Book Review : Essentialism

Beto ‘Riginale

In this essay, I discuss Essentialism: the disciplined pursuit of less by Greg McKeown. Currency, 2014, available at

Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.

Thich Nhat Hanh
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

The American Declaration of Independence refers to “unalienable Rights” and “that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” a goal that every American schoolchild learns about at an early age: Freedom. What Thich Nhat Hanh gives us is an enumeration of some obstacles which hold us back from attaining the goal of freedom. In Essentialism, Greg McKeown begins with a simple statement of what he has to say:

The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials

Lin Yutang, 1895 – 1976,
Chinese philosopher and writer

In the remainder of the book, McKeown describes what is essential, how to discern the essential from the non-essential, how to extricate ourselves from the non-essential, and gives advice on how to do the essential.

In the first part, McKeown explains what he means by essential and essentialism. Essentials are those tasks that most highly resonate with the goals of our higher self;  our needs, activities that fulfill the needs of our higher self. Essentialism involves reducing all of our activities to those which are essential, our needs, and eliminating the non-essential activities, our wants. McKeown’s central concept consists of making choices based upon the goals of our higher self and sticking with them. He explains that the foundation of decision-making is not to accept every task that comes along. For each opportunity that comes along, we need to ask ourselves if it furthers progress toward our primary goals.

Where most of us flounder is how we make choices. In the second part of the book, McKeown delves into how to make choices, to discern what is essential, and what is not. I agree with his view that people tend to accept every task, every opportunity that comes along due to a trait of human nature: a desire to please others. As children, we learned that pleasing others is important. And it is, but there is a limit to what we can realistically do. That is the crux of the dilemma in which we find ourselves. Making wise and realistic choices comes down to being able to say “no.” As I recall, Steven Covey makes a point of being trustworthy by doing what we agree to do without fail. So if we can answer the question: “is this task in harmony with our highest goals” with “yes,” then we need to do it. If, however, the answer is “no,” then we need not accept the task. By merely asking that question, we can reduce the number of jobs on our plate to only those which are essential for us. 

In the third part, McKeown discusses how we can reduce the number of tasks that burden us. How to reject gracefully those tasks to which “no” is the answer to the question posed in part two. In other words, the “doing” of the rejection. He discusses how to remove tasks to which we have committed, how to say gracefully “no” to fresh opportunities, and how to set boundaries and make them known to others.

In the last part, McKeown talks about the “doing” of essential tasks almost without effort. For me, this was the most important part of the book.

Buffer: provide a realistic time-cost estimate to complete, something I discovered many years ago when I was managing various projects. I initially started out estimating the project schedule and costs by determining the time I would need to complete the project, a best-case scenario. After a couple of missed deadlines, I found a solution. At first, I used my estimate and added 50%. That worked pretty well, but still, there were problems. The biggest drawback was the time I needed to estimate the entire project. I then hit upon the idea of having each member of the group make estimates for their part. That reduced the time I needed to complete the forecast, but still, there were problems. The primary problem was once again underestimating the time, so I combined the two: the individual estimates and adding 50% to them. We were always on time then. Over a year or two, I reduced the buffer to about 25%. Everybody was happy then. My department head was delighted because we were always on time and within budget, and my group was happy because there was sufficient time to get the job done and thus less stress.

Subtract: remove obstacles to progress. Unforeseen problems arise in any project or task. McKeown correctly states that the key lies in not doing a “quick fix” but in recognizing what problems could arise and removing the cause of the issues. I believe that given sufficient thought, any problem is solvable. The faster progress made on the project overall prevails over the time-cost of removing the cause of the problem.

Progress: the power of small wins. For me, this was a key idea. Rather than focusing on the overall advance of a project, focus on the small steps needed for shorter portions. Each small step then becomes a win which boosts confidence, reduces stress, and creates enthusiasm. For instance, in writing this review, I focused on each part of the book, and once I completed the draft, I could concentrate on each rewrite. Each step was relatively painless. The result, this review, is a win for me.

Flow: the genius of routine. I have little in my life that is routine or things that could be routine, or so I thought. However, I agree that having a routine can be significant. I have been working on my morning routine, as Ben Hardy suggested in a recent post on, and I find it helps.

Focus: near the beginning of the book, McKeown suggests that we ask ourselves: “Is this the most important thing I should do with my time and resources right now”? I couldn’t agree more. Since I first read the book, I ask myself that question often. It helps get me focused on what is essential. That is the most important thing I have learned from McKeown.

N.B. After I completed this review, I was looking at my garden from my desk on the patio and realized how beautiful language is. I recalled the movie “Finding Forrester” about a writer and how beautiful language is. For me, writing this review is undoubtedly a win-win task as it allowed me to work on my writing and to put down on paper (journaling) my thoughts about essentialism.

Beto Riginale
1 June 2020