Book Notes: Essentialism

Table Of Contents

TL;DR: Read this Book, when…

  • you feel you’re busy, but not productive
  • you’re stretched thin between many different commitments
  • you need arguments to say “no” to the next person asking you to do something

Book Facts

  • Title: Essentialism
  • Authors: Greg McKeown
  • Word Count: ~ 90.000 (6 hours at 250 words / minute)
  • Reading Ease: easy
  • Writing Style: conversational, bite-sized chapters, easy to follow


{% include book-link.html book=“essentialism” %} shows the way of what the author calls an “Essentialist”. Essentialists don’t spend time and energy on the non-essentials in their lives, freeing them up to focus on the essentials.

The book is written in an easy-to-read manner, with short chapters that one can read in a lunch break. The chapters are each titled with a single succinct verb, in essentialist manner.


Here are my notes, as usual with some comments in italics.


  • “Saying yes to any opportunity by definition requires saying no to several others.”
  • an essentialist strategy is based on principled decisions / trade-offs
  • act or be acted upon


  • take time to think through options before committing to the best option
  • create a regular space and time free of distractions to do deep work (like thinking about your options and deciding which to take)
  • “The faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule.”


  • filter out the noise in everything, look for signal
  • maintain a journal and revisit it from time to time to check that you’re still doing your essentials
  • ask questions (or the same question again and again) to gain clarity on your direction


  • play fosters creativity and exploration
  • relax every once in a while


  • “The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves.”
  • protect your best asset
  • enough sleep supports creativity and allows us to make better decisions


  • having very selective criteria to make decisions makes the decisions easier (either “Hell yeah”, or “No!” - also see the book with this title by Derek Sivers)
  • give options a rating between 0 and 100 - everything below 90 is out
  • make your criteria explicit to make decisions almost automatic - write the criteria down
  • ask yourself:
    • “what am I passionate about?”
    • “what taps my talent?”
    • “what meets a significant need in the world?”


  • when deciding, ask yourself “If I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?” (we often value what we already have more than what we don’t have, so this question might reduce this bias)
  • people thrive when they have a high level of clarity on goals and roles
  • find your essential intents to guide your decisions
  • essential intents are inspirational, concrete, meaningful, and measurable


  • when you feel tension between what you feel is right and what someone expects of you, say “no”
  • “Courage is the key to the process of elimination.”
  • separate saying “no” to someone from the relationship to that person
  • think about what you’re giving up when you say “yes”
  • a “no” gains respect in the long run
  • be slow with a “yes” and be quick with a “no”


  • uncommit from unfruitful projects - don’t fall for the sunk-cost bias
  • the endowment effect makes it hard for us to let go of things - pretend you don’t know the things you’re attached to
  • admit to failure to let go of projects
  • pause before answering a request
  • do a “reverse pilot” to get rid of commitments - try some time without doing it and see what happens (most of the times nothing bad happens and we can let go of the commitment)


  • editing is the process of removing things to make something better
  • edit the non-essential things out of your work and life, even if you’ve put considerable effort into them
  • make editing a habit to regularly correct your path (a great way of doing this is having a weekly distraction-free “rendezvous with yourself” and reviewing all the areas of your life for non-essential commitments)


  • clear boundaries empower us to concentrate on our goals instead of other people’s goals
  • articulate your boundaries to make them clear to yourself
  • write down each time you feel a boundary has been crossed to make boundary violations visible
  • clarify your boundaries with colleagues before starting a project together


  • things inevitably take longer than expected - build in a buffer
  • start working on something at the earliest possible moment, not the latest, even if it’s just a few minutes of thinking
  • add 50% to all estimations (we should make this a hard rule in software estimations!)


  • invest time in removing obstacles just as you’re investing time in essential tasks
  • remove the “slowest hiker” first (i.e. help the slowest person in a hiking group to make the whole group faster) - what’s the obstacle that slows you down most?


  • create small goals to make execution almost effortless
  • celebrate small wins
  • “Of all forms of human motivation, the most effective is progress.”
  • start small and build momentum (this is also good advice for starting a bootstrapped business)
  • follow the “minimum viable progress” - what’s the minimum step towards a goal?
  • start “early and small” instead of “late and big”
  • “Just a few seconds of preparation pay a valuable dividend.”
  • visually reward progress (the easiest way is to check off a todo list, but you can be more creative about it)


  • don’t “push through” - instead, design a routine that makes execution almost effortless
  • “Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles.”
  • connect existing cues to new routines (also see my book notes for “The Power of Habit”)
  • do the hardest thing first
  • if you’re working on multiple projects, have a theme for each day so your focus for the day is clear


  • don’t let your mind wander to past failures and successes or future challenges and opportunities - stay in the “now” to focus
  • write down ideas to “get the future out of your head”
  • take note of moments when you are fully present in the moment and try to re-create them


  • clear out the “wardrobe of your life” to gain clarity (wardrobes are notoriously full of things we no longer need)
  • pause, push back, stop rushing, take control
  • live the moment
  • whenever faced with a decision, ask yourself “what is essential?”


The book is definitely worth a read, giving inspiration to re-think your decisions and plan your future decisions. I’ll be asking myself more often what really is essential in my life and what isn’t.

Written By:

Tom Hombergs

Written By:

Tom Hombergs

As a professional software engineer, consultant, architect, general problem solver, I've been practicing the software craft for more than fifteen years and I'm still learning something new every day. I love sharing the things I learned, so you (and future me) can get a head start. That's why I founded

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