Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

by Glenn on January 8, 2017

The last book I finished in 2016, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, was the best book to consider at the start of 2017.

This is the time of year when we make all sorts of commitments about the things we are going to start doing. Many of these commitments amount to adding to our schedules, doing more and more on top of what we are already doing. And the result is, though we begin with the best of intentions, we fall back to what was. It’s impossible to do it all.

While making major changes can be challenging, I’ve thought for some time now that a better place to look for change is in a “not to do” list. That is a major component of Essentialism.

“Essentialism” has you consider things to stop doing. An “essentialist” asks, “Am investing in the right activities?” McKeown describes failure as “a millimeter of progress in a million directions” and offers this insight and promise: “Everything changes when we give ourselves permission to be more selective in what we choose to do.”

Early on McKeown writes,

“…the basic value proposition of Essentialism: only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”

I don’t think McKeown is saying much that is completely new in this book, but the timing of the book and the framing of these ideas was just right for me. A key concept:

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

The truth is others are only too happy to prioritize your life, resulting in distraction, frustration or, possibly, your demise (in at least some part of your life—intellectual, spiritual, emotional, physical, relational, etc.).

McKeown adds,

“Essentialism is about creating a system for handling the closet of our lives. This is not a process you undertake once a year, once a month, or even once a week, like organizing your closet. It is a discipline you apply each and every time you are faced with a decision about whether to say yes or whether to politely decline. It’s a method for making the tough trade-off between lots of good things and a few really great things. It’s about learning how to do less but better so you can achieve the highest possible return on every previous moment of your life.”

In what seems like simply a reverse statement of Jim Collins’ criticism of “the undisciplined pursuit of more,” McKeown encourages “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” He frames the concept as a cyclical process that is always ongoing:


1. Individual choice: We can choose how to spend our energy and time. This requires us to take a little pause. In order to have focus, we need to escape to focus.

2. The prevalence of noise: Almost everything is noise, and a very few things are exceptionally valuable. We must learn to say “no” to all but the essential.

3. The reality of trade-offs: We can’t have it all or do it all. As he (and others before him) reminds us, “I can do anything but not everything.”


The schedule of the last few years has taught me that many things are only possible if there are blocks of time to work on them. If most of your work life is spent being available to whatever inputs come your way, you are paying attention to just a portion of the work you need to do. Saying yes to everything means you neglect work that already exists for you to do and figuring out what other work you need to do. As a result, you are looking for real achievement in the margins of life.

One way to deal with this is to say no by raising prices. “Yes, I can do that. It will cost x.”