Essentialism Questions Ch. 3

You can download a journal-friendly version of the questions here: Essentialism Questions Ch. 3

This is a list of discussion questions to help work through the content of the book “Essentialism” By Greg McKeown. Why discussion questions? Because interacting with the material and thinking through how the principles apply in your own circumstances is more likely to produce real learning and lasting change.

Major principles:

Most things that occupy our time are NOT important. They are a part of the “trivial many” vs the “vital few.”

Key examples/illustrations

  • Boxer the Horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm
  • The difference in hourly rates for different jobs
  • El Bulli Restaurant
  • The Pareto Principle and the “vital few”
  • Warren Buffet’s investing strategy


Power Law graph from Forbes

  1. The chapter opens with a quote from Richard Koch, author of several books on the 80/20 (or Pareto) principle: “MOST OF WHAT EXISTS IN THE UNIVERSE— OUR ACTIONS, AND ALL OTHER FORCES, RESOURCES, AND IDEAS— HAS LITTLE VALUE AND YIELDS LITTLE RESULT; ON THE OTHER HAND, A FEW THINGS WORK FANTASTICALLY WELL AND HAVE TREMENDOUS IMPACT.”  This idea can seem at odds with common sense. Do you agree with Koch? If so why? If you are having trouble accepting this idea, why?
  2. McKeown mentions the story of Animal Farm and the horse “Boxer” who’s answer is to every problem is to work harder. Based on the ideas in this chapter what are the possible outcomes of such a strategy?
  3. Why are there limits to the value of “working harder?”
  4. Some types of effort yield more and better results than other kinds of effort.  Have you experienced this in your life before?
  5. What makes something essential or important for you? Make a very short list of what makes something truly important or vital to your life.
  6. Which activities are you spending your time on that are low yield? Which are high yield? Put another way, which activities are minimum wage or less for you? Which produce the greatest results in terms of money, outcomes, happiness, quality, etc.?
  7. After a certain amount of time, “working more, working harder” results in a plateau of productivity.  This can happen because of exhaustion, loss of resources, discouragement, mental fatigue, etc.  Are there any areas in your life where you are seeing a plateau of results? Do the hard work of being honest with yourself.
  8. Diversification is a common strategy for investors. Yet according to “The Tao of Warren Buffett,” billionaire Warren Buffet makes 90% of his money of just 10 investments. What factors drive the emphasis on diversification rather than focus? Where do you see these factors at work in your life?
  9. Take a moment to look up “power law theory.” You can do a brief search, or here is an example of a write up from Forbes. A power law distribution is very different from a normal “bell curve.”  This distribution shows some of the science behind the big idea in this chapter. Some people/ideas are far more influential than others.  What is your major impression from the power law theory? Take a moment to write this down.
  10. Power law theory demonstrates that most “inputs” (people, products, sales accounts, ideas, activities) in the tail fall below median. They do NOT yield average results, they produce below average results. What activities in your life are in the long tail, bringing you lower-than-average results? How can you exchange them? Which one can you quit this week?
  11. Talking about high performing employees, Mark Zuckerberg said, “Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. They are 100 times better.” This is not only true of people, it is true in many areas of life. Which things might you do that are even 10x more effective than the “pretty good” activities that take up most of your time.
  12. Most people fail to become essentialists because they don’t know the difference between important vs unimportant.  How can you learn  the difference in your own life?
  13. Does it seem insulting or distasteful to say that most things are “unimportant?” Why?
  14. Marketers work hard to convince people that their products/services are important. Part of their success comes from the fact that their audience hasn’t decided ahead of time what is truly important.  This can lead to people constantly looking for success through purchasing a new product or software, changing to the newest and hottest business strategy, reading another self help book. Where do you see yourself influenced about what is important by outsiders?
  15. McKeown recommends that in light of these principles we spend ample time considering what is truly essential. Take time right now to make an appointment with yourself every week for reflection on your schedule and activities.


Questions for Essentialism Ch. 2

Questions for Essentialism. You Can download a pdf here: Essentialism Questions Ch. 2

Ch. 1 questions are here

Chapter 2

This is a list of discussion questions to help work through the content of the book “Essentialism” By Greg McKeown. Why discussion questions? Because interacting with the material and thinking through how the principals apply in your own circumstances is more likely to produce real learning and lasting change.

Major principals for this Chapter:

The non essentialist believes 3 false Ideas: “I have to do it… All of it is important… I can do both.”

The essentialist replaces them with 3 key truths: “I choose to… Only a few things matter, I can do anything but not everything.”

Questions to help you work through the Material:

  1. Which things are crowding you the most? Make a list of tasks/responsibilities that seem to be crowding you right now.
  1. Choose the most troublesome item from #1, and reflect on it through these questions based on those three truths:
    1. Do you feel compelled (by outside pressures) or are you making a deliberate choice that something is important?
    2. Is this item truly important for you to make the highest possible contribution? Why? Why not?
    3. Can you seriously give yourself to this task as well as other things you believe are important? If you had to confidently give something up, what would have to happen for you to realize this? If you have come to this conclusion in the past, what helped you see this?
  1. What are the areas in your life/work where you are performing at a mediocre (or worse) level because of your aptitude? How did you come to this conclusion? Why are you still doing these things?
  1. Have there been times when you were “fed up” and realized you couldn’t do it all? What events or feelings brought you to that point?  What did you do when you got there?
  1. Look in your closet or garage (or your bookshelf). What items do you see that you believe are not really important to you? Think especially of ones that you purchased.  Which of them did you feel were important when you bought them? What has changed for you to view this differently now?
  1. On p. 33 McKeown says he felt that even though he was working really hard, he was not failing, but not really succeeding either.  Which areas of your work do you feel that you are not either succeeding or failing at? How much time are you giving to these activities?
  1. If you could only do one thing with your life right now, what would it be? What are you doing right now that doesn’t fit into that?
  1. “Keep your options open” sounds like a good plan. But it can lead us to attempt too many things. Are there relationships, projects, to do lists, etc. that you are holding onto just to keep your options open? What are they?
  1. McKeown says, “Choice is not a thing, it is an action.” What actions do you need to take to move forward with determining and doing what is truly important?
  1. Where do you feel stuck because you feel you do not have a choice? Are there areas of your responsibility/work activities that you would change or abandon if you could?
  1. The author discusses the concept of learned helplessness that leads to us surrendering our prerogative to choose. Are there areas of your life and work where you believe that your work or choices don’t matter?  Are there areas where you have given up?
  1. Where is hyperactivity a sign of loss of choice in your life? Where do you believe you have to have it all or do it all?
  1. Are there areas where you have had to say “no” that feel like a loss? Are there feelings or fears of loss that are driving your decisions?
  1. Which opportunities have you passed up that you most regret? Which opportunities have you passed up that you look back on with satisfaction? Is there any difference for you?