Essentialism: Some Thoughts on the New York Times Best Seller by Greg McKeown

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 4.03.57 PMI recently finished Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, which is essentially about how to live a more purposeful, focused and intentional life.  I’ve been experimenting with minimalism: actively reducing my number of possessions and the number of commitments in my life.  As such, I was intrigued by the idea of essentialism. If you’re curious about what essentialism is, McKeown provides us with this explanation, “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.” He sums this up nicely by stating, ”If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” So true.

Essentialism was a quick read, filled throughout with stories, meaningful graphics and examples from the author’s personal life, but upon completing it I was somewhat at a loss about how to begin the process of determining what was essential for me.  Defining the essential in my personal life was easy. But defining it for my life as a business owner was much more challenging. I returned to the book in search of a formula or list of questions for consideration that would lead me down the path of the essentialist. I didn’t discover any. Instead near the conclusion of each chapter McKeown highlights the characteristics of an Essentialist in comparison to a Nonessentialist. The comparisons are interesting, but didn’t provide me with the level of guidance I was looking for in creating my essentialist lifestyle. I needed to dig deeper into this book to find what I was looking for, or did I?

The book is divided into three parts: Part 1 encourages you to explore and evaluate which activities in your life are helping you make the highest possible contribution to your goal. Part 2 of the book “show[s] you how to eliminate the nonessential.” Part 3 is about creating “a system to make executing your intentions as effortless as possible.”

Upon rereading the book, in search of guidance, I noted that like many self-help books these days, much of what I deemed essential was included in the first chapter. In the first chapter McKeown summarizes essentialism by stating: “Essentialism is not about how to get things done; it’s about how to get the right things done” and “Essentialism means living by design, not by default.” I appreciated the truth in these statements. We find ourselves constantly on the go and busy, busy, busy, but are we accomplishing what matters most to us? Are we focusing on what is most important? You will benefit from reading this book if you can’t answer yes to these questions.

The strength of this book lies in raising awareness about essentialism and its benefits and it is for this reason that I recommend it.  I appreciated the reminder that we have choices about what is essential in our lives. I spend a lot of time coaching people around this fact. I often have to remind myself of the same fact. Like any self-help book, the real benefit to the reader is in the application of the book’s principles. This book could have made a cleaner shift from awareness-raising to action-inducing if it had concluded each chapter or each part with a list of action steps or questions. This would have made my process of determining what was essential for me with respect to my business easier. Did I ever find the guidance I was looking for? Yes, it came in a list of three simple questions located in – yes, you guessed it – the first chapter.

In conclusion, I found it interesting that McKeown, when describing the process of transitioning to a life of essentialism, compared it to having a professional organizer assist you with discovering what is essential in your clothes closet – stating, “You can think of this book doing for your life and career what a professional organizer can do for your closet.”   Luckily, as a professional organizer AND productivity coach, I’m qualified to assist individuals with both.

Have you read this book? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  If not, what questions or thoughts does this review raise for you about living a more essential life?


17 Responses to “Essentialism: Some Thoughts on the New York Times Best Seller by Greg McKeown”

  1. Kathie England July 16, 2014 4:30 pm #

    Although I have not completely finished the book, I had an opportunity this week to practice a small step of essentialism. I had received a LinkedIn request to talk with someone about how he might help me grow my business. When I carefully reread his request, I recognized I was not interested and politely declined the request. In the past, I might have been willing to talk but now I realized that conversation was not the least bit essential to my life, so I said “no.”

    • Andrea Sharb July 16, 2014 4:48 pm #

      Thanks for reading and sharing Kathie. Great to hear about your noticing what wasn’t essential and making a different choice than what you might have made in the past. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book when you complete it.

  2. Ellen Delap July 16, 2014 8:21 pm #

    Powerful! I love that essentialism is about focused prioritizing. Thinking more about the word essential itself is just a step beyond mindfulness to me. It’s taking your awareness forward.

    I am going to pick up a copy of this book!

    • Andrea Sharb July 16, 2014 8:42 pm #

      It is powerful isn’t it? I’m noticing how much easier it is to prioritize when there is less to try to prioritize. An interesting tidbit that McKeown shares in the book is that the word “priority” was singular from the 1400s until the 1900s. Singular meant there was only one “first” thing. You had only one “priority”. In the 1900s, the term transitioned to a plural. No wonder we struggle with prioritizing. So glad you stopped by to comment, Ellen.

  3. Linda Samuels July 16, 2014 10:26 pm #

    The words that spoke to me here was the quote, “Essentialism is not about how to get things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.” This is very much in line with David Allen’s philosophy about getting things done. At first glance you might think it’s about crossing things off your “to do” list, but in fact it’s about making the choice in the first place (after consideration of your values, goals & priorities) what even goes on the list.

