A Practical Guide to Essentialism for Business Owners

Oct 28, 2021


—Lin Yutang

Greg McKeown starts off his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, with this quote from Lin Yutang, a renowned Chinese linguist, and inventor. If you’re an entrepreneur, or a leader, in general, this 2014 publication is a must-read for you!

In this book, the award-winning leadership and business strategist takes us on a journey to adopt the ‘essentialist lifestyle.’ The author does not only focus on the entrepreneurial side of essentialism but also steers the reader to adopt Essentialism as a whole.

If successful leadership is one of your objectives, this book has a lot to impart to you.

An Introduction to Essentialism

If you’re going to Google ‘Essentialism,’ you might end up reading about philosophical literature that has nothing to do with running a business. Well, maybe you would find something of use but that’s not the Essentialism you’re looking for.

As the name suggests, ‘essentialism’ is the concept of focusing on the essentials. It’s the art of taking a well-thought-out, disciplined pursuit of the ‘vital few from the trivial many.’ The gist of it all revolves around one thing: doing what you do best, and what matters the most. This way you can channel your time and energy into what makes the most rapid progress towards your objective as a business owner.

As the author pens,

“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.”

This article takes McKeown’s ideology of Essentialism to the ambitious business owner. We will discuss the wonders Essentialism can do for you as a person and your company, and the steps you must take to adopt it.

Why is Essentialism Essential for Entrepreneurs?

As an entrepreneur, you want the best for your business. So because you want the best for your business, you want perfection in every aspect from marketing to your business assets. This pursuit of perfection will urge you to get yourself involved in each and every thing that goes on, stick your leg in every department, and say ‘yes’ to too many things.

While your intentions are all good, all you’re doing is slowing yourself down as well as your business by trying to scram with the trivial many. A business suffers when an entrepreneur decides to say yes to too many things. But we will come to that later. First, let us talk about YOU, and how ‘The Way of the Non-essentialist’ will leave you unsatisfied, both in your professional and personal lives.

Greg holds that today’s society is consumed with always wanting more. That’s exactly why you are consistently taking on more and more. This excerpt from the book about a particularly capable individual might summarise the struggles faced by all of us. If you’re an entrepreneur reading this, you might be able to relate.

“I worked with one particularly driven executive who got into technology at a young age and loved it… Eager to build on his success, he continued to read as much as he could and pursue all he could with gusto and enthusiasm. By the time I met him he was hyperactive, trying to learn it all and do it all. He seemed to find a new obsession every day, sometimes every hour. And in the process, he lost his ability to discern the vital few from the trivial many. Everything was important. As a result, he was stretched thinner and thinner. He was making a millimetre of progress in a million directions. He was overworked and underutilised.”

Before Greg mentioned the anecdote above, he had posed another rhetorical question that urges the reader to look within themselves and try to answer it. Where have they gone wrong?

“Why is it,” I wonder, “that we have so much more ability inside of us than we often choose to utilise?” And “How can we make the choices that allow us to tap into more of the potential inside ourselves, and in people everywhere?”

On the surface, trying to do everything might be the answer to utilizing our ability fully. But that is not the way of the Essentialist.

Developing an Essentialist Mindset

Greg divides his book into four parts. Essence, Explore, Eliminate and Execute. The first part, of course, starts off with developing the Essentialist mindset. This too is subdivided into understanding the power of individual choice, the prevalence of noise, and evaluating the reality of trade-offs.

The author believes once you’ve read, understood, and internalised what the core mindset of an Essentialist is, the upcoming sections and what they communicate to the reader almost become natural and instinctive. Let’s talk about the most salient features of developing an Essentialist mindset

Choice Makes You Powerful

McKeown’s phenomenon of Essentialism, in all its entirety, is premised on one notion: the power of choice. And it’s not only about having different options to choose from, it’s about being able to choose. The writer states a particularly profound realisation of his: we may not always have control over our options, but we always have control over how we choose among those options.

“For too long, we have overemphasised the external aspect of choices (our options) and underemphasised our internal ability to choose (our actions). This is more than semantics. Think about it this way. Options (things) can be taken away, while our core ability to choose (free will) cannot be.”

The first step in adopting the Essentialist mindset is to never forget your ability to choose. Once you’ve established that, you can move one to cut out all the noise and discern the vital few from the trivial many.

