3 Ways to Keep Coming Back to What is Most Important

“There are so many great opportunities!”  As I work with people these days I am amazed at the opportunities they have in front of them – new projects, programs, partnerships, markets and networking opportunities.  And these are just some of the opportunities in front of them at work.  There are also new books, blogs, podcasts and leadership development webinars, courses and assessment tools.  Then there are their personal lives!  Endless sports, leisure and creative opportunities for them and their children. The abundance is almost dizzying.  Yet, somehow all this abundance doesn’t leave them feeling fulfilled.

A welcome perspective amidst this sea of abundance is a book entitled Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.  This book is all about choice, illustrating that we have far more choice than we realize (such as what we say yes to, where we place our focus, how we choose to respond versus react).

To help you use the key ideas in Essentialism in your own life, I’ve tried to distill it down to three solid takeaways – in the form of three contrasting questions:

  1. What is Essential? versus What is Simply Noise?
  2. What is it Time for? versus What Time is it?
  3. Who do I Need to Beversus What do I Need to Do?

Let’s see how these three questions can help us navigate the abundance of choices we live in.

1.    What is Essential? versus What is Simply Noise?

McKeown starts off with a discussion of the essentialist mindset.  At the root of essentialism is remembering we always have a choice and learning to distinguish that which is truly important from the sea of noise.  In a world of abundance this one idea alone can make a huge difference.  There is so much available to us we often feel we have to somehow fit it all in.  And while there can be enjoyment in so many of these activities, as they fill up our lives, it may begin to feel like we are racing from activity to activity without a clear direction.  Our lives are stuffed full of activity and information but we have lost touch with what is essential.  As McKeown describes, we find ourselves in “the unfulfilling experience of making a millimeter of progress in a million directions” versus making significant progress and contribution toward the things that matter most.  As we become clear on what is essential and say “No!” to the noise, we create the space to move that which matters most “a mile.”

So the first question you need to pause and ask is “What is essential?”  Out of all of the noise and distracting opportunities, what is most important in my life, my work, my relationships?  One of the simplest filters to help you with this question is checking in with your values – your GPS for what is truly important in your life.  How does this opportunity align with my values?   And if it supports a value of say, Challenge, but compromises values of Family and Integrity, is it truly essential?

Another simple filter is to tune into your gut by asking yourself “Is this opportunity a 'Hell yes?'”  Where you clearly have a lot of energy and enthusiasm and it completely aligns with your direction and purpose.  If it is not a ‘Hell yes!’ it is most likely a ‘no’.  

2. What is it Time For? versus What Time is It?

Essentialism also addresses the distinction between two measures of time initially conceptualized by the Greeks: Chronos and Kairos.  The former refers to chronological time, the steady march of minutes, hours, days and years.  It can be captured in the question “What time is it?”  Whereas Kairos signifies a period or season, a moment of indeterminate time in which an event of significance happens.  I like to think of it more as “What is it time for?” 

Looking at life through the lens of Chronos creates an almost endless list of doing.  "It is time for our Monday 9:00 am meeting."  "It is time to move to the next agenda item."  "It is time to complete Robert’s annual review."  "It is time to retire!"  Chronos is quantitative and focused on tasks. 

Looking at life through the lens of Kairos on the other hand, feels very different.  It is qualitative.  It is the pause amidst the back to back meetings, or the two-day agenda, or the race to complete a performance review to ask “What is it time for?”.  What is really happening?  What is the signal in the noise?  What is the elephant in the room that we really need to discuss which has nothing to do with the next agenda item in our meeting - yet has everything to do with every agenda item in the meeting? Taking the time to pause allows us to step outside of our autopilot mode and determine whether the task we are currently working on or moving on to next is the best use of our time and energy at this moment.

In order to ask this question, you will need to train yourself to pause.  Most busy professionals today have trouble with this kind of a pause – it feels like they are doing nothing.   But this is a time-honored practice for true leadership (i.e. leading, not reacting) that is more valuable today than ever.  Only by pausing do we create the space to tune into what’s really happening – both in the details and in the background.  Kairos is about tuning into “what’s is time for - now?”.

3.  Who Do I Need to Be? versus What Do I Need to Do?

In the pause of Kairos, we have the space to consider something more important than simply moving onto a different task.  In this space we can also ask the question “Who do I need to be?” rather than simply what do I need to do?

As a leader, who do you need to be to meaningfully connect with a team which is stressed and running at full capacity?  What characteristics do you need to embody – more confidence and determination than ever or more patience and listening?  As a parent or partner, which characteristics do you need to honor when you come home to your family?  Maybe what the family needs most is more gratitude and appreciation versus rushing in and taking care of a list of chores.

When we are clear on who we need to be it makes every other decision quicker and easier.   We remember what is essential amidst the noise.  We notice what it is time for amidst the back to back agenda items.  And we remember the life we really want to live.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”
– Viktor Frankl


Whether it is asking “What is essential?”, or “What is it time for?” or “Who do I need to be?”, these questions require slowing down to pay attention, creating space for reflection and listening for the signal within the noise.  Ironically, when we are most overwhelmed by our to-do lists and agendas we are least likely to pause and reflect.  We are caught in the frenzy and blind to our options.  Developing a mindfulness practice will help you to build this pause into the structure of your day and week, allowing the space to ask these important questions.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.  If you found this interesting, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Essentialism, as there is so much more in the book than I covered here.  To learn more about how mindfulness practices could help you come back to what is essential in your life, contact me at scott@mindfulwisdom.ca.  Or better yet, if you are in the Vancouver area, let’s meet over a coffee.  For more information on the work I do please visit www.mindfulwisdom.ca.