Essentialism - Critical summary review - Greg McKeown

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Essentialism - critical summary review

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Self Help & Motivation and Productivity & Time Management

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0804137382; 978-0804137386

Publisher: Crown Currency

Critical summary review

“It is not enough to be busy: so are the ants,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. “The question is: what are we busy about?” Indeed, there are obviously some things that you do – whether as an individual or a company – that are much more important than others, and some that are not important at all. As a rule of thumb, it’s not an exaggeration to say that 20% of your actions are responsible for 80% of your results and successes, and that the rest 80% of them – so, the vast majority of your actions – constitute a pretty much wasted effort. 

But that’s four-fifths of your life we’re talking about! – Greg McKeown, a Harvard Business Review blogger and a collaborator on the bestseller “Multipliers” reminds us. In “Essentialism,” he delves deep into the concept of priority and makes a compelling case for achieving more by doing less. So, get ready to discover how to trim your efforts down to your own long-term benefit, and prepare to discover an easy, three-step method to become a dedicated Essentialist!

Nonessentialism is everywhere

In his book “How the Mighty Fall,” Stanford researcher and bestselling author Jim Collins demonstrates, quite convincingly, that the collapse of many once-successful companies can be boiled down to a single five-word phrase: “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” This, claims McKeown, is just as true for people as it is for companies. Moreover, it’s almost exclusively a problem of our age. Why, you ask?

Well, first of all, because we all live and experience life in the 21st century, the most dynamic and hectic in the history of humankind. Secondly, because we’ve stopped making the necessary distinction between hyperactivity and productivity, which rather than being alternative words for the same things are actually dictionary antonyms. Finally, because three trends specific to our times have recently combined to create a perfect storm of what McKeown refers to as “Nonessentialism” – that is to say, the art of travelling through life in many directions simultaneously rather than in the desired one.

The first of these unexpectedly harmful trends is “the exponential increase in choices over the last decade.” The many options and alternatives we are offered at every step of the way have overwhelmed our ability to manage our choices. In psychology, this is referred to as “decision fatigue” and described as the deterioration of the quality of our decisions with the increase of the number of choices we are forced to make. Sometimes the number of choices can seem so overpowering that it might lead to something even worse than hyperactivity – inactivity. This is called “analysis paralysis” and is defined as the inability to make a decision due to overthinking.

Increased social pressure is the second trend that contributes to the prevalence of Nonessentialism. Thanks to the internet, we are not merely connected anymore, but hyperconnected. With technology lowering the barrier for others to share their opinion about everything, we’re not just dealing with information overload, we’re dealing with opinion overload as well. Everybody tells everyone what is important and what they should be focusing on. As a result, nobody is focusing on anything other than, ironically, reading other people’s opinions about what’s important.

The final, and perhaps most damaging, trend of the 21st century is caused by the very dangerous myth that “you can have it all.” Even though not new, this idea has been advertised today more than ever. In combination with the fact that we’re living in an age of an unprecedented number of options and expectations, it has produced a pandemic of stress and depression. Everyone tries to cram yet more activities in their already overscheduled lives because, otherwise, they feel they might be left out. FOMO – standing for “fear of missing out” – wasn’t something our parents had to deal with: the phenomenon was first identified in 1996. However, time is a limited resource. Missing out is part of life. We can’t have it all. So, we have to choose wisely.

Essentialism and the closet of your life

On June 28, 2012, the Harvard Business Review published an opinion piece by McKeown aptly titled “If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will.” Today, this phrase has all but become part of everyday language, and you can find it attached to many great names of history on some of the quotation websites that don’t vet quotes. But like many other things that have become clichés, this uncomfortable truth seems to exist only to be repeated by Nonessentialists, not lived out by Essentialists. In fact, few really understand what McKeown’s claim suggests about how one should live their life.   

Think about what might happen to your closet if you never try to organize it. Rather than remaining neat and tidy, it will, of course, become cluttered and stuffed with clothes you rarely wear. Moreover, the ones you do like to show off will get all scruffy and messy, not to mention “unfindable.” It is, after all, one of the unbending laws that govern our universe, the law of entropy: left by themselves, things fall apart and systems crumble into randomness and chaos. 

Well, McKeown says, this is precisely what’s been happening to your life for the past few decades. By saying “yes” to so many things so as to not be left out, you’ve stretched yourself too thin, making life flavorless. That’s why you feel simultaneously “overworked and underutilized,” “busy but not productive,” “always in motion, but never getting anywhere.” Just like the companies Jim Collins researched, you’ve become the victim of your “undisciplined pursuit of more.” And you keep forgetting that it’s not about having every single item inside your closet, but about having the right clothes organized in the right, tidy manner. That’s what Essentialism is.

In the words of McKeown, “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 trade-off 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.”

Essence: the core mindset of an Essentialist

Essentialism, fundamentally, is about proper prioritizing. We seem to have forgotten what that word entails and, moreover, that it came into the English language as an uncountable noun. “Priority” meant, starting with Chaucer and all the way to the First World War, “the very first or prior thing.” It was only in the twentieth century that the word was pluralized and people began talking about “priorities.” Recently, we’ve gone even further than that, and started talking about things such as our “top ten priorities” as if it was possible for one to have multiple “first” things. The truth is, when you have more than one priority at any given time, you have no priority. The even harsher truth is that this describes most of us.

