How Focus on the Essential Could Save Your Life


When you wake up in the morning, are you overwhelmed with the many tasks on your to-do list?  Maybe you’re a parent who feels stretched too thin between caring for children and keeping up with work tasks.  Or perhaps you feel under the thumb of the “tyranny of the urgent,” where every task seems to be top priority.  Maybe the things that really matter to you are slipping through the cracks.

How freeing might it be to focus on just one thing at a time?

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown* is a slim volume that helps you focus on one priority at a time instead of trying to spread your time and energy over too many tasks.  He helps you hone in on what’s important instead of what’s urgent.  He encourages trimming down on non-essential tasks in order to focus on what is truly vital to your well-being and your values.  He offers practical steps on how to define your priority, or “essential intent,” cut down on extra tasks, and create time to do what’s most important to you.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
— Greg McKeown

Impacts from Essentialism

He shatters the expectation of multiple “priorities.”

McKeown talks about the history of how we view the word “priority.”  In the past, calling something a priority meant it was the number one thing in your life at the top of the list.

But now the meaning of the word has changed.  We have “priorities” in the plural.  When we spread our priorities over multiple areas, then everything becomes a top priority and you can’t juggle it all.  You end up failing in some areas, struggling with decision fatigue from the weight of choices between priorities, and feeling less satisfied.

Instead, McKeown suggests focusing on one “essential intent” as a top value, truly making it your top priority.  This makes decisions easier as you hold up this top priority as the main factor in making deliberate decisions.

You don’t have to do it all.

Focusing on one essential intent takes you out of the trap of “I have to do it all” and allows you to make choices that support what you value.  It can be easy to fall victim to outside circumstances or urgent tasks.  You can feel out of control and powerless to change.

In truth, you do have a choice.  You can choose to respond to that “urgent” request or stay late at work to catch up, or you can choose an alternative behavior that supports your values.  When you frame decisions as choices, you’re more likely to feel more power and control over your life.  Choices can be hard, but they put you back in the driver’s seat of your own life.

You have permission to say “no.”

It can be difficult to say “no” to urgent tasks, especially when they feel constant and demanding.  Not only does McKeown encourage you to say “no: in order to make your essential intent most important, but he also gives practical, step-by-step advice on how to say “no.” Realizing you cannot do everything and being willing to say “no: allows you to give others the opportunity to step in and showcase their own strengths or abilities. 

I can do anything but not everything.
— Greg McKeown

Your “no” can still be hard.

What makes saying “no” more difficult is that it involves a trade-off.  Typically we are saying “no” to something that is good in order to say “yes” to the best.  Acknowledging the reality of the trade-offs and the potential for missing out or feeling disappointed allows you to accept those feelings as normal.

How to Apply Essentialism in Daily Life

Discover what you value.

Find a time and space where you can reflect without distractions or interruptions.  Get out a journal or a pad of paper and write down a list your priorities and values.  Look through this list and identify which of those values leads you to feel truly alive.  Clarify your vision as a way to identify your essential intent.

Choose one priority to focus on for the next week.

As you reflect on this list, choose your essential intent for the upcoming week.  Let it guide your decisions.  When you’re called on to make a choice, pause and ask whether or not it supports your priority.  You might focus on family, mental health, friendships, taking care of your body, an aspect of your work – you name it.  Whichever goal you focus on, allow your decisions to reflect what will best contribute to that goal. 

Identify your obstacle.

What is most likely going to get in the way of you sticking to your essential intent?  A demanding boss?  A tantrum-throwing toddler?  An unsupportive spouse?  Endless lists of work tasks?  Plan ahead for these obstacles and seek to address them in advance.  This preventative approach will save you from reacting in the moment to urgent interruptions. Create a routine that will help you avoid doubt or questioning your priority.

Pause before saying “yes.”

When someone makes a request of you, don’t automatically say “yes.”  This automatic response feels polite and avoids conflict, but you may regret it later.  Either tell the person you’ll get back to them or take 24 hours before you respond.  During that time, consider whether saying “yes” will support your essential intent for the week.  After some time has passed, if your response is not a 100% “yes” and in alignment with your essential intent, then the answer is no.

Give a clear “no.”

While it can be difficult to say “no,” communicating that no is more effective than a noncommittal yes where you will avoid or have difficulty with completing the task.  McKeown offers several ways to say “no” in the book, some of which involve suggesting another person who could complete the task, creating a compromise, or using humor.  Regardless, know that saying “no” will feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, but with practice, it becomes easier. 


Any change you make toward creating your one essential priority is worth celebrating, even if it feels tiny.  Find a way to celebrate the small victories.  Using this form of positive reinforcement helps you give yourself credit for changes you make.  If you deal with anxiety or depression, giving yourself credit as an important part of overcoming the negative messages you repeat to yourself.  Allow yourself to feel happy and enjoy the feeling of making a change.


Do you feel as though you are spread too thin?  Is it difficult for you to tune out the urgent requests that come across your table?  Do you have a hard time setting boundaries and saying “no”?  Are you dealing with symptoms of depression or anxiety as a result?  At Restored Hope, I help you quiet your negative self-talk and approach yourself with kindness, guiding you in focusing on what’s most important to you.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

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