Essentialism; If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will

Jul 18

I often find myself in discussions with individuals and families regarding the personal and financial priorities that seem to continually push and pull on people.  I try to get people to think and focus on what is essential to them and the lives that they want to lead.  This focus is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy to achieve your lifestyle and financial objectives.

A related book on this very subject, Essentialism by Gregg McKeown, stresses that by investing in fewer things, we have the satisfying experience of making significant progress in the things that matter most.  Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of involvement should be and then to make the execution of those things almost effortless.

Essentialism – three “core truths”

McKeown breaks Essentialism into three “core truths” that help to reduce, simplify, and focus on what is essential by eliminating everything else.  “The right thing, the right way, at the right time.”

  1. “I choose to”
    1. While we may not always have control over our options, we always have control over how we choose among them.
    2. Essentialist requires a heightened awareness of our ability to choose.
  2. “Only a few things really matter”
    1. The overwhelming reality is: we live in a world where almost everything is worthless, and very few things are exceptionally valuable. As John Maxwell has written, “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”
  3. “I can do anything but not everything.”
    1. The reality is, saying yes to any opportunity requires saying no to several others. Ignoring the reality of trade-offs is a terrible strategy.  Economist Thomas Sowell wrote: “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.”
    2. Reject the idea that we can fit it all in, grapple with real trade-offs and make tough decisions. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” you ask, “What do I want to go big on?”

Systems help us to make decisions by design, rather than default. 

Below are a few suggestions from McKeown’s book to help you design a better way to help you determine what is essential.

  • Find your deal breakers
    • Cut your options and set boundaries. Recognize boundaries as empowering which protect your time from being hijacked and free from the burden of having to say no to things. Allow boundaries to proactively eliminate the demands and encumbrances from others that distract you from the true essentials.
  • Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles
    • Significantly reduce friction from what you really want to achieve by removing obstacles one by one…. at any one time, there is only ever one priority. Removing arbitrary obstacles cannot affect whatsoever if the primary one still doesn’t budge.
  • Do the minimal viable preparation
    • Take a goal or deadline you have coming up and ask yourself, “What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?”
  • Visually reward progress
    • When we start small and reward progress, we end up achieving more than when we set big, lofty, and often impossible goals. And as a bonus, the act of positively reinforcing our successes allows us to reap more enjoyment and satisfaction out of the process.

Apply Selection Criteria

McKeown also offers a simple, systematic process you can use to apply selection criteria to opportunities that come your way.

  1. Write down the opportunity.
  2. Write down a list of three “minimum criteria” the options would need to “pass” to be considered.
  3. Write down a list of three ideal or “extreme criteria” the options would need to “pass” to be considered.

By definition, if the opportunity doesn’t pass the first set of criteria, the answer is obviously no. But if it also doesn’t pass two of your three extreme criteria, the answer is still no opportunity.

Another evaluation method would be to think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and reject it. This way you avoid getting caught up in indecision, or worse, getting stuck with the 60s or 70s.

It takes asking tough questions, making real trade-offs, and exercising serious discipline to cut out the competing priorities that distract us from our true intention. There is also a need for planning and to prepare for different contingencies which go hand in hand with developing a wealth management plan.  The effort can be certainly worth if due to the clarity of purpose and peace of mind that it can bring.

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.  Albert Einstein once said: “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

Two other quotes that stood out to me while reading this book were by Lao Tzu, who said, “In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.” and “Beware the barrenness of a busy life” by Socrates.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.