Book Review – Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less – Greg McKeown


—Lin Yutang

It is in Human Nature to love to do something, as opposed to do nothing. Whether it is essential or not, doesn’t matter. We have a distinct bias towards action (Action bias). You might have noticed in Football matches, while facing penalty kicks, goal keepers dive either left or right and rarely stood their position. Yet data shows, that they would have been much more successful, if they had stood in the center of the goal.

We carry a similar bias towards Productivity also. We tend to think that Successful people are always action oriented. We speculate that they produce results because they do more; something superhuman. They perhaps do numerous things, that we can’t keep up with.

This notion can’t be farther from truth. Successful people do less, but they focus on the essential things. You too can produce consistent results every day, by doing less – under one important condition.  That you focus on the essential few tasks with rigorous discipline, instead of the trivial many things that may seek your attention. That you embrace what Greg McKeown calls as “Essentialism”.

In his book – “Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less”, Greg provides a compelling case for doing less things with greater quality — to live a great life true to ourselves. The title itself reveals a profound truth.

Throughout the book, Greg quotes extensively from his own experiences, behavioral theories, experiments, case studies and established research studies, to drive home his points. He has thoroughly researched the topics that he is advocating – and distilled them using a simple language.

The book is divided in to 4 parts. The first part talks about what Essentialism is and the core mindset of an Essentialist. The next 3 parts turn the mindset in to a systematic process for the disciplined pursuit of less, one we can use in any situation in life.

The first part drives home three core truths, that really awaken us from our non-essential pursuits to the Essential: “I choose to” (that we have a powerful weapon – the ability to choose), “Only a few things really matter” (keep your focus to those) and “I can do anything but not everything” (don’t give in to Social Pressure). They free us to pursue what really matters. He clearly outlines the characteristics of Essentialists and distinguishes from Non-Essentialists.

In the second part, Greg provides a framework to be an Essentialist. Trade off is an important strategy. It is a deliberate choice to give up certain things, to focus on a few. We can either make the hard choices for ourselves or allow others—whether our colleagues, our boss, or our customers—to decide for us. The Essentialists also explore a broader set of options than the Non-Essentialists. The Essentialists then commit and go big on a few big ideas. In the process they spend a lot of time on exploring, debating, questioning and thinking.

Essentialists Create the space that is required to escape and explore life. Greg quotes the example of Sir Isaac Newton who spent two years working on what became Principia Mathematica, his famous writings on universal gravitation and the three laws of motion. This period of almost solitary confinement proved critical in what became a true breakthrough that shaped scientific thinking for the next three hundred years.

Essentialists are Powerful observers and listeners. Knowing that the reality of trade-offs means they can’t possibly pay attention to everything, they listen deliberately for what is not being explicitly stated. They read between the lines. In contrast, Nonessentialists listen too. But they listen while preparing to say something. They get distracted by extraneous noise. They hyper focus on inconsequential details. They hear the loudest voice, but they get the wrong message.

Essentialists also understand the importance of Play and use it as a spark for exploration. Play helps us to see possibilities and make connections that aren’t possible otherwise.

Greg underscores the importance of Sleep in being Essential, through various research studies and — based on interviews with the likes of Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) and Mark Anderson (Cofounder Netscape). The Essentialists understand that an hour of sleep is equal to several hours of productivity; sleep is a priority; sleep breeds creativity and enables the highest levels of contribution.

Essentialists also apply extreme criteria to make their Selections. 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. Anything less gets thumbs down.

In the third part, Greg shows us techniques to Eliminate the non-essentials, so we can make a higher level of contribution toward the things that are vital. And not only that, but we’ll learn to do it in a way that garners more respect from colleagues, bosses, clients, and peers.

The first technique to eliminate is to Clarify so that we can remove any activity that is misaligned with what we are intending to achieve. To do that we need to be clear about what our purpose is in the first place. Essentialists have a strategy that is concrete and inspirational. They make one decision that can eliminate one thousand later decisions.

