This Book is For:
*People who want to make the most astounding progress possible in what's important to them, without becoming distracted by lesser goals that steer them away from their higher purpose
*Businesspeople who are overwhelmed with minutiae and busywork, and who want to stop majoring in minor things
*Anyone who feels directionless in life, and who wants instead to begin clarifying for themselves what is ultimately important
*People who want a simple, effective way to discover what's most valuable, what to focus on, and how to prioritize their most important work
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
The main thrust of Essentialism (both the book and the idea itself) is that almost everything is completely worthless.
Discerning the "vital few" from the "trivial many" is going to be one of the most in-demand skills in the economy of the future, and those who can do this well are going to reap the majority of the rewards and experience the highest possible meaning in their lives, while the rest of us are drowning in distraction.
If it's true that most things don't mean anything, it can also be said that life is a patient search for what does mean something.
What's truly essential in life is hidden amid all the mess and confusion of modern life, and once you do discover what is essential, it's then time to go all-in. That's what McKeown's book can help you do.
We can get almost anything we want in life, but not everything, and we need to be disciplined in our pursuit of "less, but better," as McKeown puts it. As he explains, the word priority originally entered the English language in the 1400s, when it meant "the very first thing." It was only in the 20th century that we manufactured the plural form priorities - as if we could bend reality by manipulating language. As if there could be any more than just one "first thing."
The philosophy of Essentialism, by contrast, is not about how to get more done, but rather it's about getting the right things done. Doing fewer things, but at a much higher quality and level of investment. Less, but better.
Importantly, an Essentialist is something you are, rather than something you just do occasionally. It's an operating system, a way of moving through the world, refining your goals, aims, and areas of focus, and eliminating everything that doesn't help serve your highest purpose in this life.
One of the most famous Essentialists in history, Michelangelo, once said that he "saw the angel in the marble and carved until he set him free." In a similar way, we are the sculptors of our own lives, the creators of our own meaning.
The perfect form of our lives is hidden inside the marble of all the distractions, detours, and trivialities of the modern world, and we have to be artists; we have to be disciplined in carving away everything that's stealing our time, focus, and attention away from what we want our one and only lives to be about. As the French writer, poet, and pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupery said:
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
#1: Only a Few Things Actually Matter
“The overwhelming reality is: we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable."
The 80/20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs, or efforts usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs, or rewards. Crucially, however, this doesn't just apply to economics or business; it also applies to the meaning of our entire lives and what we choose to do with them.
Especially in the internet age, where there are billions upon billions of web pages, streaming services, news sites, and more all vying for our limited attention, what we should pay attention to is becoming harder to discern, and the noise-to-signal ratio is becoming ever more skewed to the side of noise.
Within that whole mess, we lose sight of what actually matters, if we were ever able to pinpoint it at all. The 80/20 Principle (also called the Pareto Principle), when applied to meaning, could reasonably be stated as 1% of all the things we could be doing will be responsible for 99% of the value of our lives.
But because it's so much easier today for people and organizations to reach us with their opinions about what we should be doing with our lives and attention, it's getting harder and harder to find that signal in the middle of all that noise. There are just too many things in the world.
Recognizing the reality of this is the first step toward becoming an Essentialist.
Essentialists, by definition, focus their limited time and attention on the activities and pursuits that are going to yield the most meaning, the highest rewards, and the largest returns on investment. They know that almost everything doesn't mean anything, but they also know that there are still a large number of valuable things that are drowned out by all this inconsequential nonsense.
Even though, statistically, almost nothing matters, Essentialists realize that there are things out there that matter an exceptional amount, and it's their job to explore widely enough in order to find them. As leadership expert Kenneth Maxwell states:
“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”
#2: Do Less, But Do It Better
“Ask the more essential question that will inform every future decision you will ever make: 'If I could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?'"
If you have more than three priorities, it means that you really don't have any. As the old saying goes, "Chase two rabbits, and lose them both." So when we overload ourselves by trying to do too many things, the quality of our attention and craftsmanship, and care is going to decline exponentially.
We're making a little bit of progress in a thousand different directions, but when we look down, we discover that we're still standing in the same place.
Essentialism is the antidote for this, and specifically focus on doing "less, but better." Choose something to go big on, or at most just a few things, and hammer away at just those things. In doing so, maybe we give up the reputation of being "well-rounded," but we give ourselves the greater gift of mastery in a pursuit that actually matters to us more than everything else.
In order to do this effectively, we have to block out almost everything else. Greg McKeown uses different examples in the book, but I love the story of Will Smith, as told in his autobiography, Will.
Will Smith doesn't know how to drive. I'll let that sink in for just a moment. He also doesn't know how to cook, do laundry, or any number of other things that most adults over the age of 16 most likely know how to do. The reason for this is that cooking and driving are not the things that Will Smith has a reasonable chance of being the best in the world at. They aren't his core competencies.
