Essentialism by Greg McKeown

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The Book in One Paragraph

Very few things actually matter in life. Things that do matter include your family, your health, and your contribution to the world through your work. The way to increase both happiness and productivity is not through doing more, but through removing more. Say “yes” to what is essential in your life and say “no” to the rest.

Essentialism Summary

This is my book summary of Essentialism by Greg McKeown. My notes include quotes, big ideas, and important lessons from the book.

  • Improve your productivity by removing more, not by doing more.
  • “Remember that if you don’t prioritize your life someone else will.”
  • You can’t do everything in one day. Focus on the one thing you can do today to inch yourself closer to your goals.
  • Essentialists live by design, not by default. They consciously choose how to spend their time, what projects to work on, and who to hang around with. They don’t let the decisions or opinions of others dictate their lifestyle.
  • “What is essential is to marry your long-term goals with short-term critical moves.”
  • Plotting the entire journey to an end goal is impossible so don’t waste time stressing about how to get there. The middle of your journey will look different than how you thought it would look once you get there anyway.
  • “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.”
  • Pursue small, incremental victories. These victories compound over time.
  • “Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer gathered anonymous diary entries from hundreds of people and covering thousands of workdays. On the basis of these hundreds of thousands of reflections, Amabile and Kramer concluded that ‘everyday progress—even a small win’ can make all the difference in how people feel and perform. ‘Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work,’ they said.”
  • Ask yourself, “If I could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?” The answer to this question influences your future decisions.
  • “A small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.”
  • “Multi-tasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can ‘multi-focus’ is.”
  • “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?” 
  • “We overvalue nonessentials like a nicer car or house, or even intangibles like the number of our followers on Twitter or the way we look in our Facebook photos. As a result, we neglect activities that are truly essential, like spending time with our loved ones, or nurturing our spirit, or taking care of our health.”
  • The most effective people say no the most.
  • The most effective people aren’t the ones who do the most tasks, but rather the ones who consistently do the important tasks.
  • “Once an Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware, who cared for people in the last twelve weeks of their lives, recorded their most often discussed regrets. At the top of the list: ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’”
  • Just because you’re invited to something doesn’t mean you have to attend. Life is too short to spend time at events, parties, or gatherings you don’t want to be at.
  • “When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless. In turn, we surrender our power to choose. That is the path of the Nonessentialist.”
  • Obsession with acquiring things is what forces most people to stick with a job they hate for decades. And because jobs are so time-consuming, this leaves less time to spend focusing on relationships and health – two areas that are essential to our well-being. By recognizing that most material purchases are nonessentials that add little to no lasting happiness to our lives, it’s easier to say no to them. This leaves us with more time and money to put towards things that actually matter.
  • “A non-Essentialist approaches every trade-off by asking, ‘How can I do both?’ Essentialists ask the tougher but ultimately more liberating question, ‘Which problem do I want?’”
  • It’s okay to be unavailable. 
  • “The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position. Yes, in some instances an Essentialist still has to work hard, but with the right routine in place each effort yields exponentially greater results.”
  • “When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people – our bosses, our colleagues, our clients, and even our families – will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important.”
  • Prioritize sleep. It impacts every aspect of your waking life.
  • “Sleep is what allows us to operate at our highest level of contribution so that we can achieve more, in less time. Sleep will enhance your ability to explore, make connections, and do less but better throughout your waking hours.”
  • Constantly pause and ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?”
  • “If your manager comes to you and asks you to do X, you can respond with ‘Yes, I’m happy to make this the priority. Which of these other projects should I deprioritize to pay attention to this new project?’”
  • You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything. This is such a freeing insight. Most meetings, events, parties, status games, email exchanges, social media feuds, etc. are all unimportant. They mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Once you realize this, you can let go of any tension, stress, and anxiety you have associated with these things.
  • “We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.”
  • “The ancient Greeks had two words for time. The first was chronos. The second was kairos. The Greek god Chronos was imagined as an elderly, grey-haired man, and his name connotes the literal ticking clock, the chronological time, the kind we measure (and race about trying to use efficiently). Kairos is different. While it is difficult to translate precisely, it refers to time that is opportune, right, diffferent. Chronos is quantitative; kairos is qualitative. The latter is experienced only when we are fully in the moment—when we exist in the now.”
  • “When faced with so many tasks and obligations that you can’t figure out which to tackle first, stop. Take a deep breath. Get present in the moment and ask yourself what is most important this very second—not what’s most important tomorrow or even an hour from now. If you’re not sure, make a list of everything vying for your attention and cross off anything that is not important right now.”
  • Often the things you choose not to do are just as important as the things you do choose to do.
  • “Essentialists ask, “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” and “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?”
  • “One of the most obvious and yet powerful ways to become a journalist of our own lives is simply to keep a journal.”
  • “Being a journalist of your own life will force you to stop hyper-focusing on all the minor details and see the bigger picture.”
  • “There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist: ‘I have to,’ ‘It’s all important,’ and ‘I can do both.’”
  • Don’t ask, “How will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity?” but rather, “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?” Similarly, we can ask, “If I wasn’t already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?”
  • “The way of the 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 nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.”
  • Don’t let perfectionism prevent you from making progress.
  • “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”
  • When faced with a decision to pursue an opportunity, give it a rating on a scale of 0 to 100. If it falls below a 90, reject it. It’s not worth your time or your energy.
  • “It’s not enough to simply determine which activities and efforts don’t make the best possible contribution; you still have to actively eliminate those that do not.”
  • “Aristotle talked about three kinds of work, whereas in our modern world we tend to emphasize only two. The first is theoretical work, for which the end goal is truth. The second is practical work, where the objective is action. But there is a third: it is poetical work. The philosopher Martin Heidegger described poiesis as a ‘bringing-forth.’ This third type of work is the Essentialist way of approaching execution.”
  • Avoid sunk-cost bias – the belief that you have to keep working on a project just because you have invested a significant amount of time on it in the past. 
  • 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.
  • “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.”
  • Never forget that you have the ability to choose how you want to spend your time. You can choose to focus on only the most essential things – your relationships, your health, and your work – and ignore the rest.
  • “Trade-offs are not something to be ignored or decried. They are something to be embraced and made deliberately, strategically, and thoughtfully.”
  • Avoid being late to places by knowing that you will need more time than you think to get there. 
  • There is enough time in the day to make meaningful progress on a few important things, but only if you create the space and time needed for these things by saying “no” to virtually everything else.
  • “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.”

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