What Is Essential

In his excellent book entitled Essentialism, Greg McKeown advocates for simplifying our lives and our days down to the very essential.  He defines being an essentialist as someone who consciously chooses to do only what is most important to him or her and says no to everything else.  

Of course, in order to do that, you have to know what’s essential to you. In other words, you have to decide ahead of time what you value most and want to spend your time doing.  

I couldn’t agree more.  This exercise of identifying priorities and core values is one of the very first things that I do with my clients who are seeking greater fulfillment in their careers. 

The simple exercise of writing down your top three priorities and putting them in order of importance is a simple practice that can have a dramatic impact on your life.  Having them written down on paper can act as an abbreviated personal mission statement to help guide you in times of indecision.  

Why We To Decide Our Priorities Ahead Of Time 

In the book, McKeown recounts the 1982 Chicago Tylenol Murders case, in which Johnson & Johnson had to react to a series of poisonings in its Tylenol products.  The company had a credo written in the mid-1940’s by Robert Wood Johnson that clearly stated its priorities in order of importance:  the company’s responsibilities were to the customers and medical professionals using its products, then its employees, then the communities where its people work and live, and then its stockholders.     

That credo (which was etched in stone at the company’s headquarters) provided clear direction in a moment of crisis, allowing the company’s management to do what was in the best interest of its customers—initiating a massive recall—even if it meant a massive decline in its stock value.  That approach set the company apart as a model of integrity and was ultimately what saved the brand and allowed it rebound so quickly.  

What Happens When You Have A Personal Mission Statement 

When you have a clear set of priorities in order of importance, you essentially have a personal mission statement that can guide you in your decisions through life, similar to Johnson & Johnson’s credo. This is especially helpful when unexpected (and difficult) decisions arise.

For example, I’ve always prioritized my family over my career.  Work is obviously important and I’ve made plenty of sacrifices for it over the course of my career, but ultimately family comes first. 

Several years ago, my grandmother’s eightieth birthday fell a few weeks before a major trial was scheduled to begin on my biggest case and I had been planning for months to fly to my hometown for the celebration.  Despite knowing about it well in advance, as the date of the weekend trip approached, one of my bosses at the time was feeling nervous about the approaching trial. Even though we were not behind on any projects and had no upcoming immediately deadlines, he questioned whether I should attend the weekend celebration.  

I told him that I understood his point of view but that it was not a trip that I was willing to miss, especially given that there was no real emergency or deadline.  I had worked hard to finish my existing projects ahead of time so that I would be free to go on the trip. It was a particularly important trip for me because my other grandparents had passed away earlier in life and I wanted to be there to celebrate my dear grandmother becoming an octogenarian.  

I went to the celebration without a tinge of regret. The day I returned from the trip, the judge postponed the trial for a year.  Had I listened to my boss, I would have wasted a precious opportunity for nothing. But you’ll never truly regret living your life according to your mission statement.

What Is Your Mission Statement? 

What is the most important to you?  Your family?  Your friends?  Your health?  Your creative projects?  Write down just three priorities and then list them in order of importance.  

Here’s what mine looks like:  

(1) My health and wellbeing; 

(2) My family; and 

(3) My career.  

It may be hard to put your own health and wellbeing at the top of the list. Most women worry that they’ll be considered selfish if they make themselves a priority.   

But if you put your family above your own health for the long term, your health will eventually begin to suffer.  When that happens, you won’t be able to help your family in the way that you’d like or show up as the mom you’d like to be.  As they say in the South: “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” 

And just to be clear, putting yourself first does not have to mean going on 10-day yoga retreats in Costa Rica (although there’s certainly nothing wrong with that!).  For many moms, it might simply mean getting 8 hours of sleep most nights, going to the gym twice a week, and taking 15 minutes a day for mediation or journaling.  

Because, as McKeown also points out, sleep and self-care are also essential to a life well lived.  

Have a beautiful week.



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