This blog post summarises the highlights of an interview between Michael Hyatt and Greg McKeown, bestselling author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less . You can listen to the podcast here. I found it really inspiring. Micheal Hyatt’s podcast This is Your Life is one of a select few I listen to regularly.
The goal of ‘Essentialism’ is to do the right thing for the right reasons at the right time. Our overstuffed lives are so full of activities and commitments, there’s no space to think about what the very best and highest use of ourselves is. This can lead to what Jim Collins has called the “undisciplined pursuit of more,” as we try to cram more and more into an already packed life. Before long, we have no margin, no space to breathe.
The antidote to this problem of the undisciplined pursuit of more is the disciplined pursuit of less but better. It is the very work of our lives to figure out what’s important now and be willing to eliminate anything that isn’t the answer to that question.
McKeown uses a metaphor of a closet to help us picture the problem of our overstuffed lives. The scenario is, we have far too much stuff in our wardrobes so we half-heartedly set about decluttering – but actually, we only remove one or two items. So then we think the solution is to get a bigger wardrobe! But it isn’t. The bigger wardrobe will become just as crammed and cluttered in no time at all. We need to reassess every item that is hanging in there and pare it down to the most important and valuable items. And it’s not just our stuff hanging in there, other people come along and hang their stuff in our ‘wardrobes’ (other people’s meetings, tasks and priorities ‘hanging’ in the limited space of the ‘wardrobe’ that is your schedule).
McKeown diagnoses the disease of our culture as the idea that if you can fit it all in, you can have it all. The problem with that idea is that it’s not true.
Part of the solution is to hold a “personal quarterly off-site” – to create some space to think, to ask the hard questions, the big questions. Every 90 days, you take a day. You evaluate what you’ve been doing during the last 90 days. It’s an opportunity for you to poke your head above the clouds and kind of get some perspective about your life and where it’s going. McKeown recommends turning off all electronic distractions. It’s a thinking day. (For New Zealand teachers, our four term year provides us with the chance to do some of this thinking in our holidays.) Among other questions, he recommends you ask, what am I already committed to? Are these the things that really are essential, or are they no longer the things I should be doing?
Then it’s time to un-commit to things. McKeown talks about negotiating out of non-essential commitments: “You know what? I signed up for this. But I don’t think I could do a great job for you. I could do it, but I think it’s not the very best way for me to be able to help you. What I can do instead is this…” Or, “This person could help instead.” Or you can just say, “It’s just no longer a fit for me.”
McKeown acknowledges that this does create a withdrawal in the relationship. But there’s a cost regardless. Either you risk upsetting the person or you carry on using your valuable time for something non-essential. And that’s time you are not spending on your real priorities – The Big Rocks: Family, relationships, sleep, exercise… So either way, you pay – but you’re choosing which bill you’re going to acquire. We can’t just pretend there are no trade-offs and say yes to everything and hope that will be fine. So now the choice is, “What are the right trade-offs to make?”
Interviewer Michael Hyatt raises the issue of integrity. “I don’t have any problem with trying to negotiate out of it or providing an alternative, but if the other person says, ‘No, I really want you do to it,’ and I’ve committed to it, and they’ve planned on that, then I feel like I have to follow through. Next time I’ll be smarter, but I have to fulfill the commitment.”
The key is that every time someone asks us to do something, we put in a buffer. “Let me get back to you. Let me think about that.” Then we get good at preparing and going back to people and saying, “Look, it’s a great opportunity. It’s a wonderful thing you’ve asked me to do, and I’m very honored, but I just don’t think I can sign up for it right now. I don’t think I can do a great job for you on this right now. There are other commitments I already have.” McKeown recommends memorising a go-to phrase when you get a request: “Let me check my calendar, and I’ll get back to you.” You can still decide to say yes, just give yourself time to pause first – don’t say yes right away.
Figure out a gentle but firm way of saying no, when you need to. Angela Watson suggests using the phrase, “I can’t say yes” to soften the blow. She uses the example of a passenger asking the air hostess whether they could use the bathroom. The air hostess replies, I can’t say yes because the seat belt sign is still on.” Another valid way of saying no, is to say you already have a regular commitment at that time. And of course, you can schedule exercise, family time, sleep (The Big Rocks ) into your diary as “appointments” to keep.
Bear in mind the ‘planning fallacy’. This is well established in the literature as an almost universal human weakness: we underestimate the time things will take to do. Think of how rare is it that you take on a project, a task, or a request, and it is completed faster than you thought it would be. Things almost always take longer than expected.
It’s not simply about saying no to certain things, it’s about being very clear about what we want to say yes to.
Every time you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else.
“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them — work, family, health, friends and spirit and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls — family, health, friends, and spirit — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.” ―Brian Dyson, former vice chairman and COO of Coca-Cola
Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who gathered a set of interviews from terminal patients. What was the number one regret of the dying? It was living a life that others expected of them rather than a life that was true to the voice within. The number two regret was spending too much time at work and not enough time with family and those who mattered most.