ESSENTIALISM Book Summary: How to Do More by Doing Less

By: | September 21, 2019 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |
Essentialism book summary: How to do more by doing less

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

This quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry could be the theme of the best-selling book ESSENTIALISM by Greg McKeown.*

The tips in the book about how to be more productive are applicable to everyone.

By the time you’re done reading this ESSENTIALISM book summary, you won’t be able to relate to people complaining about how busy they are. You’ll have plenty of time.

These tips relate to all aspects of your life including how to make money.

By the time you’re done reading this ESSENTIALISM book summary, you’ll live a more productive, more meaningful and happier life.


Part I The Essentialist

Essence: What is the Core Mindset of an Essentialist?

“Instead of making just a millimeter of progress in a million directions, he began to generate tremendous momentum toward accomplishing the things that were truly vital.”

According to McKeown, once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying “yes” to everyone, can you make your highest contribution to the things that really matter.

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’s about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at your high point of contribution by only doing what is necessary.

“The way of an Essentialist means living by design not by default; instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the non essentials and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage.“

In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach of determining where our high point of contribution lies then executing those things almost effortlessly.

The Undisciplined Pursuit of More

McKeown tells you to ask yourself, “What do I feel deeply inspired by? And what am I particularly talented at? And what meets a significant need in the world?”

“What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead, we celebrated how much time we had spent learning, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?”

Essence: What is the Core Mind-Set of an Essentialist?

Once you become an Essentialist, this becomes your mantra: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter.” “I can do anything but not everything.”

In fact, McKeown’s next chapter is titled, “Choose: The Invincible Power of Choice.”

Discern: The Unimportance of Practically Everything

To contrast:

“A Nonessentialist thinks everything is essential.
An Essentialist thinks almost everything is non-essential.
A Nonessentialist thinks almost everything is essential, views opportunities as basically equal.
An Essentialist thinks almost everything is non-essential, distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many.”

Tradeoff: Which Problem Do I Want?

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?

This small change can have a huge impact on your life.

To contrast:

A Nonessentialist thinks, “I can do both,” Asks, “How can I do it all?”
An Essentialist asks, ” What is the tradeoff I want to make?” and asks, “What can I go big on?”

Essentialism Book Summary
Screenshot: Courtesy of Greg McKeown

Part II Explore: How Can We Discern the Trivial Many from the Vital Few?

To discern what is truly essential, we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make.

Escape: The Perks of Being Unavailable

To contrast:

“A Nonessentialist pays attention to the loudest voice, hears everything being said, is overwhelmed by all the information.
An Essentialist pays attention to the signal in the noise, hears what is not being said, scans to find the essence of the information.”

Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child

To contrast:

“A nonessentialist thinks play is trivial, thinks play is an unproductive waste of time.
An essentialist knows play is essential, knows play sparks exploration.”

Sleep: Protect the Asset

To contrast:

“A Nonessentialist thinks one hour less of sleep equals one more hour of productivity. Sleep is for failures. Sleep is a luxury. Sleep breeds laziness. Sleep gets in the way of doing it all.”
The Essentialist knows one hour more of sleep equals several hours of much higher productivity. Sleep is for high performers. Sleep is a priority. Sleep breeds creativity. Sleep enables the highest level of mental contribution.”

McKeown referenced researchers who explained, “While we sleep, our brains are hard at work in coding and restructuring information; therefore, when we wake up, our brains may have made new neural connections; thereby, opening up a broader range of solutions to problems literally overnight.”

Select: The Power of Extreme Criteria

To contrast:

A non-essentialist says yes to almost every request or opportunity, uses broad, implicit criteria like, “If someone I know is doing it, I should do it.”
An essentialist says yes to only the Top 10% of opportunities, uses narrow, explicit criteria like, “Is this exactly what I am looking for?”

Part III Eliminate: How Can We Cut Out the Trivial Many?

