Essentialism by Greg McKeown

@April 15, 2020



I picked up Essentialism by Greg McKeown because I strongly relate to the problem it tries to address. Today, there’s always pressure to do more things. To learn more, to exercise more, to work more. This pressure builds into stress, and makes it difficult to excel in any particular area.

Sometimes it comes disguised as an opportunity. For example, the chance to take on more responsibility at work or attend a conference. This makes it even more difficult to say no.

The Essentialist’s thesis roughly boils down to these two steps:

  1. Set a few short and long term goals. These should be goals you’re inspired by. Ideally, at least one leverages your skills and meets a need in the world. Building clarity of purpose will help you say no to what’s non-essential.
  2. Say no, when possible, to anything that doesn’t help you move towards your goals. Have a set of clear criteria for taking on anything new. Consider the trade-offs you’re making by saying yes to this new thing.

[W]hen we don’t have a clear sense of our goals, our aspirations, and our values — we make up our own social games. We waste time and energy on trying to look good in comparison to other people... As a result, we neglect activities that are truly essential...

While I’m a strong believer in the thesis, and I think McKeown describes it well, I gave Essentialism a 3 out 5 because it could have been much shorter. It's hard to miss the irony when the book begins by describing Dieter Rams' philosophy of "Less, but better". After 100 pages, the examples grow tiresome and dilute the overall message.