Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.

Essentialism by Greg McKeown | Summary and Quotes

5 min read

Essentialism is one of those books that I come back to and re-read a few times a year. And the reason I say I “re-read it”, is because this book is more like a meditation. In this episode I’ll gives highlights, takeaways and read some quotes from Essentialism.

If I had to give a summary of all the advice of this book into one sentence I’d say it would be this line:

If it isn't a clear yes, then it's a clear no


Think about it this way….

How many tasks do you do each day, just because you FEEL like you should; or because you’ve always been doing it that way; or because you’re afraid to say no?

“If it isn’t a CLEAR YES, it should be a CLEAR NO.

It’s the kind of thing that’s worth writing up above your bed, and REMEMBERING when you wake up each morning.

“If it’s not a HELL YES, it should be a HELL NO.

This is the mindset that will guide you toward becoming an essentialist. Do only what is important each day (and ultimately in life).

So that’s the goal of Essentialism: less, but better.

What’s in the book?

The hardcover version of the book comes in at around 246 pages. There are quite a lot of full page diagrams, and drawings along the way – so it doesn’t FEEL like a dense dense read.

The book itself is divided into 4 parts:

  1. Essence – What does it mean to be an essentialist (most of which I’m covering in this podcast episode)?
  2. Explore – Tips and inspiration on how to find the most essential parts of your life
  3. Eliminate – (This section I really loved) the book gives tips and inspiration on how to say “no”, how to uncommit, and the art of editing
  4. Execute – Tips and inspiration to help you progress and focus on the things you choose to do.

Each chapter  with examples, stories, case studies, and large full page quotes that help give context to these two column definitions.

What do I cover in this episode of the podcast?

  • The main gist of the book
  • An overview of the four main parts of the book
  • Quotes and stories from the book
  • At the end I’ll do a kind of oral meditation for you, contrasting an essentialist and a nonessentialist. I imagine that if you like this, you might come back to this part of the podcast and relisten to it a few times.

Opening Story

The book starts with a story of a Silicon Valley founder who finds himself stretched too thin. His company has just been acquired by a larger company, and now in his new role he has said yes to too many requests without really thinking about it. His calendar is full of tasks, but he doesn’t feel like he’s getting anything meaningful done. So in this midst of all this chaos, one of his advisers gives him the advice, “Stay, but do what you would as a consultant and nothing else. And don’t tell anyone.”

And that’s just what he does. At first he is shy about enforcing this. Soon after, he is surprised to find that while people might look a bit disappointed at first, they’ll respect his honesty. Which leads him to this realization, “Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now”

What a great question! Similar advice was given to me by Rich Hagberg (an executive coach for Silicon Valley startup founders). He told me he used to have this question written above his bed every morning, so that he could constantly re-ask himself this question. (Because after all, the most IMPORTANT thing will change as the company and your role grow).

So that’s the core of Essentialism. Waking yourself up to realizing that you are in control of your time.

On prioritizing your time, the author asks you to think about your time like this… 

“Just because you are invited to a meeting, doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to attend.” [3]


“If you don’t prioritize your time, someone else will.” [10]

Have you ever shared a Google Calendar with someone where they could just take time on your calendar without having to ask? McKeown would look at this and accuse them of stealing your time, and of prioritizing your life, without your permission.

As William Penn once said, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” So in order to get in control of your life, you have to get in control of your time. And that doesn’t mean OVER-WORKING, or OVER-CONTROLLING. It means saying NO, when something is not essential. And it means finding the right routines, that will serve you the best in accomplishing your goals. It means having the tools to focus yourself.

Essentialism vs. NonEssentialism

In every chapter of Essentialism the author (Greg McKeown) comes back to defining the difference between an essentialist and a nonessentialist. And he does this with two column diagrams, literally juxtaposing the differences. For example, an essentialist thinks, “I choose to [do something].”, while a nonessentialist thinks, “I have to [do something].” (On and on with contrasting back and forth with definitions like this).

The Nonessentialist 


  • I have to.
  • It’s all important.
  • How can I fit it all in?


  • Reacts to what’s most pressing
  • Says yes to people without thinking


  • Takes on too much , and work suffers
  • Feels out of control

The Essentialist


  • I choose to.
  • Only a few things really matter.
  • What are the trade offs?


  • Pauses to discern what really matters
  • Says “no” to everything except the essential


  • Chooses carefully in order to do great work
  • Feels in control

Essentialism on having multiple priorities 

“Everything was important, as a result you get stretched thinner and thinner. He was making a millimeter of progress in a million directions.” (12)

When faced with too much work, or two conflicting problems to solve: 

“A nonessentialist approaches every trade-off by asking, “How can I do both?” Essentialists ask the tougher but ultimately more liberating question, “Which problem do I want?”[55]

Avoiding Commitment Traps

Over seven pages, McKeown gives us tips for avoiding commitment traps. Two of my favorites from this chapter include:

Pretend like you don’t own it yet – how much do you value this object? Ask yourself, if I didn’t own this how much would I pay to obtain it? If I wasn’t involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?

Get over the fear of waste – You buy a bus ticket to DC for $100 for the weekend, and then something comes up, a local party for $20 that you think you’ll avoid more.  but you think you’ll enjoy the $50 more, but you do the $100. Waste, RGA… MVP.

Talking about Execution:

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” [175]

On “decision”. To decide is to kill other options:

“The Latin root for the word decision – cis or cid – literally means “to cut” or “to kill”  [159]

The latin root of the word decision

Asking Jack Dorsey (CEO of Twitter and Square): “What does an editor do?”

Jack Dorsey, is the CEO of Twitter and Square. At a Stanford University dinner event he was overheard calling himself the CEO (Chief Editor of the company). When asked to clarify, he said, “There are thousands of things we could be doing. But there are only one or two that are important. As an editor I am constantly taking these inputs and deciding the one, or intersection of a few, that make sense for what we are doing.” So in that respect, the editor is not someone who just says no to things, but by editing, and by subtracting, he is actually adding value to Twitter.

Tips on saying “no”

The right no spoken at the right time can change the course of history. [131]

  1. The awkward pause – when a request comes to you (in person), just pause for a moment. Count to three before deciding. If you’re bold, just wait for the other person to fill the void.
  2. The soft “no” (or the “no but”) – Imagine someone asks you for coffee (but you don’t want to go). Here’s an example reply, “I am consumed with writing my book right now 🙂 But I would love to get together once the book is finished. Let me know if we can get together towards the end of the summer.”
  3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”
  4. Use e-mail bouncebacks – set an out of office message, eg. “Subject line: In Monk Mode. Dear Friends, I am currently working on a new book which has put enormous burdens on my time. Unfortunately, I am unable to respond in the manner I would like. For this, I apologize. –Greg.”
  5. Say, “Yes. What should I de-prioritize?” – or “I would want to do a great job, and given my other commitments I wouldn’t be able to do a job I was proud of if I took this on.”
  6. Say it with humor – eg. “Nope!”
  7. Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y” – If someone asks you for a ride (but you don’t want to give them a ride.) You could say, “You are welcome to borrow my car. I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you.” This is a good way to navigate a request you somewhat would like to support but not fully.
  8. “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.” [143]



Title: Essentialism
Author: Greg McKeown
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Crown Business; 1 edition (April 15, 2014)

Buy Essentialism on Amazon
Listen to Essentialism on Audible (free trial) 


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Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.