This is the first book report that I’ve written in a great number of years, so please forgive me for any roughness, or even incompleteness that the following may entail. I hope to provide a summary and review the many takeaways from the book Essentialism, by Greg McKeown, both for my own reference purposes later as well as for anyone who manages to stumble upon this post.

Table of Contents
1. Introduction
2. The 90 Percent Rule
3. The Power of Small Wins
4. Routine
5. Finding the Right Path
6. Essential Intent
7. The slowest hiker
8. Doing less is hard
9. Uncommit
10. Final Thoughts

The index card version of this book would probably be a bold-printed single line: “Less but better.” In other words, pick a thing that fits your top rated criteria and reject anything that doesn’t move you toward achieving that thing. Do one thing at a time, really well, because if you try and “do everything,” you’ll make very tiny amounts of progress in lots of different directions (and not end up making any significant progress in any of them) rather than a significant amount of progress in the direction you’d like to be going.

“you can do anything, but not everything”

It’s not just about reducing, it’s about getting results.

“Instead of asking, ‘What do I have to give up?’ [Essentialists] ask ‘What do I want to go big on?”

In an interview with Noah Kagan (#30 at Facebook, #4 at Mint, and CEO of AppSumo) on the Tim Ferris Show I heard him talk about this book and how the principles were put to use at Facebook. He came up with different ideas to make money and presented them to Mark Zuckerberg. But Zuckerberg was focused intently on one single goal: growth. After every idea for generating money for Facebook that Kagan offered, the CEO would ask “how does that help us grow?” And if the answer was “it doesn’t” then the idea was rejected immediately. Zuckerberg’s focus on growth was a key factor in Facebook’s success.

The 90 Percent Rule

“As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it.”

This rule applied to Facebook when it was starting out, it can apply to any business, or art, or life.

This message is repeated throughout the book: “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

The power of small wins

“Research has show that of all forms of human motivation the most effective one is progress. Why? Because a small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.”

This chapter was one of many that had the huge impact for me personally, especially because I tend to get wrapped up in forcing a big win, and it’s one way of stopping progress right in its tracks.

I can remember applying to go to graduate school for graphic design a couple of years ago. I was pushing so hard for the big win that I didn’t take the time to really research the art design department that I was applying for. I also just picked the first couple of schools that I could find with design departments and chose to solely go after the one closest to where I live. I just thought I could put together a great application and body of work and that would get me recognized. Rushing to develop my portfolio in a matter of weeks (and creating most work from scratch) I failed to realize that the test for admission was aimed at aspiring manga (comic book) artists rather than graphic design applied to advertising, which is what I was interested in. Not to mention the quality of work was sub-par, as you might expect from being thrown together at the last minute.

I gave up on grad-school as quickly as I was rejected. I was forcing a big win, ‘get into grad school’ when I really should have focused on putting together a portfolio by looking for free-lance design work. Looking at each small project completed as a win that built momentum towards my goal. Then if I chose to try for grad school at some point I would have a very solid body of work, which would increase my chances, and also not getting in wouldn’t be the end of my hopes and aspirations; I could simply just take it as a speed bump and continue working on the portfolio.

The big rejection caused my motivation to bottom out and I gave up on the idea of ever working as a graphic designer at an advertising agency.

Now I focus on the small wins and try to set my self up for them everyday. I know that:

” ‘everyday progress–even a small win’ can make all the difference in how people feel and perform.”


One of the ways that I’ve ensured small wins in my day is by setting up a routine. We all have a routine, whether it’s intentional or not. But without focus on the routine, it can be a dangerously thing. Especially because the easiest things to make into habit are often the most counterproductive. How often do we check our Facebook pages? Or sit around complaining about something (or someone) at the office? How many people just instinctively turn the TV on first thing in the morning?

How can we avoid (or change) bad habits? McKeown calls it ‘overhauling your triggers.’ An example of this that I started using in my life applied to working out after coming home from work.

My normal routine was to come home and make some kind of snack, with the intention of working out sometime later in the evening. After eating I’d feel a little sleepy and sluggish. Then other things would come up over the course of the evening and I’d never actually get to working out. Now on days that I have a workout scheduled, I lay out my gym clothes and make a cup of green tea instead of a snack when I get home.

Making and drinking the tea helps hydrate me and lets me decompress from the work day, then my gym clothes are right there and ready to put on, which triggers my workout. After my workout I can make myself a snack and refuel. Just by setting out my gym clothes and focusing on making a cup of tea, has rearranged my trigger from the usual, and I’ve stopped automatically looking for something to eat as soon as I come home. I meet my work out goals more and actually have more energy for the rest of the evening because of it.

