This is a preview of the Shortform book summary of
Essentialism by Greg McKeown.
Read Full Summary

1-Page Summary 1-Page Book Summary of Essentialism

We’re constantly trying to do too much and to be all things to all people. Yet when someone makes a request, we say yes without thinking in order to avoid conflict or hurt feelings. We feel we have to do it all.

Because we’re stretched thin and going in too many directions, we make little progress. We feel overworked but underutilized because most of what we’re spending our time on isn’t really important. As Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, puts it, many of us are majoring in minor activities. The way out of this trap is to practice essentialism: “do less but better.”

Essentialism is defined as the consistent and focused pursuit of less but better. It’s not about being more efficient or doing more with less (or less with less), as many companies demand of employees. It requires stopping regularly to ask yourself whether you’re spending your time and resources on the right things.

We have numerous opportunities to choose from, and obviously we can’t invest our time and energy in all of them. Some may be good or excellent, but most are unimportant; few are crucial or essential. Essentialism means differentiating among the options and selecting just a few essential ones while eliminating the rest. It’s doing the right things as opposed to doing more things.

Taking an essentialist approach is similar to how you or a professional organizer would streamline your closet. If you neglect your closet, it gets disorganized and crammed with items you don’t wear. You purge it periodically when it gets totally out of control. But if you don’t have an ongoing system that you stick to, you’ll keep ending up back at square one, with a messy closet.

The same thing happens to your life. With good intentions, you say yes to too many things without a sense of overall purpose and your schedule soon overflows. Many activities are ongoing and unless you have a system for purging them, they expand to fill your time automatically.

Define Your Purpose

Essentialism is investing your time and energy only in what’s essential in order to make your optimum contribution to the things that matter most to you.

Before you start eliminating things, you must decide your intent or purpose, the highest contribution you’re trying to achieve that’s distinct from the many nonessential options and opportunities you could pursue. It should be specific and measurable. Ask yourself: What inspires me? What am I really good at? What would make the world better?

Deciding your purpose makes many further decisions unnecessary or makes them easier. For instance, deciding on a specific profession like law or medicine eliminates myriad options and sets a future course. Once a critical decision is made, subsequent choices fall into alignment while other options become moot.

Three Phases of Essentialism

An essentialist approach to your closet — or your life — consists of three phases, in which you consider tough questions:...

Want to learn the rest of Essentialism in 21 minutes?

Unlock the full book summary of Essentialism by signing up for Shortform.

Shortform summaries help you learn 10x faster by:

  • Being 100% comprehensive: you learn the most important points in the book
  • Cutting out the fluff: you don't spend your time wondering what the author's point is.
  • Interactive exercises: apply the book's ideas to your own life with our educators' guidance.

READ FULL SUMMARY OF ESSENTIALISM

Here's a preview of the rest of Shortform's Essentialism summary:

Essentialism Summary Introduction

We feel constantly pressed for time. We’re trying to do too much, yet when someone makes a request we say yes without thinking, in order to please them or avoid resentment. We feel that we must do it all.

As a result, we’re stretched too thin, we’re going in too many directions, and we’re making only minuscule forward progress on our many tasks and projects. We’re busy but not necessarily productive. We feel overworked but underutilized, because we’re spending much of our time on things that matter little.

As Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, puts it, many of us are majoring in minor activities. The way out of this trap is to practice “the way of the essentialist”: do less but better. Dieter Rams, a retired academic and industrial designer, coined the phrase and wrote a book in 1994 with that title. McKeown focuses his book on how to put it into practice, changing your thinking and your life.

Essentialism Defined

Essentialism is the consistent and focused pursuit of less but better, in all aspects of your life. It’s not about being more efficient or doing more with less (or less with less), as many companies demand of...

Try Shortform for free

Read full summary of Essentialism

Sign up for free

Essentialism Summary Part 1: The Essentialist Mindset

Three principles underlie the essentialist mindset:

  • You (not your boss, friends, or family) need to choose how to use your time and energy.
  • You need to determine what’s most important. Very few things matter — most things are trivial; only a few are crucial.
  • You have to make trade-offs — you can’t have or do everything. Instead of asking how you can make it all work, ask which problem you want to solve.

