Review and Summary: Essentialism

Essentialism book cover

Author: Greg McKeown.

Publication date: 15 April 2014.

Number of pages: 288 pages.

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”.

Stephen R. Covey

Essentialism is so much different than minimalism that we commonly heard nowadays. The principle of being an essentialist is holding to the life philosophy of “less but better”. This book tells us the fundamental of essentialism and how to turn our mindset into an organized manner for the disciplined pursuit of less.

What is essentialism?

  • Making the wisest possible investment of our time and energy so that we only do what is essential at our highest point of contribution, then the execution of those things feels almost effortless.
  • Living a true life to ourselves, not life others expect from us.
  • Holding to a principle “I can do anything but not everything.”
  • Increasing awareness of our ability to decide.
  • Instead of asking “what do i have to give up?”, an essentialist asks “what do I want to go big on?”

The essentialist approach

  • Explore and evaluate
    • Explore our options, then decide what is and isn’t essential. A non-essentialist impulsively says yes to everything while an essentialist take a space to explore and ponder. An essentialist takes some time to “play” as an important process in life because it fires up the exploration to widen the range of possibility, a stress reliever, and to give positive effects to brain’s executive functions, such as planning, scheduling, deciding, analyzing.
  • Eliminate
    • requires a courage to say no to social pressure and learn to decrease and focus on what is important to live a life to ourselves by eliminating everything else.
    • only say yes to the ones that matter.
    • it is important to select on important and clear intention so that we can focus on our time and energy effectively. Otherwise, there are two patterns that might happen. The first pattern is playing politics. When people doesn’t have a clear direction, they focus their energy to win their supervisor’s heart, perform better than their colleagues, and make our own social games. In practical life, we love to look better in social media, love to update how we spend lovely time with our family where actually we don’t spend that much time with them because we are busy editing instagram reels or youtube video. The second pattern is it’s all look good (which is actually bad). People who has no clear direction become leaderless and going to various direction, going wherever they want to go, doing whatever they want to do. This doesn’t go well in teamwork and this kind of team will going five step back and not moving forward.
  • Execute
    • to go forward, an essentialist love to produce more by remove the obstacle more while the non-essentialist tend to give more pressure by doing a quick-fix solutions.

Take-home notes

Greg McKeown writes that we are living in non-essentialist era where the lines between personal and professional life is blurred (thanks, technology). Non-essentialist sees personal-work life boundaries as an obstacle to live an extraordinary productive life. Meanwhile, an essentialist sees it as a part of elimination process that help them decide which one is really matters.

A part of this book reminds me of Atomic Habit by James Clear. To start a good habit, it doesn’t need to do something big every day. Remember, doing 1% better every day will bring us to be 37 times better by the time we are done. This habit has been proven by a research that indicates the best kind of human motivation is progress. It is also applied to essentialism lifestyle.

An essentialist appreciate small things and celebrating progress. Instead of focus on winning big that doesn’t really important, the essentialist achieves small and simple wins in areas that are matter the most. It doesn’t mean that an essentialist hates achieving big things. By enjoying the process and rewarding progress, unexpected goals may be achieved much more than when we set a big goal.

It is so much different from the non-essentialist perspective where they are trap under false logic that the more he or she struggles, the more they will pursue. Sometimes, the bitter truth of life is the more we try to reach the stars, the harder it is to get ourselves off the ground.

“If one life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness.”

Dalai lama


  • If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
  • Options (things) can be take away, while our core ability to choose (free will) cannot be.
  • Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize.
  • If it isn’t a clear yes, then it is a clear no.


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