Essentialism: Pursuing Less

Travel, Bleeding and the Emergency Room

I recently found myself in the hospital staring at the ceiling wondering what the hell had just happened to me. My wife and I had recently returned from a relocation tour of Panama and I wasn't feeling myself but couldn't really pinpoint what was wrong. We returned to the states on a Thursday and by Saturday I was filling the toilet with blood and other assorted mysteries.

My wife drove me to the emergency room where I collapsed into and out of consciousness. The problem: I was bleeding internally, a lot. I ended up bleeding out four pints of blood and the human body only contains 10 so no wonder I was bonking.

The good news is the bleeding has completely stopped and I'm feeling a truckload better. Unfortunately, at this point, my doctors are still uncertain what caused my bleeding but the likely culprit has something to do with the blood thinning medicine I am on to treat my atrial fibrillation. Often called AFib, it is the most common type of heart arrhythmia which is when the heart beats too slowly, too fast, or in an irregular way.

Too Much All the Time

On our relocation trip to Panama we checked out places to live, visited a hospital and chatted with medical professionals. We met with an immigration attorney, business owners and familiarized ourselves with the country overall. In a word to simplify the process of moving there.

However before departing on the trip I was under a lot of pressure with things pulling me in a million directions with each having a gazillion set of associated tasks and all of it was important or so it seemed.

I had to tie up loose ends on work projects, execute the tasks to keep Blended Tribes running, take care of all the details involved in preparing for our trip, and to add chaos to confusion we decided to have our hardwood floors refinished while out of the country which involved emptying the house of all its contents. Trying to get this all done before leaving triggered a considerable amount of stress.

Ironically I had just purchased the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less and had started listening to it on the plane flight home. While in the hospital I listened to it again and again once I was home.

Too bad I didn't read it before travelling because it would have helped me focus more on the important things and let the loose ends drag.

A Thousand Future Decisions

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown is a must-read book for anyone who wants to achieve more by doing less.

In this book, McKeown argues that we live in a world where we are bombarded with distractions, obligations, and expectations that pull us in different directions, leaving us feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and unfulfilled.

To break free from this cycle, we need to adopt the mindset of an essentialist and focus on doing less but better. In this review, we'll explore some of the key concepts in the book and see how they can help us improve our lives.

McKeown provides a framework for identifying what is essential called the "Essentialist System." The framework consists of four parts, Essence, Explore, Eliminate & Evaluate.

Part 1: Essence

In Part 1 of Essentialism, Greg McKeown introduces the concept of essence, which involves identifying and focusing on what is truly important in our lives. When we make deliberate choices and prioritize what is truly essential, we can achieve greater clarity, focus, and fulfillment in our lives.

Choose: The Invincible Power of Choice

McKeown emphasizes the power of choice and encourages readers to take control of their lives by making deliberate choices. He explains that the ability to choose is the most important tool we have in living an essential life.

He argues that our ability to choose is what separates us from other animals and gives us the power to shape our lives. He stresses the importance of being intentional with our choices and making sure that they align with our values and goals. He also warns against the dangers of "nonessentialist" thinking, which involves trying to do everything and please everyone, rather than focusing on what is truly important.

Ultimately, McKeown encourages readers to embrace the power of choice and use it to create the lives they truly want to live.

Discern: The Unimportance of Practically Everything

One of the key points is the idea that not everything is essential, and that we must learn to distinguish between what is important and what is not. McKeown encourages readers to prioritize their time and energy on activities and tasks that align with their goals and values, and to let go of the rest.

Discern: The Unimportance of Practically Everything is a thought-provoking concept that challenges readers to rethink their priorities and focus on what is truly essential in their lives.

Trade-Off: Which Problem Do I Want?

Another important concept is the idea of real trade-offs. McKeown emphasizes that every decision we make has a cost, and that we must be willing to let go of certain things in order to achieve what truly matters to us. He suggests that by being aware of our choices and the real trade-offs involved, we can make more intentional decisions and live a more purposeful life.

McKeown provides practical tips for practicing discernment and making intentional choices. He encourages readers to ask themselves questions such as:

What is the most important thing I need to accomplish right now?

What can I let go of in order to focus on what really matters?

Get clear on what matters most to you at any given moment in any given situation and stop wasting time on the unimportant.

Part 2: Explore

Explore, focuses on the importance of exploration in the essentialist mindset.

Escape: The Perks of Being Unavailable

Being constantly available and responsive to others can lead to a loss of control over one's time and priorities. McKeown argues that in order to live a fulfilling and purposeful life, it is essential to become unavailable at times and to prioritize one's own goals and needs.

