6 Key Takeaways From Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

When it comes to books about minimalism as a mindset, not many come close to Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. Well-written and full of practical lessons, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less outlines the “less but better” approach. Focus your energy on the essentials, and you’ll become more productive, more serene, and more successful.

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The term “essentialism” has various meanings. The word dates back to ancient Greek philosophy when Plato characterized the “essence” as an ideal form with essential properties. 

As an example, we cannot draw a perfect circle by hand, but we have its ideal form and its essential properties in mind. 

Many philosophical streams refute this notion, but it nonetheless endured as a classical definition of essentialism. 

British business strategist Greg McKeown disconnects essentialism from its classical roots and transposes the idea into the 21st century. 

His 2014 New York Times bestseller Essentialism is not a philosophical book but a strategic guide on how to live an essentialist life. 

The aim is to pursue the essence of a goal instead of trying to accomplish it all at once. 

6 Key Takeaways from Essentialism by Greg McKeown - train tracks grayscale
Picture by Matthew Bedford / Unsplash

How to live an essentialist life – 6 main lessons from McKeown’s Essentialism 

The following are six of the most usable takeaways from Essentialism. There are many more, but those are the ones that reflect McKeown’s essentialist approach best. 

1. Learn the difference between hyperactivity and productivity

In our uber-connected, ambition-crazy world, we often mistake hyperactivity for productivity

We subconsciously associate more work with more results. We believe that the more hours we put in, the better our output. 

This attitude is intrinsically flawed. By trying to do as much as possible, we don’t streamline our efforts. 

Let’s take the example of reading. 

Five books contain more knowledge than one. Consequently, a hyperactive approach would be to read all five as quickly as possible. That way, we’ll be sure to suck up all the wisdom and get more value from our reading activity. 

However, by trying to read those five books in a short period, we don’t have time to take notes. Worse still, we don’t have the reading focus required to digest the books’ lessons. 

Reading one of the five is the essentialist solution. By taking the time to read that book properly, we’ll allow our brains to let the knowledge sink in. 

Over time, we’ll benefit more from having digested one book properly than from flying through five books – a perfect manifestation of the Pareto rule

2. Discern the “Vital Few” from the “Trivial Many”

In Essentialism, Greg McKeown argues that – contrary to popular opinion – essentialists have more options than non-essentialists. 

Non-Essentialists get excited by virtually everything and thus react to everything. But because they are so busy pursuing every opportunity and idea, they actually explore less.“

In this line of thought, essentialists “go big” on a few vital projects instead of trying to commit to many, less critical endeavors. 

The first step to achieve this essentialist commitment is to create space to focus. 

McKeown cites the example of Isaac Newton, who isolated himself from the world to think. During the Great Plague, Newton quarantined at home for an entire year. 

Scientists would later refer to Newton’s isolation as his “Wonder Year” – the year in which he discovered the theory of gravity and became the world’s most forward-thinking mathematician. 

In that same vein, essentialists create space to focus their energy on vital activities. 

Family time means no professional calls at night. A proper morning routine excludes emails and social media before breakfast. And essentialist work ethics mean saying no to your colleague’s tenth one-off favor request. 

3. If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no

Another great takeaway from Essentialism concerns our decision-making process. 

Instead of deciding according to half-hearted cues, we should set clear criteria that will result in an unequivocal yes or no.

In this regard, McKeown argues the following:

“Applying tougher criteria to life’s big decisions allows us better to tap into our brain’s sophisticated search engine. Think of it as the difference between conducting a Google search for “good restaurant in New York City” and “best slice of pizza in downtown Brooklyn.”

The reasoning continues with the importance of asking relevant questions. 

As such, if we seek new career opportunities, we should ask the following: 

  • What am I deeply passionate about?
  • What taps my talent?
  • What meets a significant need in the world?

Ergo, if you need to make a critical decision, apply strict criteria, and fulfill those criteria by asking the right questions. 

Person standing in front of mountains - key takeaways from Essentialism - how to live an essentialist life
Picture by Bel Ragay / Unsplash

4. Apply a zero-based ownership and budgeting model 

McKeown’s essentialist approach works well in the context of minimalism thanks to its zero-based ownership and budgeting model. 

The concept is straightforward. 

If you didn’t already own an item, would you still buy it? If you hadn’t already invested money and energy in a project, would you continue nonetheless? And finally, if you hadn’t already spent time in a relationship, would you restart the same relationship today? 

This zero-based model allows us to take a step back and analyze life’s challenges with clarity. 

If you want to consume more intentionally, ask yourself whether you would get rid of an item if you hadn’t already paid for it. 

By applying zero-based consumption criteria, you learn how to establish buying rules.

5. Set clear boundaries in your life 

Essentialism goes hand in hand with well-defined boundaries

An essentialist is not an egoist or an individualist, but his or her boundaries are clear. 

Whether it’s at work, in your social life, or in your leisure time, saying no is not a weakness. It is a crucial part of liberating yourself from the things that don’t matter to you.

There is always that co-worker who puts everything on your desk and expects you to be available 24/7. Guess what, if you never set boundaries and always say yes, you’ll always act according to someone else’s priorities, not your own.

McKeown’s approach consists of setting clear boundaries in advance to eliminate the need for a direct “no.” 

By pre-defining your priorities and their limits at work and in your personal life, your essentialist approach will be self-evident, and you’ll avoid the conflicts that ensue when your boundaries change over time. 

6. Do fewer things better

Finally, the most life-changing takeaway from Essentialism is the willingness to do fewer things better. 

Take your professional life as an example. 

How many projects are you working on right now? How many people depend on you? And how strong do you commit to each part of your job? 

We can all find ways to do fewer things better. Sometimes, slowing down is the answer to achieving better results. 

By doing fewer things, you can develop some of the most potent attributes when it comes to leadership and productivity. You can design a clear strategy for your project. Because you are focusing on a few select activities, your system will be well-thought-out, not rushed. 

Going back to your working life, doing fewer things allows you to communicate better and empower yourself and other people more. 

If you are the leader, you’ll have more time to communicate your strategy correctly, and this, in turn, will enable other people to take more responsibility. 

This improved communication will also lead to more accountability for the leader and her associates.

Finally, doing fewer things in life will help you achieve better results. 

Because an essentialist approach guarantees a unified effort towards a clear-cut objective, the results will be more satisfying. 

Let’s take the example of sports. 

If you are trying to train for a marathon and a climbing experience at the same time, chances are, you’ll achieve neither. You’ll make progress in both directions, but never enough to reach the final goal. 

If you, on the other hand, direct all your effort toward the New York Marathon or Everest, you’re in with a shout of achieving one of them. 

Final thoughts on Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less 

  • Essentialism is one of the best books I read this year, thanks to its exciting take on the “fewer but better” approach and its congruence with my vision of minimalism
  • Its lessons are clear and easy-to-understand but also well-illustrated with insightful examples. 
  • In conclusion, to live as an essentialist, we need to pinpoint the areas that truly matter to us and direct our energy toward them. 

Useful links on 6 Key Takeaways From Essentialism

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