Based on these premises, the essentialist applies a method similar to the closet analogy described above, which eventually becomes instinctive. The book explores each step in depth. The steps are:

1) Explore options. The essentialist distinguishes the trivial from the crucial by exploring and assessing a range of options. Essentialists end up exploring more options than nonessentialists, who just commit to everything indiscriminately. The essentialist asks:

  • What inspires me?
  • What am I really good at?
  • What would make the world better?

2) Eliminate the nonessential. After determining what’s most important, the essentialist eliminates the rest. That means saying no to most things, although you’re programmed to say yes to everything....

What Our Readers Say

This is the best summary of How to Win Friends and Influence People I've ever read. I learned all the main points in just 20 minutes.
Learn more about our summaries →

Shortform Exercise: Deciding What’s Essential

Many people don’t reach their optimum contribution level because they believe everything is important. However, only a few things are essential. To practice the skill of identifying the vital few, start by applying it to everyday decisions. When it’s second nature, apply it to bigger things.


Think about the coming weekend. List the things you want to accomplish. Prioritize them.

Try Shortform for free

Read full summary of Essentialism

Sign up for free

Essentialism Summary Part 2: Explore Options

Essentialists explore and weigh a broad range of options in order to identify the vital few.

While nonessentialists like to jump on the latest opportunity, essentialists take the time to find out what else is out there. Because they’re going to go big on just a few things, they want to make sure they’re choosing the right things.

To discover what’s essential, you need five elements: space to escape and think, time to listen and observe, opportunity to play, time to sleep, and selective criteria for making your choices.

In our do-it-all culture, these things are often seen as unnecessary distractions. For instance, we hear bosses and colleagues say things like, “Fun is a luxury we can’t afford right now.” Or, “We don’t have time for (blank); we have work to do.” Space to explore and think are the antithesis of the thoughtless busyness that surrounds us. But in reality, they’re critical to sorting the important from the trivial matters that swamp us.

Space to Escape and Think: Get Away from the Routine

Essentialists create space for exploring and pondering options. It can be a physical space, for example, a room that’s conducive to creativity or free from...

Why people love using Shortform

"I LOVE Shortform as these are the BEST summaries I’ve ever seen...and I’ve looked at lots of similar sites. The 1-page summary and then the longer, complete version are so useful. I read Shortform nearly every day.""
Jerry McPhee
Sign up for free

Shortform Exercise: Hell Yes or No

Remember that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. Learn to focus on what’s essential and what really excites you so you can discard what’s not important.


Make a list of opportunities available to you right now that you need to decide on.

Try Shortform for free

Read full summary of Essentialism

Sign up for free

Essentialism Summary Part 3: Eliminate the Nonessential

Once you’ve explored your options, the next critical consideration isn’t which one you should say yes to, but which ones you’ll say no to.

Once you know what you want to get rid of, the question is how best to do it. Because we’re bombarded with so many nonessential activities and opportunities, with new ones appearing constantly, we need systematic ways of cutting the excess.

Returning to the closet example, once you’ve sorted the contents (explored the options) and decided which things to get rid of (made choices), you still need to take the actual step of elimination. It’s not easy — you still may be hesitating on a few items.

This chapter suggests ways that make it easier to say no to, or eliminate, nonessential things so you can focus on the vital few. And if you say no the right way, you’ll actually receive greater respect from your colleagues, bosses, and others.

Clarify Your Purpose

The first category of options to eliminate are those that don’t align with your purpose, that is, with what you want to achieve. Of course, to do this you need to be radically clear about what your purpose is.

A surprising number of people can’t answer the question of what they...

What Our Readers Say

This is the best summary of How to Win Friends and Influence People I've ever read. I learned all the main points in just 20 minutes.
Learn more about our summaries →

Shortform Exercise: Learn to Say Thanks, But No Thanks

Many of us are reluctant to say no to others because we’re afraid of creating conflict. But we need to say no to nonessential activities in order to we say yes to the most important things. The key is saying no gracefully by rejecting the activity, but not the person.


