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When we surrender the ability to choose, someone or something will step in and choose for us. Think “I choose to” instead of “I have to.” Make decisions by design, rather than by default.

My Notes

Develop the Ability to Choose

The most crucial skill is to develop the ability to choose choice, in every area of your life.


“I have to.” — Forfeits the right to choose.


“I choose to.” — Exercise the power of choice.

The Pareto Principle or The Law of the Vital Few

The Pareto Principle is the idea that 20 percent of our efforts produce 80 percent of the results, as introduced by Vilfredo Pareto in 1790.

Joseph Moses Juran later expanded on the idea and called it “The Law of the Vital Few.”

Don’t Surrender the Ability to Choose

When we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone will step in and choose for us.

Play is Essential

Play is immensely important to let the mind explore and relax. Play is anything we do simply for the joy of doing rather than as a means to an end.

One Fewer Thing

Choose to do one fewer thing today, in order to do more tomorrow. Get your sleep right.

Protect the Asset

The most important contribution we can make to the world is the one we make for ourselves. Investing in our minds, our bodies, and our spirits is crucial. Lack of sleep is the worst way to damage the asset. The asset is you.

Our Brains do the Work While We Sleep

The brain encodes and restructure information while we sleep. So a good nights sleep is better for solving problems than staying up that extra hour to get something done.

If the answer isn’t definite yes then it should be a no

Only if we feel total and utter conviction to do something, should we say yes. This is borrowed from Derek Siver’s “It’s Either HELL YEAH! Or No.”

The 90 Percent Rule

For every decision or dilemma, as you evaluate an option, give the single most important criteria a score between 0 and 100. Eliminate everything that goes under 90. It’s a liberating method that will get you to results faster. You don’t get caught in indecision or stuck with things that you’re not fully on par with.

Make Decisions by Design, Rather than by Default

Using the 90 percent rule you’ve created a system that would make the selective criteria for you. It’s decision by design, rather than by default.

Cleaning the Wardrobe

If you want to sort out the wardrobe you have to ask yourself the question “Do I love wearing this?”. If you ask yourself “May I wear this in the future?” you will end up not having anything sorted out.

Let go of the “what if”. Studies show that we tend to value things we own more highly than they are wort. Thus, making it more difficult to get rid of.

Craft the Essential Intent

The essential intent is the statement that eliminates a 1000 decisions. It’s like deciding to become a doctor instead of a lawyer. This strategic choice rids a universe of other options and sets the course direction for the next five, ten, or even twenty years of your life.

Ask “How will we know when we’re done?”

Be clear in the essential intent. A goal like “eliminate hunger in the world” is vague and feels little more than empty words. After hurricane Katrina, Brad Pitt phrased his intent “to build 150 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward.” That’s concrete. The realness of it makes it inspiring.

Separate the Decision from the Person

Saying no is hard, but crucial if you want to focus on what is essential. The trick is to separate the decision from the relationship you have with another individual. Denying the request is not the same as denying the person.

Focus on the Trade-off

If you don’t think about the trade-off you’re making, it’s easy to say yes by default. Contemplate the trade-off.

The “no” repertoire

  1. The awkward pause. Use the pause as a tool. Count to three before delivering the no verdict.
  2. The soft “no” (or the “no but”). Give an excuse that you’re busy with X at the moment but would love to hear back after that.
  3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you”. If you find it hard to say no, give yourself time to reflect and ultimately reply that you’re regretfully unavailable.
  4. Use e-mail automatic replies. If you’re focusing on a project, set up automatic replies in the same way you do while on vacation. It’s the most socially accepted “no” there is.
  5. Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritise?” When a new thing will compromise your ability to make the highest contribution to your work, let your manager know. Just ask what else should get lower priority in change for this new request.
  6. Say it with humor. Be a bit funny in your response. Like “Nope! Definitely not gonna do that.”
  7. Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.” This lets the other person know what you will and won’t do.
  8. “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.” It’s not our help that is uniquely invaluable. It’s the help itself. Could be by someone different.

The Tyranny of Sunk Costs

Sunk-cost bias is the tendency to continue to invest time, money and energy into something we know is a losing proposition. It means that because I already put effort towards something I’ll continue that simply because I can’t get back what I’ve put in.

The Endowment Effect

The tendency to undervalue things that aren’t ours and overvalue things because we already own them.

A simple antidote against this thinking is to ask yourself “If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?”

