haiku code: book notes

Greg McKeown:
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

January 15, 2019

So, I’ve recently read Essentialism by Greg McKeown and here are my notes.


The first part of the book is dedicated to defining what Essentialism is all about - the strategies and techniques we can use to choose what we focus our time on.

We have to choose well our strategy. A very common straddled strategy when you try to do two things at the same time doesn’t work in practise. The problem with it is that we don’t get the benefits of both solutions, but we do get problems stemming from both strategies. It’s better to pick one course of action and deliver it well. Less, but better.
Unimportance of almost everything
Essentialists realise that most of the things and tasks around us are ultimately not that important. In order to be able to focus on what’s most important we need to dial down the importance slider on everything to see what really is (and what isn’t) that important.
We can’t just work harder and do it all, so every choice to do one thing is always a choice not to do something else. Even if we don’t know it at the time.
Even though an Essentialist strives to do less, in practise they explore more options, because they try them out in a limited scope before making a decision on them. Limiting the amount of work-in-progress lets you check more options than when juggling many projects.
One of the key practises to enable the exploration of ideas is to give yourself space to think. We should schedule uninterrupted time for ourselves (if our schedules get busy) and do it on a regular basis. We need both time and a distraction-free physical space.
One of the essential things we should be doing is play. It helps explore different ideas in a low-stakes environment, leading us to more creative solutions. It’s problem solving + creativity and exploration + relax.
Either hell yeah, or no. Unless something is a strong yes that you know is important (to you!) or you feel really excited about, it's a no.


The second part of the book is dedicated to techniques that help us eliminate all those things that we know are not important.

How to say no to trivial things?

When getting rid of stuff it’s helpful to ask yourself: if Ididn’t already own it, how much would I pay to get it? With opportunities we should ask ourselves: what would I do to get an opportunity like this? It helps to put things in perspective how useful they are to you right now.

When looking at a list of things to do (to say yes to), we shouldn’t look for things that we need to do - they will always become obvious by themselves. Instead, we should ask ourselves - what should (can?) I say no to? This way we can trim this list of all the unnecessary stuff.

A sense of clarity on what are we are trying to achieve is absolutely necessary to decide what’s essential. With low clarity, teams can’t decide what’s trivial (and not worth discussing), from what’s vital to them achieving success. Lack of clarity results in guessing the manager’s goals and playing office politics. Similarly, in private lives when we don’t know what’s important for us we pursue whatever seems important to others - nicer car, bigger house, etc. Instead, we should focus on what we consider important.
Essential Intent
It’s a combination of an inspired vision and a concrete objective. Something that’s inspiring enough to motivate the team (or yourself) and at the same time a concrete goal - clear and measurable. Example: „We want to get everyone in UK online by 2012.”When forming an Essential Intent we need to look at it and be able to answer - how will we know that we have succeeded?
Power of graceful „no”

Sometimes it’s difficult to say no, because we’re not clear on what’s essential. Another times it’s difficult, because we feel pressured socially to say yes. The solution is to learn to say no (not maybe) firmly and gracefully. Essentialists need to go for no (not yes) as default, so that we can say yes to things that are important for us.

    How to say no gracefully:

  • Separate the decision from the relationship with the person asking
  • Saying no without using the word „no” (classic: „I wish I could, but I don’t want to”)
  • Think about what you’d be giving up by saying yes
  • Remember that clear no is better (for the recipient) than a vague yes or maybe

    How to make it easier to say no:

  • Use a soft no („I can’t do X, but what about we do Y”)
  • „Let me check my calendar and get back to you” gives you time to consider if it’s essential or not
  • „Sure, what should I deprioritize?” is a great answer at work
  • Use humour
  • Say what you can do for them, not what you can’t
  • Tell them who can help them better or just as well

„We need to learn the slow yes and the quick no.”


The endowment effect - tendency to undervalue things that are not ours and overvalue things, because we already own them. To judge value (of a project) we need to try to disassociate from it - if I were to start a project like that, how hard would I work for it to happen?

Reverse pilot - try not doing something for a week or two and see what happens. If nothing, then it probably wasn’t necessary.

Uncommitting is harder than it would be not to commit in the first place.

Make it a natural habit to cut out unnecessary options from your life and condense (use less words or time for the same effect) what remains. Keeping track of our goals and values helps us to correct the course and our behaviour. Sometimes we should sit back and observe, not do, in order to edit less. Let things unfold like they would without our interference.
Limit - freedom of setting boundaries
Setting boundaries on what we do (and what we don’t do) helps us to avoid having to say no (and consider things). Like working on weekends - we don’t do that. We need to sit down and think where are our boundaries - what behaviour from other people makes us do non-essential things. Clear expectations and a „social contract” how we see our working relationships helps to set these boundaries.


Finally, the last part of the book is techniques for handling the things that we decided that are important - getting them done.

Leave a buffer for unexpected things. Leave yorself more time, by starting your tasks early and allocating more resources than expected. Add a buffer to your time estimates. Ask yourself - what could go wrong? Is there something we can do to avoid a problem if things go wrong?
When trying to improve performance we get the biggest benefit by improving on the process that is the least efficient. You should find the most important obstacle that makes your work / project difficult and figure out how to remove it (or reduce its impact).
Everyday progress and small wins are essential for keeping the momentum of a project. When we cherish the small wins and start working on big projects early and often, they become much easier. The small successes everyday add up to big amounts of work.
Routines help us stick to the plan and can take the mental effort of deciding how to do things off your mind (because you just follow them automatically). They are a very good tool to use to focus on what matters and to produce quality creative output. We should craft them slowly and carefully, so they help us do what is essential and help eliminate what is not (by re-writing the cues to non-essential habits into something useful).

WIN - what’s important now? We should focus on now - not reliving past mistakes, or future worries. Although we can do two things at the same time - wash the dishes and listen to podcasts, we can focus only on one of them.

When you have a lot of things in your mind fighting for your attention then clean your desk, sit down and write them all down on a piece of paper. Cross out those that are not important and do the first one that is. This will help you get centered and focused on WIN. Keep the list of what’s important later for the future, not to forget those ideas. (Or, just use Nozbe)


The last step is to become an Essentialist by devoting your life to something important that you want to achieve, or make happen. To give your life meaning.

We should eliminate the distracting, non-essential things in our lives, so that we can focus on what’s important for us, instead of just using the essentialist techniques to get done the to-dos that somebody else put in our agenda.

Written by Wojciech Ogrodowczyk who takes photos, climbs mountains, and runs Brains & Beards to help companies deliver better mobile applications faster.

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