A Short and Snappy Guide to Becoming an ‘Essentialist’

Essentialism, or the ‘disciplined pursuit of less’, is a philosophy that can really help you to figure out what matters to you in life.

You probably aren’t going to win any new friends, or endear yourselves to the ones you already have, by following the principles (at least initially). Especially if you have been living life as a non-Essentialist until now.

But as an essentialist myself, I think it might be worth a bit of unpopularity.

It isn’t easy to become an Essentialist, as Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, would tell you. The counter forces to this way of living are strong for most of us.

This post explains the key principles of an Essentialist lifestyle, based on the information in Greg’s book.

Essentialism essentials

Essentialists flip certain common ways of thinking and approaching life in their heads. Essentalists say:

  • ‘I choose to’ instead of ‘I have to’.
  • ‘Only a few things really matter’, as opposed to ‘it all matters’.
  • ‘I can do anything but not everything’, versus ‘I’ll take it all’.

To integrate these philosophies in your life, here are some things you will need to think about.

Get choice back

We think we are using our free-will when really we aren’t. Instead a lot of the time we are doing things unquestioningly.

Essentialists tend to routinely check that every single thing they do in life lines up with their internal needs and wants and/or the life they want to create.

Essentialists maintain a heightened awareness of their free-will, instead of autopiloting through the day.

Essentialists pause constantly to ask 'am I investing in the right activities'? Click To Tweet

To exercise choice, you need a good idea of what you are trying to achieve. Sometimes we don’t know what we want to change, we only know that we desire change.

If you feel frustrated and stuck in life, try making small and simple changes in the things you do often, rather than going straight for the big guns.

Look at things like your routine and your habits. Consider dropping some pointless activities out, and adding new ones in, as fitting with the person you truly are.

Say yes less

In his book, Gregg shows us how we generally say yes too quickly, and no not enough. Inevitably, this means anyone with a stronger sense of will or purpose than our own makes the choices for us. Which is probably ok for things like what to have for dinner, but not ideal for other things like whether to have children.

Gregg suggests that a useful principle to help guide your decisions is: ‘if it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no’. (This rule applies very well to your love life too).

Saying no means making peace with the fact that it's popularity for respect Click To Tweet

To help you in saying no, try applying the Parateo principle to your life. Popular among entrepreneurs, the Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

You can apply the Pareto principle to your life until you learn the habit of becoming more discerning. Consider that 80% of the things you do are pointless. The other 20% – that’s what’s taking you closer to a life you love.

Learn to enjoy making trade offs

For an Essentialist, trade offs are their bread and butter. They do not fear them; rather, they enjoy making them knowing that the trade off is an exercise in purpose.

To get more comfortable with trade offs, avoid asking ‘what do I have to give up?’, try asking ‘what do I want to go big on.’ The cumulative effect of this simple shift can be profound.

Stop ignoring or decrying the trade offs you make. Celebrate trade off situations as opportunities to be deliberate, strategic and thoughtful with your life.

Those are the main principles of an Essentialist philosophy. As you can see, it isn’t complicated especially, but it isn’t easy either. In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Gregg also discusses the importance of time for solitude, play, getting bored, sleep and routine in building a more ‘essential’ life.


“Once you become an Essentialist, you will find that you aren’t like everybody else. When other people are saying yes, you will find yourself saying no. When other people are doing, you will find yourself thinking. When other people are speaking, you will find yourself listening…in many ways, to live as an Essentialist in our too-many-things-all-the-time society is an act of quiet revolution.” – Gregg McKeown.

Living Essentialism is serious process. You’ll have to get some intent, and possibly a bit of a stubborn attitude. Essentialism insists that you develop clarity on what sort of life it is you want, and it has you constantly call that forth as the day’s events grab for your attention.

It’s hard, but you can’t knock those rewards.