Getting the Right Things Done with Essentialism

Chalkboard with laptop and coffee
Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

After several friends and colleagues recommended Essentialism and after feeling exceptionally stressed about my list of obligations, I decided to check it out. Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKewon, is a book about getting the right things done vs. getting more done in less time. “Only once we discern what is absolutely essential and eliminate everything else can we make our highest possible contribution to the things that truly matter.”

I have to admit, initially I didn’t so much care about making my highest possible contribution as I did about eliminating all of the non-important things that I was doing.

There are four main concepts in the book – essence, explore, eliminate and execute; the latter three make up the system we can apply each time we’re faced with a decision about whether to say yes or politely decline. Within each section, there are 4-6 chapters (20 in total). At the end of the new version, there is a free 21-day challenge. As I like to review business books that I’ve read that make an impact on me, I opted-in to the challenge to reinforce the topics.


Day 1 – The Essentialist

The book starts out like many do, with a story that is very relatable. The story is of Sam, an executive, who is stretched too thin, taking on every possible project, attending every meeting and working all hours of the day and night. His stress levels are off the charts. Typically, like you and I, he powers through, but his mentor advised him to only do the things that he deemed essential and ignore everything else.

As you can expect, Sam’s life changed dramatically for the better. Although his colleagues were initially disappointed when he said no, “they soon began to respect him more for his refusal, not less.” Before, Sam would spin his wheels trying to get everything done, but now he could actually make progress on the things that truly mattered. Eliminating the non-essential restored the quality of his work.

The challenge for the first day was to find an accountability partner, and although several people I know are reading the book, no one wanted to do the challenge with me so I’m going it alone!

Day 2 – CHOOSE

Sometimes we feel like we “have” to do all the things or any one thing. Realizing that we do have a choice, and shifting the focus to “I choose to” can help us escape the trap of “have to.”

Replace the words “I have to” with “I choose to.” Today, I chose to do my weekly call with friend and colleague. I chose to participate in a Zoom call to work on business goals. (I wrote down what each area of life meant to me — relationships, finance, health, business, vacations, etc.).


We’re taught that hard work is the key to success, but at what point does hard work not produce more? We may have been rewarded in the past for doing more and more and more. But at a certain point, there are no additional gains. Think about the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) and how we can apply it to our lives. We have to unlearn 1:1 logic (working harder = more results) and adopt the 80/20 principle where we look for the “vital few” and eliminate the “trivial many.”

What’s the most important thing I can do today? The most important thing I did today was to rest, relax and spend time with my kiddo.


This chapter made me think about specializing. When you’re a generalist, you take on many different kinds of work and tasks. When you specialize, you purposely only accept certain types of clients or projects. The book talks about Southwest Airlines and how initially, they specialized in low-cost flights by only offering point-to-point service, no meals, coach only and letting people choose their seats. Other companies tried to copy them, but still kept their existing models (straddling) and it didn’t work because those airlines were running two different types of businesses.

“The reality is that saying yes to any opportunity by definition requires saying no to several others.” There are always trade-offs. You can’t do both — you should ask yourself which problem you want.

When the thought crosses your mind, “I will do both” — stop, pause and pick one of the choices. Since it’s a Sunday and I didn’t have anything planned, I didn’t have to make any trade-offs, but I will come back to this again during the work week to find out. (I did use one of the other tactics though — I paused when someone asked me to be on a podcast instead of saying yes right away.)


Day 5 – ESCAPE

In the previous chapters, we learned how to stop and think about choices before committing and to choose one, important thing for the day. This chapter reminds us that in order to do this, we need space and time to explore options, think and focus.

“While Nonessentialists automatically react to the latest idea, jump on the latest opportunity, or respond to the latest email, Essentialists choose to create the space to explore and ponder.”

What are some ways you can do this? By not keeping your inbox or Slack open all day. By severely limiting notifications and setting time limits on your phone — be ruthless! The author mentions Jeff Weiner and how he schedules two hours of blank space on his calendar each day in 30-minute increments.

Create a room where there is no technology. Put your phone to sleep at a set time in a different room to where you sleep. Today’s challenge is pretty interesting. I work in my bedroom (I have a dedicated desk/office area), but having my bedroom be off-limits to technology doesn’t quite work. Instead, I set do not disturb on my phone from 10PM – 6:30AM.

