What Essentialism by Greg McKeown taught me

  • September 16, 2015
  • by Kamil Rudnicki
  • No comments

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

How often do you say yes simply to please? Or to avoid trouble? Or because “yes” had just become your default response?

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

Less but better.

  • “Suddenly, the ratio of hours to pounds changed from 1:1 to 1:6. I had just learned a crucial lesson: certain types of effort yield higher rewards than others.”

Distinguishing the trivial many from the vital few (how to filter the essential information from the nonessential noise?)

  • explore and evaluate “Do I love this?” and “Do I look great in it?” and “Do I wear this often?”
  • “It’s all important,”
  • ->
  • “Only a few things really matter,”
  • “I can do both.”  -> “I can do anything but not everything.”
  • You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.
  • “So I asked myself, “What is the most valuable result I could achieve in this job?” It turned out to be winning back customers who wanted to cancel. So I worked hard at convincing customers not to cancel, and soon I achieved a zero rate of cancellation. Since I was paid for each client I retained, I learned more, earned more, and contributed more.”
  • “In his book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins explores what went wrong in companies that were once darlings of Wall Street but later collapsed.3 He finds that for many, falling into “the undisciplined pursuit of more” was a key reason for failure. This is true for companies and it is true for the people who work in them.”
  • “Now when a request would come in he would pause and evaluate the request against a tougher criteria: “Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?”
  • Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize.
  • If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our body, mind, spirit, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution.


  • Find time to think
    • Why? And the noisier things get, the more we need to build quiet reflection spaces in which we can truly focus.
    • Deliberately setting aside distraction-free time in a distraction-free space to do absolutely nothing other than think, explore, ponder, listening, debating. The purpose of the exploration is to discern the vital few from the trivial many.
    • Bill Gates seclude himself for a week and do nothing but read articles (his record is 112) and books, study technology, and think about the bigger picture.
  • Scan to find the essence of the information
    • In every set of facts, something essential is hidden. And a good journalist knows that
    • finding it involves exploring those pieces of information and figuring out the relationships between them
    • (and my undergraduate degree was in journalism, so I take this seriously). It means making those relationships and connections explicit. It means constructing the whole from the sum of its parts and understanding how these different pieces come together to matter to anyone. It means takes a deep understanding of the topic, its context, its fit into the bigger picture.  he best journalists do not simply relay information. Their value is in discovering what really matters to people.
    • Training yourself to look for “the lead,”
    • you will suddenly find yourself able to see what you have missed. You’ll be able to do more than simply see the dots of each day: you’ll also connect them to see the trends. Instead of just reacting to the facts, you’ll be able to focus on the larger issues that really matter.
    • Stop and ask: what question are you trying to answer?
  • Get out into the field
  • In life take an hour to read your journal.
  • Focus on broader patterns and trends.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of all the main players
  • in a story in order to understand their motives, reasoning, point.
  • eliminate
  • “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?”
  • If the answer isn’t a definite yes then it should be a no. Is this exactly what I am looking for? If it isn’t a clear yes, then it is a clear no.
  • Play
  • expands our minds in ways that allow us to explore: to germinate new ideas or see old ideas in a new light. It makes us more inquisitive, more attuned to novelty, more engaged. Play is fundamental to living the way of the Essentialist because it fuels exploration in at least three specific ways.
  • First, play broadens the range of options available to us. It helps us to see possibilities we otherwise wouldn’t have seen and make connections we would otherwise not have made. It opens our minds and broadens our perspective. It helps us challenge old assumptions and makes us more receptive to untested ideas. It gives us permission to expand our own stream of consciousness and come up with new stories. Or as Albert Einstein once said: “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”6
  • Second, play is an antidote to stress, and this is key because stress, in addition to being an enemy of productivity, can actually shut down the creative, inquisitive, exploratory parts of our brain. You know how it feels[…]”
  • play has a positive impact on execution function of the brain
  • What did you do as a child that excited you? How you can recreate that today?

Ignoring the reality of trade offs is a terrible strategy.

