A Conversation about Essentials

In this interview, Michele Cushatt, Michael Hyatt, and Greg McKeown discuss “essentialism,” or “the disciplined pursuit of less but better.”

For more thoughts from Greg along these lines, take a look at his book Essentialism. For me, two points stand out in this discussion that aren’t brought out or aren’t brought out as clearly in the book.

1. The End Game Isn’t Saying “No”

Undertaking a “disciplined pursuit of less but better” requires saying “no” to certain things, sometimes things that are quite good in themselves. The point of doing so, however, isn’t saying “no.” The point isn’t withdrawal, isolation, or a reticence to be helpful.

Rather, it’s a matter of reckoning with the very real fact that the nature of human existence requires tradeoffs. The reality is that we can’t do everything. Whenever we say yes to something, we automatically say no to something else.

We are going to end up saying “no” to things personally, professionally, or both. The question is, “Have we made the space to reflect and ensure we’re saying yes to the right things, the most important things?”

If not, we’re in greater danger of failing to be present for others as well as we might otherwise do, whether that’s in a community organization, at a church, or in a family. We’re in greater danger of failing to contribute to the other people in our lives in the best way we can. We’re in danger of not saying “yes” to the most important things because we’ve allowed “yes” to be said for us in relation to any number of other less important things.

2. Try Having a Quarterly Review

Very practically, it’s good to schedule time once per quarter to think carefully about how we’re doing with the things in life that matter most.

Exactly what this “scheduled time” should entail will be different with different folks in different contexts. Think about what will help you best reflect on what has happened in the past quarter and assess that quarter against what is truly important. Then, you can strategize for the upcoming quarter depending on what went well or what didn’t.

If you haven’t had a quarterly review cycle yet and would like some tracks to run on, you can see Michael Hyatt’s Best Year Ever, 219–22, for his advice. You can then go from there in sorting out a quarterly review routine that works for you.

Of course, there’s nothing sacrosanct about a quarterly cycle. But, you probably want something long enough to take in multiple months and short enough to give you a place to pause and reorient when needed. If your life is already structured around a traditional three-semester academic calendar (fall, spring, summer), you might try scheduling a review for yourself at the transition points between each of those blocks.


Some things in life are much more important than others. But, the important things aren’t always the ones that bang on the door and demand the attention they should receive, as non-essentials often do. In such an environment, it’s up to us to ensure we prioritize what’s truly essential, rather than leaving that to the mercy of circumstances to conspire together or choose well for us.

What stands out to you in this conversation? What ideas does this video spark to help you ensure you attend to the essentials as you do life in biblical studies?

Inside “Yes” is “No”

We like to be able to say “yes,” whether it’s to a person, an organization, an activity, an object, or whatever. But, human experience works out such that inside any “yes” is also a “no.”

AltWall, black, graffiti and sign by Jon Tyson

A bias toward “yes” isn’t inherently bad. It keeps us moving forward. Where we start running into trouble is when we neglect the fact that “yes” also costs us something.

This cost is sometimes described as an “opportunity cost.” Often, the concept is illustrated with economic examples. For instance, any dollar spent on a purchase is, by definition, not saved, given away, or spent on some other purchase.

Because dollars are interchangeable, this “opportunity cost” might not mean too much. But, the reality gains teeth when we also come up against the fact that the number of dollars anyone has access to is limited. Eventually, resources run out, even despite occasional efforts simply to go on pursuing more (see, e.g., Collins, How the Mighty Fall, 45–64).

The same principle applies with time and commitments. We can only fit a finite number of things into our attention at any moment. We can only pursue a finite number of actions in a given space of time.

And whatever we decide to put our attention on or to put into action then, by definition, squeezes out of that time and attention whatever else would otherwise have been there. So, for instance, time and attention spent studying can’t then also be spent in other ways.

But, investing time and attention in activities like study definitely can let us engage better with life as a result. To cite an often and variously quoted illustration:

Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”
“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”
“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”
“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”
“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!” (Covey, Effective People, 299)

Like anything, time spent “sharpening the saw” in study has its own opportunity cost that we need to be mindful of. But, it also pays dividends in making us sharper and better prepared as we continue moving forward serving and living life in biblical studies.

What encourages you to devote yourself to “sharpening the saw”?