Finding the right path
McKeown offers this thought that stuck with me: “if you think about ‘what is a good career opportunity,’ it’s kind of like doing a Google search for ‘a good restaurant in New York’ there are going to be pages and pages of results to sift through and sort out making it difficult to find a place that you’d actually like to eat at. A better Google search would be something like ‘best slice of pizza in downtown Brooklyn.’ I’ve never been to New York, but I can imagine that you’d get much better results for the second example (especially if you wanted to eat pizza). So McKeown asks us to do this kind of advanced search with our brain when considering what career path to take. He suggests asking three questions:

“What are I deeply passionate about?”

“What taps my talent?”

“What meets a significant need in the world?”

Looking for a “good” opportunity isn’t enough, you will get better results be looking for a “great” opportunity for you. Whether this is starting the right business for you, or joining the right company, that matches with your specific criteria.

Essential Intent
Our lives are dictated by a few major decisions, but we can often make these lightly or without giving them the right amount of evaluation before pulling the trigger. This is often because we are rushed, pushed, or even corralled into the image of what our life should look like.

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

So Essentialists take a long time to consider and explore ALL of the options before making a major decision. The 90 percent rule helps here to limit down the options eligible for exploration, and it’s key to remember that “you can do anything, but not everything.” Because of this, taking time to find the best solution for you is … essential.

“Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions. It’s like deciding you’re going to be a doctor instead of a lawyer. One strategic choice eliminates a universe of other options and maps a course for the next five, ten, or even twenty years of your life. Once the big decision is made, all subsequent decisions come into better focus.”

Reflecting on this idea, makes me stop and think deeply about any big decision that I’m faced with.

The slowest hiker
This is another chapter that made a huge impact on me and I’ve started trying to identify the “slowest hiker” when looking at possible solutions to problems. There’s a great anecdote in the book about a boy scout hiking trip, which I will leave you to read if you like. But the short version is: The scout master wants to keep the boys together so he puts the slowest hiker first. Then he does what he can to make the trek easiest for that hiker, and by helping him, and removing his obstacles the scout master helps the rest of the group to reach their goal on time.

The point of this story is to identify the one problem or area within a system that, if fixed, would make all other elements of the system work better.

I also realized that this doesn’t have to be a negative thing. If you have an coworker who might not be producing the results you want, you can ask them “what roadblocks could I help to remove that would allow you to get this done?” You would get a better response than simply demanding something or scolding them for not getting it done.

Doing less is not lazy, it’s hard
It can really be a challenge to say ‘no’ when someone asks for a favor at work, help with a family project, organizing a PTA event, or anything really, it could even be said to take courage. Especially because when we eliminate the non-essentials, and focus on what really counts we really need to focus on them…

“It’s true that doing less can be harder, both in art and in life. Every word, every scene, every activity must count for more.”

That means time freed up by the courage of ‘NO’ must be used well or it’s wasted. Being an Essentialist isn’t about being lazy and cutting out the stuff you simply don’t want to do, it’s about making planned, directed, and dedicated progress on one very specific area of business, art, life.

Not every decision made is going to be the right one, and sometimes both in business and in life, we can find ourselves in situations we’d rather not be in. And as much as we need courage to say ‘no,’ we possibly need even more to uncommit.

“An Essentialist has the courage and confidence to admit his or her mistakes and uncommit, no matter the sunk costs.”

In other words, get out of that bad relationship, or that business deal that has been bleeding money since day one. The more time and money thrown at a problem doesn’t fix it. Some problems take more time and effort that it’s worth and some just can’t be fixed, so uncommit and free up time and energy to focus on the things that really matter.

Final thoughts
This has been one of the most impactful books on business and life in general for me, and it’s definitely on my ‘must read’ recommendations list, so it seemed only natural that I’d start my book reports with it.

Writing this book report is even a practice in Essentialism for me. I set out to write this post in my browser on the standard “create new post” page of my blog, two hours later and over 2,000 words, and I still don’t think I covered everything that I wanted to. And now I’ll go back over this post and try to refine it down. Editing (and writing in general) is about removing the unessential just like this book talks so much about. Removing is much harder than adding when it comes to writing, life, business, anything…

but the value of focusing on the essential and shutting out all the noise is well worth it, many times over.

So read this book if you haven’t and read it again if you have and it’s been a while, I can’t imagine you regretting it.

Back to Table of Contents


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