Why Essentialism is the minimalist’s perfect toolkit


If you read my last post, you might have guessed that I’ve been reading Greg McKeown’s 2014 book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

Less But Better

McKeown’s key idea is simple but powerful: Less but better.

That is, if we’re going to ‘operate at our highest point of contribution,’ we should do only what’s essential.

This concept is seemingly so obvious, but requires some rigorous pruning of the things we choose to do with our time. It’s impossible to do justice to this thought-provoking book, so I have pulled out some ideas here but recommend you read it.

Consider the Essentialist approach to life

If you ever feel that you’re juggling 50,000 things and struggling to keep all the plates spinning, then read on. By adopting the Essentialist approach, McKeown argues that we can live more intentionally and really makes a difference where it truly matters.

Change your mindset

First, reflect

Take time out to ‘build quiet reflection spaces’ to enable you to focus on what’s important.

For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, make a list of all the small tasks that are nagging you. Highlight the most important and do the most difficult thing first. You’ll feel better if you do.

Recognise that there are trade-offs in your choices, so you have to discern what’s truly important.

Look after yourself

If you’re not eating properly, sleeping well or getting enough exercise and fresh air, you’re not protecting the only asset you have: yourself.

That means you need to edit out the things in your life that prevent you from being your best self.

Be selective

Find what’s key

Look for what McKeown calls the ‘lead’ or the most important part of something*. Keep asking questions until you understand the heart of what’s essential. Can you drill down until you truly know what’s important? Do this and you’ll be able to eliminate the noise and focus only on the absolute essential.

For instance, in work, think carefully before accepting a meeting request. Will attending help you achieve your key goal? If not, decline.

Say no with a smile

Learn to deliver ‘the graceful no’ to guard your time carefully. McKeown explains how the Latin root of the word “-cis” or “-cid” literally means to cut or kill. So when making a decision, we are cutting options. Edit your time so that you are intentional in how you spend it. Then say no with kindness and good grace.

For example, if someone wants you to help with a fundraising event, which cuts into time you have allocated to be with your family, tell them you’d love to help but that your family time is sancrosanct.

Make it happen

Set boundaries

Establish clear boundaries to enable you to proactively ‘compartmentalise’ activities to protect the things that truly matter.

If you’re at work, be 100% present. As soon as you leave the workplace, you’re no longer on duty. Let the journey home be your time to unwind and to shed the cares of the day. So, as soon as you walk through the door, you’re 100% present there.

Build capacity

Create buffers in terms of the time you allocate to specific activities (allow an extra 50%) because things will always take longer than you think.

Oh, this is a good one! Things always take longer than planned. So, schedule an extra 50% of time for getting somewhere so that you arrive at your destination. Give yourself capacity to take more time over a particular task. If you don’t need the time, you’ve got some breathing space. If you do need it, you’ll be glad you made the time.

Start small

Rome wasn’t built in a day, so apply the Essentialist mindset as frequently as you can. Grab the low-hanging fruit and build on your success.

So, for example, when you get up in the morning, what’s essential right at that moment? I’ll bet it’s not checking social media. More likely, it’s getting yourself and the kids out of the door.

I’ll end as McKeown’s book begins. Do you agree?


– Lin Yutang

*In this, McKeown draws on a story told by the fabulous Nora Ephron whose book I quoted in this post.

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4 thoughts on “Why Essentialism is the minimalist’s perfect toolkit

  1. I bought this book a few months ago at a used bookstore because it’s so highly recommended but haven’t started it yet! I’ve been reading the books checked out from the library because there’s a due date with those. That’ll be one of my April books to read! Thanks for the encouragement!


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