Will Smith is an Essentialist, because he realizes that he can make more meaningful progress to an incredibly valuable goal - becoming the world's greatest actor - by delegating those kinds of tasks to other people, rather than trying to do it all himself.
Now, obviously, it's easy for me to say, "Simple! Just pay someone to do everything for you!" But I'm not suggesting that that's likely to be most people's reality - and that's okay. The larger point is that once you find your ONE Thing, you need to do everything you possibly can - you need to stack the probabilities in your favor - so that you can succeed at the highest level that's possible for you.
Asking the quintessential Essentialist question, "If I could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?" focuses the mind on "less, but better," and enables you to free up focus and mental bandwidth that you can then devote to what actually matters to you. It's one decision that eliminates the necessity for thousands of other decisions and gives you the freedom to go all in.
#3: You'll Never Get It All Done (So Don't Even Try)
“Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter."
As we've discussed, there are a near-infinite number of things you could do, but very few that are actually worth doing. The problem that many professionals experience, however, is that as they progress in their careers and gain access to new opportunities, it's those very opportunities that are likely to pull them off track and make them forget what it is that's actually important!
Their own success becomes their downfall, as they lose sight of what made them successful in the first place and start to stretch themselves thin while thinking they can do it all. They focus on just a few things at the beginning of their careers, and that makes them very successful, but then that very success leads them to lose that focus and start to drop the ball.
Not only that, but it's one of the paradoxes of productivity that, as you gain a reputation as being very efficient, more people make demands upon your time, reducing your productivity. If people find out that you're very quick to respond to emails, you'll receive more emails. If the boss discovers that the tasks they give you will be done quickly and efficiently, they'll end up loading you up with more work.
There's this pervasive myth that says that we can have it all and do it all and be it all, but hardly anyone ever takes a step back, surveys the damage that such thinking causes, and say out loud, "This is crazy!"
Again, it's all about doing less, but better. I'll pass it to McKeown once again:
“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it's about how to get the right things done. It doesn't mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential."
#4: The 90% Rule
“As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100.
If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it. This way you avoid getting caught up in indecision, or worse, getting stuck with the 60s or 70s.
Think about how you'd feel if you scored a 65 on some test. Why would you deliberately choose to feel that way about an important choice in your life?"
We always retain the power of choice, and we must exercise that power and keep it strong. As they say, the ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away - it can only be forgotten.
But in order to help us choose, we need to learn how to utilize extremely selective (and explicit) criteria that will help us make the best possible choices. An incredibly useful framework here is the 90% Rule, as well as Derek Sivers' test: It's either a "Hell, yeah!" or it's a "No!"
The 90% Rule is explained in the quote above, but we'll explore a specific example to help clarify it. We'll also add selective criteria to help make the choice even easier.
Let's say that we have a choice between moving to New York City or Los Angeles. For simplicity's sake, those are the only two options and you have to choose one, perhaps for a job offer in each city, or what have you.
What you would do first is to list the three most critical things that each city would have to have in order for you to enjoy living there; the minimum that each city must meet in three areas to make you feel as though you're making the right choice.
Then what you'll do is select three ideal criteria that you want that choice to meet. Three things that you would love about your choice, that would make it next to perfect.
Finally, when deciding which job offer to accept, you pick the city that meets all of the minimum requirements and at least two of the ideal requirements.
Your final choice may not be perfect - and that's okay. You could agonize for years over which city and job would be absolutely perfect for you without ever making a decision, but even deciding not to make a decision is to make a decision not to choose. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, "We are condemned to be free."
But just like the philosophy of existentialism in general, the emphasis here is on our individual power of choice, and the vital importance of never relinquishing that choice. Trade-offs are a reality of life, but so is the necessity of choosing.
"By definition, applying highly selective criteria is a trade-off; sometimes you will have to turn down a seemingly very good option and have faith that the perfect option will soon come along.
Sometimes it will, and sometimes it won't, but the point is that the very act of applying selective criteria forces you to choose which perfect option to wait for, rather than letting other people, or the universe, choose for you. Like any Essentialist skill, it forces you to make decisions by design, rather than default."
#5: Accept the Reality of Trade-Offs
“Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, 'What do I have to give up?' they ask, 'What do I want to go big on?' The cumulative impact of this small change in thinking can be profound."
You can do almost anything you want to in life, but you can't do everything. Life involves trade-offs, and although we can fight and kick and rebel against them, we can never pretend they don't exist.
Saying yes to something means that you're in effect saying "no" to every other thing you could possibly be doing, and that's simply a reality of life. In the book, Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman discusses this idea in-depth and reminds us that it's not just about saying no to things we don't want to do; it's also about rejecting options that are actually things we would love to do.
Eliminating the inessential is key, but there's never going to be enough time to do everything that we want to do.
