date Mar 14, 2021
authors Greg Mckeown
reading time 15 mins

How to choose


He would evaluate requests based on the timid criteria, “Can I actually fulfill this request, given the time and resources I have?” If the answer was no then he would refuse the request.

Calendar invites

He stopped attending meetings on his calendar if he didn’t have a direct contribution to make. He explained to me, “Just because I was invited didn’t seem a good enough reason to attend.”

Pausing to question

It is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in.

The result of too many choices

The path to success comes with many choices:

  • PHASE 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it enables us to succeed at our endeavor. - PHASE 2: When we have success, we gain a reputation as a “go to” person.
  • PHASE 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, which is actually code for demands upon our time and energies, it leads to diffused efforts.
  • PHASE 4: We become distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution.

In business

In his book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins explores what went wrong in companies that were once darlings of Wall Street but later collapsed. He finds that for many, falling into “the undisciplined pursuit of more” was a key reason for failure.

Unable to filter

We are unprepared in part because, for the first time, the preponderance of choice has overwhelmed our ability to manage it. We have lost our ability to filter what is important and what isn’t.

Decision fatigue

Psychologists call this “decision fatigue”: the more choices we are forced to make, the more the quality of our decisions deteriorates.

Opinion overload

Today, technology has lowered the barrier for others to share their opinion about what we should be focusing on. It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload.

Typical workday

Unfortunately, most of our lives are much like this. How many times have you started your workday with a schedule and by 10:00 A.M. you were already completely off track or behind? Or how many times have you written a “to do” list in the morning but then found that by 5:00 P.M. the list was even longer?

Reactive, Haphazard

A Nonessentialist approaches execution in a reactive, haphazard manner. Because the Nonessentialist is always reacting to crises rather than anticipating them, he is forced to apply quick-fix solutions.

The result of essentialism

Space for creativity

It felt self-indulgent at first. But by being selective he bought himself space, and in that space he found creative freedom. He could concentrate his efforts on one project at a time. He could plan thoroughly. He could anticipate roadblocks and start to remove obstacles.

Momentum towards a few selective things

Instead of making just a millimeter of progress in a million directions he began to generate tremendous momentum towards accomplishing the things that were truly vital.

Highest contribution

the basic value proposition of Essentialism: only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.

Live the life you want

Once an Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware, who cared for people in the last twelve weeks of their lives, recorded their most often discussed regrets. At the top of the list: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

FOMO when opportunities are here

The fear of missing out goes into full effect. How can we say no; the offer is right here for the taking. We might never have gone after it, but now it is so easy to get it we consider it. But if we just say yes because it is an easy reward, we run the risk of having to later say no to a more meaningful one.

Play politics

When we are unclear about our real purpose in life—in other words, when we don’t have a clear sense of our goals, our aspirations, and our values—we make up our own social games. We waste time and energies on trying to look good in comparison to other people.

Pleasing people

Nonessentialists say yes because of feelings of social awkwardness and pressure. They say yes automatically, without thinking, often in pursuit of the rush one gets from having pleased someone.

Saying No

But whether it’s “I am flattered that you thought of me but I’m afraid I don’t have the bandwidth” or “I would very much like to but I’m overcommitted,” there are a variety of ways of refusing someone clearly and politely without actually using the word no.

Sunk cost fallacy

Why are adults so much more vulnerable to the sunk-cost bias than young children? The answer, he believes, is a lifetime of exposure to the “Don’t waste” rule, so that by the time we are adults we are trained to avoid appearing wasteful, even to ourselves.

Missing the present moment

Nonessentialists tend to be so preoccupied with past successes and failures, as well as future challenges and opportunities, that they miss the present moment. They become distracted. Unfocused. They aren’t really there.

The practise of essentialism

Dieter Ram’s design criteria

Dieter’s design criteria can be summarized by a characteristically succinct principle, captured in just three German words: Weniger aber besser. The English translation is: Less but better. A more fitting definition of Essentialism would be hard to come by.

Making the execution effortless

In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

Deliberately and purposefully saying no to good and nonessentials

This requires, not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials, and not just getting rid of the obvious time wasters, but cutting out some really good opportunities as well.

Here’s how an Essentialist would approach:


Apply it every single time

This is not a process you undertake once a year, once a month, or even once a week, like organizing your closet. It is a discipline you apply each and every time you are faced with a decision about whether to say yes or whether to politely decline.

Explore all the options and evaluate

One paradox of Essentialism is that Essentialists actually explore more options than their Nonessentialist counterparts. Whereas Nonessentialists commit to everything or virtually everything without actually exploring, Essentialists systematically explore and evaluate a broad set of options before committing to any.

Analyse before committing

Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking. But their exploration is not an end in itself. The purpose of the exploration is to discern the vital few from the trivial many.

Out time is limited and short

To harness the courage we need to get on the right path, it pays to reflect on how short life really is and what we want to accomplish in the little time we have left. As poet Mary Oliver wrote: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” I challenge you to pause more to ask yourself that question.

Core truths

To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.”

The difficult task of chosing between the trade-offs

A Nonessentialist approaches every trade-off by asking, “How can I do both?” Essentialists ask the tougher but ultimately more liberating question, “Which problem do I want?” An Essentialist makes trade-offs deliberately… As painful as they can sometimes be, trade-offs represent a significant opportunity. By forcing us to weigh both options and strategically select the best one for us, we significantly increase our chance of achieving the outcome we want.