Ask yourself, “If I didn’t own the item, what would I give up to get it?” This can be a metaphor for activities in your life as well as old clothes you don’t want to part with. In fact, McKeown’s next chapter is titled, “Clarify: One Decision That Makes a Thousand.”

Dare: The Power of a Graceful “No.”

To contrast:

“A NonEssentialist says ‘yes’ due to peer pressure and the thrill of pleasing someone by saying ‘yes’ to them.
An Essentialist knows that after the rush comes, the pang of regret. They know they will soon feel bully and resentful, both at the other person and at themselves.”

To contrast:

“A Nonessentialist avoids saying “no” to avoid feeling social awkwardness and pressure, says yes. to everything.
An Essentialist dares to say “no” firmly resolutely and gracefully says yes to only the things that really matter.”

The “No” Repertoire

McKeown offers instructions for how to gracefully say “no” without experiencing awkwardness:

  1. The awkward pause. Pause for a moment, count to three before delivering your verdict. If you need to, count to three and wait for the other person to fill the void.
  2. The soft “no” (No, “but”). McKeown recommends using Email to say “no.” “Email gives you the chance to draft and redraft your “no” to make it as graceful as possible. Many people find the distance of email reduces the fear of awkwardness.”
  3. “Let me check my calendar.” This phrase gives you time to check and reply that you are unavailable. This gives you time to reflect and not be rushed when you’re asked.
  4. Use email autoresponders. People find it socially acceptable to receive “out of the office” memos. Why, then, should you receive this recourse for holidays and vacations?
  5. Say “Yes. What should I deprioritize?” If saying “yes,” will affect your ability to perform well at work, it is important you refuse. “Remind your superiors what you would be neglecting and force them to grapple with the tradeoffs.”
  6. Say it with humor. An Essentialist just says “no.” You might as well refuse with humor to cushion the blow.
  7. Use the words, “You are welcome to … I am willing to… “ Don’t say what you won’t do. Word the refusal in terms of what you are willing to do. “This construct reminds both parties of the choices they have.”
  8. I can’t do it, but X might be interested.” People often don’t care who is helping them as long as they get the help they need.

Uncommit: Win Big by Cutting Your Losses

In this section, “McKeown advises, “Be aware of the status quo bias.”

From now on, Pause Before You Speak

Ask, “Is this essential?” Then respond.

Edit: The Invisible Art

Essentialism Summary

Clearly, editing, which involves the strict elimination of the trivial, unimportant, or irrelevant, is an Essentialist craft.

In his book, McKeown goes on to discuss the freedom of setting boundaries, the name of his next section.

Part IV Execute: How Can We Make Doing the Vital Few Things Almost Effortless?

Buffer: The Unfair Advantage

In the bible story of Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat, Joseph was hired by the Pharoah to ensure Egypt had food. Since Joseph could predict a famine seven years in the future, the seven-year interim gave him a buffer– time to ensure everything would be fine.

You need time to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. In other words, you need a buffer. Allowing more time to do tasks gives you this buffer.

By only doing what is necessary, you get the extra time to create a buffer.

To contrast:

“The Nonessentialist always assumes a best-case scenario and doesn’t allow enough time to do what’s needed.
The Essentialist expects the unexpected, the worst and creates a buffer to have time to manage unforeseen situations.”

McKeown advises you add 50% to the time estimate you need to complete a task in order to complete it. This incorporates a buffer into the time you allowed to complete the activity.

Subtract: Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles

When you have a problem, don’t try to fix it all. Identify the main part of the problem and focus on fixing that aspect.

What is the obstacle that is keeping you back from what really matters? Figure that out and you can achieve your goal. This may not be the most obvious weakness.

An Essentialist removes more instead of doing more.

Don’t try to find solutions. Remove the main obstacle instead.

How to Focus on the Obstacles You Need to Remove:

Be precise and not vague.

Remember: Your main goal is to get the goal finished. Anything slowing down achieving the goal should be questioned.