To embrace Essentialism means to embrace prioritizing. It also means to embrace three core expressions: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.” These three truths reflect the three realities without which Essentialist thinking would be neither relevant nor possible. They are:

  1. Individual choice. “When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time,” writes McKeown, “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. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.” We quoted McKeown’s most memorable idea above, but it bears repeating here: if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. So, don’t forfeit your God-given right to choose – exercise it. As often as possible.
  2. The prevalence of noise. Introduced as far back as the 1790s, the Pareto Principle says that 20% of your efforts produce 80% of results. In 1951, in his “Quality-Control Handbook,” Joseph Moses Juran – one of the fathers of the quality movement – expanded on this idea and called it “the Law of the Vital Few.” The logic is the same: some things are so much more important than others that the effort in finding those things is justified and worth it by definition. So, rather than doing things, take your time to figure out what is most important to do first and try to distinguish “the vital few” from “the trivial many.” Don’t ever forget that whereas a Nonessentialist thinks almost everything is essential, an Essentialist thinks almost everything is nonessential.
  3. The reality of trade-offs. Nonessentialists see trade-offs as an inherently negative part of life. Rather than asking themselves what they should do, they ask themselves how they can do it all. They operate under the false assumption that one can actually do everything. The truth is, trade-offs are not just another part of life, but the most crucial as well. We have limited time, so we can’t have it all or do it all. The question we should be asking ourselves isn’t “How can I make it all work?” but “Which problem do I want to solve?” – a far more honest and meaningful question. Also, the question an Essentialist asks themselves every day.

Becoming an Essentialist: the three-step method

Only when you understand the realities of choice, noise and trade-offs can you begin to think like an Essentialist, suggests McKeown. “Indeed,” he goes on, “once we fully accept and understand them, much of [the method of the Essentialist] becomes natural and instinctive.” This method consists of the following three simple steps:

  1. Explore: discern the trivial many from the vital few. Quite paradoxically, Nonessentialists – who are afraid of missing out – explore far fewer options than Essentialists in life. That’s because Essentialists fully understand Socrates’ motto that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. So, rather than being busy doing everything other than thinking about life, they try to create some space for themselves to examine life’s opportunities in solitude. Instead of being overwhelmed by all the information available, Essentialists browse and scan around to find the essence of the information, “the signal in the noise.” Also, they don’t say “yes” to all requests, but only to the top 10% of opportunities. Finally, Essentialists never forget to play and rest, fully aware that games and sleep aren’t an unproductive waste of time but the scaffold of efficiency and high productivity.
  2. Eliminate: cut out the trivial many. “The secret to success,” said Soviet prima ballerina Anna Pavlova once, “is to follow, without halt, one aim.” Finding that aim is a two-part process that encompasses, in addition to the discerning of the trivial many from the vital few, the elimination of the former. Elimination starts with clarity, which, in turn, is rooted in a definite, specific vision of the future and a meaningful intent. It is the clear vision of their own future that gives Essentialists the courage to say “no” to the nonessential. It also gives them the audacity to give up without despairing. Indeed, whereas Nonessentials hate admitting to mistakes, Essentialists are comfortable with cutting losses once they have realized their project is going nowhere. Essentialists are also comfortable with boundaries, which they don’t see as constraining, but as liberating. So, they set them in advance, thus eliminating the need for a direct “no” when it’s the only viable answer.
  3. Execute: do the vital few things effortlessly. “While Nonessentialists tend to force execution,” explains McKeown, “Essentialists invest the time they have saved by eliminating the nonessentials into designing a system to make execution almost effortless.” What does that system entail? First of all, a buffer for unexpected events. Essentialists are always prepared in advance. Just like Abraham Lincoln, when given six hours to chop down a tree, they spend the first five sharpening the axe. They aren’t interested in quick-fix solutions, but in finding ways to remove obstacles to progress. Speaking of progress, they don’t go for the flashiest wins, but for the small ones, celebrating each act of progress until they combine to get  the big result. To achieve this, they design routines – which, as poet W.H. Auden once said – are, in intelligent men, the sign of utmost ambition. Essentialists are also Zen in that their minds are always focused on their present task. Thus, they are able to tune out the nonessential and, far more importantly, enjoy the moment!

Final notes

In many ways, George McKeown’s Essentialism seems like Minimalism 2.0 in that it not only embraces the necessary and indispensable but it also refuses to be austere and unsmiling. In the words of LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner, McKeown “makes a compelling case for achieving more by doing less” and “reminds us that clarity of focus and the ability to say ‘no’ are both critical and undervalued in business today.” 

Much more importantly, “Essentialism” also reminds us that these two skills are critical and undervalued in life today and that it’s essential that you master them sooner – lest you want to risk wasting your life on other people’s priorities. 

12min tip

Chinese polymath Lin Yutang once said that the wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials. In a way, that’s also what authentic living is all about

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Who wrote the book?

Greg McKeown is an American public speaker, leadership and business strategist, and bestselling author. He made his name as a blogger for the Harvard Business Review and LinkedIn’s Influencers Group. In 2010, he coauthored, with... (Read more)

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