For example, there are millions of good books out there (and at least a few thousand great ones, I think), but we're never going to get the chance to read all of them. Every book we decide to read means that we're not reading every single other book that's ever been written.
There's no easy answer or "fix" that we can apply to alter the reality of trade-offs. Believe me, I've tried! I've done my fair share of kicking and rebelling against the idea of not being able to read everything! But the best answer I've been able to come up with is to make the best possible choice we can in the moment and then commit wholeheartedly to that choice. Don't think about the attractiveness of all those unread books; think about the awesome, revelatory power of this book that you've chosen.
The same applies to careers, relationships, and even sports. You can drive yourself crazy thinking about how your life would turn out differently if you chose one career over another, but once you've applied the extremely selective criteria (Key Idea above) and you've committed to your choice, the only sensible thing to do is to pour yourself into the mastery of this career, this endeavor, and see how far you can go.
Dealing with trade-offs and eliminating the inessentials isn't something you do occasionally, either. It's a system; it's not something that you do, but rather something that you are.
"Essentialism is about creating a system for handling the closet of our lives. This is not a process you undertake once a year, once a month, or even once a week, like organizing your closet.
It is a discipline you apply each and every time you are faced with a decision about whether to say yes or whether to politely decline. It's a method for making the tough tradeoffs between lots of good things and a few really great things.
It's about learning how to do less but better so you can achieve the highest possible return on every precious moment of your life."
#6: Protect the Asset
“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."
If you don't take care of your body, where will you live? Seriously, everything that you experience, feel, perceive, and do is made possible by the body that you possess (the only body you will ever have), and you need to do everything possible to keep it running at peak efficiency.
Pick your analogy here - racecar, racehorse, etc. - but you only get one, and you are responsible for all the maintenance. The grumpy philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that 'a healthy beggar is happier than an ailing king,' and that is exactly right. Finding out what's essential and committing yourself to maximize your contribution in just that one area means nothing if you don't have the energy and the vitality and the heart to leap out of bed and face the day.
Your health allows you to do everything else, so it's critically important to get this right. Literally, nothing is more important than this. It's not being selfish either, because there's just no way that you can serve others at your highest level if you're not at your best. You wouldn't fill up a racecar with cheap gas, and you wouldn't feed McDonald's hamburgers to a racehorse, so why would you treat yourself any worse?
In the book, Die with Zero, Bill Perkins makes the excellent point that many people spend all their time making money until they get to a point where they've driven themselves so hard and for so long that they have to spend all their money in order to revive their health! It makes zero sense to do that to yourself, especially since it's entirely possible that there will come a time that your health is too far gone for any amount of money to be able to bring you back to health.
I don't have the space here to go into detailed health recommendations - although this book could certainly help - but most of the best health advice out there comes down to...you guessed it...the essentials!
It's about eating less and moving more. Drinking lots of water. Getting enough sleep. Leaving space and time to play and enjoy yourself and connect with friends and family. You know, the things that make life worth living in the first place!
#7: Minimum Viable Progress
“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work."
There's a business term called the "minimum viable product,' which serves to shorten the amount of time from an idea to execution so that the company can get real feedback from customers and then move on from there, improving as they go along, making their product better and better.
The idea is, "What is the simplest possible product that will be useful and valuable to the intended customer?"
We've done the same thing here with the Stairway to Wisdom, where the earliest book breakdowns were "good enough," and then we went on from there, gaining critical feedback and improving the quality as we went, instead of being stuck at the pre-launch phase, spinning our wheels.
Well, we can adopt the very same idea for our lives. We can ask ourselves, "What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?" Call it "minimum viable progress," which is, of course, the real MVP.
Human beings are incredibly motivated by making meaningful progress toward a worthy aim, and if you can set up a bunch of these "small wins" for yourself as you go along, you will tap into an amazing source of energy and drive.
You need to "catch yourself succeeding," even in very small ways, and then reward yourself for doing so. If something feels good we're more likely to do it, so if you reward yourself (in a healthy way) for doing something you have to do, then you'll want to do more of that thing in the future.
The idea here is to break down a task or a pursuit into its smallest constituent part, do that one thing, and then reward yourself for having done it. For myself, once I finish writing something that I'm working on, I move to another room and relax with a novel and a coffee for a little while until I decide that it's time to get back to work. This works for damn-near everything, and as McKeown says:
“When we start small and reward progress, we end up achieving more than when we set big, lofty, and often impossible goals. And as a bonus, the act of positively reinforcing our successes allows us to reap more enjoyment and satisfaction out of the process."
#8: The Transformational Power of Regret
“Years from now (hopefully many), when you are at the end of your life, you may still have regrets. But seeing the way of the Essentialist is unlikely to be one of them.
What would you trade then to be back here now for one chance - this chance - to be true to yourself?
On that day, what will you hope you decided to do on this one? If you are ready to look inside yourself for the answer to this question, then you are ready to set out on the path of the Essentialist."
