“What is most essential to you?”
It may seem esoteric on the surface, but this is a super rich question from one of my favorite books of the last five years: Essentialism by Greg McKeown. I tell everyone about this book. I even begged my well-read business partner until he finally gave in, read it three times and actually implemented most of the book’s principles. Application is a lost art.
Essentialism, at its core, is the disciplined pursuit of less.
It is saying no to the wrong things so you can say yes to the right things.
It means conforming to the truth that life is a series of trade-offs. Unfortunately, our non-essentialist culture doesn’t believe in the necessity to choose anything. And it certainly won’t support you if you try.
Yet still we are desperate for the change it offers.
Think about the things you really want from life: Good health? Happy marriage? Successful career? Lots of money? Strong friendships? Thriving kids? Active faith? Personal growth? Immaculate house? Lots of travel? Now pick 3, if you really want them to count. Brutal, right? The land of the juicy yes is all fun and games until we have to choose which yes’s stay or go.
According to McKeown, we’re making choices whether we realize it or not. Mostly by default, so the quality and impact of our lives are suffering as a result. Instead of creating real impact in the things that matter most, we race around on two wheels, wasting energy on things that never move the needle on anything significant.
I believe so much in the concept of essentialism, I had convinced myself that I was living it out. (Just because you test well on the book’s quiz https://gregmckeown.com/quiz/ doesn’t mean you’re an essentialist). But my schedule was starting to betray me. Our December was so insane that one day I brought my husband home from foot surgery and ten minutes later I was hosting a leadership luncheon. And I wonder why I’m sick too much and keep forgetting my 4-year old’s ballet clothes. When did this become normal? When did we start thinking it was okay? When will we stop shoving things in our calendar like an overstuffed closet that physically has no more room to handle another sweater? Especially one we don’t even want?
The problem, is that essentialism is completely countercultural. If you aren’t on two wheels with your “busy badge blazing,” important things must not be happening.
We’ve convinced ourselves that we are not enough if we don’t have too much to handle.
Especially women. It’s a dangerous trap that leads us to less, not more. Just think what’s it’s like to be on the other end of a non-essentialist; unresponsive, late, forgetful and rarely present during conversations due to mental juggling. And what are we teaching our kids? My daughter can spot the unimportant a lot quicker than I can.
I don’t know about you guys, but my busyness is really starting to bug me.
I hit my tipping point last month when I looked at my calendar and wondered who was in control. And then I realized it was me. I was sick of my excuses for missed emails and texts, and listening to friends tell me how busy I was. If someone tells you that, they’re not paying you a compliment. I wasn’t a victim of my schedule anymore than the rest of us are. We make choices. And I had the choice to clean out my life, no matter how painfully selective I would have to be to create the version that reflected the impact I really wanted to be and have. So I went to my husband, calendar in hand, and told him it was surgery for sanity. We had to start cutting.
The goal of an essentialist, is to decide where and how to spend their time. To be in control of one’s destiny. If a new opportunity presents itself, the essentialist evaluates the opportunity against three measures – right thing, right reason, right time – before saying yes. Can you imagine how different our lives would look if we evaluated decisions that way? We would live with a more intentional pace, see things around us more clearly, and make some real impact along the way. As the CEO of our lives, we would learn how to gracefully say no. As Warren Buffett said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
Essentialism is not for the faint of heart, so where do you begin? By getting strategic, just like you would if you were running a company:
McKeown suggests taking on the mindset of a journalist, with you as the subject. Schedule an off-site as simple as a coffee date at a cafe on the other side of town, or a day in the mountains if you really want to make it count. It’s a discovery session to help you mine for information about your life; how do you really show up and is it working for you? Use the following grounds rules and questions to help:
- Pack a journal, no devices.
- Print a calendar of your last 90 days, and your next 90 days.
- Ask yourself:
- What are you grateful you said yes to?
- What do you wish you’d said no to?
- What is most important to you right now/this season?
- What can you stop doing to move you toward that?
These are vital questions to your life – don’t trade them in for another set of to do lists or Facebook updates that you’ll never remember. Pursue the answers, then use them to make changes that will create a version of life you really love. Not just one you ended up with because it happened when you weren’t paying attention. You’ll have more margin, more impact and fewer regrets.
My calendar is blocked for February 7th. I expect to walk away from that day with less burden, a clearer vision for 2018 and the goals to help me get there. I’ll report back in next month’s blog to share how it went.
Your turn. Make a commitment to yourself right now to do the essential thing. Email me your story to firstname.lastname@example.org. You’ll be one step closer to doing something that really matters.