Essentialism by Greg McKeown is a powerful book on the importance of saying no and focusing on the essential things in life. Today we’re going to review 8 of the key concepts from this book.
I first read this book when it first came out, and I’ve reread it several times since then. It’s a super easy read (just over 200 pages).
The concepts in Essentialism are really helpful and can apply to pretty much anything.
Whether you want to apply them to business, to your side hustles, to your personal life, or to your investments, I think that there is something that everyone can get out of Essentialism.
I know that I’ve gotten something different out of it each time I’ve read it.
Less But Better
The overarching theme of Essentialism is “Less, but better.”
This is a concept that isn’t new. We’ve heard a lot of successful people bring up this concept in a similar ways.
For example in interviews that Jeff Bezos has done, he talks about making fewer, but higher quality decisions. That really is what is at the core of this book – figuring out what you can say no to in your life in order to make higher-quality decisions.
1. Saying No
The first major concept in the book is learning how to say no, and how to cut out the non-essential things and tasks in your life. This is something that a lot of people do have trouble with – saying no to things.
The book challenges you to ask yourself, “Am I investing in the right activities?”
Again, this doesn’t apply just to actual Investments – you can apply this question across any area of life.
The book gives you several diagrams to reference as you read. The first diagram shows the non-essentialist vs the essentialist.
The non-essentialist tries to go in every different direction that they are pulled. They don’t get very far in any of these directions because they’re trying to go so many places at once.
Whereas the essentialist is someone who cuts out any outside distractions, focuses on one thing, and does that thing really well.
The next diagrams are the highest point of frustration in your life, and the highest point of contribution.
The highest point of frustration really encompasses the whole Gary Vee hustle culture of doing everything popular, doing it right now, and doing it all at once.
Your highest point of contribution is actually when you cut out a lot of these distractions and do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons.
It then gives you another diagram of how you can start cutting things out in your life, and start saying no. This cycle is just to
- explore the ideas that you want to explore
- eliminate the ones that aren’t working or serving you
- executing on the ones that are the most important (or the ones that you actually want to pursue)
2. Learned Helplessness
The second key concept in the book is the concept of learned helplessness.
The book talks about an experiment that two psychologists did with dogs and electric shocks. Basically what they found was that a dog would not try to escape an electric shock if it has been conditioned to believe that there was no escape.
In a real world scenario they talk about a guy who has spent years and years at his job, thinking that he hates his work. It’s not that he actually hated his work – he was probably just working for the wrong company the whole time. However he never saw it as an option to leave, and thus never made that choice.
This second point emphasizes that you can always exercise your power of choice.
You don’t necessarily have to do something a certain way, just because that’s the way that we have been conditioned to believe that it should be done.
3. Certain Types of Effort Yield Higher Rewards
The third key point in Essentialism is that certain types of effort yield higher rewards than other types of effort.
The example that they give in this chapter is actually of Warren Buffett. They say that for a very long time, 90% of his wealth actually only came from 10% of his investments.
Early on, Warren Buffett knew that he wouldn’t necessarily be able to make the right investment decisions hundreds of times. So what he did was select companies that he was absolutely sure of, and he decided to invest heavily in them.
Those are the companies that he ended up doing the best in.
4. Rest and Sleep
The fourth lesson is to take breaks and actually get sleep. Again, this is a concept that very much goes against the Gary Vee hustle culture “work all the time” mentality.
The book talks about how the hustle culture mentality is celebrated in Silicon Valley, startups, and the whole entrepreneur space. Somehow, we convince ourselves that less sleep equals more productivity.
When in actuality, if you look at the science behind it, getting better sleep will help you be more productive and have clearer thought processes.
The book also references how Bill Gates famously takes his “Think Week”. This is just a week where he takes off from all responsibilities at Microsoft, goes out on his own, reads, thinks, and does not work.
So the book really encourages you to set aside some distraction-free time in a distraction-free place and allow yourself to actually rest.
5. Build in Buffers
The fifth takeaway from the book is to always build in buffers.
Whether that is with projects that you’re working on, with your finances, or just with your time, we know that things don’t always go as planned.
The book really encourages you to always build in buffers so that you aren’t really disappointed or really surprised when extra things come up or don’t go as planned.
6. Keep a journal
Lesson six is to keep a journal. The book encourages you to journal whenever you can (for whatever amount you can).
That could be a sentence or two every week, every couple days, or even just a couple times a month. It emphasizes that going back and looking at a journal is a lot more accurate than trying to remember things on our own.
We forget very easily, so having our goals written down somewhere can really help you reflect. (Even if you just write a couple of sentences or bullet points).
7. Break Down Large Goals
Lesson seven from Essentialism is to start celebrating small wins to get to bigger goals.
If you break down big goals into smaller milestones, you’re going to see a lot more progress and that will likely motivate you going forward.
If you just set one giant goal, and you see very little progress on it, many times this is when we experience burnout.
8. Have Routines
Lesson eight is to start creating routines that help you eliminate non-essential decisions and things in your life. It can really help you focus on the most essential things.
These routines are not only referring to your daily routine.
They give an example of a CEO that has different tasks assigned to different days of the week. For example Mondays he does marketing tasks, Tuesdays he has his meetings – and he organizes his weekly routine that way.
It also talks about having routines for handling particular situations and creating routines that make it easier to say no. For example, if you work with clients, you can create a routine that you go through to determine whether or not you’re going to actually onboard the client.