Book Summary: “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown

This book summary of “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” has several layers. It ranges from a quick overview to a detailed chapter-by-chapter analysis.

This way, you can get an overall feel for the book, or you may even decide to skip reading it altogether. You might also find the critique at the end helpful to put the presented ideas into perspective.


Please note: All the following quotes are from “Essentialism” if not otherwise stated. The graphics are based on my own ideas.

“Essentialism” in 5 Sentences

We all operate under the illusion that we can take on more and more projects.

But the reality is, there are only so many things we can accomplish in one lifetime.

Therefore, it’s our responsibility to carefully choose what we commit to, or someone else will make that choice for us.

And that means saying no to almost everything, even some very good opportunities.

By consciously limiting yourself, you become excellent at a few things, instead of being mediocre at many things.

The 10 Takeaways from “Essentialism”

Next up in this “Essentialism” book summary — the 10 lessons with the most impact.

1. Get Real About Trade-offs

You cannot have it all. Trade-offs have to be made. Most people cannot accept that fact, and just try to cram more things in. You have to become the exception.

Paradoxically, trade-offs are your way to succeed. If you completely dedicate yourself to one project, you will become the authority on it. And the reward for such expertise is high.

2 graphs comparing trade-offs: the first one when you refuse trade-offs, the second one when you accept trade-offs

2. Choose Choice

You are not the victim of your circumstances. You always have a choice. The fact that most people don’t exercise that choice is a choice in itself.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

This is the key quote from “Essentialism.”

So if you find yourself in the wrong place, realize that it is your job to fix it. Become the director of your own movie.

3. Pause and Reflect

You need to regularly take time to weigh your options. Action for the sake of action is not the goal. Action is just a way to translate your vision into reality.

So give yourself permission to sit down and think first. Then act.

4. Find Your Priority

There are no “priorities” (plural). By definition, “priority” is a singular word — there can only be one most important thing.

What is that one thing that you want more than everything else? That is what you need to figure out.

If you make that big decision, all other decisions will become easy. They will either align with your priority or they won’t.

5. Create the Ideal Setup

Build your everyday life around your priority.

Let’s say you are a writer. Make sure to block out time first thing in the morning, to create. Reserve another block of time at night for reading, to keep inspired. Also make sure there are other writers in your life, to bounce ideas around with.

In short: Come up with a daily structure that supports your goal.

If you want to learn more, check out my article about monk mode.

6. Understand the Paradox of Success

You’ve figured out your priority and you’ve thrown yourself into it. As a result, people have started to notice you and offered you all kinds of great opportunities.

But as you jump at these opportunities, you are now becoming distracted from what originally made you successful. And so your decline begins.

Be aware of this dynamic and stop it dead in its tracks.

7. Learn to Say “No”

Don’t allow other people to pull you into their world of needs and wants. Tell them “No.” There are several socially acceptable ways to do that.

But ultimately, you might have to choose disappointing people in the short term for success in the long term.

8. Sleep

There is a common misconception among non-essentialists — the less I sleep, the more I will get done. The opposite is true. The better rested you are, the more you will get done. It is not so much about the number of hours available to you as it is about how well you execute during these hours.

Realize that willpower cannot override biology, not in the long run. If you want to accomplish great things, you need to get a good night of sleep, every night.

9. Always Plan for a Buffer

When planning for anything, we always assume the best-case scenario. But just because we managed to race to the supermarket in five minutes that one time doesn’t mean it will always happen. More likely, an unexpected event like a traffic jam will occur.

Therefore, plan for the worst-case scenario by giving yourself a generous buffer. If you plan for a phone call to take an hour, make it one and a half hours. This way, all the important things will get done.

10. Acknowledge Your Mortality

At its core, the idea of Essentialism refers to the brevity of life. Our time is limited. So it’s imperative to use that resource wisely. Only by acknowledging death can we make tough decisions and be content with them.

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

Want a more detailed “Essentialism” book summary? Then this chapter-by-chapter guide is for you. Read it all or click into the chapters that interest you the most.