He tells a story about a CEO who became overwhelmed with requests and demands from his employees and colleagues. Despite working long hours and responding to every email and phone call, he felt as though he was constantly falling behind and not making progress on his own goals. Eventually, he realized that he needed to become less available and focus on what was absolutely essential in order to achieve his goals.

McKeown then explores the concept of "the unavailability advantage," which refers to the benefits of intentionally limiting one's availability to others. By becoming less accessible, individuals can gain greater control over their time and energy, reduce distractions, and increase their focus and productivity. This, in turn, allows them to achieve their goals more efficiently and effectively.

Also discussed is the importance of setting boundaries and saying "no" to requests that do not align with one's priorities. McKeown argues that saying "no" is not only necessary for achieving one's own goals, but it also communicates respect for one's time and priorities to others.

To achieve greater control over our time and energy, increase our productivity, and ultimately live more purposeful and fulfilling life's then our emphasizes should be on the importance of intentionally limiting one's availability and prioritizing one's own goals and needs.

Look: See What Really Matters

In every set of facts something essential is hidden. When evaluating facts we need to go further than just memorizing and repeating them but understand how they all fit together and what they mean.

Become the journalist of your life and train yourself to look for the 'headline' in the facts that will help you lead to construct the whole from the sum of its parts.

Listen for what's not being said and look between the lines for what's important. Learn to ignore the noise but hear the signal in the noise.

Play: Embrace the Wisdom of your Inner Child

McKeown emphasizes the importance of play and embracing the wisdom of our inner child. He argues that adults often lose touch with the joy and creativity of play as they become more focused on their work and responsibilities. However, he suggests that by reconnecting with our playful side, we can tap into a source of renewed energy and inspiration.

McKeown also points out that play can be a valuable tool for learning and problem-solving. When we engage in play, we are free to experiment and explore without the fear of failure or judgment. This allows us to discover new ideas and approaches that we might not have considered in a more rigid, goal-oriented mindset.

To embrace the wisdom of our inner child, McKeown suggests that we prioritize activities that bring us joy and playfulness. This might include hobbies, creative pursuits, or simply spending time in nature or with loved ones. By making time for play and leisure, we can improve our overall well-being and tap into a deeper sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Sleep: Protect the Asset

The author emphasizes the importance of protecting our physical, mental, and emotional well-being as a critical component of living a life with essential intent. One key aspect of this is ensuring that we get enough quality sleep.

McKeown argues that sleep is absolutely essential to our ability to focus, be productive, and make good decisions. Without enough sleep, our cognitive abilities are compromised, and we are more likely to make mistakes, feel irritable, and experience stress.

To protect the asset of our sleep, McKeown recommends that we prioritize it and create a consistent sleep routine. This includes establishing a regular bedtime and wake-up time, avoiding stimulating activities like using electronic devices before bed, and creating a calm and relaxing environment in our bedroom.

McKeown also emphasizes that taking care of our physical health, including regular exercise and a healthy diet, can also help us sleep better and protect our overall well-being.

Select: The Power of Extreme Criteria

According to McKeown, setting high, rigorous criteria for making decisions about what is essential and what is not. By using extreme criteria, essentialists can more easily determine what really matters and eliminate anything that does not meet those criteria.

McKeown emphasizes the importance of being intentional and mindful in the selection process, taking the time to think deeply about what truly matters and what will have the greatest impact. He suggests asking questions such as "What is the most important thing I could be doing with my time and resources right now?" and "If I could only do one thing, what would it be?" to help identify the most essential tasks and projects.

By focusing only on what is truly essential and using extreme criteria to guide their decisions, essentialists are able to achieve more meaningful results and avoid wasting time and energy on non-essential tasks and activities.

Part 3: Eliminate

In Part Three, Eliminate, McKeown discusses the importance of saying no to non-essential tasks and commitments.

Clarify: One Decision That Makes a Thousand

McKeown, emphasizes the importance of clarity in decision-making. Specifically, he highlights the concept of "the clarity of purpose," which he argues is the most important factor in determining an individual's ability to prioritize effectively and focus on what truly matters.

McKeown asserts that clarifying your purpose enables you to make better choices and avoid the trap of being "busy but not productive." He encourages readers to identify their core values and to use these as a guide when making decisions about how to allocate their time and energy. By doing so, he argues, individuals can avoid being pulled in too many directions and can stay focused on what is truly essential.