Regret is the ultimate pain. I almost literally could not imagine anything worse than looking back on my life and realizing that I didn't do my absolute best - that I could have tried harder, chosen better, had more, and given more.
I never, ever want to get to the point where it's all over for me and I see that I let life slip through my fingers while I had the chance.
But since that day seems so far away, or even like it will never happen - especially to younger people - we always think that we have more time, that we can get to the important stuff later (hint: there is no later), and that our Future Self will somehow figure it out.
Well, as Homer Simpson said, "That's a problem for 'Future Homer.' Man, I don't envy that guy!'
Don't leave such massively important existential questions for your Future Homer to figure out. Address them today. Now.
As I'm typing this, it's a gorgeous summer day in Canada, I've just finished a wonderful supper with my mom and dad, and I'm sitting here with a warm coffee and great tunes, writing something that's hopefully going to make a big impact on you and help you lead a better life. I'm not doing anything else except what I believe to be the most important thing I could be doing in this moment, and it feels...right. It feels like I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.
But now I want to talk about you.
Wherever you are, whoever you're with, whatever you're doing...imagine what your Future Self would want more than anything in the universe for you to do right now. And then go do that. Now. Without delay, and with overwhelming confidence and force. Like your life depends on it, because it does.
Lastly, I want you to imagine your Future Self and ask yourself, "What would you give just to be back here, in this exact moment in time, with this chance that I have now?"
#9: A Brief Story About a True Essentialist Hero
“A woman named Cynthia once told me a story about the time her father had made plans to take her on a night out in San Francisco. Twelve-year-old Cynthia and her father had been planning the 'date' for months.
They had a whole itinerary planned down to the minute: she would attend the last hour of his presentation, and then meet him at the back of the room at about four-thirty and leave quickly before everyone tried to talk to him. They would catch a trolley car to Chinatown, eat Chinese food (their favorite), shop for a souvenir, see the sights for a while and then 'catch a flick,' as her dad liked to say. Then they would grab a taxi back to the hotel, jump in the pool for a quick swim (her dad was famous for sneaking in when the pool was closed), order a hot fudge sundae from room service, and watch the late, late show. They discussed the details over and over before they left. The anticipation was part of the whole experience.
This was all going according to plan until, as her father was leaving the convention center, he ran into an old college friend and business associate. It had been years since they had seen each other, and Cynthia watched as they embraced enthusiastically.
His friend said, in effect, 'I am so glad you are doing some work with our company now. When Lois and I heard about it we thought it would be perfect. We want to invite you, and of course, Cynthia, to get a spectacular seafood dinner down at the Wharf!' Cynthia's father responded: 'Bob, it's so great to see you. Dinner at the Wharf sounds great!'
Cynthia was crestfallen. Her daydreams of trolley rides and ice cream sundaes evaporated in an instant. Plus, she hated seafood and she could just imagine how bored she would be listening to the adults talk all night.
But then her father continued: 'But not tonight. Cynthia and I have a special date planned, don't we?' He winked at Cynthia and grabbed her hand and they ran out of the door and continued with what was an unforgettable night in San Francisco.
As it happens, Cynthia's father was the management thinker Stephen R. Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), who had passed away only weeks before Cynthia told me this story. So it was with deep emotion she recalled that evening in San Francisco. His simple decision 'Bonded him to me forever because I knew what mattered most to him was me!' she said.
Stephen R. Covey, one of the most respected and widely read business thinkers of his generation, was an Essentialist. Not only did he routinely teach Essentialist principles - like 'The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing' - to important leaders and heads of state around the world, he lived them. And in this moment of living them with his daughter, he made a memory that literally outlasted his lifetime."
“The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials."
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
"In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time - literally - substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it."
“Technology has lowered the barrier for others to share their opinion about what we should be focusing on. It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload."
“The idea that we can have it all and do it all is not new. This myth has been peddled for so long, that I believe virtually everyone alive today is infected with it. It is sold in advertising. It is championed in corporations. It is embedded in job descriptions that provide huge lists of required skills and experience as standard. It is embedded in university applications that require dozens of extracurricular activities.
What is new is how especially damaging this myth is today, in a time when choice and expectations have increased exponentially. It results in stressed people trying to cram yet more activities into their already over-scheduled lives. It creates corporate environments that talk about work/life balance but still expect their employees to be on their smartphones 24/7/365. It leads to staff meetings where as many as ten 'top priorities' are discussed with no sense of irony at all."
"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."
“What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead, we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?"
“Make a commitment to make room to enjoy the essential. Do you think for one second you will regret such a decision? Is it at all likely you will wake up one day and say, 'I wish I had been less true to myself and had done all the nonessential things others expected of me?'"
“Essentialism is not a way to do one more thing; it is a different way of doing everything."
