An Academic’s Perspective on Applying the Principles of Essentialism

As an academic who has navigated the path from instructor to assistant professor and now associate professor, I know firsthand the challenges of trying to do it all. In my early years, I adopted an attitude of attempting to please everyone and say yes to every opportunity, believing that this approach would strengthen my case for promotion. However, I quickly discovered that this mindset led to burnout and compromised the quality of my work across the board. It was only when I encountered Greg McKeown’s book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” that I found a framework for focusing on what truly matters and letting go of the rest. By embracing the principles of Essentialism, I have been able to not only enhance my professional impact but also find greater fulfillment and balance in my personal life.

“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”
― Greg McKeown

Key Principles of Essentialism:
McKeown structures his book around four key principles: Essence, Explore, Eliminate, and Execute. The Essence principle is about getting clear on what really matters and setting a high bar for what you consider essential. Explore is about taking time to discern the vital few from the trivial many. Eliminate is the practice of cutting out the non-essentials and learning to say no gracefully. Finally, Execute is about making the doing of the essential things as effortless as possible by establishing routines and boundaries. Together, these principles provide a roadmap for focusing on what’s truly important and letting go of the rest.

…Applied to Academics:
At its core, Essentialism is about discerning the vital few from the trivial many. McKeown argues that “only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” For academics, this means:

  • Critically evaluating where you can have the greatest impact. Which research questions, teaching approaches, or service roles align most with your strengths, expertise, and values?
    Action Item: Make a list of your current projects and commitments. Star the top 3-5 that are most essential to your goals and values.
  • Challenging deeply ingrained assumptions like “I have to do it all,” “Everything is equally important,” or “I should be able to do both this and that.” Replace them with an Essentialist mindset: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.”
    Action Item: Write down the non-Essentialist beliefs that most often drive your behavior. Then craft replacement statements that reflect an Essentialist mindset.
  • Getting comfortable with trade-offs and strategically eliminating the non-essential. Artfully decline tangential commitments to free yourself to pursue the work that will make the biggest difference.
    Action Item: Practice saying no to requests that don’t align with your essential priorities. Have go-to phrases ready like, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I’m heads down on X project right now and won’t be able to take this on.”
  • Setting boundaries and building buffers against the constant onslaught of demands. Tactics like scheduling blocks of uninterrupted focus time, establishing email response “office hours,” and proactively communicating policies to students and colleagues can all help you take back control of your schedule.
    Action Item: Block out non-negotiable focus time on your calendar for your essential priorities. Communicate boundaries to others as needed.
  • Constantly asking “What is essential?” to progressively strip away the non-essential and hone in on your unique contribution.
    Action Item: Make “What is essential?” your mantra. Regularly prune your projects and commitments to make sure you’re investing in the vital few.

The Essentialism Challenge:
Now that you’ve gotten a taste of what it means to be an Essentialist, I challenge you to put these principles into practice. Start small by picking just one of the action items above to implement this week. Maybe it’s making that list of your current commitments and starring the essential ones. Maybe it’s blocking out two hours of undisturbed focus time for that research project you’ve been trying to move forward. Whatever you choose, commit to taking one concrete step towards Essentialism. As you start to see the benefits of this approach – more progress on things that matter, more breathing room in your schedule, a greater sense of purpose – let that momentum carry you forward. Keep asking, “What is essential?” and enjoy the power that comes from doing less, but better.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown