What is Essentialism?

Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determing where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of that contribution almost effortless. “Once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, you can make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”

A Relentless Pursuit of Less But Better

This post is based on “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown. Greg starts the book out with an anecdote, shortly after his wife gave birth to their daughter in the hospital he accepted a meeting invitation from a client and by doing so he had made a fools bargain, by saying yes to everything in order to please everyone, Greg had lost sight of his ability to choose.

“When We Forget Our Ability To Choose
We Learn To Be Helpless”

Learned helplessness can result from a routine pattern of decision-making where our default settings are: “I have to”, “it’s all important”, and “I can do both”. To embrace essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to”, “only a few things really matter,” and, “I can do anything, but not everything”. Contrary to the way we’re conditioned to think and respond: almost everything that demands our attention is noise, very few things are exceptionally valuable, and we can’t have it all or do it all.

What Really Matters?

There are many reasons we may default to an undisciplined pursuit of more, but perhaps fewer of us are able to switch our default position to a relentless pursuit of less but better. McKeown is careful to acknowledge the role of circumstance, “While we may not always have control over our options, we always have control over how we choose among them.”

Flow, Discipline, & Routine

We need tools and expert judgment to help us bring forth more by removing obstacles to what is important to us. One effective strategy is to use extreme binary criteria in decision making, where if something is not a ‘clear yes’ it becomes a clear no, such selective criteria then requires that we embrace the discord lean into the awkward pause in order to respond with a graceful no. Another discipline is to be protective of our ability to prioritize relentlessly. This unrelenting pursuit of less but better in our decisions can allow us to get more of what we want from the limited time and energy that we have to exchange. McKeown also recommends eliminating the nonessential, setting clear boundaries, and allowing for buffers to reduce the friction caused by the unexpected.


If you are interested in a supporting opinion on the topics of choice read, “Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz, and “Deep Work” by Cal Newport, which both also suggest systematic approaches to decision making that lead to positive impacts on function and mood in human behavior.

Categories: Book Reviews


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