“Most of what exists in the universe - our actions, and all other forces, resources, and ideas - has little value and yields little result; on the other hand, a few things work fantastically well and have tremendous impact."
“Warren decided early in his career it would be impossible for him to make hundreds of right investment decisions, so he decided that he would invest only in the businesses that he was absolutely sure of, and then bet heavily on them. He owes 90% of his wealth to just ten investments. Sometimes what you don't do is just as important as what you do."
“One paradox of Essentialism is that Essentialists actually explore more options than their Nonessentialist counterparts. Nonessentialists get excited by virtually everything and thus react to everything. But because they are so busy pursuing every opportunity and idea they actually explore less.
The way of the Essentialist, on the other hand, is to explore and evaluate a broad set of options before committing to any. Because Essentialists will commit and 'go big' on only the vital few ideas or activities, they explore more options at first to ensure they pick the right one later."
“Without great solitude no serious work is possible."
“While there are clearly people who can survive on fewer hours of sleep, I've found that most of them are just so used to being tired they have forgotten what it really feels like to be fully rested.
The way of the Nonessentialist is to see sleep as yet another burden on one's already overextended, overcommitted, busy-but-not-always-productive life. Essentialists instead see sleep as necessary for operating at high levels of contribution more of the time. This is why they systematically and deliberately build sleep into their schedules so they can do more, achieve more, and explore more.
By 'protecting their asset,' they are able to go about their daily lives with a reserve of energy, creativity, and problem-solving ability to call upon when needed - unlike Nonessentialists, who can never know when and where they'll be hijacked by their own fatigue. Essentialists choose to do one fewer thing right now in order to do more tomorrow."
“Pulling an all-nighter (i.e., going twenty-four hours without sleep) or having a week of sleeping just four or five hours a night actually induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.1%. Think about this: we would never say, 'This person is a great worker! He's drunk all the time!' yet we continue to celebrate people who sacrifice sleep for work."
-Charles A. Czeisler, MD
“Applying tougher criteria to life's big decisions allows us to better tap into our brain's sophisticated search engine. Think of it as the difference between conducting a Google search for 'good restaurant in New York City' and 'best slice of pizza in downtown Brooklyn.' If we search for 'a good career opportunity,' our brain will serve up scores of pages to explore and work through.
Instead, why not conduct an advanced search and ask three questions: 'What am I deeply passionate about?', 'What taps my talent?', and, 'What meets a significant need in the world?'
Naturally, there won't be as many pages to view, but that is the point of the exercise. We aren't looking for a plethora of good things to do. We are looking for the one where we can make our absolutely highest point of contribution."
“If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”
“Anytime you fail to say 'no' to a nonessential, you are really saying yes by default. So once you have sufficiently explored your options, the question you should be asking yourself is not: 'What, of my list of competing priorities, should I say yes to?' Instead, ask the essential question: 'What will I say no to?' This is the question that will uncover your true priorities."
“An essential intent, on the other hand, is both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable. Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions.
It's like deciding you're going to become a doctor instead of a lawyer. One strategic choice eliminates a universe of other options and maps a course for the next five, ten, or even twenty years of your life. Once the big decision is made, all subsequent decisions come into better focus."
“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. The only way out of this trap is to learn to say no firmly, resolutely, and yet gracefully."
"Since becoming an Essentialist I have found it almost universally true that people respect and admire those with the courage of conviction to say no."
“Denying the request is not the same as denying the person.”
“The more we think about what we are giving up when we say yes to someone, the easier it is to say no.”
“A clear 'no' can be more graceful than a vague or noncommittal 'yes.'"
“Saying no is its own leadership capability. It is not just a peripheral skill. As with any ability, we start with limited experience. We are novices at 'no.' Then we learn a couple of basic techniques. We make mistakes. We learn from them. We develop more skills. We keep practicing. After a while, we have a whole repertoire available at our disposal, and in time we have gained mastery of a type of social art form. We can handle almost any request from almost anybody with grace and dignity."
"We need to learn the slow 'yes' and the quick 'no.'"
“Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough."
“There should be no shame in admitting to a mistake; after all, we really are only admitting that we are now wiser than we once were."
“Typically, when accountants allocate a budget, they use last year's budget as the baseline for the next year's projection. But with zero-based budgeting, they use zero as the baseline.
In other words, every item in the proposed budget must be justified from scratch. While this takes more effort, it has many advantages: it efficiently allocates resources on the basis of needs rather than history, it detects exaggerated budget requests, it draws attention to obsolete operations, and it encourages people to be clearer in their purpose and how their expenses align to that project.
You can apply zero-based budgeting to your own endeavors. Instead of trying to budget your time on the basis of existing commitments, assume that all bets are off. All previous commitments are gone. Then begin from scratch, asking which you would add today.
You can do this with everything from the financial obligations you have to projects you are committed to, even relationships you are in. Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether."
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."
“A good film editor makes it hard not to see what's important because she eliminates everything but the elements that absolutely need to be there."
