Essentialism | Greg McKeown

Summary of: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
By: Greg McKeown


In an age of constant distractions and endless tasks, finding a balance between work and life can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown teaches you how to focus on what truly matters by adopting the mindset of an essentialist. This summary unveils four key points, including the importance of doing fewer tasks but executing them to a higher standard, rejecting the notion of trying to accomplish everything, questioning yourself regularly, and putting the identified priorities into action. By understanding and applying these fundamental principles, you can simplify your life and enhance your productivity.

Embrace the Essentialist Approach

In the ever-busy modern world, it’s crucial to determine what matters most by adopting essentialism. This philosophy encourages you to do less but achieve more with high standards. Avoid spreading yourself too thin, as the purpose of essentialism is to concentrate on a few key areas where you can excel. Regularly review your priorities and make sure your time and energy are directed towards your most important goals. Once you’ve determined your focus, swiftly implement the changes to truly experience the benefits of essentialism. As you delve further into this principle, you’ll learn how essentialism can transform your life and productivity.

Break Free from Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness leads to a passive mindset, causing us to lose control of our choices. This concept originated from experiments on dogs, in which some dogs learned that they could not escape discomfort, while others regained control through their actions. Similarly, people may either give up or become overly active, taking on every opportunity without selecting the best ones. To regain power, we must exercise our right to choose, rather than allowing others to dictate our lives.

Do you often find yourself thinking “I have to” instead of “I choose to”? If this rings true for you, it’s likely that you’re living a life dictated by the non-essential, driven by learned helplessness. When faced with overwhelming situations, we tend to lose control over our own choices, leading to a passive approach to life.

Learned helplessness can be traced back to a series of experiments involving dogs subjected to electric shocks. As some dogs discovered they could stop the shocks using a lever, others found that their levers had no effect. When later placed in a divided box with one half being shock-free, only the dogs previously able to control the shocks or unexposed to them fled to the safe side. Dogs conditioned to believe their actions were futile remained in the shock zone, exhibiting learned helplessness.

Similarly, humans may react to situations that seem beyond their control by either giving up or accepting every opportunity, without truly exerting their power to choose the best option. To reclaim our power and regain control, we must recognize and exercise our ability to make purposeful decisions without yielding to the will of others.

The Southwest Effect

Imagine traveling back in time to invest in a company—the most profitable choice might surprise you. Southwest Airlines, not tech giants like IBM or Apple, would provide the greatest returns due to their commitment to the essentialism philosophy. By focusing on a few key tasks and executing them exceptionally well, they achieved unparalleled success. The fateful mistake of their competitors, who tried to imitate their model but couldn’t make the necessary trade-offs, became the clear evidence of Southwest’s winning strategy. Now, let’s look into how essentialism can help you find the path to accomplishment.

If given a magic wand to build your wealth, which company would you invest in? IBM? Microsoft? Apple? As it turns out, Southwest Airlines should be your sought-after destination for time travelers. This unconventional choice beat out tech titans due to their dedication to a core principle of essentialism—focusing on a small number of tasks and executing them flawlessly.

While other airlines offered amenities such as first-class seating, gourmet meals, and seat reservations, Southwest honed in on one goal—transporting passengers from point A to point B efficiently and without unnecessary extras. Over time, Southwest realized that trying to do everything would potentially fail; instead, by doing a few things exceedingly well, they could thrive in a highly competitive industry.

This selective focus required Southwest Airlines to make crucial trade-offs, which can be an uncomfortable and challenging process. The natural inclination is to assume we can handle everything; however, the company’s commitment to zeroing in on what truly mattered set it apart from competitors like Continental Airlines. When Continental attempted to replicate Southwest’s strategy, they couldn’t fully commit to essentialism. Instead of trimming down their offerings, they introduced a budget-focused subsidiary, Continental Lite, while maintaining their traditional services. Unfortunately, this division of resources ultimately made them uncompetitive, resulting in millions of dollars in losses.

Southwest’s story illustrates the perilous journey away from essentialism and the powerful results that can emerge when the focus is truly honed. In the following sections, we will explore how to rediscover the path of essentialism and reap its rewards.

Embrace Boredom for Clarity

In today’s fast-paced world, boredom might seem like a plague best avoided. However, allowing ourselves the space to be bored can actually be beneficial, as it provides an opportunity for clear thinking and problem-solving. Taking breaks and creating moments of solitude, reminiscent of the practices of great minds like Newton and Einstein, can help you navigate life’s challenges and maintain focus on the bigger picture. Consider using tools like minimalistic journaling to help you discern the essential aspects of your experiences and keep your goals in sight.

