Essentialism Book Summary

One Paragraph Summary If you are always busy but still get the feeling of not being productive, Essentialism is the book you should read. It will help you to find your top priorities by giving you practical solutions on how to achieve more by doing less.

Essentialism Book Summary

Essentialism—Improve your life by only focusing on the essentials A book by Greg McKeown

If you often have the feeling of being stressed, but at the same time, think that you do not make any progress toward your life goals. Or worse, if you do not know what your life goals are, than you lack the necessary focus to live a happy and fulfilling life. In the book Essentialism, you will learn many applicable tips to get that focus. It will also show you how you can get to the objectives you set for yourself.

  These are the things I learned by reading the Blinks to "Essentialism":

  • If it is not a hell yeah, it is a no
  • We know that we cannot do it all; still, we try to do it all
  • Scheduling time to evaluate what is essential is the key to becoming an Essentialist

This book summary is based on the Blinks I listened to while walking to work. I learn from Blinkist's content each and every day. So if you enjoy this summary, you will like their content even more.


Key Ideas

If you don't prioritize your life, someone else will.―Greg McKeown

You can learn the tools to become an essentialist

When you try to walk in all directions, you will get nowhere. When you try to do everything, you will end up doing nothing. Concentration on the essential. But how will you get the necessary focus? You need to stop doing the non-essential. This idea is what the book Essentialism is all about. Doing what is required and stop doing what is not necessary. Greg McKeown shares with us the tools we need to master.

Boredom is an opportunity

We all dislike boredom. But try to change the perspective and see boredom as an opportunity to take a step back, do nothing, and reflect on your life.

In the smartphone era, we are seldom bored. We are always connected to work, family, and friends. There is no room for boredom; there is no room to examine one's actions.

A solution can be to schedule a time just to do that: thinking clearly about whether we are spending our precious time on the things we value.

You should use the time to think about what is essential. By evaluating what is important, you will allow yourself to drop the non-essential things from your life. Ridding yourself of the unimportant will give you the necessary focus to concentrate on the crucial elements. Whatever this might be for you.

A simple technique to find the essential things in your life is to keep a journal. Many successful people write to reflect on the things they do. When you write your journal, try to write down as little as possible. Which was the essence of your day?

This way, you will get a clear picture of what is essential in your life.

Play and sleep are essential productivity boosters

As kids, we do one thing and one thing only. We play. The play allowed us to experiment and learn. Everything was play. It has been probably the most productive time in our lives.

As adults, we see play as unproductive and a big waste of time.

But what you should do is use play as a tool to make connections between ideas. Play is also a great stress reliever. We all know that stress is killing creativity and productivity.

Another critical ingredient for a productive life is sleep. Many people brag about how little sleep they need. Don't take those people as role-models. They are doing it wrong. If you want to be productive the next day, go to bed early and protect your sleep. Do not sacrifice it for binge-watching Netflix.

Two simple tools to find the essential things

Most of us have todo lists longer than Anna Karenina. We think our todos are all essential, and we need to complete them all.

Even if we know that we can't do it all, we still cannot tell apart the important things from the non-important.

Try this little trick.

Give every item on your todo list a score between 0 and 100. A zero means the thing on the list is not essential, and a 100 means it is imperative.

When you completed scoring all items on your list, ditch the things with a score lower than 90.

If you think this approach is too radical, you should try labeling something a definite yes or no: Think of three minimum and three ideal requirements. If something does not pass the three minimum requirements and at least one of the ideal qualifications, label it as a no.

Make saying no your default

As soon as you know what the essential things and activities are in your life, you need to take action.

Throwing out your non-essential things is hard, but still straightforward to do.

It gets more complicated when other people are involved. Going through your journal, you might have found out that some activities with a friend are non-essential for your objectives. Saying no to other people feels wrong. We do not want to disappoint the people around us. It becomes even harder when it is a relationship with a family member.

The only thing you can do here is to separate your decision from the relationship.

We should make saying no our default answer and saying yes the exception. This way, it will be an intentional decision to say yes and to commit to the vital things only.

If you do not find a way to say no, you will end up doing a lot of things that are not essential. This failure will kill the opportunity to work on the things that are vital for you.

As soon as you have mastered to make no the default, you should have plenty of time to work on the essential things with your fullest commitment.

Avoid the sunk-cost bias

Are you aware of the sunk-cost bias?

When you are reading a terrible book, you already completed half of the book, and you think you have to finish it; you are suffering from sunk-cost bias.