“In a way, an editor actually adds. What I mean is that a good editor is someone who uses deliberate subtraction to actually add life to the ideas, setting, plot, and characters. Likewise, in life, disciplined editing can help add to your level of contribution. It increases your ability to focus on and give energy to the things that really matter."
“To write is human, to edit is divine.”
“I must apologize: if I had more time I would have written a shorter letter.”
“Condensing doesn’t mean doing more at once, it simply means less waste. It means lowering the ratio of words to ideas, square feet to usefulness, or effort to results. Thus to apply the principle of condensing to our lives we need to shift the ratio of activity to meaning. We need to eliminate multiple meaningless activities and replace them with one very meaningful activity."
“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day."
“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work."
“When we start small and reward progress, we end up achieving more than when we set big, lofty, and often impossible goals. And as a bonus, the act of positively reinforcing our successes allows us to reap more enjoyment and satisfaction out of the process."
“After a moment of reflection, I realized that until I knew what was important right now, what was important right now was to figure out what was important right now!"
“There are two ways of thinking about Essentialism. The first is to think of it as something you do occasionally. The second is to think of it as something you are.
In the former, Essentialism is one more thing to add to your already overstuffed life. In the latter, it is a different way - a simpler way - of doing everything. It becomes a lifestyle. It becomes an all-encompassing approach to living and leading. It becomes the essence of who we are."
“Every day it becomes more clear than the day before how the essential things are so much more important than the next most important thing in line."
“If you take one thing away from this book, I hope you will remember this: whatever decision or challenge or crossroads you face in your life, simply ask yourself, 'What is essential?' Eliminate everything else. If you are ready to look inside yourself for the answer to this question, then you are ready to commit to the way of the Essentialist."
Important Insights from Related Books:
The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller:
Thousands of years ago, Socrates said that the way to get to Mount Olympus was to make sure that every step you take is in that direction.
Instead of Mount Olympus (which was ancient Greek "Heaven" basically, where all the gods hung out), we can input our biggest goals and our most important work - what we want our lives to actually be about.
Similar sentiments have been expressed throughout history, such as in the Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Tzu more than 2,500 years ago. He's the one who said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Certainly, this idea didn't originate with Gary Keller, and it may seem strange to put the names of Socrates, Lao Tzu, and Gary together in the same sentence, but the idea of the ONE Thing is an exceptionally powerful one.
Keller argues that the key to achieving extraordinary success in life is to focus every single day, every single moment, on your ONE Thing: that one thing that, if you did it, would make everything else either easier or unnecessary, and that would propel you toward your most important goal.
The choice here is between traveling a mile in a thousand different directions, or traveling 1,000 miles in one direction.
Sample Quotes from the Book:
"What’s the ONE Thing that I can do, such that by doing it, everything else would be either easier or unnecessary?"
"Where I’d had huge success, I had narrowed my concentration to one thing, and where my success varied, my focus had too."
“The truth about success is that our ability to achieve extraordinary results in the future lies in stringing together powerful moments, one after the other. What you do in any given moment determines what you experience in the next. Your 'present now' and all 'future nows' are undeniably determined by the priority you live in the moment."
Read the Full Breakdown: The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller
Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman:
Adam Grant said that this is the most important book ever written about time management, and I’m certainly inclined to agree. In the opening pages of Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman gets things started with a jolting, yet indisputable claim:
“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short...But you? Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks.”
What's more, you’re never going to get to a point where you feel like you’re totally on top of everything. The very effort is wearing us out, stressing us out, and leading us to waste our absurdly, terrifyingly short lives on trivia and nonsense.
In Four Thousand Weeks, we're reminded that the point of managing our time - to the extent that that can be done - isn't just to "do," but to show up, fully alive, in a world that's just bursting with wonder.
Sample Quotes from the Book:
“The more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets.
But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead – and work with them, rather than against them – the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes."
“The more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use for a portion of your time.”
“The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.”
Read the Full Breakdown: Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman
The Almanack of Naval Ravikant, by Eric Jorgenson:
The "Navalmanack," as it's sometimes called, is divided into two sections: wealth and happiness. Wealth comes first because, just like in an airplane, you have to help yourself first before you'll be in the best position to help others.
But there are plenty of traps to avoid on your way to the top, as runaway desire - the hedonic treadmill - can have us pursuing all these powerful and conflicting desires and sabotaging our own happiness because we never want what we already have. We're always looking for that next thing, the one thing that's waiting for us just over the horizon and that's going to make us happy and fulfilled forever.
As Navel teaches, "one thing" inevitably leads to the next thing, and the next, and the next, and then we get to the end of our lives never having fully lived a single day.
He's very wise in pointing out that we should choose our desires carefully, as every desire is a chosen unhappiness. Whenever there's something that we want, it's because it's currently absent from our life, causing us pain. If we let these desires run circles around us, we'll never have peace.
