Essentialism – How to Do Less, But Better

Find the Essential
“If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?”

That was the question the author asked himself, and that was the question that led me to start this blog.

In the last couple of years, I have been feeling overwhelmed with life. I had a work laptop so that I could work while at home, and my manager was trying to get me a work cell so they could call me at all hours.  I was on half a dozen social media platforms, feeling like I could never keep up with anyone and wondering where everyone else got all their energy. (I’ve had to join about half a dozen more since starting business school, but that’s neither here nor there).  I felt like I was being dragged along by the current of life rather than actively swimming (even though I can’t swim).

Eventually I became drawn to things like minimalism, decluttering, bullet journaling, hygge – basically, things about reducing and cutting back.  I had tried to read this book twice prior, but couldn’t get into it; it wasn’t resonating with me at those times in my life.  This time though, the message hit home.  So I gave this book another try, eager to declutter my life as well.

Essentialism, by Greg McKeown, talks about trying to do too many things, and focusing on the most important things instead of trying to do it all. Life is about trade-offs, and trying to have it all will not make us happy – it will only stress us out further.  Essentialism is about doing the right thing, for the right reason, at the right time.  Things will not fall into place until all three conditions are met.  It’s a philosophy about cutting out the overwhelming excess in life, and about doing LESS, BUT BETTER.

There is a saying, “jack of all trades, master of none” – someone who knows how to do a little bit of everything will never become an expert in anything. Increasingly, we are trying to do it all.  Children and teenagers are piling on the extracurriculars, hoping for an advantage on college applications.  Adults are acquiring more skills to provide a safety net against redundancy, taking on any work dumped on our desks, whether it is part of our job or not.

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

By not making an active choice, we end up choosing the default, even if it’s something we don’t want. (This happens to me a lot on group projects – I don’t speak up about which part I want to work on and end up getting the worst parts.) We become overwhelmed by two contradictory beliefs: I can’t do this, and, I have to do this.  By not saying no to things we don’t want, we end up feeling powerless against what is happening to us, and we stop trying to fight for or choose for ourselves.

McKeown breaks down the application of Essentialism down to three steps:

  1. Explore – With the endless options available to us today, we have to figure out which are the most vital to our core values and beliefs.
  2. Eliminate – Once we find the ones most true to ourselves and how we want to live our lives, we must cut out the rest, the things that distract us from our goal/purpose.
  3. Execute – It’s very easy to revert to form and take a hundred little steps in every direction, so we must find a way to remove obstacles that keep us from focusing.

In order to hear what’s truly important, we have to get away from all the noise, take some time for yourself, do some soul-searching.  It will help us to see what really matters. We often focus on the minor details (work, chores, the daily grind), and lose sight of the bigger picture (retiring early, living no waste, writing a novel).

It’s important to be selective about what you spend your time on. Will what you’re doing help you advance towards, or will it take you away from, your purpose?  McKeown mentions the “Hell Yeah! or No” idea by Derek Sivers. We often have FOMO about things we don’t even want to do.  Instead of accepting everything that comes your way, accept only the things that excite you.


We need to find our essential intent, our guiding purpose.  Who is it we want to be?  What type of life do we want to live? What do we want to accomplish? Something that is concrete and inspirational, meaningful and measurable, one decision that eliminates a thousand later decisions. For example, deciding to become a doctor instead of a lawyer. Once the big decision is made, all subsequent decisions come into better focus. And from then on, we say no to things that distract from that purpose.

There’s a social awkwardness to saying no.  We often say yes to avoid conflict or friction, to avoid being rude.  But a clear “no” is often better than a noncommittal “yes.” (Facebook event invites, anyone? Clicking “maybe” makes us feel better, but how many times do we actually show up to a “maybe”?)

We also have to set boundaries.  Having boundaries will make it easier for you to turn down things that aren’t aligned with your goals.  If you are committed to working out every Saturday morning, it will be easier to not go out with friends Friday night.  Take note of things people do to you, or favors asked of you, that make you feel resentment; these are deal breakers and it tells you where you should set your boundaries.


The goal is to make achieving your goals as easy as possible.  Instead of trying to fix every little problem, find and remove the biggest obstacle to progress, the obstacle that is causing the most problems. And create a buffer for unanticipated circumstances. If you give yourself extra time, you won’t be late if there is more traffic than expected.  If you budget extra money, you won’t be short if things end up costing more than you thought.

It can be daunting to take on a huge change, so start small and build momentum.  Celebrate taking little steps in the right direction, so that you form the habits needed for success. Set up routines that make the right habits the default.  For example, if you want to drink more water every day, placing a glass or bottle of water on you nightstand before you go to bed will help you remember to drink water when you wake up.

The final thing is to change your mindset from what you do to what you are.  When it is something we do, we don’t feel too guilty when we don’t do it.  For example, I have never thought, I am a writer.  So I don’t adopt the habits of a writer, such as writing every day. And when I fail to meet my writing goal for the day, I brush it off with, Well, I’m not a writer.


Essentialism may not be for everyone. Not everyone is in a social or economic position to say no and do only what they want, but I think there are aspects that are helpful to anyone, especially the third step (execute). The techniques for execution can be applied to any goal.  As with everything in life, it’s up to each person to decide for themselves what works for them.

The book helped me gain a bit of courage to pursue some of my dreams. The original question was, what would I do with my life if there was only one thing I could do?  My answer was, and has always been, read.  If I had to give up everything else, the one thing I didn’t want to give up was reading. I wanted to read, and to share what I read.  And so here I am, chasing a dream.

Get your copy here:


What about you? What is essential in your life?

Update: This post was very broad, I’ve since refined what is essential to me.

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