Day 6 – LOOK

This chapter talks about how we’re overwhelmed by so many details and an abundance of information. To figure out what’s important, we need to look at the big picture. We need to sift through the what, why, when, where and how and figure out the point. Essentialists are listeners and observers. Pausing before deciding or reacting is crucial. Don’t just pay attention to the loudest noise or the most recent pull for your attention, look for what isn’t being said. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Keep a journal, not of pointless details, but of broader pictures or trends
  • “Get out into the field” to fully explore the problem to find the best solution
  • Ask what question you’re really trying to answer

Start an essentialist journal: write only one sentence a day answering the questions, “What’s the most important thing that happened today?” I’m a big proponent of starting small; doing something small, consistently, can add up to something big over time. The most important thing that happened yesterday was to go for a walk after work with my partner and talk.

Day 7 – PLAY

Play gets a bad rap. We think it’s for kids, not adults, but it actually has a lot of benefits. Play helps us to see the possibilities we wouldn’t see and make connections we wouldn’t make, it counters stress (and stress leads to shutting down the creative, inquisitive, exploratory parts of our brain) and it has a positive effect on the executive functions of the brain (think planning, prioritizing, scheduling, deciding, etc.).

In the challenge video for the day, the author mentioned re-reading the journal he had started a few years earlier. Things that seemed important then weren’t now and vice versa. Time he had spent playing was cherished.

Spend time playing a game with a child for ten minutes. Lose yourself in the magical exploration that comes so easily to children. We had just come back from a family vacation where we played a lot of games and sometimes we do play games on the weekends at home. The author mentioned taking a walk with your kids, which we often do!

Day 8 – SLEEP

I’ve never understood the lack of sleep as a badge of honor thing. I grew up in a household where we had to be quiet after a certain time in the evenings, everyone napped on Sunday afternoons and sleep was prioritized. Even in raising my son, I encourage sleep — when we don’t get enough, we’re grouchy, stressed and not as effective. I know that I’m a 9 hours a night kind of person.

Take a twenty-minute nap. Today’s challenge was amazing!

Day 9 – SELECT

When I’m reading a book, I typically put pencil marks next to passages that I think are important. One tick, two or when something really resonates, three ticks. This chapter had a TON of pencil marks.

  • Apply the 90 percent rule to decision-making. Identify minimum criteria and use a 1-10 scale. If something doesn’t get a 9 or a 10, say no.
  • Sometimes turning down a very good option means having faith that a better one will appear; “it forces you to make decisions by design rather than by default.”
  • Use this process when opportunities come your way. Write down the opportunity. Write down a list of three “minimum criteria” the options would need to pass to be considered. Write down three ideal criteria the options would need to pass. If it doesn’t pass the minimum, say no. But if it doesn’t pass two of three ideal criteria, also say no.

One time today, when something isn’t a clear yes, make it a clear no. I’ve been looking at all of the decisions I’ve been making lately and questioning them. When new things come up, I’ve been really considering them instead of just saying yes. A lot of this involves reaching out to my colleagues and friends — people who know what self-employment is like and who can offer valuable perspectives and insights.


Day 10 – CLARIFY

“It’s not enough to simply determine which activities and efforts don’t make the best possible contribution; you still have to actively eliminate those that do not.” To learn how to eliminate activities that aren’t aligned with what you want to achieve, you must first get really clear about what you want to accomplish in the first place. It’s important to go from pretty clear to really clear — when you’re really clear, you’re less frustrated and waste less time.

There’s a great graphic in the book that illustrates how to establish our essential intent. It’s more than values or quarterly objectives (those are too bland) and even more than a typical vision or mission statement (which is too general). Essential intent is both inspirational and concrete; that one decision will also eliminate 1,000 later decisions because you’ll know exactly where you’re going. To create this, ask two questions:

  • If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?
  • And, how will we know when we have succeeded?

Before going into your next meeting, pause and ask yourself, “What is the one thing I really want to achieve coming out of this meeting?” I didn’t have a meeting today, but typically my go-to for meetings is to come out with a concrete task list and follow up immediately afterwards with specifics.