Sample Quotes from the Book:
“What making money will do is solve your money problems. It will remove a set of things that could get in the way of being happy, but it is not going to make you happy. I know many very wealthy people who are unhappy.
Most of the time, the person you have to become to make money is a high-anxiety, high-stress, hard-working, competitive person.
When you have done that for twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years, and you suddenly make money, you can't turn it off. You've trained yourself to be a high-anxiety person. Then, you have to learn how to be happy."
“You should not grind at a lot of hard work until you figure out what you should be working on.”
“What if this life were the paradise we were promised, and we’re just squandering it?”
Read the Full Breakdown: The Almanack of Naval Ravikant, by Eric Jorgenson
The Outsider, by Colin Wilson:
If ordinary life usually seems a bit...well, ordinary...it may be because the way most human beings live their lives can be compared to an extraordinarily powerful jet airplane flying on only one engine. That's Colin Wilson's basic contention in The Outsider, where he outlines his fundamentally optimistic philosophy of New Existentialism.
Human beings, according to Wilson, possess a "visionary capacity" that, if they could only tap into it, would allow them to say "Yes" to life, in spite of everything. He doesn't deny the existence of suffering and the harshness of life, but in this book, he examines the lives of individuals he called "Outsiders," who were able to come closest to realizing this ultimately optimistic view of life and the universe.
If this seems like a strange addition to this list, it's not. Outsiders are very clear about what's important to them and what's meaningless. I would actually say that it's very difficult to tell the difference between an Outsider and an Essentialist because both of them are so intensely focused on making the absolute most out of their one chance at life that they have literally zero time for anything else.
Sample Quotes from the Book:
“Normally man’s mind is composed only of a consciousness of his immediate needs, which is to say that this consciousness at any moment can be defined as his awareness of his own power to satisfy those needs.
He thinks in terms of what he intends to do in half an hour's time, a day's time, a month's time, and no more. He never asks himself: What are the limits of my powers?
In a sense, he is like a man who has a fortune in the bank, who never asks himself, How much money have I got?, but only, Have I enough for a pound of cheese, for a new tie? etc."
“Kierkegaard felt the same. As an intensely living, intensely suffering individual, he was not concerned about whether man in the abstract fitted into a great Abstract Universal System; he only knew about the simple, finite, guilty and suffering creature called Soren Kierkegaard, who has to make a decision in the face of God, and who needed to feel that that decision mattered, ultimately, absolutely.”
“Instead of seeing the surface of things and feeling that it is rather dull, he sees the interior working of the force of life, the Will to more life.”
Read the Full Breakdown: The Outsider, by Colin Wilson
The View from the Opposition:
No one's ideas are beyond questioning. In this section, I argue the case for the opposition and raise some points that you might wish to evaluate for yourself while reading this book.
#1: Not Everyone Has the Luxury of Saying "No"
Man, Goodreads reviews are sometimes great for a laugh. I usually go through the 2-4 star reviews and see what they have to say, because those are the people most likely to have something constructive to offer, rather than just "What a piece of garbage! I hated it so much I didn't even finish the first chapter!" or "What an amazing book! The author's right about everything!"
A good 3-star review will tell you what's useful about the book, and sometimes it'll mention something you hadn't thought of before. Personally, I kind of groan a little when people go on about "Stanford-educated elites" or whatever, but a few reviewers had a point: not everyone has the luxury of saying "no" to tasks they deem inessential.
In his book, McKeown is often addressing a professional audience with much more autonomy and control over which tasks they perform and which they delegate to others, and no, not everyone has that same freedom.
Consequently, most people just won't be able to say to their boss, "That task doesn't align with my Essentialist philosophy, so I'm not going to do it!" Their boss would probably be like, "Well, your opinion doesn't align with my 'me signing your paychecks philosophy!'"
So yes, some of the advice in this book won't apply to everybody, but most of it will apply to pretty much everyone. We can move toward that kind of freedom and autonomy in our lives, and maintain our awareness of that goal, even if our current position doesn't offer us the freedom we crave.
#2: You Can Excel at More Than Just One Thing
It's absolutely not a good idea to try to be a superstar in 4-5 different sports, or become a world-class expert in 4-5 different disciplines; for most people, that's just not realistic.
I will say, however, that you don't have to choose just one thing to be best at, and even more intriguingly, a stunning career can sometimes be stitched out of the combination of more than one pursuit. Scott Adams talks about this exact idea in his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.
Adams is the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, and he introduces the idea of carving out your own career by explaining that it can be much better (not to mention easier) to enter the top 10% in two different things than it is to enter the top 1% of just one thing.
In his case, he says that he's not the greatest artist around, but he can draw pretty well. He also doesn't claim to be the funniest comedian alive, but he's funnier than most people. Combining those two things enabled him to launch one of the most successful cartoons ever and become wildly successful in other things later on.