Focus is constantly adjusting

An Essentialist focuses the way our eyes focus; not by fixating on something but by constantly adjusting and adapting to the field of vision.

Schedule doing nothing

I’m talking about deliberately setting aside distraction-free time in a distraction-free space to do absolutely nothing other than think.

Making connections instead of reacting

You’ll be able to do more than simply see the dots of each day: you’ll also connect them to see the trends. Instead of just reacting to the facts, you’ll be able to focus on the larger issues that really matter.


Play stimulates the parts of the brain involved in both careful, logical reasoning and carefree, unbound exploration.


One of the most common ways people—especially ambitious, successful people—damage this asset is through a lack of sleep… The researchers explained that while we sleep our brains are hard at work encoding and restructuring information. Therefore, when we wake up, our brains may have made new neural connections, thereby opening up a broader range of solutions to problems, literally overnight.

Don’t just say yes to every opportunity

First, write down the opportunity. Second, write down a list of three “minimum criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered. Third, write down a list of three ideal or “extreme criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered.

The longtern side effect of saying no

The potential upside, however, is less obvious: when the initial annoyance or disappointment or anger wears off, the respect kicks in. When we push back effectively, it shows people that our time is highly valuable. It distinguishes the professional from the amateur.

Slow Yes and a quick no

Tom Friel, the former CEO of Heidrick & Struggles, once said to me, “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’ ”

Zero-based budgeting

Typically, when accountants allocate a budget they use last year’s budget as the baseline for the next year’s projection. But with zero-based budgeting, they use zero as the baseline. In other words, every item in the proposed budget must be justified from scratch. While this takes more effort it has many advantages: it efficiently allocates resources on the basis of needs rather than history

Eliminate to test it

By quietly eliminating or at least scaling back an activity for a few days or weeks you might be able to assess whether it is really making a difference or whether no one really cares.

Set boundaries between work and family

But what most people don’t realize is that the problem is not just that the boundaries have been blurred; it’s that the boundary of work has edged insidiously into family territory… To a Nonessentialist, setting boundaries is evidence of weakness. If they are strong enough, they think, they don’t need boundaries.

Predict less, prepare and adapt more

In filtering out 7 companies from 20,400, the authors found that the ones that executed most successfully did not have any better ability to predict the future than their less successful counterparts. Instead, they were the ones who acknowledged they could not predict the unexpected and therefore prepared better.

Build buffers to counter planning fallacy

1. What risks do you face on this project? 1. What is the worst-case scenario? 1. What would the social effects of this be? 1. What would the financial impact of this be? and 1. How can you invest to reduce risks or strengthen financial or social resilience?

Go for small wins

Instead of trying to accomplish it all—and all at once—and flaring out, the Essentialist starts small and celebrates progress. Instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter, the Essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.

Progress is the most effective motivation

Research has shown 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.

Build momentum

Instead of starting big and then flaring out with nothing to show for it other than time and energy wasted, to really get essential things done we need to start small and build momentum. Then we can use that momentum to work toward the next win, and the next one and so on until we have a significant breakthrough—and when we do, our progress will have become so frictionless and effortless that the breakthrough will seem like overnight success.

Minimum viable progress

“What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?”

Design and iterate a routine

The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position. Yes, in some instances an Essentialist still has to work hard, but with the right routine in place each effort yields exponentially greater results.

Advantage of a routine

There is another cognitive advantage to routine as well. Once the mental work shifts to the basal ganglia, mental space is freed up to concentrate on something new.

Case studies

El Bulli

First, his specialty is reducing traditional dishes to their absolute essence and then reimagining them in ways people have never thought of before. Second, while El Bulli has somewhere in the range of 2 million requests for dinner reservations each year, it serves only fifty people per night and closes for six months of the year.

Warren Buffett

In The Tao of Warren Buffett, Mary Buffett and David Clark explain: “Warren decided early in his career it would be impossible for him to make hundreds of right investment decisions, so he decided that he would invest only in the businesses that he was absolutely sure of, and then bet heavily on them.


Think of Sir Isaac Newton. He spent two years working on what became Principia Mathematica, his famous writings on universal gravitation and the three laws of motion. This period of almost solitary confinement proved critical in what became a true breakthrough that shaped scientific thinking for the next three hundred years.

Space for creativity

In other words, Newton created space for intense concentration, and this uninterrupted space enabled him to explore the essential elements of the universe.

Protecting employees

Charles Czeisler at Harvard has proposed a policy that no employee is expected to drive into work after a red-eye flight, and other companies allow employees to come in late after staying late at work the previous night. Companies and leaders like these know that “protecting their assets” is a matter of fiduciary responsibility.

Hire slow, fire fast

They begin with the basic assumption that they would rather be understaffed than hire the wrong person quickly. Accordingly, when they are looking for a new employee, they have a rigorous and systematic selection process.

Bias towards a hell yes for hiring

If the team isn’t absolutely sure, then the answer is no… If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.

Michael Phelps’ routine

“If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program. But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits have taken over. When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan and he’s been victorious at every step.

Jack Dorsey’s weekly routine

Jack Dorsey, the cofounder of Twitter and founder of Square, has an interesting approach to his weekly routine. He has divided up his week into themes. Monday is for management meetings and “running the company” work. Tuesday is for product development. Wednesday is for marketing, communications, and growth. Thursday is for developers and partnerships. Friday is for the company and its culture.