Run a Reverse Pilot

In the same way as a prototype works as testing a concept for a large scale project, running a reverse pilot is a check whether removing an initiative will have any negative impacts.

Remove the things you think may not be needed for people, and check their reactions. If nobody cares—it was not needed.


“In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time – literally – substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.”

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It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload.

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What is new is how especially damaging this myth is today, in a time when choice and expectations have increased exponentially. It results in stressed people trying to cram yet more activities into their already overscheduled lives. It creates corporate environments that talk about work/life balance but still expect their employees to be on their smartphones 24/7/365. It leads to staff meetings where as many as ten “top priorities” are discussed with no sense of irony at all.

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The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralise the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality.

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After all, there is still a feeling of sunk-cost bias: studies have found that we tend to value things we already own more highly than they are worth and thus that we find them more difficult to get rid of.

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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.

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As a quote attributed to Victor Hugo, the French dramatist and novelist, puts it, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” “Less but better” is a principle whose time has come.

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What if society encouraged us to reject what has been accurately described as doing things we detest, to buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like?

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What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?

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Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices – or even a function of our own past choices.

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Working hard is important. But more effort does not necessarily yield more results. “Less but better” does.

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The overwhelming reality is: we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.

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To discern what is truly essential we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make.

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For some reason there is a false association with the word focus. As with choice, people tend to think of focus as a thing. Yes, focus is something we have. But focus is also something we do

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Think of a journal as like a storage device for backing up your brain’s faulty hard drive. As someone once said to me, the faintest pencil is better than the strongest memory.

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I also suggest that once every ninety days or so you take an hour to read your journal entries from that period. But don’t be overly focused on the details, like the budget meeting three weeks ago or last Thursday’s pasta dinner. Instead, focus on the broader patterns or trends. Capture the headline.

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Rand took a risk when he said no. He bet a short-term popularity loss for a long-term gain in respect. And it paid off.

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It’s all too easy to blindly accept and not bother to question commitments simply because they have already been established.

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Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.

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When we are added onto an e-mail thread, for example, we can resist our usual temptation to be the first to “reply all”. When sitting in a meeting, we can resist the urge to add our two cents. We can wait. We can observe. We can see how things develop. Doing less is not just a powerful Essentialist strategy, it’s a powerful editorial one as well.

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The way of the Essentialist, on the other hand, is to use the good times to create a buffer for the bad.

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One way to protect against this is simply to add a 50 per cent buffer to the amount of time we estimate it will take to complete a task or project (if 50 per cent seems overly generous, consider how frequently things actually do take us 50 per cent longer than expected). So if you have an hour set aside for a conference call, block off an additional thirty minutes.

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Essentialists don’t default to Band-Aid solutions. Instead of looking for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, they look for the ones slowing down progress. They ask, “What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?” While the non-Essentialist is busy applying more and more pressure and piling on more and more solutions, the Essentialist simply makes a one-time investment in removing obstacles.

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Removing obstacles does not have to be hard or take a superhuman effort. Instead, we can start small. It’s kind of like dislodging a boulder at the top of a hill. All it takes is a small shove, then momentum will naturally build.

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“My experience has taught me this about how people and organizations improve: the best place to look is for small changes we could make in the things we do often. There is power in steadiness and repetition.”6

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So we introduced a token system.9 The children were given ten tokens at the beginning of the week. These could each be traded in for either thirty minutes of screen time or fifty cents at the end of the week, adding up to $5 or five hours of screen time a week.

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Take a goal or deadline you have coming up and ask yourself, “What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?”

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According to researchers at Duke University in North Carolina, nearly 40 per cent of our choices are deeply unconscious.7 We don’t think about them in the usual sense. There is both danger and opportunity in this.

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Jack Dorsey, the co-founder 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.9 This routine helps to provide calmness amid the chaos of a high-growth start-up.

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To operate at your highest level of contribution requires that you deliberately tune in to what is important in the here and now.

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I’m not talking about doing only one thing at a time. I’m talking about being focused on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can “multi-focus” is.

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When faced with so many tasks and obligations that you can’t figure out which to tackle first, stop. Take a deep breath. Get present in the moment and ask yourself what is most important this very second – not what’s most important tomorrow or even an hour from now. If you’re not sure, make a list of everything vying for your attention and cross off anything that is not important right now

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Books I’ve read.

Johannes Holmberg

Tiny summaries on books I’ve read. Sorted by latest read. But you can also sort on top recommendations. Highlights and covers are copyright to their respective authors.