Think of a recent request that you agreed to, but that left you feeling resentful or taken advantage of. Why did you agree in the first place?

Try Shortform for free

Read full summary of Essentialism

Sign up for free

Essentialism Summary Part 4: Execute Effortlessly

There are two ways to execute or implement something. You can get it done by force of effort, or you can accomplish your purpose almost effortlessly because you’ve created a system. Essentialists create a system.

Returning to the closet example, after you cleared and organized your closet, you need a system so that keeping it clutter-free (your ongoing objective) is simple and routine. SImilarly, once you’ve determined what activities and endeavors are helping you achieve your purpose, you need a system for executing them.

When things are easy to do, they’re more likely to get done. This part of the book explains how to make implementation (getting the right things done) as easy and smooth as possible. Steps include creating buffers, removing obstacles, achieving small wins, creating routines, and focusing.

Create Buffers

You never know when something unexpected will pop up and threaten to sidetrack your plans. For instance, your flight may be delayed or canceled, or a traffic detour will make you late. At work, a supplier might be late, a colleague might drop the ball, or a client could change his mind at the last minute.

You can wait until something happens...

Want to read the rest of this
Book Summary?

With Shortform, you can:

Access 1000+ non-fiction book summaries.

Highlight your
Favorite Passages.

Access 1000+ premium article summaries.

Take Notes on your
Favorite Books.

Read on the go with our iOS and Android App.

Download PDF Summaries.

Sign up for free

Shortform Exercise: Change Your Habit

The reason it’s difficult to change a bad or nonessential habit is that the habit is reinforced by a powerful mental loop consisting of a cue, routine, and a reward.


Think of a nonessential activity that’s become routine for you, but that’s counterproductive. What is the cue that triggers the routine or behavior?

Try Shortform for free

Read full summary of Essentialism

Sign up for free

Shortform Exercise: Give Yourself a Buffer

You never know when something unexpected will pop up and threaten to sidetrack your pursuit of what’s essential. You can wait until something happens and react or you can take the essentialist approach and prepare by giving yourself a buffer.


Think of an upcoming personal activity — for instance, a vacation or business trip, a home improvement project, or a major purchase. What potential challenges might you encounter?

What Our Readers Say

This is the best summary of How to Win Friends and Influence People I've ever read. I learned all the main points in just 20 minutes.
Learn more about our summaries →

Shortform Exercise: Remove Obstacles

In your work and personal life, you face obstacles that keep you from achieving what matters to you or that slow the process. By identifying and removing them you can make execution smoother and simpler.


Think of an essential task or project in your work or personal life that you’re having trouble executing. List what you think the obstacles are.

Try Shortform for free

Read full summary of Essentialism

Sign up for free

Essentialism Summary Appendix: Being an Essentialist Leader

If you lead people in an organization or business, you can apply essentialist skills and thinking to your leadership. Here’s a review of how traditional and essentialist leaders perform:

Characteristics of the nonessentialist leader:

  • Mindset: Tries to do it all; be all things to all people
  • Hiring: Hires quickly; creates a “bozo explosion,” when a formerly great team or company is dragged into mediocrity by lackluster new team members.
  • Strategy: Has multiple priorities. People are spread thin and make little progress.
  • Management style: Disempowers by making arbitrary decisions. People’s roles are unclear.
  • Communication: Too sudden or too general to be actionable.
  • ...

What Our Readers Say

This is the best summary of How to Win Friends and Influence People I've ever read. I learned all the main points in just 20 minutes.
Learn more about our summaries →

Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Introduction
  • Part 1: The Essentialist Mindset
  • Exercise: Deciding What’s Essential
  • Part 2: Explore Options
  • Exercise: Hell Yes or No
  • Part 3: Eliminate the Nonessential
  • Exercise: Learn to Say Thanks, But No Thanks
  • Part 4: Execute Effortlessly
  • Exercise: Change Your Habit
  • Exercise: Give Yourself a Buffer
  • Exercise: Remove Obstacles
  • Appendix: Being an Essentialist Leader