Essentialism, by Greg McKeown

Why I read it

I follow many people on Twitter who have enjoyed similar books to my favourites: Think Again by Adam Grant, or Atomic Habits by James Clear, for example. What they seem to share unanimously is raving positivity about Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. I’ve read some excellent reviews and summaries of the book over the last year or so, but hadn’t quite found time to read it – you’ll appreciate the irony of that as you read on.

Opportunities come thick and fast in our lives – both within and outside our professional roles. We often feel like we do lots of things but never have much to show for them, or that we could do things better if we focused more on the few and not the many. I was intrigued to see how a busy educator could become an ‘Essentialist’.

In summary

Indeed, McKeown sets out to help us do just that: ‘only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, can you make your highest contribution to the things that really matter’. The book is split into four parts: understanding the essence of what the essentialist mind-set is; discerning which are our most important opportunities or tasks; eliminating the trivial; and finally, how to make the tasks / opportunities that we pursue as effortless as possible.

The prose is clean, the chapters are divided clearly with subheadings, tables are used to distinguish essentialist and non-essentialist traits, and there is a wealth of practical advice. McKeown also refers to research, studies, and many real-life anecdotes, as you’d expect from this type of book. However, he manages to inform and entertain in equal measure – all the while convincing you – no, empowering you, that you can take better control of your time, choices, opportunities, so that your quality of life and output increase.

Key takeaways

As with the other books that I consider to be the best I’ve read, it really isn’t fair of me to share 3-4 key takeaways alone. My aim is to outline what I found the most insightful, and then urge you to go and read the rest of this excellent book.

1. Do less: we need to move away from ‘I have to’, ‘It’s all important’, or ‘I can do both’ and become more disciplined about how we use our time. Part of this is merely taking control of what we say yes to: being resolute and saying no to requests, or pinpointing which tasks to pursue and which to pull away from. A good question is: ‘Will this activity make the highest contribution towards my goal?’

2.  Discern the important: ‘Scan your environment for the vital few good opportunities, and eagerly eliminate the trivial many’, says McKeown, as he advises us that essentialists view almost everything as non-essential, and therefore do not allow these to consume their time. This is easier said than done. Accepting speaking engagements, contributing to someone else’s work, taking on side projects, or even running many tasks simultaneously, are all possible examples of non-essential activities that may distract you from what really matters. The reader is pushed to eliminate distractions and the unnecessary; it certainly is challenging.

3. Time to reflect: McKeown recognises that many people quantify their productivity by how busy they are, filling their diary with meetings and projects. However, an essentialist puts quality time aside to read, reflect, explore their thoughts. When was the last time you put time aside to reflect? Coaching has taught me a lot about the power of reflection and pushing your brain to think harder; but the real challenge is building in regular reflection time. Here’s my new challenge: to sit with a pen and pad for 10 minutes a day and reflect on if I moved towards my goals, or if I accidentally veered off into the trivial!

4. Living as an essentialist: The final section of the book is aimed at you, once you have got into your essentialist mindset. You’ve focused on what really matters, you’ve turned down trivial opportunities or tasks, and you’re clear about what you need to pursue. McKeown rounds up Essentialism by advising us to build in strong routines, put in a buffer time of 50% extra so that overrunning activities have already been protected, and to keep aiming at gradual, incremental success so that we can continue to feel motivated in small, achievable steps.  He genuinely seems committed to us fulfilling the mission of becoming essentialists, and not just so that we can be more ‘productive’. He regularly talks about the benefits of this way of living: more time to spend on hobbies, or seeing our family more often; the book isn’t a business hack, but a way to improve our wellbeing, motivation, happiness, and success.

Favourite quote

‘Less but better’ – this quote comes from designer Dieter Rams, whose own design principles were based on the phrase – it is a fantastic encapsulation of essentialism.

Favourite moment

I enjoyed the mindset shift that McKeown challenges us with. If the answer isn’t a definite yes, it should be a no. He dubs this the 90% rule: evaluate every opportunity or decision by scoring its relevance or importance between 0 and 100. If an option gets below 90, don’t pursue it.

He encourages us to be ruthless with this approach, and to operate with narrow, precise criteria, so that it will become clear to us whether a task or opportunity is one to pursue or not.

Of course, the effects of this will not always feel positive. Sometimes we will need to turn down colleagues’ requests, or withdraw from being part of something that ‘feels’ exciting. But McKeown argues that the benefits of being an essentialist mean that we must dare to say no, relinquish short-term feelings of popularity, and show courage in the convictions that we’ve reflected on.

Read this if…

It’s easy to read Essentialism and think: ‘well I’m a teacher, I can’t change my timetable or say no to things during the day’. But we can make changes to our mindset to help us become more focused on what really matters.

Read this book if you want insights, and some motivation, into how to reclaim your time and focus.

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