In the age of constant connectivity and technology, moments of boredom have become increasingly scarce. While it might seem like a blessing to dodge the dreariness of doing nothing, boredom has its merits. By embracing boredom, you gain the opportunity to clear your thoughts and focus on what truly needs tackling.

Allocating specific times in your day for a mental escape grants your mind the chance to reflect on your life, the challenges before you, and the decisions you must make. This invaluable practice of solitude has been used by some of the greatest intellects, such as Newton and Einstein, and is often embedded in the routines of successful CEOs. A daily dose of “blank space” can open doors to innovative ideas and solutions.

Moreover, taking these moments of escape aids in maintaining focus on the overarching objectives in life. It’s all too easy to drown in the sea of menial day-to-day tasks and lose sight of your ultimate goals. Essentialism, the art of concentrating on the bigger picture, can be achieved by deliberately devoting time to reflection.

A practical step towards essentialism is keeping a minimalist journal. Rather than chronicling every detail of your day, force yourself to write down only the most significant aspects. Sifting through the trivialities and focusing on the essential will help you construct a clearer vision of your overall path. As you review your journal, you’ll find the true essence of your journey revealing itself, making it easier to keep your goals front and center.

Embracing Play and Rest

Adults often view play as a waste of time, but essentialists understand its importance in fostering creativity and reducing stress. Successful companies like Twitter, Pixar, and Google have integrated play in their workplace culture for increased productivity. However, play should not replace rest and sleep. Prioritizing sleep is crucial as it directly impacts our cognitive functions, decision-making abilities, and overall productivity. Studies have shown that lack of sleep can lead to significant cognitive impairments, similar to having a suspended driver’s license due to alcohol levels. Embrace play and rest in order to maximize your potential and live a well-balanced life.

In our modern world, we easily fall into the trap of separating work and play, considering the latter as unproductive and frivolous. But essentialists recognize the value of play for inspiration and creative problem-solving. Play fosters the development of new connections between ideas, acts as an antidote to stress, and supports prioritization and task analysis.

Notably, giants like Twitter, Pixar, and Google have embraced play in their workspaces, offering creative activities such as improv comedy classes or decorating their offices with quirky themes. These companies understand that playful employees are more inspired, engaged, and productive.

However, the importance of rest and sleep should not be undermined. Non-essentialists view sleep as a luxury or unproductive, but this perspective is fundamentally flawed. Adequate sleep improves our thinking abilities, creativity, and productivity throughout the day. An extra hour of sleep can result in several more productive hours the following day.

Research highlights the severe consequences of sleep deprivation. Going without sleep for 24 hours or having a weekly average of just four to five hours per night can cause cognitive impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent – a level that could lead to the suspension of a driver’s license.

In conclusion, an essentialist approach emphasizes the value of both play and rest in our lives. To optimize our potential, we must embrace a balanced lifestyle that recognizes the importance of both hard work and quality downtime.

Mastering The 90-Percent Rule

We often struggle to decide what is truly important and end up keeping unnecessary items or tasks. To avoid this, adopt the 90-percent rule or set clear criteria for decision-making. Assess the most critical aspect and score it from zero to 100. If it scores less than 90, discard it. Alternatively, list three minimum requirements and three ideal criteria for an item. If it doesn’t meet the minimum requirements and at least two ideal criteria, eliminate it. These methods effectively eliminate trivial matters from your life.

Have you ever struggled to decide what’s truly essential, finding yourself drowning in seemingly important tasks and responsibilities? Picture the annual spring cleaning of your closet: you begin determined to eliminate unworn clothing, but you end up rationalizing the need for that howling-wolf shirt. How can you avoid these miscalculations?

Embrace extremity in your criteria. One powerful technique is the 90-percent rule. First, identify the most vital criterion when faced with a decision – for instance, “Will I ever wear this again?” while clearing your closet. Then, score it between zero and 100. With this rule, anything below 90 (even an 89) becomes a zero. Toss aside all items that score less than 90; this ensures you only retain the necessities.

Alternatively, follow the principle: “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.” To put this into action, outline three non-negotiable requirements and three ideal criteria that something must meet. During decision-making, it must fulfill all three basic conditions and at least two of the desired attributes.

Applying these methods helps you avoid minor matters that often slip through. Going back to the howling-wolf shirt, it most likely wouldn’t meet the following three minimum requirements: “Is it stylish?”, “Would I wear it every day?”, and “Will no one laugh at me for wearing it?” By implementing these strategies, you’ll become adept at filtering out inessential elements from your life.

Want to read the full book summary?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed