Essentialism | Greg McKeown | Notes

In Depth Notes

This post contains all the notes I’ve taken from the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown.
These notes would help you get an idea of what the book advocates and is in no way a substitute to the knowledge to be gained from the book.
This post would help you take away ideas and actionables which you can imbibe into your lifestyle from this moment.
I hope you could participate in the Survey below to help me provide a better experience to you!

  • The major idea of essentialism can be boiled down to “Do less, but better” to find satisfaction in what you do. To make the work you do much more meaningful.
  • Saying, “No” would give space to a lot work you can deal with. Also, usually people begin to respect you more for the refusal and not less, for the honestly. People will see the value in what you are doing, of which you would be doing a great job as you have made time to work on what is essential and chuck the non essential out and hence improving the quality of work.
  • Being selective may seem self indulgent, but over time it gives space for creative freedom and better solutions as one can think better. One can concentrate all efforts at one project at a time and make the best out of it.
  • “Instead of getting everything done or more things done, essentialism is about getting the right thing done. People would respect and value your work more than ever. An Essentialist deliberately distinguishes from the vital few from the trivial many.

Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to it all, to stop saying yes to everyone,can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.

  • To whom this book is useful- To those who feel overworked and underutilised, to those who feel busy but not productive, to those who are always in motion but not really getting anywhere.
  • Why this book- Show a way to live life true to yourself and not the life others expect from you. (Reminds me of Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl)
  • A disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

Part 1: Essence

  • Essentialists explore more options than non essentialists do as they say yes to everything without exploring.
  • How? Right thing, right time and right reason.
  • Ask- What do I feel deeply inspired by? What am I talented at? What needs a significant need in the world?
  • This section has the following tasks.


  • There is a difference between options and choice. Options are external factors, but the right to choose is ours and ours alone. It is internal.
  • We may not always have control over the options we have, but we do have always have control over what we choose amongst them. This mindset needs to be assimilated.

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

  • How do we forget to choose? Learned Helplessness– People forget the fact that they can have a choice even in situations where they can choose based on previous history or the current situation. Link for future reference –
  • Eg- When an elephant trainer starts working with a baby elephant, he or she will use a rope to tie one of the elephant’s legs to a post. The elephant will struggle for hours, even days, trying to escape the rope, but eventually, it will quiet down and accept its range of motion (Wu, 2009). When the elephant grows up, it will be more than strong enough to break the rope, but it won’t even try—it’s been taught that any kind of struggle is useless.

My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will

William James


  • Not all types of efforts have the same rewards. Someone who studies hard everyday may not ace a test while those who do study smart do so easily. The difference is not the time or amount of work put in. But the type of work.
  • The Pareto Principle – 80% of our results are due to 20% of our work.
  • Sometimes what you don’t do is as important as what you do. This gives opportunity to you to look ahead towards larger endaevours.
  • Eg Warren Buffet. Did not invest in many good ones but placed high bets of few essential investments.
  • Power Law – Some efforts produce exponentially more results than others.

An essentialist thinks almost everything is nonessential. A Non-essentialist thinks almost everything is essential.

  • Essentialists learn to tell the difference between what is truly essential and everything else.


  • Trading off is not easy yet crucial in the way of an essentialist.
  • Saying Yes to any opportunity by definition requires saying No to others. The concept is that the time we have is limited and understand that we cannot do everything. Remember, Less but More.
  • How to Tradeoff? It is important to build boundaries (and stick to them) and Define the boundaries.
  • Tradeoffs enable a clearer sense of what is most essential and vice versa.
  • Tradeoffs allow us to strategically select the best problems we want allowing us to explore deeper and in turn, achieving the outcome we want.
  • Instead of “What do I have to give up” , ask “What do I want to go big on?”

Part 2: Explore

The purpose of exploring is to discern the Vital few from the trivial many. The section has the following tasks.


  • By default we will not have any time to escape in order to discern the vital few from the trivial many. We need to design out lives in a way. That is where Tradeoffs come in place. To make time for what we need. Eg: No work on Sundays and spend time with family if you choose to tradeoff the unnecessary works the boss dumps on you and spend time with your family.
  • Escaping everyday helps one relax and gain perspective. The brain needs still time to process the barrage of information that comes across it.
  • N-Es react to all ideas and opportunities, the latest email, the fascinating new phone advertisement they saw on the TV. But Essetialists escape, take time off and contemplate over which things are essential to work on.
  • By abolishing any chance of of being bored we have also lost time we could use to think and process.
  • Creating a separate space physically allows one to get into the flow and move out of all unnecessary chatter and focus and concentrate to ponder and refresh oneself.
  • Making space for yourself doesn’t have to be huge events like Jared Leto’s 12 day meditation break. Investing two hours a day or two weeks a year or ten mins a day makes a huge difference. But ensure you focus only on discerning and pondering during that time with no disctractions around (most likely the device you are reading this in, is a distraction)


