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You Need to Know What’s Essential

There’s never a bad time to try to take stock of what lies ahead.1 But doing so can be especially critical as

  • demands mount,
  • free time in your schedule wanes, or
  • it looks like either of these might be on the horizon.

How can you stay afloat? How can you 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’s essential?”

The Importance of Identifying What’s Essential

The question “What’s essential?” pushes you toward minimizing the excess in life. But it does so in a way that also asks you to keep your grip on what has higher priority.

Everyone has limits—both as humans in general and as particular humans who each hold particular things to be important. Asking “What’s essential?” forces you to reckon with the reality of these limits.

You can try simply to fit more and more into a life with less and less margin. But if you do, you’ll find yourself subtly crowding out the things you think are truly vital.

As 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.2

The Point of Identifying What’s Essential

Of course, some of what you should choose deliberately is connecting with, enjoying relationships with, and serving families, close friends, and others.

Identifying what’s essential isn’t a way of avoiding or getting out of any of this. It’s simply a recognition that there are clear forces with agendas that can subtly make decisions for you about your life.3

Such forces have existed for ages. They also have many new, powerful manifestations in the modern “attention economy.”4

Perhaps you’re in the very fortunate place where all the forces in your life only ever move you toward what’s essential anyhow. For everyone else, though, there’s a clear need to be deliberate about identifying and pursuing what’s essential amid all the other noise.


In Jesus’s language, “seek first the God’s kingdom and his righteousness” (ζητεῖτε … πρῶτον τὴν βασιλείαν [τοῦ θεοῦ] καὶ τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτοῦ; Matt 6:33).5

You need to be faithful to whatever calling you find yourself under in a particular season. And in all likelihood, you can’t cede decisions about what that means to all the other random forces in your life. That means you need to be mindful about the choices you make and what you allow to become a priority. After all, whatever you prioritize will constrain or exclude other potentially important relationships, activities, and practices.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer poignantly describes how some people are “always forced to decide between alternatives they have not chosen.”6 Don’t let that be you because you’ve allowed other forces to make choices that might not be the most faithful ones. Instead, develop the discipline of living intentionally, of deliberately choosing the path you find most faithful, and of constantly asking what’s really essential along that journey.

  1. Header image provided by Nik. ↩︎
  2. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (affiliate disclosure; New York: Crown Business, 2014), 16; image provided by Thomas Vena. ↩︎
  3. McKeow, Essentialism, 16. ↩︎
  4. Cal Newport, “Beyond #DeleteFacebook: More Thoughts on Embracing the Social Internet Over Social Media,” Cal Newport, 25 March 2018. ↩︎
  5. The included Greek text conforms to NA28 (affiliate disclosure). ↩︎
  6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Eberhard Bethge and Reginald H. Fuller (affiliate disclosure; New York: Macmillan, 1961), 175. ↩︎

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