Review: Greg McKeown’s Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

essentialismThis review first ran in the June 16 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

By Greg McKeown

Crown Business


If you want a job done, give it to a busy person.

But if you want the job done right, try giving it to a person with a reputation for saying no. Odds are good you’ll get turned down. But if you get an unexpected and enthusiastic yes, strap yourself in. You’ll get someone who’s fully focused and 100 per cent committed.

Perpetually busy people are what author Greg McKeown calls nonessentialists. In the school of life, they’re majoring in minor things and practicing the undisciplined pursuit of more. They’re here, there and everywhere. They jump at every opportunity.

Put them in charge of a department or organization and you’ll get 35 strategic priorities and projects all rolling out at the same time. You’ll have a team that’s overworked and underutilized.

And you’ll also get about a millimetre worth of progress in a million different directions.

This doesn’t happen with essentialists. They do less and, in return, contribute far more. “By investing in fewer things we have the satisfying experience of making significant progress in the things that matter most,” says McKeown.

Essentialists have figured out an essential truth. If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. And someone else’s priorities may not play to your strengths and passions or have you focused on doing what’s most important right now. The key to wealth, health and happiness is to make the highest possible contribution toward the things that matter most.

Learn how to be discerning. Take your time to explore all your options. “The extra investment is justified because some things are so much more important that they repay the effort invested in finding those things tenfold.”

Essentialists know how to separate signal from noise. “Almost everything is noise, and a very few things are exceptionally valuable,” says McKeown.  Or to borrow a line from American pastor John Maxwell, “you cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”

You can avoid the unimportant by learning to focus on doing the right thing for the right reason at the right time. “Many capable people are kept from getting to the next level of contribution because they can’t let go of the belief that everything is important.”

Eliminating the unimportant and nonessential isn’t easy. It means saying no and disappointing colleagues and friends. And that takes courage, compassion and emotional discipline.

Essentialists also know life is a game of constant trade-offs. You really can’t have it all. You can try to avoid that reality but you can’t escape it. So stop moaning about what you have to give up and start dreaming about where you can make an outsized contribution.

Those contributions will put your essentialism to the test. You’ll eventually face what McKeown calls the paradox of success. People will seek you out with offers and requests. Lead this project. Take this job. Join our board. Chair this campaign. Be at our event. Speak at our conference.

Some pretty cool, lucrative and ego-stroking opportunities will come your way. “This sounds like a good thing, but remember, these options unintentionally distract us, tempt us, lure us away,” says McKeown. “Our clarity becomes clouded and soon we find ourselves spread too thin.”

If you want to make a real contribution at work and in our community, start by saying no. “When we look back on our careers and our lives, would we rather see a long laundry list of accomplishments that don’t really matter or just a few major accomplishments that have real meaning and significance?”

@jayrobb lives and works in Hamilton as a struggling essentialist and blogs at



Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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