The second technique to eliminate to Dare. Here Greg illustrates the power of a Graceful No. This is an area where many of us struggle. How many times do we say Yes, when we mean No – just to avoid conflict or friction? Courage is a key in the process of elimination. He illustrates this point with a touching real life story in the life of Stephen R Covey’s daughter Cynthia; Stephen once declined a dinner with an old college friend to honor a date with Cynthia. In short Essentialists dare to say no firmly, resolutely and gracefully. They say yes only to things that really matter.

The third technique that is to Uncommit. Uncommit is about cutting our losses, where needed. Whether it is relationships or money, Essentialists have the courage and confidence to admit their mistakes and uncommit, regardless of any sunk costs.

The fourth technique that Greg advocates is to Edit.  When we Edit or eliminate the distracting words or details, it makes things better. Greg drives home the point that a good editor is someone who uses deliberate subtraction to add life to the ideas, setting, plot, and characters. In life, disciplined editing can help add to our level of contribution. It increases our ability to focus on and give energy to the things that really matter.

The fifth technique that Greg advocates is to Limit. Through Limits, Essentialists draw clear boundaries. They see it as liberating, and set the rules in advance to eliminate the need for a direct no. They know that clear boundaries allow them to proactively eliminate the demands and encumbrances from others that distract them from the true essentials. Be it their working hours or social obligations, Essentials draw these boundaries well, even at the risk of losing some opportunities.

In the fourth and final part Greg talks about Execute. Essentialists invest the time they have saved by eliminating the non-essentials into designing a system to make execution almost effortless.

The first technique is Buffer. Greg defines Buffer as something that prevents two things from coming into contact and harming each other. Essentialists build in a buffer for unexpected events;
They practice extreme and early preparation. Greg recommends up to 50% buffer for estimating tasks. Greg talks about planning fallacy a term, coined by Daniel Kahneman in 1979, refers to people’s tendency to underestimate how long a task will take, even when they have done the task before. Essentialists avoid the planning fallacy through Buffer.

The second technique is Subtract. This is about identifying the constraints or obstacles, which prevents us from achieving what really matters and working to remove them. That way, Essentialists reduce the friction from executing what is essential.

The third technique is Progress. This is about starting small and celebrating the small wins. The small wins create a momentum that and affirms our faith in further success. This contrasts with the approach of starting big and then flaring out with nothing to show for it.

The fourth technique is Flow. Here Greg talks about the importance of good routines. The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what we have identified as essential the default position. Yes, in some instances an Essentialist still must work hard, but with the right routine in place each effort yields exponentially greater results.

The fifth technique is Focus. Here Greg talks about the power of Now. The Essentialist stays focused in the Present Moment, tunes in to what is important right now and enjoys it. Greg also outlines some techniques to stay in the Present Moment — get the future or past out of our heads, Prioritize and Pause.

In the concluding chapter of the book, Greg talks about “Be” – how to embrace Essentialism in our life, and Be an Essentialist. We can look at Essentialism either as something we do (occasionally), OR something that we are. He outlines very actionable things that we ought to consider for becoming an Essentialist.

Essentialism leads to more clarity, more control and more Joy along the journey. Essentialism is about leading a life that really matters. I am sure that is something all of us want.

Who is this book for?

If you are some one getting overwhelmed with too many things in life, and unable to meet your productivity targets and results, or a general feeling of dissatisfaction about your productivity — you should certainly check this book out. You will get some insights and actionable advice that will help you streamline your life by becoming more Essential.

To make fundamental shifts in our thoughts about Productivity and life, we need to really read and reread some of the chapters to get the essence of the book. Turing in to an Essentialist means that we need to transform our old ways of thinking; destroy some of our biases and prejudices. That process can be accelerated with the ideas in this book.

Greg has done extensive research to back his claims and he has provided the source material he used as well. The way he picks up and narrates certain case studies as stories is also interesting. It is deeply philosophical in approach that can transform our lives.

But if you are a casual reader, wanting some quick hacks in life, and not anything intense, you may not like this book. This book is not about using a technology or an app, or a few hacks here and there, to get some short-term wins.

As for me, I greatly enjoyed the book, and I am trying to benefit from it. I hope you enjoyed my review too. If you would like to buy this book, please click on the link below.

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