  • This is important. One must not only read and take in information. One must learn to find the wisdom between the lines. It is about figuring out the point of the information you have at hand. In every set of facts, something essential is hidden.
  • Keep a Journal: This helps you dump your thoughts anytime. Make time to review the journal frequently, daily, weekly or monthly (You would have to make time to Escape). Read through it. Figure out common trends in thoughts. This is a goldmine to figure out what is truly essential to you.
  • Instead of reacting to the facts, try focussing on issues that really matter.
  • Get out into the field: Go out and explore the option in depth to understand the underlying challenge hidden from the surface level
  • Keep an eye for abnormal or unusual details or absense of details. Role plays are a great way to understand the issues in depth.


Play, which I would define anything we do simply for the joy of doing rather than as a means to an end.

  • Play is essential as it sparks exploration
  • Play destresses one and allows creativity to come in. Creativity doesn’t just have to be paintings or new songs. Creativity is what allows you to find unique solutions to a problem you are tackling.
  • Play involves careful, logical reasoning and carefree, unbound exploration.

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


  • This part of the book resonates with what was learnt from Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep.
  • Sleep improves the quality of work we can achieve when compared to that of a sleep deprived brain. It allows high levels of contribution.
  • If you consider your Brain to be an asset, then Sleep is a means to protect the asset. Sleep clears out the waste generated by the brain and ensures better retention and better thinking capabilities.
  • Here are 12 Ways to improve your sleep hygiene.


  • This uses the concept of Derek Sivers’s “HELL YEAH, or No” which he mentioned in his book Anything you Want.
  • When you feel with total conviction to get on a project, say Yes to it. Anything less than that is a no. Anything you are not convinced of doing entirely, treat it as a No.
  • The 90% Rule: Make a set of markers that you need to ensure you go ahead with a project. Write down a set of rules as a bar for a project to qualify as essential to you. If a project passes 90% of the criteria, Go ahead and Do it. If anything is around 70-80%, try delegating it. The rest, chuck them.

Make Decisions as a design, rather than default

  • Making our criteria explicit is a tool that allows us to discern what is essential and helps filter out what isn’t.
  • Ask 3 questions: “What am I most passionate about?” “Does it align with my talents?” “Does it have value to me and to the world?”

Part 3: Eliminate

It’s not enough just to pioritise activities that allows you to contribute the highest but also eliminate all those activities that are trivial and those that cause friction.

We may find many things in our lives to be essential as we already have them. Instead ask, “If I didn’t have the xyz opportunity, what would I be willing to to do to get it?”

This section has the following:


  • To actually do what you are supposed to be doing you have to have a clarity of your purpose in the first place.
  • You must move from Pretty clear to Really Clear whether it is your personal or professional life.

Without Clarity of purpose, pursuing something because it is good is not good enough to make a high level of contribution.

  • Don’t just jump ship the moment something comes by. Select it carefully as mentioned above.
  • Ensure you have an Essential Intent which is to have a concrete and inspirational strategy which is at the core of the work allowing you to eliminate many other decisions.
  • Ask yourself if there were anything you would truly want to excel in, what would it be?


  • This is perhaps one of the toughest things to do. You need to muster up the courage to say NO.

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

Stephen R. Covey
  • The emotions behind saying No would lead us astray. It is either say no and regret for a few minutes, or say yes and regret it for days, weeks months or your lifetime. But don’t be brash. Select and clarify before you say no. Take a breath and evaluate things. Only then say, No. Say Yes, to only the things that matter. Remember the 90% rule.
  • Remember that in the beginning everyone is a novice at saying “No”. Once we begin to learn the basics, it becomes a skill.


Half the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough

Josh Billings
  • Sunk cost bias is when we invest even more in a losing proposition in hopes that we can revive it and also the fact that we have already invested in it. Becomes a vicious cycle.
  • An Essentialist has the courage to admit the errors and uncommit, no matter the sunk costs. The time gained can be used for a different project which may actually work.
  • “If I weren’t invested already, how much would I invest in this?” Look at it as a third person. “What else could I do with the time and money I save from not investing any further?”
  • We overvalue what we own and are invested in.
  • Pretend you don’t own something (project, objects, commitments)
  • Get a neutral second opinion.
  • Apply Zero-based budgeting. Don’t verify last year’s budget (money, time, resources, energy) for the next year. Or historical data. Look in the other direction. How much is needed for this year. This allocated resources on basis of need rather than history.
  • Stop making casual commitments. Stop, clarify, select and only then accept based on 90% rule.
  • Try to get over FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out.


