Essentialism: A Book Review

I had the pleasure of reading a new publication called Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Actually the full title with subtitle is Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. McKeown's premise is that we can't do it all, and the idea that we can is simply false and leads us down the rabbit hole in a maze of diversionary paths that keep us from doing anything well. By saying yes to everyone, taking on everything, trying to please all parties, and kidding ourselves that we can always add just one more thing, we end up not doing those things that are most important to us. Instead we diffuse our energy, our will power, and even our interest.

It may seem that this is a book about focus, but it's really much more. Essentialism is a way of being, not just a method of doing. The essentialist applies the mantra of "less but better" to personal life as well as work life. The Essentialist chooses carefully what work is to be done, what relationships to invest in, what activities to pursue, and what is most important.

The book is divided into four sections: Essence, Explore, Eliminate and Execute. Under each section McKeown offers practical approaches and methods for successfully applying the major concepts. One of my favorites is the 90 Percent Rule. In his words:

You can think of this as the 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.

If you are easily excited about new ideas and projects, this is a good rule! Taking the time to explore and evaluate keeps you from getting yourself into things you may later find consume way too much of your time for too little return. Such is the way of an Essentialist.

Throughout the book, McKeown offers up a plethora of examples and stories that bring his content to life. He likens the process of becoming an Essentialist to cleaning out a closet and keeping only those things that are essential to one's life. He shows us how to create a system to establish routines that produce automatic responses to obstacles and eliminate them. He shows us how to discern, choose, and most of all say "No."

McKeown's approach is very thoughtful and conscious. He advocates spending as much time exploring and thinking about a situation as he does acting on it. Instead of operating from a place of reactivity, he suggests creating some space to "explore and ponder" prior to diving in. For him, focus is every bit as important during the exploration phase as it is during the activity phase.

Essentialism makes use of all of our best assets including adequate sleep, imagination and play, self-evaluation, routine and execution, and hones in on what's most important. He shows us how to edit, how to think before making a commitment, how to "uncommit" if we didn't think enough ahead of time, how to set boundaries, and most important, how to make execution effortless.

Success for McKeown is something that follows using the Essentialist approach. Going after success can very often diffuse our focus and have us chasing too many avenues rather than thoughtfully and carefully choosing those essential ideas and activities that will bring us success. He makes a good case!


Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Greg McKeown. Crown Publishing, 2014.

blog comments powered by Disqus