Day 11 – DARE

Part of becoming an essentialist is learning to say no. Sometimes we feel a tension between what we’d like to do and what someone else would like us to do; we may also be too scared or intimated to refuse in the moment. It takes courage to stand up for what you want but it can be hard to do that when we’re unclear on what is essential to us. The author tells us that “people respect and admire those with the courage of conviction to say no.”

The point isn’t to say no to all requests — it’s to figure out which are most important. Here are a few ways to say no:

  • The decision and the relationship are different; don’t forget that denying the request isn’t denying the person
  • You don’t have to use the word no; there are many graceful ways to decline a request
  • Think about how you’ll feel later if you say no now (relieved?)
  • Remember that everyone is selling something
  • Respect comes from saying no in the long term, even if you hurt someone’s feelings in the short term
  • A clear no is more clear than a vague or noncommittal yes

There are 8 ways to say no in the book, but my favorites are:

  • The “no but” — where you offer something else that you are willing to do
  • The “let me check my calendar and get back to you” — this buys time
  • The email autoresponder that says no for you
  • Another variation on the “no but” is the “I can’t, but X might be interested” — this offers them something

Write out how to say no gracefully. Word it carefully and practice it. I’ve been using the above ways to say no when possible!


The author talks about sunk cost bias — where because you’ve spent so much time on something, you feel obligated to keep going with it. The answer actually is pretty simple — cut your losses and quit continuing to lose!

There are a lot of great thoughts in this chapter, but my favorite is applying zero based budgeting. “Instead of trying to budget your time on the basis of existing commitments, assume that all bets are off.” Begin from scratch.

Another idea is to stop doing something and see what happens. You may find that you (or the other people involved) don’t miss that thing.

Look at each commitment on your calendar for this week. Ask, “If I wasn’t already involved, how hard would I work to get involved now?” There are definitely a few things on my calendar where I wouldn’t work very hard to get involved now. Two of those I’ve taken action on and won’t be continuing those after next month.

Day 13 – EDIT

Some of the suggested actions in this book make a lot of sense to me and this is one of them. I do this by nature with my personal belongings — because I live in an apartment, but also because I dislike clutter. I’ve also applied this rule to my son where I discourage more than two out-of-school activities at a time because I know he needs rest and downtime.

I have never thought of applying it to my activities though.

Use this rule for today: If you say yes to a new activity, then edit out an existing activity to make space for it. The challenge for the day is to write out your schedule, in pencil. When something comes up, edit the schedule and see what you’re giving up in order to fit it in. Only then can you see if what you’ve added is actually more important than what you removed.

There are other ways to edit your life as well. Condensing is one of those actions (your space, your possessions, etc.) as is showing restraint. You don’t have to write back to that email (or write back right away). If you wait, the other person may resolve the problem on their own. And at the very least, you’re training them that you’re not available to them 24/7.

Day 14 – LIMIT

This was covered in the DARE chapter, but it’s worth revisiting and diving more into boundaries, especially between family and work time. Setting boundaries is the first step, but enforcing them is where the magic happens.

I think of boundaries in the same way I think of budgeting. You could think of them as restrictions, about things you can’t do. But I like to think of them as rules or plans — they’re freeing. I don’t have to think each time I’m confronted with a choice — I can follow the rules and plans I’ve already set.

It’s worth mentioning that boundaries can help others, too. When we step in and try to solve problems for others, we don’t give them a chance to do it for themselves.

Next time anyone asks you to do something, pause and say, “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” Buy yourself some time to think about it against your current commitments. I followed through on today’s assignment. I ended up saying yes, but later on when I had more time available.


Day 15 – BUFFER

The next set of chapters is about how to make all the previous chapters easier to accomplish. The first one is giving yourself some time. When you’re out of time, stressed and overly busy, you make bad choices (at least I do). I say yes to things I shouldn’t. I make mistakes. When I have more time to breathe, I make better choices.

Essentialists plan ahead. They prepare for different contingencies. Instead of expecting a best-case scenario, they expect unforeseen circumstances and give wiggle room to deal with them. One practical way to do this is to add 50% to any and all estimates that you send out as buffer time. You could also try a 3-point estimate. Break each project down into a series of tasks. For each task, assign three times — the perfect world/best case, the average amount of time it would take, and how long it would take if everything went wrong.