  • Requires us to be vigilant about acknowleding to reality of trade-offs.
  • Which problem do you want?
  • “Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?”
  • “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?” An Essentialist makes trade-offs deliberately. She acts for herself rather than waiting to be acted upon. As economist Thomas Sowell wrote: “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.”
  • “I have to,” ->  “I choose to,”


  • 90 Percent Rule, and it’s one you can apply to just about every decision or dilemma. As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it.
  • Opportunity knocs
  • a Nonessentialist may operate by the implicit criterion, “If my manager asks me to do it, then I should do it.” Or even more broadly, “If someone asks me to do something, I should try to do it.” Or still more broadly, “If other people in the company are doing it, I should be doing it.

DARE the power of greceful no

  • I say no very easily because
  • I know what is important to me
  • . I only wish that I learned how to do that earlier in my life. when we have strong internal clarity it is almost as if we have a force field protecting us from the nonessentials coming at us from all directions. clarity about what is essential fuels us with the strength to say no to the nonessentials
  • Without
  • courage
  • , the disciplined pursuit of less is just lip service. Have you ever said yes when you meant no simply to avoid conflict or friction? Have you ever felt too scared or timid to turn down an invitation or request from a boss, colleague, friend, neighbor, or family member for fear of disappointing them.
  • People are effective because they say “no”. Say yes only to the things that really matters.
  • Remember that clear “no” can be more graceful than a vague or noncommittal “yes”.


  • Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough
  • Sunk cost bias
  • Status quo bias
  • Belonging bias – you value them more highly than you would if they didn’t belong to you
    • “Instead of asking, “How much do I value this item?” we should ask, “If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?” We can do the same for opportunities and commitment. Don’t ask, “How will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity?” but rather, “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?” Similarly, we can ask, “If I wasn’t already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?”
  • Don’t force things that are not the right fit
  • Stop making casual commitments
  • Simply apologize and tell the person that when you made the commitment you didn’t fully realize what it would entail
  • Fear of missing out on something great – In a reverse pilot you test whether removing an initiative or activity will have any negative consequences “he ran a reverse pilot. He simply stopped publishing the report and waited to see what the response would be. What he found was that no one seemed to miss it; after several weeks nobody had even mentioned the report
  • every item in the proposed budget must be justified from scratch. While this takes more effort it has many advantages: it efficiently allocates resources on the basis of needs rather than history, it detects exaggerated budget requests, it draws attention to obsolete operations, and it encourages people to be clearer in their purpose and how their expenses align to that project
  • You can apply zero-based budgeting to your own endeavors. Instead of trying to budget your time on the basis of existing commitments, assume that all bets are off. All previous commitments are gone. Then begin from scratch, asking which you would add today. You can do this with everything from the financial obligations you have to projects you are committed to, even relationships you are in. Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.


  • Eliminates everything but the elements that absolutely need to be there


  • Set boundaries
    • Their problem is not your problem. Don’t rob people of their problems.
  • Find dealbreakers
  • Write down any time you feel violated or put upon by someone’s request


  • Don’t assume best-case scenario, plan for worst case, expect the unexpected
    • Create a buffer to prepare for the unforeseen
    • Add 50 percent to your time estimate
    • Did not have any better ability to predict the future than their less successful counterparts. Instead, they were the ones who acknowledged they could not predict the unexpected and therefore prepared better.
    • (1) What risks do you face on this project? (2) What is the worst-case scenario? (3) What would the social effects of this be? (4) What would the financial impact of this be? and (5) How can you invest to reduce risks or strengthen financial or social resilience?
  • What is the “slowest hiker” in your job or your life? What is the obstacle that is keeping you back from achieving what really matters to you? By systematically identifying and removing this “constraint” you’ll be able to significantly reduce the friction keeping you from executing what is essential.
  • Essentialist starts small and celebrates progress
  • Done is better than perfect. What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done? What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?
  • Do the most difficult thing first


  • Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles. Without routine, the pull of nonessential distractions will overpower us.
  • The brain can almost completely shut down.… And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.
  • Most creative individuals find out early what their best rhythms are for sleeping, eating, and working, and abide by them even when it is tempting to do otherwise,” Mihaly says. “They wear clothes that are comfortable, they interact only with people they find congenial, they do only things they think are important. Of course, such idiosyncrasies are not endearing to those they have to deal with.… But personalizing patterns of action helps to free the mind from the expectations that make demands on attention and allows intense concentration on matters that count.
  • Because the CEO has eliminated the mental cost involved in planning the meeting or thinking
  • Most of us have a behavioral habit we want to change, whether it’s to eat less junk food, waste less time, or worry less. But when we try, we find that changing even the simplest, tiniest habit is amazingly, disturbingly hard. There seems to be a gravitational force pulling us inexorably back to the warm embrace of those French fries, that Web site with the pictures of the goofy cats, or the spiral of worry about things outside our control. How do we resist the powerful pull of these habits? In an interview about his book The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg said “in the last 15 years, as we’ve learned how habits work and how they can be changed, scientists have explained that every habit is made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine—the behavior itself—which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular habit is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop—cue, routine[…]” “Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more automatic as the cue and reward become neurologically intertwined.” Create new triggers
  • Focus on the hardest thing first.” After all, as Ray said to me: “We already have too much to think about. Why not eliminate some of them by establishing a routine?” Use the tips above to develop a routine of doing your hardest task in the day first thing in the morning. Find a cue—whether it’s that first glass of orange juice you have at your desk, or an alarm you set on your cell phone, or anything you’re already accustomed to doing first thing in the morning—to trigger you to sit down and focus on your hardest thing.”
  • It’s true that doing the same things at the same time, day after day, can get boring. To avoid this kind of routine fatigue, there’s no reason why you can’t have different routines for different days of the week. Jack Dorsey, the cofounder of Twitter and founder of Square, has an interesting approach to his weekly routine. He has divided up his week into themes. Monday is for management meetings and “running the company” work. Tuesday is for product development. Wednesday is for marketing, communications, and growth. Thursday is for developers and partnerships. Friday is for the company and its culture.


  • “Think about how this might apply in your own life. Have you ever become trapped reliving past mistakes … over and over like a video player, stuck on endless replay? Do you spend time and energy worrying about the future? Do you spend more time thinking about the things you can’t control rather than the things you can control about the areas where your efforts matter? Do you ever find yourself busy trying to mentally prepare for the next meeting, or the next assignment, or the next chapter in your life, rather than being fully present in the current one? It’s natural and human to obsess over past mistakes or feel stress about what may be ahead of us. Yet every second spent worrying about a past or future moment distracts us from what is important in the here and now.”


  • “Mohandas K. Gandhi went to South Africa and saw oppression there. Suddenly, he found a higher purpose: the liberation of the oppressed everywhere. With this new singleness of purpose, he eliminated everything else from his life. He called the process “reducing himself to zero.”1 He dressed in his own homespun cloth (khadi) and inspired his followers to do the same. He spent three years not reading any newspapers because he found that their contents added only nonessential confusion to his life.”
  • “Dalai Lama, Steve Jobs, Leo Tolstoy, Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett, Mother Teresa, and Henry David Thoreau (who wrote, “I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; … so simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real”).
  • With the focus on what is truly important right now comes the ability to live life more fully, in the moment. For me, a key benefit of being more present in the moment has been making joyful memories that would otherwise not exist. I smile more. I value simplicity. I am more joyful. As the Dalai Lama, another true Essentialist, has said: “If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness.”
  • “The results of this research were startling: when there was a high level of clarity of purpose, the teams and the people on it overwhelmingly thrived. When there was a serious lack of clarity about what the team stood for and what their goals and roles were, people experienced confusion, stress, frustration, and ultimately failure. As one senior vice president succinctly summarized it when she looked at the results gathered from her extended team: “Clarity equals success.”

The second is the pathetically tiny amount of time we have left of our lives. For me this is not a depressing thought but a thrilling one. It removes fear of choosing the wrong thing. It infuses courage into my bones. It challenges me to be even more unreasonably selective about how to use this precious—and precious is perhaps too insipid of a word—time

The life of an Essentialist is a life lived without regret. If you have correctly identified what really matters, if you invest your time and energy in it, then it is difficult to regret the choices you make.

Whatever decision or challenge or crossroads you face in your life, simply ask yourself, “What is essential?” Eliminate everything else.


Other places to read about Essentialism:

Kamil Rudnicki

Kamil is CEO and co-founder of TimeCamp. He helps customers succeed.

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