Progress: The Power of Small Wins

Start small and get big results. Celebrate small acts of progress.

Remember: “Done is better than perfect.”

Entrepreneurs: Create a minimal viable product.

Late and big means you’ll do your task at the last minute. McKeown wants you to shoot for early and small.

Visibly seeing progress toward a goal is powerful.

Flow: The Genius of Routine

Routines have advantages but we need to create positive routines.

To create behavioral change, we are not confined to our instincts. We can create new cues to trigger new, essential routines.

McKeown advises, “Do your hardest task first in the morning. Find a cue to trigger the start of the task.”

You can mix up your routines. Start with one change and build on your progress.

Focus: What’s Important Now

Deliberately tune in to what’s important here and now.

Your mind should be focused on the present. Tune in to what’s important now. Enjoy the moment.

McKeown reports: We can easily multitask but not multifocus. What we can’t do is concentrate on two things at the same time.

How to Be in the Now

Ask yourself, “What’s important this second?” If you’re not sure, make a list of everything competing for your attention. Cross off what doesn’t matter right now.

Get the Future Out of Your Head and Prioritize

Especially in family life, be completely present.

Be: The Essentialist Life

Living Essentially is a choice, your choice to make.

When others are doing and speaking, you’ will be thinking and listening. Wait until it is time for you to shine.

More Clarity: More Control

An Essentialist understand that clarity is the key to empowerment. He doesn’t allow roles to be vague.

Speak succinctly to keep people focused. When working with others, check-in often to ensure meaningful progress is being met.

According to the author, simplicity is a virtue.

More Joy in the Journey

Simplicity is extremely important for happiness, McKeown observes.

Wrapping Up: Essentialism Book Summary

According to the author, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner follows these tips.

Takeaway: Less is Better

This ESSENTIALISM book summary enabled you to ask yourself, “What is essential?” and eliminate everything else.

You can apply these principles at home as well as work and live a life of meaning.

Essentialism becomes the essence of who you are. When you practice these tips, Essentialism becomes a lifestyle.

Note: While these transitions don’t occur overnight, they will eventually become true for you.

Really live Essentialism in everything you do. It becomes a part of the way you see and understand the world.

You don’t do Essentialism. You become an Essentialist.

In closing, I found Greg McKeown’s philosophies interesting reading. If you’re interested in reading the entire book and not just this ESSENTIALISM book summary, ESSENTIALISM: THE DISCIPLINED PURSUIT OF LESS is available on

Readers, please share so people read this ESSENTIALISM book summary and discover how to live as an Essentialist in all areas of life.

I look forward to your answers in the comment section: Which tip resonated with you the most? After reading this Essentialism book summary, would you consider yourself an Essentialist or a Nonessentialist?


McKeown, Greg. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Virgin Books, 2014.

  1. Jeangam Kahmei

    Hi Janice,

    Sometimes it’s okay to say ‘No’ though it sounds rude. It’s obvious that we can’t do everything at a time with perfection so choosing to deny to nonessentials are fine.

    We have so much to learn in Joseph’s story, when he was being sold by his brother’s he could be a pessimist moaning his lives, instead he chose to be optimistic and worked hard.

    “Simple living, High thinking” is a great reminder to be an essentialist and avoid the unnecessaries in positive ways.

    I would love to read this book. “Simplicity is a virtue”, Woah! I just can’t forget this. Have you read ‘How To Win Friends And Influence Friends’? By Dale Carnegie. This book has impacted me a lot.

    Jeangam Kahmei

    • Janice Wald

      Hi Jeangam,
      Not only have I read HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE, I reviewed it! Here’s the review if you’d like to read it
      You said it’s okay to say “no.” I worry it’s not okay to the person I fear I’m being rude to. ESSENTIALISM gives us concrete instructions so we can take our emotions, in this case, guilt, out of the equation.
      I’ve always loved the story of Joseph and his brothers. Thanks for reminding us what a good role model he is.

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