Essentialism by Greg McKeown Book Review: How Much Is Too Much On Your To-Do List?

What if I told you that you can strike off more than half of your to-do list? 

You can. And you must. 

How? Enter: essentialism. 

Essentialism by Greg McKeown is one of the few self-help books I recommend.

What’s the idea?

The primary idea of the book is that only a few things truly matter. That should be your one takeaway if nothing else. 

McKeown talks about essentialism being the skill of distinguishing the “vital few from the trivial many.” In his own words, essentialism is:

Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.

And McKeown does it well in the context of the go-go-go mindset that has been enforced by the hustle culture in the Internet Age:

We overvalue nonessentials like a nicer car or house or even intangibles like the number of our followers on Twitter or the way we look in our Facebook photos. As a result, we neglect activities that are truly essential, like spending time with our loved ones, or nurturing our spirit, or taking care of our health.

Along with this, the book is filled with examples of executives and VPs of famous corporations and Greg’s routine itself. Almost no chapter is just an instructional or informational dump that would feel like a textbook read.

The idea of “less is more” and eliminating every single thing that is inessential is the crux of the book: 

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.

What are the themes and writing styles?

There are plenty of stories, bold quotes, and anecdotes to keep you engaged. But this is also one of its faults (more on that in the coming section). 

There are a few graphics here and there that could aid in visual learning as well. Unsurprisingly, these simple visuals are what stayed with me for the longest. 

I would add that while the book’s division is neat and tidy, the chapters can feel repetitive and out of context. 

The storytelling and writing styles are good enough in Essentialism — but may not be enough to keep you coming for more, especially if you do not resonate with the need of this book. 

Shortcomings of Essentialism

This is a big one. While Essentialism is a good book and has something for all, it might not be a read for everyone. Here’s why: 

  1. The takeaways have to be relevant to your life circumstances. If you are already implementing the strategies talked about in this book or if you aren’t in a position to implement them right now, this book would be a worthless read for you. 
  2. There are stories and there are too many stories. Essentialism, unfortunately, falls in the latter category. There comes a point where you’d like to skim and get to the bottom of the idea. The book, in my opinion, defeats its purpose by being repetitive. 
  3. Adding on to the previous point, the examples and stories are of people in privileged positions — mostly affluent VPs and the like. The privilege they have to “eliminate the non-essential” is not acknowledged in the book. Many people who don’t share the economic and social privilege have been given no way out of the “non-essentials.”
  4. The book is a clear divide between “essentialists” and “non-essentialists.” The world in the book is run in black-and-white, everything good-against-everything bad. As you can guess, the reality is much more nuanced than that. 
  5. So many topics in this book are seemingly buzzworthy, but off-track if you see it in light of the book’s actual concept. Yes, you should get eight hours of sleep but that is in no way related to essentialism. A few of such forceful chapters in the book do lull the reading experience. 

Personal Take

If I could summarize why you should read Essentialism, I’d say because it’ll help you plan smarter and see the bigger picture.

I read this book when I was quite young and impressionable. It has made a lot of difference in how I approach opportunities. The biggest one is that I am comfortable saying “no” without guilt.

But I’ve reread it as I got older (I am a fan of rereading, by the way), and found many flaws with the book that I mentioned above. So, would I recommend it?

Yes and no.

Yes, if you are in need of a better planning system. Yes, if you find yourself stretched too thin. Yes, if you want a more focused approach.

No, if you are accomplishing enough to not need change. No, if you are familiar with the concept of essentialism and implement it already. No, if you are in that stage of your career (or life) where you need to say “yes” more — maybe for opening more creative and influential doors or for getting more experience, etc.

Lastly, even if you choose not to read this book, let this serve as a reminder to question if each task on your to-do list is essential.

Purchase this book.

4 thoughts on “Essentialism by Greg McKeown Book Review: How Much Is Too Much On Your To-Do List?”

  1. That’s a great review. Since you speak of stoicism, have you read William Irvine’s ‘ A guide to the Good Life’? He speaks about negative visualisation.

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