Add four, thirty-minute “appointments” on your calendar every day for a buffer. You don’t know ahead of time what you will do with that time. It exists to help you handle the unexpected problems and opportunities that come your way. I have buffer times built into my Calendly schedule — no Mondays or Fridays, no calls before 10AM, etc. — but I hadn’t considered adding appointments to each day!

Chapter 16 – SUBTRACT

Ask yourself, “What is the obstacle that is keeping you back from achieving what really matters to you? By systematically identifying and removing this ‘constraint’ you’ll be able to significantly reduce the friction keeping you from executing what is essential.”

Nonessentialists are reactive — they look for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, then apply quick-fixes. Essentialists on the other hand, make a one-time investment in removing obstacles. So, how do they do that?

  • Get clear on what you’re trying to accomplish
  • Ask yourself what is keeping you from completing the task and make a list
  • Prioritize the list by asking, what is the one obstacle, that if removed, would make the rest of these disappear?
  • Remove the one obstacle

Design a morning routine that invigorates you. There are a few variations of the 21-day challenge and Subtract had a few different themes. The video didn’t cover a morning routine, but it did talk about writing down your priority for the day and then any obstacles that have kept you from achieving it.


Essentialists start small and get big results vs. starting with a big goal and then getting small results. I’m a HUGE fan of this. I liken myself to the tortoise in the story about the tortoise and the hare. I like to set small, quick wins and have those build on each other.

We can take this a step further and ask, “what’s the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we’re trying to get done?” Other strategies include taking early (but small) steps to prepare for a task (like a meeting) and visually rewarding progress (think debt repayment graphics!).

Start a meeting today with the question, “What has gone right since we last met?” I wonder if not having meetings counts as being an essentialist.

Day 18 – FLOW

This chapter talked a lot about Michael Phelps and his amazing routines. I have a friend who loves to exercise, but hates to figure out what to do each time. She loves to follow a plan but doesn’t like to make it. Fortunately she’s able to purchase workout plans, but in our lives, we can expend a small amount of energy to create an initial routine, then follow it. Think about other plans you make (meal planning for example) and how much easier it is to follow a plan once its made. You don’t have to think each time about what to do (and be overcome with decision fatigue) — you just follow the plan.

Creating a new routine and plan is easier said than done! We have to keep in mind that there are cues triggering nonessential activities, so if we find and replace those, it will be way easier for us. Another tip from this chapter is to tackle the hardest thing first.

Starting with a blank, one-week calendar, design your Dream Routine. This is how you want, ideally, to spend your time each week over the next quarter. I will take some time to think about this as I plan my next 12 Week Year.

Day 19 – FOCUS

There’s a great book called the Power of Now — if you haven’t read it, you definitely should. This chapter is about being in the now. Nonssentialists are always thinking about the past or the future, but essentialists are focused on the present and tuned into what’s important now.

So, how do you do that? By asking yourself what is important now and writing it down. That’s not to say that there won’t be things you want to do in the future — there will be. Write those items down too, and prioritize each list.

Pause once today and ask yourself, “What’s important now?”

Day 20 – BE

There’s a philosophy in the book called “less but better.” Instead of having, doing and being the next best thing, you choose simplicity and what really matters. Essentialism isn’t about crossing off to-do list items, but changing what you put on there to begin with.

And with that, you’ll feel more in control, because you’ll be able to pause and push back. You’ll also experience more joy in the journey and live a life that really matters.

Schedule a personal quarterly offsite to explore, talk, reflect, dream and plan. The goal is to see the big picture: to see what will matter in the end, to set long-term goals from that perspective and to break that down into plans for the next quarter.

This is a common thread in other business books as well (like The 12 Week Year and Traction). The goal is the same — to go away from your normal surroundings and create enough space to think. I will be doing this in the coming week as it’s the end of Q3.

Day 21 and the appendix are about teams and leadership, so if either of those apply to you, check them out.


In all, I really enjoyed this book. My top takeaways were:

  • Recognize that you really do have a choice
  • Get clear on and then ruthlessly prioritize the things that really matter
  • Say no (nicely)
  • Build time for rest, listening, thinking and play into your schedule

You don’t have to be crazy busy and overwhelmed all the time. It just takes a little courage to figure out what is important to you and to say yes to it (and no to all of the rest).

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