As a business owner, the second section is particularly important for you. It teaches you how to let go of the belief that everything is important. It may signify a massive shift in the way you think, but it can be done.

The third and final step in thinking like an Essentialist comprises of making a choice, cutting off the noise, and answering the question below:

“Which problem do I want?”

You can’t have it all. Greg makes certain to hammer this point home in the fourth chapter of the book. Instead, you can make the choice that’ll help you end up with the most. There are all always trade-offs to be made and opportunity costs to be paid. Embracing this reality and working with is all you need to establish the Essentialist mindset.

Explore – Determining What Matters

Thinking like an Essentialist can be accomplished once you’ve understood and
internalised the first of the four sections in Greg McKeown’s book. The next step is to plan the execution.

As the author puts it, it’s ironic that as an Essentialist, you have to actually explore a lot more options than the non-essentialist. The idea of exploring a broad range of options but focusing on a few seems like a paradox, but only on the surface. If you take a deeper look, you’ll understand that exploring more options enables you to make a better decision as to which are the vital few you want to concentrate on.

As an entrepreneur, you have to ask yourself this question not just once but several times throughout your leadership tenure. Rather than getting excited about every new prospect, an Essentialist will only choose a few to go big on.

But you’re a business owner. You can’t dump every new idea into the non-essential bin. To keep your business at par with the world, you will have to innovate and try and focus on new things. For that, the author introduces the 90% 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 way you avoid getting caught up in indecision, or worse, getting stuck with the 60s or 70s.”

Greg makes no mistake in emphasising the big five.

1. Escape: You need space to think. You need to climb higher to a better vantage point. You can only navigate your way to Essentialism if you give yourself the time and space to.

“In order to have focus we need to escape to focus.”

2. Look: Escaping the hustle-bustle and spending time in solitude allows you to look at the bigger picture. And that is exactly what you need to do.

“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.”

Alter up your daily routine. Do things differently. This allows you to discover new ideas and opportunities. But remember, you’re only exploring as many avenues as you can. In the end, you will pursue only what matters.

3. Play: Here, the author tries to awaken the inner child within all of us. It’s true. To be able to explore ourselves and our opportunities fully, we must discover what we enjoy the most.

“Play, which I would define as anything we do simply for the joy of doing rather
than as a means to an end—whether it’s flying a kite or listening to music or
throwing around a baseball—”

The author further quotes a speaker,

“Play,” he says, “leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity.” As he
succinctly puts it, “Nothing fires up the brain like play.”

4. Sleep: Greg McKeown defines sleep as an asset. And it sure is one of the greatest assets for the entrepreneur. You could say Essentialism is the way to a better lifestyle, where you can get a good night’s sleep and carry out your selected tasks smoothly in the day. But on the road to Essentialism, you need to prioritise your sleep early on. Proper sleep helps you think well and make the right decisions.

5. Select: Escaping, looking, playing and sleeping; all of these contribute to your ability to select. To be able to say a clear ‘yes’ to what matters and a clear ‘no’ to what doesn’t. This is also where the 90% rule, as mentioned above, comes in.

Eliminate – Taking Action

The mindset is there. The plan is in place. You’re on the field now. Look around you and see the trivial many. Sharpen your blades because you’re going to cut off a lot.

As a business owner, this milestone on your road to Essentialism is when you start saying no to what does not matter. You’re going to have to say a lot of noes.

To say a clear ‘no’ to the trivial many, you need to have clarity. You need to have a clearly defined mission and purpose. This is not only defining your company’s mission statement. It’s also about you, as the leader of your establishment. It’s about how you need to define your responsibilities and duties to run your business smoothly. Apart from that, if anything is consuming even a minute of your time non-essentially, cut it off.

The author observes,

“Motivation and cooperation deteriorate when there is a lack of purpose… When there is a serious lack of clarity about what the team stands for and what their goals and roles are, people experience confusion, stress, and frustration. When there is a high level of clarity, on the other hand, people thrive.”

But with clarity, you also need to learn how to say no. Gracefully. You’ve already developed the Essentialist entrepreneur mindset, and you know when to say no. How to say it? Here are some tips.

Don’t avoid saying no if you’re feeling the social pressure to say yes. You need to be confident in yourself and the choice you make. Stay firm and resolute to decline extra requests gracefully. Though know this, it’s not necessary to have to say the word ‘no’ always. You’re not a robot.