    The other thing you say is also true, that the less you have on your plate, the clearer it can become to prioritize. And sometimes it can work in the opposite way. When you have a lot of competing things calling for your attention, sometimes it becomes clearer what truly is important and what can wait or be removed all together.

    Thanks so much, Andrea for your thought-provoking review of Greg McKeown’s book.

    • Andrea Sharb July 17, 2014 7:22 am #

      Thanks for your comments Linda. You stated, “And sometimes it can work in the opposite way. When you have a lot of competing things calling for your attention, sometimes it becomes clearer what truly is important and what can wait or be removed all together.” True, and this type of competition was what was causing me stress. We all have different stressors and this was definitely one of mine. Noticing this competition and related stress though helped me begin to identify the first things I needed to remove from my plate and begin the process of transitioning to this new way of being.

      • Kathie England July 17, 2014 12:36 pm

        I’m thrilled that Andrea’s blog post about Essentialism has generated so much discussion. I really love the perspective that this idea is a new way of being!

      • Andrea Sharb July 17, 2014 12:41 pm

        I love it as a new way of being too, Kathie!

  4. Alison Lush July 17, 2014 8:24 am #

    I love that Essentialism and Minimalism have become topics of public discussion. I see this as very healthy and inspiring.
    I did a big exercise in this regard last year, voluntarily downsizing our family home to a 2-bedroom apartment. I was astounded at how much stuff I needed to get rid of, and am now astounded at how much easier and more pleasant our daily lives are as a result.
    Thank you for your thoughtful review of this book Andrea. I will look for it!

    • Andrea Sharb July 17, 2014 10:28 am #

      Alison, I agree this direction is both healthy and inspiring. I’m saddened by how many individuals I encounter who are overwhelmed by their commitments and overburdened by caring for their multitude of possessions. There is a better way. I don’t claim to know exactly what that better way is, but I believe it is important to pursue it and to share what I learn along the way. I’d love to connect with you to discuss your downsizing. It is something we will be doing ourselves, as soon as we can find the right place to downsize into. Thank you for reading and sharing!

  5. Susan Lieber July 17, 2014 10:26 am #

    Thank you for sharing the thoughtful review of the book. This review coupled with our conversations around essentialism has given me new language to use with myself and others. This concept provides the framework to promote self-discovery around the expenditure of all our personal resources. It has the potential to enhance the quest for choosing our commitments or selecting items that resonate deep within our authentic selves rather than what we think we “should do” or might be nice to do/have. I just downloaded it to my kindle.

    • Andrea Sharb July 17, 2014 10:59 am #

      Susan, so glad you developed some new language around this. Thank you for framing this in terms of personal resources – something there always seems to be a shortage of – and for reminding us about the importance of being true to our authentic self. I hope you enjoy the read!

  6. Barbara Bougher July 22, 2014 11:56 am #

    Thank you for sharing insights about the book and your journey to create essentialism in your life, Andrea. I have not yet read the book – it will soon be downloaded on my Kindle! My initial reaction is regardless of how we integrate essentialism into our lives, we have a wonderful opportunity in our work with clients. Most likely, not everyone will embrace essentialism in the same way, but if we are able to create calmer, richer, more meaningful lives by focusing on what is truly important to us, we can model those qualities with clients – many who are desperate to create peace and focus in their lives.

    • Andrea Sharb July 22, 2014 4:36 pm #

      Beautifully said Barbara. Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to hearing what you have to say about the book.

  7. Cena from March 2, 2015 12:00 pm #

    This is a nice overview. I’ve always considered ‘essentialism’ to be about ‘stark’ and ‘less’ = minimalism.. But I do like that it’s considered living life by design. thanks for the review!

    • Andrea Sharb March 2, 2015 12:46 pm #

      Hi Cena, Minimalism is a dream for my husband and I, but not a dream we’re ready to embrace quite yet. As a person who chronically had too much going on, the shift to Essentialism has been a welcome one. It’s created space in my world, and especially in my evenings and weekends, that I’m enjoying more than you can imagine. When I look back and think of all the things I had going on for so many years, I get exhausted. And come to think of it, I was often exhausted during those years. Essentialism has allowed me to replace exhaustion with reading, exercise, healthier eating, connecting with my husband and spending a different kind of time with my family, a less rushed, more purposeful time. Thanks for commenting!


  1. Our Skipping Christmas Experiment & Its Results | S.O.S. ~ Sharb Organizing Solutions, LLC - January 14, 2015

    […] experience.  The simpler experience also seemed to tie in nicely with my experimentation with essentialism.  We agreed holiday simplicity would look like the following: No tree, no decorations, no holiday […]

Leave a Reply