave the way for the truly important work I want to do.

Page 135 – Deciding to Say “NO” Hurts

“This is why, whether it’s an old friend who invites you to dinner or a boss who asks you to take on an important and high-profile project, or a neighbor who begs you to help with the PTA bake sale, the very thought of saying no literally brings us physical discomfort. We feel guilty. We don’t want to let someone down.
We are worried about damaging the relationship. But these emotions muddle our clarity. They distract us from the reality of the fact that either we can say no and regret it for a few minutes, or we can say yes and regret it for days, weeks, months, or even years.”

Analysis: Saying “No” has always been hard for me because I don’t like hurting people that I care about. However, if I consider the long run, saying “yes” and failing hurts them more.

Page 146 – Learn to Ignore Sunk-Costs

“Sunk-cost bias is the tendency to continue to invest time, money, or energy into something we know is a losing proposition simply because we have already incurred, or sunk, a cost that cannot be recouped. But of course this can easily become a vicious cycle: the more we invest, the more determined we become to see it through harder it is to let go.”

Analysis: It’s hard to walk away from something I’ve committed time and money towards. I recently turned off a business called Highlightish, despite a ridiculous amount of time and cost because I couldn’t compete with similar software companies. I’m glad I walked away. My head is clearer, and I’ve stopped losing money on it.

Page 148 – The Endowment Effect

“A sense of ownership is a powerful thing. As the saying goes, nobody in the history of the world has washed their rental car! This is because of something called “the endowment effect,” our tendency to undervalue things that aren’t ours and to overvalue things because we already own them.”

Analysis: When deciding what to toss and what to keep in my life, ownership shouldn’t matter. What should matter is its effect on my life, the true cost of maintaining it, and the value it brings.

Page 149 – What Would I Pay?

“Tom Stafford describes a simple antidote to the endowment effect. Instead of asking, “How much do I value this item?” we should ask, If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?” We can do the same for opportunities and commitment. Don’t ask, “How will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity?” but rather, “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?” Similarly, we can ask, “If I wasn’t already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?””

Analysis: This is a great suggestion, although hard to be honest about. Next time I’m trying to value something in my life, I need to consider what I would pay for the thing, business, etc. assuming I had never heard of it until that moment in time.


Page 94 – Make Sleep More Important

“The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies, and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution. One of the most common ways people-especially ambitious, successful people-damage this asset is through a lack of sleep.”

Analysis: I feel like sleep is becoming a more valued commodity, but for a while, it was a badge of honor to say that you only got a few hours of sleep a night. People would say things like, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Now that we’re all burned out, we’re realizing that a solid eight hours at night is a non-negotiable.

Project Management

Page 190 – What Does “Done” Look Like?

“We can’t know what obstacles to remove until we are clear on the desired outcome. When we don’t know what we’re really trying to achieve, all change is arbitrary. So ask yourself, “How will we know when we are done?””

Analysis: Great advice here. When I get started on a project, I often lose sight of the initial goal and work my way into random corners. By defining what the project looks like when it’s done, I can stay on track. In this passage, the author suggests that as an Essentialist chopping away the “unnecessary,” you need to have “done” defined so that you don’t cut away something important.

Page 190 – Think Before Starting a Project

“Instead of just jumping into the project, take a few minutes to think. Ask yourself, “What are all the obstacles standing between me and getting this done?” and “What is keeping me from completing this?” Make a list of these obstacles. They might include: not having the information you need, your energy level, your desire for perfection. Prioritize the list using the question, “What is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?”

Analysis: I’m an excitable guy. When I start a new project, the last thing I want to do is hit pause and do some thinking. I’ve been trained over the years to build the airplane as it’s flying. But how many times has that bit me in the ass? Too many. I needed to hear this. I’d like to get better at adding space in between discovering a new idea and launching it. Within that space, I need to think about the realities of the project.

Page 196 – Daily Progress Over Huge Leaps

“When we want to create major change we often think we need to lead with something huge or grandiose, like the executive I knew who announced with great fanfare that he had decided to build his daughters an elaborate dollhouse-but then, because his visions for it were so large and ambitious, abandoned the project as too burdensome. There is an appealing logic to this: that to do something big we have to start big. However, just think of all of the “big,” hyped-up initiatives in organizations that never ended up amounting to anything-just like that executive’s dollhouse.

Research has shown that of all forms of human motivation the most effective one is progress. Why? Because a small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.”

Analysis: This reminds me of Atomic Habits by James Clear who teaches that we don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems. We need a way of implementing small, daily progress that adds up over time rather than jumping off a cliff and hoping that we grow some wings.

Page 205 – Build a Progress Habit

“The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position. Yes, in some instances an Essentialist still has to work hard, but with the right routine in place each effort yields exponentially greater results.”

Analysis: This is the second major takeaway for me. If I can identify my outcome and then break that down into a small daily habit that will add up like an investment account, I’ll win and enjoy the ride. This practice keeps me going despite my level of motivation and will-power.

Page 206 – Build a Routine for the Essentials

“Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles. Without routine, the pull of nonessential distractions will overpower us. But if we create a routine that enshrines the essentials, we will begin to execute them on autopilot. Instead of our consciously pursuing the essential, it will happen without our having to think about it. We won’t have to expend precious energy every day prioritizing everything. We must simply expend a small amount of initial energy to create the routine, and then all that is left to do is follow it.”

Analysis: This is similar to the last idea of building a habit for daily progress. I joust liked the wording here about enshrining the essentials in a daily routine.

Time Management

Page 7 – You Can’t Do It All

“The way of the Essentialist rejects the idea that we can fit it all in. Instead it requires us to grapple with real trade-offs and make tough decisions. In many cases we can learn to make one-time decisions that make a thousand future decisions so we don’t exhaust ourselves asking the same questions again and again.”

Analysis: This idea reminds me of a book called, Four Thousand Weeks Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman which is that your mortal, have finite amounts of time, and need to realize that you can’t do it all. Once you’ve come to that realization, you can get down to the real work of focusing on what matters.

Page 16 – The Definition of a Priority

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things.”

Analysis: This is one of the key takeaways from this book for me. Until this moment, I never realized that I had multiple priorities, and that I had rationalized that as normal. Be definition, there can only be one priority. Trying to figure out what that is each day has been hard for me, because it feels so limiting. I also struggle with accepting that many things may not get my attention.


Essentialism is a good book. While not groundbreaking in what it presents, I think it has legs because it attacks the very thing we’re all bad at – prioritizing what’s essential. We stink at it. We’re pulled in hundreds of directions, can’t say “no” to loved ones, and say “yes” to way too many interesting ideas.

We’re living in a culture of more. Everyone is hustling with very little to show for it other than a tired and aching body. The key ideas in this book are enough to make it a keeper. In a distilled form, this work can be summed up as follow: To do more of what matters, do less of what doesn’t matter.

Easier said than done.