So don't feel as though you have to pick just one thing to be good at, or that once you've made one choice you have to stick with it no matter what. We learn as we go along, we constantly update our identity and what we believe is possible for us, and creativity is often found in the combination of two relatively common ideas put together in an uncommon way.
"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald
Questions to Stimulate Your Thinking:
#1: "If I could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?"
#2: “What do I need to do to be able to go to sleep peacefully?"
#3: “If I hadn’t already committed to this, would I agree to take it on?”
#4: "Am I investing in the right activities?"
#5: "If I weren’t already invested in this project, how much would I invest now?"
#6: "If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?"
#7: "Will this activity or investment make the highest possible contribution toward my goal?"
#8: “How will I know when this project is done?”
#9: “What else could I do with this time or money if I pulled the plug now?”
#10: "What do I feel deeply inspired by?"
#11: "What am I particularly talented at?"
#12: "What kind of pursuit meets a significant need in the world?"
#13: "What would I give just to be back here, in this exact moment in time, with this chance that I have now?"
So you've finished reading. What do you do now?
Reading for pleasure is great, and I wholeheartedly support it. However, when I'm reading for a particular purpose, I am intensely practical. I want a result. I want to take what I've learned and apply it to my one and only life to make it better!
Because that's really what the Great Books all say. They all say: "You must change your life!" So here, below, are some suggestions for how you can apply the wisdom found in this breakdown to improve your actual life.
Please commit to taking massive action on this immediately! Acting on what you've learned here today will also help you solidify it in your long-term memory. So there's a double benefit! Let's begin...
#1: Schedule Time to Explore, Think, and Plan
The writer, Annie Dillard, said that "a schedule is a net for catching days." And it's so incredibly true: what gets scheduled gets done.
So if you want to create space in your life for quiet reflection and introspection (two key Essentialist skills), then you're going to have to make time for them in your schedule and keep those appointments with yourself in the same way that you would show up to an important appointment with someone else.
The modern world is not going to make it easy for you to do this. But you have to pull back from the madness and dedicate at least - at least - an hour every week to checking in with yourself and spending time exploring your deepest thoughts, motivations, and longings.
So the first Action Step here is to pull out your calendar (you do have one of those, right?) and mark off an hour for yourself where you can simply sit and think. Preferably, you'd schedule this for as soon as possible, not "sometime in the future when things are less hectic." Do it for yourself. Do it today. Now!
#2: Edit Your Commitments
We all say yes to far too many things. Even the most experienced Essentialists sometimes find themselves overburdened with others' expectations, so it pays off once in a while to actually look at what exactly you've committed to doing, and eliminate as many of those commitments as you can.
Apply the extremely selective criteria that we discussed in Key Idea #4 above, and for anything that scores 89.9 or lower, get rid of it. Throw it out like yesterday's garbage, even though you may disappoint a few people by backing out.
You don't have to be a jerk about it (I know you won't be), but just politely yet firmly let people know that you've taken on too many commitments, you're a bit overburdened right now, and you're going to have to take a step back for a little while.
Even if they're temporarily put off by this, ultimately, they'll come to respect your assertiveness, and they'll give you your space. Or they won't. Either way, you'll have done something great for yourself that will pay dividends in the future.
#3: Throw Out 100 Things
In exactly the same way that we take on too many commitments, we also bring too many things into our lives that we just don't need. Get rid of them. As many as you can, of course, but start with "just" 100 items.
You'd probably be surprised at how much stuff you actually own. Even just on my desk right now are my computer, keyboard, mouse, 11 books (go figure), 5 pictures, a license plate from my old car (what?), a binder, a hole punch...the list goes on. That's 22 things right there, and I haven't even gotten up from my seat!
The point is: that you can probably find at least 100 things to get rid of that you just don't need to have around and that doing so will clear up space in your head and your mind that you need in order to function at peak effectiveness.
About the Author:
Greg McKeown is a business writer, consultant, and researcher specializing in leadership, strategy design, collective intelligence and human systems. He has authored or co-authored books, including the Wall Street Journal Bestseller, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter (Harper Business, June 2010), Essentialism (2014), and Effortless (2021).
Originally from England, he is now an American citizen, living in Southern California. Greg holds a B.A. in Communications (with an emphasis in journalism) from Brigham Young University and an MBA from Stanford University.
Greg is currently CEO of McKeown, Inc., a leadership and strategy design agency. He has taught at companies that include Apple, Google, Facebook, Salesforce.com, Symantec, Twitter, and VMware.
Greg is an active Social Innovator and currently serves as a board member for the Washington D.C. policy group, Resolve, and as a mentor with 2Seeds, a non-profit incubator for agricultural projects in Africa. And he is a regular keynote speaker at non-profits groups including The Kauffman Fellows Program, St. Jude and the Minnesota Community Education Association.