Notes from

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

by Greg McKeown

Essentialism is a way of determining how to take back your power of choice to work towards what really matters.

Basically, when you don’t make choices about your life, someone else, maybe your boss, partner, parent(s), or friends, make those choices for you, and you end up doing what they want, instead of what you do. Rather than feel pressured into doing what others are doing, either by someone directly asking you or by mimicry, filter out the noise (which is the vast majority of your surroundings) and determine what is essential, and investing your time and energy into those activities only.

Though this seems easy to do, and you may feel like you are doing that right now, you aren’t. You are certainly doing many things that you don’t deem or shouldn’t deem essential. When you focus any amount of effort on non-essential things, you are making a trade-off with an essential thing; therefore, you are preventing yourself from achieving success in what is essential.

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Though this seems easy to do, the modern world has created so many distractions and choices that making all the decisions that are necessary to live the life of an essentialist with no training is impossible while also lying to us and saying that we can do all these things and have everything without compromise. In order to break from this lie, follow the following steps.

  1. Explore and evaluate.

    Explore all the options and ask the right questions to determine the essential things.

  1. Eliminate

    Take all the non-essential things in your life and throw them out.

  1. Execute

    Continue to focus on the essential things without adding non-essential things in your life.

Deciding what is essential.

While we might not have control over our options or our circumstances, we have control over how we choose between our options. Don’t forget that no one can make you do anything.

Switch from: "I have to" -> "I choose to"

Most things are non-essential. Not all opportunities are equal.

Switch from: "Almost everything is essential." -> "Almost everything is non-essential."

Therefore, everything is a trade-off.

Switch from: "How can I do both?" -> "What trade-off do I want to make?"

Since you are going to go big on the trade-off you choose, you must make sure that you are exploring all the options before making a decision.

Look at the big picture to determine what matters; otherwise, you will get lost in the day-to-day details.

Switch from hearing what is said to hearing what is not said.

Switch from listening to the loudest or most dominant voice/narrative to the essence.

  • Keep a journal.
  • Go out to the field.
  • Find the unusual details. (the stuff that doesn’t fit with the dominant narrative.)
  • Clarify the question.


Use the 90% rule:

“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.”

Switch from saying yes to every opportunity to saying yes to the top 10% of opportunities.

If it isn’t a clear yes, it’s a no. Here’s how you should filter out opportunities:

  1. Write down the opportunity.
  2. Write down a list of three “minimum criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered.
  3. Write down a list of three ideal or “extreme criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered.

By definition, if the opportunity doesn’t pass the first set of criteria, the answer is obviously no. But if it also doesn’t pass two of your three extreme criteria, the answer is still no.”


Clarify your strategy, so that you know what you’re doing at all times. The strategy should be inspirational and concrete. This one strategy should clarify as many decisions in the future as possible.

How to say no firmly, gracefully, resolutely:

  • Separate the decision from the relationship.
  • You don’t have to say the word “no.”
  • Focus on the trade-off (what you are giving up) you are making when you pass on an opportunity.
  • Remind yourself that you are being sold an agenda.
  • Be okay with trading popularity with respect.
    • Instead of being the popular person, people begin respecting your time and boundaries, and grow to respect you since you’re not a pushover.
  • Sometimes a clear “no” can be better than a non-committal “yes.”
    • You’ll save them from disappointment if you won’t live up to their expectations anyways.

Different ways of saying no:

  • Pause before making an answer, even if it’s awkward.
  • “No, but " - offer an alternative for later to show that you don’t devalue them, just value them less than something else.
  • “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”
  • Use email bounce backs.
  • Say “Yes, what should I de-prioritize?” making them aware of the trade-off that you will be making.
    • “Yes, I’m happy to make this the priority. Which of these other projects should I deprioritize to pay attention to this new project?”
    • “I would want to do a great job, and given my other commitments I wouldn’t be able to do a job I was proud of if I took this on.”
  • Use humor.
  • “Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.”
    • For example, “You are welcome to borrow my car. I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you.” By this you are also saying, “I won’t be able to drive you.” You are saying what you will not do, but you are couching it in terms of what you are willing to do. ”
  • Propose an alternative person to help them.

Train yourself to avoid the sunk-cost fallacy and other biases by being comfortable with cutting losses.

Ask: “If I weren’t already invested in this project, how much would I invest in it now?”

  • Pretend you don’t own what you have yet, and then ask what you would pay to buy it now.
  • Don’t fear waste.
  • Admit failure.
  • Get a second opinion.
  • Be aware of status-quo bias: just because something exists now, doesn’t mean it has to.
  • Apply zero-based budgeting.
  • Stop making casual commitments.
  • Pause before speaking.
  • Get over FOMO.
  • Remove things and see if there is a tangible difference.

Set boundaries.

See boundaries limitless, not limiting.

Otherwise, others’ priorities become yours. Find your dealbreakers.


To actually make this philosophy and reality and get the essential done, you need to make it second nature, rather than forcing yourself to do things. Therefore, accomplishing your essential goals must become frictionless and the default, rather than the alternative to doing the non-essential.

Plan for the unexpected by budgeting for risks that you anticipate.

Subtract the slowest-hiker obstacle (the obstacle that is most preventing you from accomplishing the essential.)

Start with small wins and build up from there.

  • Focus on minimal viable progress: the smallest step that you can take to say that you did progress.
  • Do the minimum viable preparation: just prepare the smallest bit.
  • Visually reward progress.
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Design a routine.

  • Overhaul your triggers. Find the bad triggers and eliminate them.
  • Create new good triggers.
  • Do the most difficult thing first to get it out of the way.
  • Mix up your routines.

Be in the now.

  • You can only focus on one thing. You can do multiple tasks at once, but you can only focus on one.
  • Figure out what is important right now.

Some addition thoughts that seem tangential to essentialism.

In order to explore all your options, you need to break from your routine and what you think matters and explore life. Create space to escape and just think; otherwise, you are not fully exploring your options.

Other places where you should create space to accomplish your goals:

  • space to concentrate (without distractions, email, social media, etc.)
  • space to read
  • space to play

Keep a journal and look back at it to see the big picture of what is going on in your life.

Sleep is essential; don’t make the sacrifice or trade-off of sleep likely. You are most efficient when asleep.

Give yourself a time and resource buffer by over-allocating by 50% in every decision to plan for unexpected events.

Tejas Gupta

New York City, USA
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Tejas Gupta is a Princeton University student in the Department of Computer Science. He is currently studying at ETH Zürich.