1 The Essentialist

2 Choose — The Invincible Power of Choice

3 Discern — The Unimportance of Practically Everything

4 Trade-Off — Which Problem Do I Want?

5 Escape — The Perks of Being Unavailable

6 Look — See What Really Matters

7 Play — Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child

8 Sleep — Protect the Asset

9 Select — The Power of Extreme Criteria

10 Clarify — One Decision That Makes a Thousand

11 Dare — The Power of a Graceful “No”

12 Uncommit — Win Big by Cutting Your Losses

13 Edit — The Invisible Art

14 Limit — The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

15 Buffer — The Unfair Advantage

16 Subtract — Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles

17 Progress — The Power of Small Wins

18 Flow — The Genius of Routine

19 Focus — What’s Important Now?

20 Be — The Essentialist Life

Chapter 1: The Essentialist

The way of the Essentialist rejects the idea that we can fit it all in. Instead, it requires us to grapple with real trade-offs and make tough decisions.

It’s crucial to understand — not all projects in life are created equal. Some may be good, a few might be very good, but the vast majority are meaningless.

At all times in your life, you need to discern the vital few from the trivial many. This idea is perfectly summed up by the German phrase “Weniger aber besser” = “less but better” (which is also the tenet of Extreme Minimalism).

Interestingly, some of us get it right initially, but then lose our way. We start out doing one thing very well. As we reap the benefits for this, we are presented with more and more opportunities. And before we know it, we abandon the laser-like focus that made us successful in the first place.

Chapter 2: Choose — The Invincible Power of Choice

Essentialism is about choosing — pick one option, reject all others. If you refuse to make that choice, you will remain mediocre at everything.

Unfortunately, most of us suffer from learned helplessness. We think we have no choice, when, in reality, we always have a choice.

There is another avoidance mechanism. Some people will take every opportunity presented. But since they are saying “Yes” to everything, they aren’t making a choice either.

If you want to be an Essentialist, you need to learn how to choose, however difficult that may be.

Chapter 3: Discern — The Unimportance of Practically Everything

Just working harder will not get you there. Instead, ask yourself:

“Is there a point at which doing less (but thinking more) will actually produce better outcomes?”

A few things — the vital few — are responsible for the vast majority of the results:

A graph showing how the vital few are responsible for the majority of your results

[On a side note, this dynamic is also referred to as Price’s law.]

So you need to identify these vital few:

This is why an Essentialist takes the time to explore all his options. […] An Essentialist, in other words, discerns more so he can do less.

This is the essence of a minimalist mindset.

Chapter 4: Trade-Off — Which Problem Do I Want?

If you refuse to choose, others will choose for you — your family, friends, bosses, etc. They will make you focus on something you would never have picked.

We try to weasel out of this by having several “top priorities.” But priority is a singular word. If you have numerous “priorities,” they cease to be priorities.

Make this simple by asking yourself: “Which problem do I want?” Or in the words of economist Thomas Sowell: “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.”

Chapter 5: Escape — The Perks of Being Unavailable

Most of us are constantly distracted by busywork and technology.

One leader I worked with admitted to staying with a company five years too long. Why? Because he was so busy in the company he didn’t take time to decide whether he should be with the company.

Regularly pause, sit down, and reflect. That could be half an hour each morning or a two-week retreat each year.

This way, you can make time for what you really want, instead of living your life on autopilot.

Chapter 6: Look — See What Really Matters

To understand what is essential, you must truly look at the situation.

There are a couple of ways to do this:

  • Look for what journalists call the “lead,” the one piece of information that puts everything into perspective.
  • Pay attention to what is not being said. The essential facts tend to hide between the lines.
  • Start a journaling habit, to recognize recurring themes in your life.
  • Don’t just think about a situation. Get in the field and experience it. Nothing beats real-life exposure.
  • Pay attention to abnormal details. They might lead you to the heart of the matter.
  • Clarify the question. The clearer you are what you are looking for, the better your chances of success.

Chapter 7: Play — Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child

“Play” — i.e., anything we just do for joy — is an essential activity. It helps us to explore new options, it’s an antidote to stress and it facilitates brain function.

Make a point to incorporate play into your life.