When the stock you bought goes in one direction only: down. Still, you continue to invest more and more money buying this same stock. You probably do it because of sunk-cost bias.

When you know a project is doomed to fail, yet you continue to invest more time into it. This behavior too is sunk-cost bias.

Avoid the sunk-cost bias: Stop reading that book. Stop investing in that stock. Stop working on that project.

If you want to avoid the above scenarios, you can set Key Results to measure the progress toward your objective. Cut your losses early when you see that you will not reach the defined success metrics.

Improve execution by eliminating what slows you down

Now that you know what the essential things are in your life, you need to learn to improve the way you work on your fundamental objectives.

When you work on one of your essential projects, try to become aware of what is slowing you down. Is there a better way to do your work?

Try to experiment. Is there a more playful way to do your work? Is there a better time in the day to work on your objectives?

Can you improve your planning?

Create habits by designing routines

Designing a routine for your work can become a powerful tool to reach your objective.

Set a fixed time slot each day to work on your project. Plan your activities the day before. Have a pen and paper ready to make notes on what you can improve.

When you start to plan your perfect work-setup, and you manage to work according to your design, you will find yourself to have created a habit.

Habits are one of the most potent ways to improve your execution. You can learn everything you need to know about habits in James Clear's book Atomic Habits.


First Insight: If it is not a hell yeah, it is a no

Giving a vague or non-committal yes is something I often do. I do it because I do not want to come across as awkward.

But I need to stop giving vague answers. In the end, I'm not doing myself a favor nor the person asking. If I cannot or do not want to commit myself wholeheartedly, then I should give a clear no in the future.

Remember that a clear no can be more graceful than a vague or non-committal yes.―Greg McKeown

Second Insight: We know that we cannot do it all; still we try to do it all

You can do anything but not everything.―Greg McKeown

I cannot do it all. I know that. Still, I often commit to activities that are not important. Usually, this takes away the time needed for the objectives I want to achieve.

McKeown advises making no your default answer. In the future, I try to make no my default answer and only say yes after carefully evaluating the decision at hand.

When people make their problem our problem, we aren't helping them; we're enabling them.―Greg McKeown

Third Insight: Scheduling time to evaluate what is essential is the key to becoming an Essentialist

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default.―Greg McKeown

To become an Essentialist, we continuously need to assess what we are doing with our time.

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Peter Drucker says that nothing is so useless than doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

We do not need more new year resolutions in our life. What we need is time to think about what it is that we want to do in our lives.

A Non-Essentialist thinks almost everything is essential. An Essentialist thinks almost everything is non-essential.―Greg McKeown


Our time is limited. We know we cannot do it all. Still, we continuously add new responsibilities and stuff to our lives. We make everything more complicated than it needs to be.

Find out a handful of essential objectives in your life. Ditch everything else.

Only when you focus can you reach the goals that are important to you.

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.—John Maxwell

With the tips given in Greg McKeown's book Essentialism, you should be able just to do that—become an Essentialist.


  • Stop doing the non-essential
  • Accept trade-offs as a part of life
  • Concentrate on the essential
  • Do more of what is vital and do it better
  • Schedule daily breaks where you do nothing but think
  • Find out what are the essential things in your life
  • Keep a journal and write down only the essence of the day
  • Read through your journal to get the big picture
  • Protect your sleep
  • Play
  • Evaluate every activity and decision you make
  • Use scores to separate the essential from the non-essential
  • Use three minimum and three ideal requirements to tell if something is a yes or a no
  • Make a list of what you want to do and what you want to stop doing
  • Make saying no your default and saying yes the exception
  • If you can't answer HELL YEAH, say no
  • Eliminate what slows you down
  • Prepare carefully
  • Design a routine for your essential work
  • Proceed step by step
  • Learn to do less; learn to do the essential only
  • Let go of the non-essential
  • Cut your responsibilities
  • Give away your non-essential possessions
  • Set clear results for your projects and activities
  • Cut losses of time or money early
  • Be aware of the sunk-cost bias

Essentialism Book Summary—related resources

  Read more about Greg McKeown on his website.

Get FREE access to all of my book summary PDFs, including Essentialism.

If you liked reading the Essentialism Book Summary, you should also read The One Thing Summary.

Posted on CuteMachine in happiness, health, mindset, motivation and productivity.

Jo's Profile ImageWritten by Jo who lives and works in Frankfurt building digital doodah. Stalk him on Twitter.

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