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.

Conclusion

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?

What Is Essential?

The beginning of the school year is a natural time to take stock of what lies ahead. Demands mount (or are about to). Seasonal free time from the summer diminishes.

How can we stay afloat? How can we avoid dropping balls as challenges ramp up?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. But, a helpful question to begin asking regularly is “What is essential?”

AltArrow on factory wall by Hello I’m Nik

The question “What is essential?” pushes us in the direction of minimizing the excess in life. But, it does so in a way that also asks us to keep hold of what holds higher priority.

Rather than trying to fit more and more into a life with less and less margin, the question “What is essential?” asks us to reckon with the reality of our limits—both as humans in general and as particular humans with particular things that are important to us.

In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown reflects,

When we try to do it all and have it all, we find ourselves making trade-offs at the margins that we would never take on as our intentional strategy. When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people … will choose for us, and before long, we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives. (16)

Of course, some of what we should choose deliberately is connecting with, enjoy relationships with, and serving our families, close friends, and others with whom we can engage in mercy.

The point isn’t that we shouldn’t do this. But for instance, the quite definite forces in the modern “attention economy” have very certain “agendas” that we can unwittingly “allow … to control our lives” in ways we wouldn’t choose if we were being deliberate.

And just by virtue of faithfulness to whatever calling we find on our lives or in a particular season, it behooves us to be mindful about the choices that we make and what we allow to become a priority such that it excludes or squeezes other important relationships, activities, and practices.

Whatever we’re called to do in any circumstance, it pretty safely isn’t, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, to be “always forced to decide between alternatives [we] have not chosen” because we’ve not exercised our responsibility to live intentionally (Prisoner for God, 175). So, as we move into another academic year, let’s be mindful of what we allow ourselves to prioritize and intentional about centralizing what lets us live faithfully to whatever calling we have.

What questions or criteria do you find helpful in minimizing the non-essential?