Just Say No, Gracefully

Essentialism: The Book Summary

Here’s the main thing, the essence. People become the victims of their own success, because if they do something well, they get asked to do more and more. This ultimately dilutes the original greatness. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. You can spend your life moving one step in 360 different directions, with the net result of never moving at all, or you can move 360 steps in a single direction and make a significant contribution.

Just Say No

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That’s the main message of a book by Greg McKeown titled Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. I’m now consciously trying to incorporate this philosophy into my life. In my next post, I’ll talk about my personal experiences with this process, but for today, here are the main concepts. The basic process is to Explore, Eliminate, and then Execute effortlessly.


To be an Essentialist (as opposed to a Non-Essentialist) you start with the ability to choose. A Non-Essentialist’s motivation is “I Have To,” while an Essentialist says “I Choose To.” Subtle reframing of life’s priorities as choices undoes the feeling of entrapment and loss of control.

It means discerning the signal in the midst of a lot of noise. You need time and quietness, though, and sleep, to be able to explore a lot of options before commitment to only a vital few. Here’s the Essentialism trade-off: You can’t do it all, but if you limit your strategies, you can go big on a few things.

When looking for the essential intent for your life, it should be not only inspirational but concrete. McKeown uses the mission statement from several companies to show what he means by inspirational but abstract. Here’s the general template. “We will be the best at doing what we do while following our values.” Stating you want to raise profits by 5% is concrete but not inspirational.

Here’s an example of an essential intent that’s both concrete and inspiring. After Hurricane Katrina, Brad Pitt started an organization called “Make It Right” with the essential intent “to build 150 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward.” Sounds great, doesn’t it?

It also answers the question, “How will we know when we’re done?” Yet, when McKeown talks about trade-offs, he really means it. Yes, you can have a life with minimal distractions from doing your one best thing, but you have to work really hard, first at clearing out the time, space, and bandwidth, and then at maintaining those boundaries.


After the fun of exploration, of playing with different what-if scenarios, of getting enough sleep to boost your creativity and productivity, you get to practice saying no. A lot. But this, to me is the crux of the philosophy. When you say yes to something, it should be an enthusiastic HELL YEAH! or it should be a no. There are no gray areas or maybes.

You learn to say a graceful no when others want to infringe on your priorities. You learn to uncommit from things you’ve already said yes to. There’s a whole chapter on not being afraid to cut your losses, on not continuing a losing project just because you’re already heavily invested.

McKeown likens the process to revising a piece of writing. Sometimes a lot of text has to go in order to make the point clear, even if that writing is masterful. He cites one of my favorite quotes from Stephen King. “You have to be willing to kill your darlings.” Life, like good writing, requires elimination, condensation, correction, and clarification.


What are the strategies for effortless execution? Here’s one I learned from my life coach training. Create lots of reserve for yourself. Last minute rushing around is stressful and likely to lead to forgetting a crucial detail. Reserves can be made by allotting plenty of time to a project, by beginning the preparation process further in advance than you need to, even by something as small as buying gas before you’re on empty.

When working in groups or within systems, be thoughtful about who or what the rate-limiting process is before you start to remove obstacles or change systems and processes. McKeown cites some of the latest science on the process of building habits and the value of routines. He advises doing the most difficult task first each day.

It’s okay to multitask, but it’s not okay to multifocus. In other words, doing something mindless or repetitive such as knitting while listening can actually increase retention and concentration. Trying to talk to a colleague while you’re texting or answering email is rude and detrimental to the relationship.

Ultimately the goal is to have control, clarity, joy, and meaning. All of these things are in short supply in the typical clinician’s life. The current crisis of depression and burnout makes the outcome of the Essentialism process appealing, but the process of getting there is rigorous and daunting. You have to really believe in the value of the payoff at the end.

Question: Which of these Essentialist strategies are you already using in your life? Which ones would you like to start? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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One thought on “Just Say No, Gracefully

  1. Having started in a new position this year I fully understand the meaning behind, “If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority”! I sometimes feel pulled in 20 different directions and I have learned to start my day by making a list and prioritizing what needs to be done first, second, third, etc. I try to guard my weekends for my self and my family but I am not always successful. As a new job, I am sometimes cautious when I need to really say no.