Deliberately subtract in order to bring more time and money and resources and lesser distractions from what really matter.


  • Making an exception once would mean it could be done again and again. That counters the entire reason to set limits and trade-offs.
  • Not always does someone need your assistance for a problem. They want the issue to be solved, doesn’t have to be you. Unless their ask passes the 90% rule, and the “Hell Yeah, or No” rule… it’s a No. You can refer them to someone else who can solve it though. Improves their respect for you though.
  • Don’t always be the to-go person. Sometimes people need to figure out to solve problems on their own to learn and automate the process. If all you are doing is putting off fires, you would be missing out on the big picture. Forcing people to solve their own problem is beneficial for them and also for you.
  • Keep your boundaries strong. Have clarity.
  • Make social contracts with people you need to depend on before the project. Set expectations of their interests and boundaries as well as yours so that everyone is on the same page as to what one will do and won’t.

Part 4: Execute

It isn’t about doing things to become an essentialist. It is something you must be. The mindset must be right and things fall in place over time.


  • This is by far one of the major reasons to fall back on the commitments we make. We do not keep time for Buffer, or not enough time for buffer. Buffer ensures two things don’t happen at the same time.
  • We grossly underestimate the time it takes to do a project for many reasons such as personal ego, social pressure etc.
  • Extreme prep for a project is needed over a large amount of time to ensure the number of hiccups may be reduced or better preempt possible issues that may arise and be able to have better estimates to plan buffer times.
  • Add 50% time/resources to your estimate.
  • Ask 5 questions
    • What risks would one face during the project?
    • What would be the worst case scenario?
    • What would be the social repercussions of it?
    • What would be the financial impact of it?
    • How to invest to reduce the rick or strengthen financial or social resilience?


  • Constraints hold back the progress. A personal analogy of mine would be this. One wishes to move between two spots fast. Walking is the slowest, so the person begins to run. After this increasing speed becomes a huge issue. Buying better shoes, waxing all the hair off the body, better diet etc, will increase the speed only so much. Why can’t one increase the speed after a certain point? Friction. Running has the most friction. To increase the speed, it is important to reduce friction. Put wheels on the shoes (Skates) one automatically levels up and has the ability to move faster, or use a cycle! The the things one does to increase the speed, just adds more value when constraints and friction are reduced.
  • How to reduce obstacles?
    • Be clear about essential intent.
    • Identify the things that slow us down.
    • Remove that obstacle. Perhaps being overambitious is an obstacle in itself.


  • Instead of starting big and getting small results and being demotivated, an Essentialist starts small which compound to get big results and celebrates the small acts of progress.
  • “Done is better than Perfect” in our dream to make things perfect, we may not be able to get anything done in time or when required.
  • Take a goal and the deadline and ask, “What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?”
  • Reward yourself for each small victory.


An essentialist designs a routine that enshrines what is essential, making execution effortless. Makes the essential the default position.

  • Begin routines.
  • How to get into a flow state, a habit or a routine? ( The book Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg goes into great depth about it and personally recommend reading it)
    • Identify the trigger for the habit you want to chuck, or take up? Use existing triggers (easier) or put new ones.
    • Do the most difficult thing first.
    • Don’t have to succumb to monotony. Routines don’t have to be daily. They can be recurring on a weekly basis as well. Slight mix ups are okay as long as you have clarity and know what is essential.
    • Don’t change everything in your life at ones. Tackle them one after another. Small victories. Changing a habit isn’t easy. Trying to change all habits at once may be overwhelming. As seen in the previous section, Progress. Go for small steps that compound to huge wins.


  • There is only the now. Focus completely on what you are doing now instead of getting stuck in a History rewind or get bogged down with the possibilities of the future.
  • Don’t be preoccupied with past successes and failures. Remember? Zero Based Budgeting in the Uncommit section.
  • How?
    • Don’t multitask.
    • Figure out what is most important now.
    • Get the future out of your head.
    • Prioritize
    • Take breaks to refresh. Ensure you have buffers to rejuvenate yourself.


  • Essentialism isn’t something you do rather it is something you are.
  • Remember Less, but better.
  • Being an essentialist is not about achieving success. It is about finding meaning in life. (The book very much resonates with Viktor E Frankl’s Man’s search for Meaning)
  • Write down your boundaries and have clarity as to what is essential.
  • It is a choice you have. Live your life as a design, rather than default. Else others have the power to choose things for you.

I hope this post would’ve given you insights into the ideas of the book and allowed you to take back and work on these aspects in your lives. If you wish a downloadable PDF version of this post, just mail me at or drop in a query Here.

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