According to McKeown, the decision to clarify one's purpose is a fundamental step in the pursuit of essentialism. By doing so, individuals can make more deliberate choices about how to spend their time and can avoid being overwhelmed by the demands of daily life.

Dare: The Power of a Graceful “No”

The importance of saying "no" in order to focus on what is truly essential in life and work. He refers to this as the "power of a graceful no."

McKeown argues that saying "no" is not about being negative or uncooperative, but rather about being intentional and selective. He suggests that by saying "no" to non-essential tasks and commitments, we can free up time and energy to focus on what is truly important and meaningful to us.

According to McKeown, the ability to say "no" requires clarity on one's values and priorities, as well as the courage and confidence to communicate those boundaries effectively. He encourages readers to practice saying "no" in a way that is respectful, honest, and clear, and to remember that saying "no" to one thing often means saying "yes" to something else that is more important.

Uncommit: Win Big by Cutting Your Losses

In learning to say "no" to non-essential commitments and activities involves the process of "uncommitting" or cutting your losses by letting go of commitments that are no longer serving you.

Uncommitting can be difficult, as many people fear missing out on opportunities or disappointing others. However, uncommitting can actually lead to greater success and fulfillment in the long run by freeing up time and energy to focus on what truly matters.

To effectively uncommit, evaluate your current commitments and identifying which ones are essential and which ones are not. He suggests asking yourself questions like: "If I weren't already invested in this, how much would I invest in it?" and "Is this the very best use of my time and resources right now?" Based on your answers, you can then make the difficult decision to let go of non-essential commitments and prioritize the ones that truly matter.

Edit: The Invisible Art

Essentialists focus on doing fewer things but doing them better, rather than trying to do everything and being spread too thin. This approach involves constantly editing one's priorities and commitments, saying "no" to non-essential tasks, and being intentional about where one's time and energy is spent.

In this sense, editing can be seen as an "invisible art" that allows individuals to cut out the excess and hone in on what truly matters. By applying this principle to various areas of life, such as work, relationships, and personal hobbies, individuals can live a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

Limit: The Freedom of Setting Boundaries

Setting limits and boundaries is crucial for living an essentialist lifestyle, as it allows individuals to focus on what truly matters and avoid being pulled in too many different directions. By saying no to non-essential activities and commitments, individuals can create more space and time for the things that are truly important to them.

Once you have a clear sense of your goals and priorities, eliminate any non-essential tasks or commitments. This involves saying "no" to requests and letting go of activities that do not align with your priorities.

Part 4: Execute

With a narrowed focus on what is essential, McKeown recommends that you execute your plan with discipline and focus.

Buffer: The Unfair Advantage

A buffer is essentially a barrier that shields two things from harming each other. By creating a buffer, we can minimize the friction that arises when executing essential tasks in both our work and personal lives. However, failing to maintain and respect these buffers can lead to busyness and distraction.

Essentialists acknowledge the fact that it is impossible to fully anticipate or prepare for every possible scenario or eventuality as the future is highly unpredictable. As a result, they incorporate buffers into their plans to minimize any friction caused by unforeseen circumstances.

Subtract: Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles

McKeown advocates for the idea of subtracting or removing obstacles, distractions, and activities on non-essential intent from our lives.

He argues that subtracting these unnecessary elements can bring forth more creativity, productivity, and fulfillment in our lives. McKeown provides various examples and techniques for subtraction, such as eliminating low-priority tasks, simplifying our possessions, and reducing our commitments.

The idea of subtraction is closely tied to the concept of essentialism, which emphasizes the importance of identifying and focusing on the few things that truly matter, rather than being pulled in many different directions by non-essential tasks and distractions.

Progress: The Power of Small Wins

McKeown explains that many people become overwhelmed by the enormity of their goals and fail to take action because they don't know where to begin. By breaking down goals into smaller, more manageable tasks, people can make progress one step at a time and feel a sense of accomplishment along the way.

The power of small wins lies in their ability to provide motivation and momentum. When people see that they are making progress towards their goals, even in small ways, they become more motivated to continue working towards them. Small wins also create momentum because they help people develop positive habits and routines that lead to more success in the future.

Readers are encouraged to focus on the small wins that will help them make progress towards their most important goals. He suggests that people identify the critical few activities that will make the biggest impact on their goals and focus on those activities first. By prioritizing the most important tasks and breaking them down into smaller steps, people can make steady progress and achieve their goals over time.