Chapter 8: Sleep — Protect the Asset

Your sleep is your most important asset. If you don’t protect it, all other areas in your life will suffer.

Physiologically, sleep deprivation is like being drunk. On the other hand, one hour of extra sleep gives you several more hours of being productive.

Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritise.

Chapter 9: Select — The Power of Extreme Criteria

If your response to a decision is not an enthusiastic “Yes,” it should be a “No.” You should either feel utter conviction or you should walk away from it.

It can help to evaluate decisions on a scale from 0 to 10. Only 9 and 10 make the cut.

Chapter 10: Clarify — One Decision That Makes a Thousand

You want to develop “essential intent,” i.e., a mission statement for your life. But unlike a traditional mission statement, essential intent is not a collection of vague buzzwords. It states your goal as concretely as possible, while still being inspiring enough to get you moving.

An example: Instead of “eliminate hunger in the world,” you could go with “build 150 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward.”

Essential intent should function as the compass of your life. Once you find it, all other decisions will fall into place.

Chapter 11: Dare — The Power of a Graceful “No”

You should say “No” to most requests that come your way.

There are five strategies to make this easier on yourself:

  1. Separate the decision from the relationship. Focus on the validity of the request, not the person asking it.
  2. Politely refuse a request without using a blunt “No.”
  3. Predict the future. What will this “Yes” really cost me? If it’s too much, decline.
  4. Accept that oftentimes you need to trade short-term popularity for long-term respect.
  5. Remember — a clear “No” can be better for a relationship than stringing someone along.

Also, learn the following eight canned responses, so you are never at a loss when someone tries to ambush you:

  1. When someone tries to get a “Yes” out of you, pause for several seconds. This will give you time to consider.
  2. Get back to people using email. It is easier to give and receive a “No” through this channel, because of the social distance.
  3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” This also buys you time.
  4. Set an auto email responder explaining that you are currently working on an important project.
  5. “Yes. What should I deprioritise?” Best for saying “No” to managers you can technically not refuse. It forces them to grapple with the productivity losses they are trying to impose on you.
  6. Defuse with humor. This can help both of you save face.
  7. “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.” An example: “You are welcome to borrow my car. I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you.” Implying that you will not drive the person yourself.
  8. “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.” Direct them to someone else.

Chapter 12: Uncommit — Win Big by Cutting Your Losses

Most of us suffer from sunk-cost bias. We continue to put time, money or energy into something that will clearly not work out, simply because we already invested into it.

Possible solutions are:

  • Ask yourself: “If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?” Likewise: “If I wasn’t already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?” This puts things into perspective.
  • Get over your fear of waste. We all sometimes invest in a bad project. Don’t make it worse by clinging to it. Just move on.
  • Learn to admit mistakes to yourself, so you can move onto better things.
  • Instead of forcing a fit, get a second opinion. A neutral bystander can help you see your misjudgment.
  • Evaluate the status quo.

Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.

  • Stop making casual commitments on the go. If it’s not related to your essential intent, say “No.”
  • Run a “reverse pilot test.” For a few days, stop a current commitment, just to see if something bad happens. If not, eliminate it.

Chapter 13: Edit — The Invisible Art

Like a movie editor, you should cut out redundant material in your life:

  • Cut out options — cut out what clouds your purpose.
  • Condense — if you can say it in one sentence instead of two, keep it short. If you can live with fewer material things, declutter. If you can skip the meeting, do so.
  • Correct — guided by your essential intent, constantly make course corrections.
  • Edit less — know when to show restraint. Some things are good as they are.

Chapter 14: Limit — The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

To protect your priorities (and your peace), you need to set boundaries. There are four strategies when doing so:

  1. Realize that other people’s problems belong with them, not you. If you take the problem away from them, they will never be able to learn from it.
  2. Don’t fear boundaries — freedom requires them. Within a well-chosen territory, you can roam at will.
  3. Define your deal-breakers. You need to be clear about what you are willing to do and what not.
  4. State expectations. By clearly telling the other person what you want, you create more mutual understanding.

