Why You Need to Read: Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Hey, hey you. Focus!

Essentialism is one of those books that I come back to and re-read a few times a year. And the reason I say I “re-read it”, is because this book is more like a meditation. In this episode I’ll gives highlights, takeaways and read some quotes from Essentialism.

What’s in the book?

The hardcover version of the book comes in at around 246 pages. There are quite a lot of full page diagrams, and drawings along the way — so it doesn’t FEEL like a dense dense read.

The book itself is divided into 4 parts:

  1. Essence — What does it mean to be an essentialist (most of which I’m covering in this podcast episode)?
  2. Explore — Tips and inspiration on how to find the most essential parts of your life
  3. Eliminate — (This section I really loved) the book gives tips and inspiration on how to say “no”, how to uncommit, and the art of editing
  4. Execute — Tips and inspiration to help you progress and focus on the things you choose to do.

Each chapter with examples, stories, case studies, and large full page quotes that help give context to these two column definitions.

What do I cover in this episode of the podcast?

  • The main gist of the book
  • An overview of the four main parts of the book
  • Quotes and stories from the book
  • At the end I’ll do a kind of oral meditation for you, contrasting an essentialist and a nonessentialist. I imagine that if you like this, you might come back to this part of the podcast and relisten to it a few times.

Essentialism vs. NonEssentialism

In every chapter of Essentialism the author (Greg McKeown) comes back to defining the difference between an essentialist and a nonessentialist. And he does this with two column diagrams, literally juxtaposing the differences. For example, an essentialist thinks, “I choose to [do something].”, while a nonessentialist thinks, “I have to [do something].” (On and on with contrasting back and forth with definitions like this).

The Nonessentialist


  • I have to.
  • It’s all important.
  • How can I fit it all in?

The Essentialist


  • I choose to.
  • Only a few things really matter.
  • What are the trade offs?

Essentialism on having multiple priorities

“Everything was important, as a result you get stretched thinner and thinner. He was making a millimeter of progress in a million directions.” (12)

When faced with too much work, or two conflicting problems to solve:

“A nonessentialist approaches every trade-off by asking, “How can I do both?” Essentialists ask the tougher but ultimately more liberating question, “Which problem do I want?”[55]

Avoiding Commitment Traps

Over seven pages, McKeown gives us tips for avoiding commitment traps. Two of my favorites from this chapter include:

Pretend like you don’t own it yet — how much do you value this object? Ask yourself, if I didn’t own this how much would I pay to obtain it? If I wasn’t involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?

Get over the fear of waste — You buy a bus ticket to DC for $100 for the weekend, and then something comes up, a local party for $20 that you think you’ll avoid more. but you think you’ll enjoy the $50 more, but you do the $100. Waste, RGA… MVP.

Tips on saying “no”

The right no spoken at the right time can change the course of history. [131]

  1. The awkward pause — when a request comes to you (in person), just pause for a moment. Count to three before deciding. If you’re bold, just wait for the other person to fill the void.
  2. The soft “no” (or the “no but”) — Imagine someone asks you for coffee (but you don’t want to go). Here’s an example reply, “I am consumed with writing my book right now.”
  3. But I would love to get together once the book is finished. Let me know if we can get together towards the end of the summer.”
  4. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”
  5. Use e-mail bouncebacks — set an out of office message, eg. “Subject line: In Monk Mode. Dear Friends, I am currently working on a new book which has put enormous burdens on my time. Unfortunately, I am unable to respond in the manner I would like. For this, I apologize. –Greg.”
  6. Say, “Yes. What should I de-prioritize?” — or “I would want to do a great job, and given my other commitments I wouldn’t be able to do a job I was proud of if I took this on.”
  7. Say it with humor — eg. “Nope!”
  8. Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y” — If someone asks you for a ride (but you don’t want to give them a ride.) You could say, “You are welcome to borrow my car. I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you.” This is a good way to navigate a request you somewhat would like to support but not fully.
  9. “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.” [143]


Title: Essentialism
Author: Greg McKeown
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Crown Business; 1 edition (April 15, 2014)

Buy Essentialism on Amazon
Listen to Essentialism on Audible (free trial)