A Summary of Essentialism

Highest points of frustration vs contribution

In this post, I list some of the most important points in Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

  • If you don’t choose your priorities for yourself, someone else will do it.
  • People are effective because they say ‘no’, because they say, ‘this isn’t for me’.

The highest points of frustration versus contribution lie on the intersection of the circles shown in the figure above.

  • Frustration arises when your what is everything, why is because it is popular and when is now.
  • Contribution comes when your what is the right thing, why is the right reason and when is at the right time.

On choices.

  • Three dangerous assumptions: ‘I have to’, ‘It is all important’, and ‘I can do both’. They should be replaced respectively by ‘I choose to’, ‘Only a few things really matter’, and ‘I can do anything, but not everything’.
  • In order to have focus, we need to escape to focus.
  • If there is one thing you are passionate about and you think you can be good at, you should do just that one thing.
  • When deciding which activities to eliminate, ask yourself, “if I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?”

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Look at the matrix below for clarity.


  • In the top left quadrant, we have vision and mission statements like “We want to change the world”: statements that sound inspirational but are so general they are almost entirely ignored. In the bottom left quadrant, we have a set of vague, general values — like “innovation”, “teamwork” and “leadership” — but these are typically too bland and generic to inspire any passion. In the bottom right quadrant, we have shorter-term quarterly objectives we pay attention to, like “Increase profits 5 percent over last year’s results”; these shorter-term tactics may be concrete enough to get our attention, but they often lack inspiration.
  • As essential intent, on the other hand, is both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable. Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions. It’s like deciding you’re going to become a doctor instead of a lawyer. One strategic choice eliminates a universe of other options and maps a course for the next five, ten or even twenty years of your life. Once the big decision is made, all subsequent decisions come into better focus.
  • Boundaries are a source of liberation. This truth is demonstrated elegantly by the story of a school located next to a busy road. At first the children played only on a small swath of the playground, close to the building where the grownups could keep their eyes on them. But then someone constructed a fence around the playground. Now the children can play anywhere and everywhere on the playground. Their freedom, in effect, more than doubled.

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