Chapter 15: Buffer — The Unfair Advantage

Things will never go as expected. You should plan for that by always having a buffer.

These tips help with that:

  • Never assume the best-case scenario. Always assume something will go wrong.
A comparison of how straightforward our plans look like on paper with the very messy path we take in reality
  • We all tend to underestimate how long a task will take or how much a project will end up costing. Therefore, add a 50 percent buffer to everything you do. If your conference call is supposed to be one hour, plan for an hour and a half.
  • With every project you take on, do a thorough risk analysis. Ask yourself:
    • What are the risks here?
    • What is the worst-case scenario?
    • What are the social consequences if the project fails?
    • What are the financial consequences?
    • How can I reduce these risks?

Chapter 16: Subtract — Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles

Every project has a bottleneck. By removing this constraint, you will maximize the output.

The three-step process is:

  1. Always have an essential intent — a desired outcome that is both concrete and motivating. Only then will you know when your objective has been reached.
  2. Before you jump into a project, take the time to identify hidden constraints. Make a list. Then identify the one with the most negative impact.
  3. Remove that constraint — for example, by ditching your desire for perfectionism, cutting out a time-waster or hiring someone.

Chapter 17: Progress — The Power of Small Wins

… the reality is, the more we reach for the stars, the harder it is to get ourselves off the ground.

You need to start small. Tiny wins will keep you going. Lofty goals will paralyze you.

Use these techniques:

  • Identify the minimum amount of effort necessary to move a project forward. It is better to get a quick start than to be stuck in analysis paralysis.
  • With project planning, start early. Invest ten minutes at the beginning that will save you hours of work down the line.
  • Put up a large calendar. Every day you stick with the plan, you get to put a large red X on that calendar. This is to visually reward yourself for your progress.

Chapter 18: Flow — The Genius of Routine

A well-chosen routine has several benefits:

  • You automatically know what to do.
  • It helps you to get in the zone.
  • You free up headspace for new tasks.

Here is how you create a healthy routine:

  • Pay attention to what triggers a certain bad habit. Then reconnect that cue to a better habit. For example, if boredom triggers Netflix binge-watching, rewire that cue to reading a book.
  • Create new triggers. Set an alarm each day on your phone to start journaling or working out.
  • Always start with the most difficult task. This way, you are still fresh and can throw all your willpower at it.
  • If a routine grows stale, change it up a little bit. You need to find the right balance between automatization and motivation.
  • Change one habit at a time. Modifying multiple habits simultaneously will cause mental overload.

Chapter 19: Focus — What’s Important Now?

If you constantly ponder past events and worry about the future, you will miss the present moment. You need to zoom in on what is important now.

These techniques will help with that:

  • Put your ducks in a row. When you feel overwhelmed, look at all the things pulling you in different directions. Write them down. Order them by importance. Then execute them one by one.
  • Do a brain dump. When ideas for future projects keep popping up in your head, write them down in one central place. This is to unburden your mental RAM.
  • Take conscious breaks. Several times throughout the day, pause. Just watch your breathing, feel your body and watch your thoughts pass by.

Chapter 20: Be — The Essentialist Life

Don’t think of Essentialism as a set of tactics. Think of it as a way of life. Your whole existence should reflect the axiom of “less but better.”

In many ways, to live as an Essentialist in our too-many-things-all-the-time society is an act of quiet revolution.

When following the path of the Essentialist, remember two things. In the end, nothing matters but those we love. And whatever you do, your time on this planet is limited. Everything else is already non-essential.


This book summary of “Essentialism” wouldn’t be complete without a few critical observations. There are six ways in which the text could have been improved.

1. Accept the Messiness

The text pins a lot of its hopes on the power of reason. If we just sat down and made a list, soon clarity would follow.

The reality is less rational. Conflicting emotions pull us in different directions. Personal delusions cloud our judgement. Unresolved traumas still haunt us.

Just sitting down and making a list will not solve that. Difficult, sometimes painful inner work might.

2. Stay On Topic

The book should have been more to the point: We cannot do it all. Make some hard decisions. Implement these. Done.