“Essentialists choose “no” more often than they say no. There may be a time when the most graceful way to say no is to simply say a blunt 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.”

Part of the elimination process also includes uncommitting from ventures you’ve already started but they no longer fall into the vital few criteria. This particular part requires courage, the cornerstone of entrepreneurship. You need to be brave enough to admit the mistake and losses you’ve made in a particular affair and you need to be rational enough to uncommit your company from that rather than drag it on and lose more time and money.

“Only when we admit we have made a mistake in committing to something can we make a mistake a part of our past. When we remain in denial, on the other hand, we continue to circle pointlessly.”


By starting to say no to the non-essential, you’ve already started the execution of the plan. The fourth and final section of the book, execution, talks about doing the vital few things effortlessly, sustainable Essentialism and how to stay happy with your new mindset.

Greg McKeown starts this section with an important passage that focuses on ‘buffering.’ He describes buffer as,

“A “buffer” can be defined literally as something that prevents two things from coming into contact and harming each other.”

This is noteworthy for the Essentialist entrepreneur. You need to look ahead, be five steps ahead, prepare and be ready for every contingency. This is crucial for you to practice Essentialism in your business and keep work and life  running smoothly together.

Developing the Essentialist Routine


You’ve covered a great deal of distance and come this far to eliminate the non-essentials and identify the vital few. But you’re still not done.

You need to arrange the essentials, that you deem as the vital few you need to run your business successfully, into a routine. This routine makes accomplishing the Essentials the default. This does not mean you don’t have to work hard anymore. Hard work is not going anywhere, but with routine, hard work is going to yield ‘exponentially greater results.’

For people who are at the helm of an enterprise, this means more than just their personal work routine. If you want your business to follow the ideology of Essentialism holistically, you need to impart the knowledge to your employees and determine an Essentialist workspace routine. All wheels must go round in harmony for the vehicle to move forward.

Focusing on the Now

An indispensable part of living and continuing to live the Essentialist life is to keep asking yourself the question:

“What’s important now?”

Apart from all the things you’ve decided to keep on the vital few list, there is one thing that will always stay on this list no matter what the circumstances. And that is, “The Now.”

The present is always essential and must always get the most of your consideration. Greg McKeown brings us to the powerful phenomenon of mindfulness in the chapter, Focus. He urges the reader to prioritise and focus on only what they are doing at that moment so you can do it in the most perfect matter. Even if you’re eating, concentrate all of your senses on the act of eating and live a different experience.

Enhanced Essentialism – Outsource!

Greg’s book is arguably a comprehensive guide to Essentialism for the average person, that is, the employee. But an entrepreneur is not your average person, so the book might be able to cover all the ideological aspects of Essentialism, but it couldn’t possibly cover all the practical aspects of it.

For business owners, one of the first and foremost concerns regarding Essentialism is delegating responsibilities. For all that you take on as the leader of your team, who is a good option to extend your extra burdens to? And it’s not just you who’s practising Essentialism, your employees too must concentrate their time and energy on what they specialise in.

This is where Virtual Admin Assistance comes in. If you’re heading a business, you’d know all about the plethora of tasks that hang on your shoulders that must be done by you to ensure smooth business function. You can’t delegate such tasks to employees too, because some of them comprise crucial record-keeping and management.

To be able to focus on the vital few, to channel your time and energy on the tasks that fit your unique talent, and to get the most benefit by practising Essentialism fully, you will have to outsource these admin tasks to a competent Virtual Admin Assistance team.

Agile teams like EZE provide efficient, flexible, and professional assistance for your admin tasks so you can unleash your full potential and lead your business from the front.

Conclusion – The Holistically Essentialist Life

Essentialism does not end in the workplace. Neither is it confined to the boundaries of entrepreneurship. It is, on the other hand, a lifestyle. And must be taken and employed in all aspects of life if one wants to practice it correctly.

In the last section of the book, the author quotes the example of Gandhi, the Father of India, and his example of the Essentialist life. Urging the reader to devote themselves to their mission with heart and soul. The author reassures that the life of the Essentialist is a life without regrets.

“The life of an Essentialist is a life lived without regret. If you have correctly identified what really matters, if you invest your time and energy in it, then it is difficult to regret the choices you make. You become proud of the life you have chosen to live.”



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