Flow: The Genius of Routine

Flow is the state of complete immersion in an activity where time seems to fly by and you feel completely absorbed in the task at hand. McKeown explains that routines and habits are essential to achieving flow because they allow us to free up mental energy and reduce decision fatigue. When we have established routines for certain tasks, we no longer have to spend mental energy deciding what to do, and can instead focus on the task itself.

McKeown also notes that routine does not mean monotony, and that we should strive to create routines that are flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances. This allows us to maintain the benefits of routine while still being able to respond to new challenges and opportunities.

Focus: What’s Important Now?

The concept of "Focus: What's Important Now?" is a central theme to McKeown's writing. He argues that in order to achieve success and fulfillment, it is essential to focus on what is truly important in the present moment.

The book emphasizes the importance of setting priorities and making conscious choices about where to invest one's time and energy. By focusing on what is essential, one can eliminate distractions and avoid getting bogged down by non-essential tasks.

According to McKeown, the essentialist way involves asking oneself questions such as "What am I trying to achieve?" and "What is the most important thing I can do right now?" By constantly reassessing priorities and making intentional choices, individuals can achieve greater clarity, purpose, and effectiveness in their lives.

Be: The Essentialist Life

"Be: The Essentialist Life," discusses the importance of focusing on the present moment and being fully engaged in what we are doing. He encourages readers to cultivate a sense of mindfulness and to be fully present in each moment, rather than allowing their minds to wander or getting distracted by other tasks.

McKeown also emphasizes the importance of setting boundaries and saying "no" to non-essential things by saying no to the things that don't matter, we can create more space in our lives for the things that truly do matter.

Personal Take Aways


McKeown suggests that you evaluate your progress and adjust your plan as needed. This involves regularly reflecting on your goals and priorities, and making changes to ensure that you are staying true to what is essential, its not just the destination that's important.

Its Practical

One of the strengths of Essentialism is its practicality. McKeown provides concrete examples and exercises throughout the book to help readers apply the principles of essentialism to their own lives.

For example, he suggests creating an "Essential Intent" statement that outlines our most important priorities and goals, and regularly reviewing this statement to ensure we stay on track.

The book is also well-written and engaging. McKeown uses clear and concise language to convey his ideas, and includes a mix of personal anecdotes, case studies, and quotes from other thought leaders to illustrate his points.

The book is easy to read and understand, but also provides plenty of depth for readers who want to dive deeper into the principles of essentialism.

An Essential Mindset

Another strength of the book is its emphasis on mindset. McKeown argues that the way of the essentialist is not just about changing our behavior, but also about changing our way of thinking.

An essentialist deliberately distinguishes between his choices and to let go of non-essential things and commitments, embrace constraints, and focusing on the long-term impact of their choices.

No. Nope. Under No Circumstances.

One of the key takeaways is the importance of saying no. Many of us feel pressured to say yes to every request that comes our way, whether it's a work assignment, a social invitation, or a family obligation.

However, by saying yes to everything, we risk spreading ourselves too thin and neglecting our most important priorities. McKeown argues that we need to be selective about the opportunities we pursue, and say yes to only the things that align with our essential goals and values.

The Power of Constraint

Another important concept in Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less is the power of constraints. McKeown argues that constraints can be a positive force in our lives, helping us focus our energy and creativity on the things that matter most.

By setting clear boundaries and limiting our options, we can free up mental space and resources to pursue our essential priorities.

This idea is particularly relevant in today's fast-paced, information-saturated world, where we are constantly bombarded with distractions and options.

I'm On My Break

The way of the essentialist understands the importance of taking breaks and recharging our energy. McKeown argues that we need to prioritize rest and relaxation in order to perform at our best. By taking regular breaks, we can avoid burnout and maintain our focus and productivity over the long term.


Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less is an excellent book that offers practical advice and insights for anyone looking to simplify their life and achieve more with less.

McKeown's writing is clear and engaging, and the book is packed with concrete examples and exercises to help readers apply the principles of essentialism to their own lives to improve their productivity, focus, and overall quality of life.

He provides practical advice on how to execute on our essential priorities. He emphasizes the importance of setting aside time for focused work and eliminating distractions. The essentialist framework provides a structured approach to identifying and pursuing what is truly important, while letting go of distractions and non-essentials.

Other Sources

Some say that the essentialist perspective can be traced as far back as the Ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle but the modern father of essentialism is widely considered to be William C. Bagley who was an influential promoter of essentialism.

YouTube Essentialism by Greg McKeown - A Visual Summary - The man himself breaks it down.

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