Instead, we get very general life advice on building good habits, on how to be more playful, on being in the moment, and so on. It is not always clear how these truisms connect to the core message.

“Essentialism” shines when it talks about how we try to do too many things. Unfortunately, that’s where the book itself fails. It does too many things.

3. Keep It Actionable

The book is too vague when it comes to matters of implementation. It’s great to say, “You should create a setup for yourself where you remove obstacles in order to make your highest contribution.”

But what does that actually look like?

There are books out there that do a better job at this. For example, “The One Thing” by Gary Keller. Here you do get practical advice about how to prioritize, how to time block and how to recuperate.

4. Be Consistent

There are several logical inconsistencies in “Essentialism.” Just one example — for a large portion of the book, McKeown advises us to think long-term, to plan for the future. Then in Chapter 19, he suddenly takes a Buddhist turn and tells us to focus on the present moment.

I am not saying these two viewpoints cannot be reconciled. But McKeown makes no attempt to do so.

5. Dare To Deviate

The concept of Essentialism is a radical one. It is about discovering yourself, your deepest desires and fears. And then unapologetically building a life around what you found.

There is little of that in “Essentialism,” the book. It is too stuck in the American middle-class dream of go to college, find a good job, start a family, save up for retirement. That paradigm is never put into question.

6. Show Yourself — Or Not

In Chapter 2, McKeown describes a turning point in his life. While visiting the US, he encountered “an executive for a non-profit educational group,” who during a meeting in a “high-rise office building” invited him to join him on a “consultation committee.” This led to McKeown quitting law school in the UK and moving to the States.

Now read about the same encounter in this interview with McKeown for a platform associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“It really started right when I came home from my mission and enrolled in law school and I just was so hungry to […] maintain the sense of mission. […] I went back to visit somebody in the church office building and they said […] look, if you do decide to stay in America you should come and help us with this event.” […] “And really what I think that moment came down to […] ‘Are you going to do the Lord’s will and the Lord’s work in the Lord’s time?'”

Everybody is of course free to believe whatever they want. But be upfront about it. Or, if you think it will alienate your audience, leave it out completely. But don’t retell a story by watering it down.

Read It Anyway!

Despite these criticisms, “Essentialism” is a great book, well worth reading. The core message, that we must consciously choose which trade-offs we want, is spot on. For that, it’s one of the best books currently out there.

About the Author

Portrait of Greg McKeown, author of "Essentialism"
Greg McKeown by Bibbines77, licensed under CC BY 3.0

Greg McKeown is the author of two books: the aforementioned “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” (2014) and the more recent “Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most” (2021). He also co-authored “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter” (2010) with Liz Wiseman. All three books went on to become New York Times bestsellers.

In addition to his writing, McKeown works as a leadership consultant and public speaker in Silicon Valley. Prior to this, he was employed by Heidrick & Struggles, an international executive search firm.

McKeown was born in 1977 in London, into a Mormon family. He went on mission in Toronto, Canada, before returning to England for law school. During a visit to the US, he decided to quit law school and emigrate. He then attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where he did his undergraduate studies in journalism. He completed his graduate studies at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

McKeown is married and a father of four. He has served as a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and currently holds the position of Elder’s Quorum President.

Suggested Reading

If this “Essentialism” book summary struck a chord with you, here are some more books you might enjoy:

  • “The One Thing” by Gary Keller. As mentioned above, this is a good one if you want to get into the nitty-gritty of prioritizing. It complements the more theoretical approach of “Essentialism.”
  • “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. Allen picks up another loose end of “Essentialism,” namely how to incorporate both the essential and the mundane into a comprehensive system for self-management. It’s a dry read but also a complete game-changer.
  • “The Slight Edge” by Jeff Olson. This book focuses on daily execution. Big goals are not reached by heroic efforts, but by showing up consistently. Not super deep, but it drives home an important point.
  • “The Compound Effect” by Darren Hardy. Very similar in message to “The Slight Edge.” But still worth checking out, if only for the more entertaining, slightly over-the-top voice of the author.

Did you like this “Essentialism” book summary? Then leave me a comment! I would love to discuss your take on the book with you.

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