By Karen Starns
Starns is a seasoned global brand and marketing leader who is poised to begin her next chapter. She has held senior positions at Pearson, Amazon and Microsoft and is a friend of Simple Intentions.
The first time I read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown was the Spring of 2014. At the time, I wasn’t ready for how it would eventually transform my outlook on priorities and contributions. The premise of being disciplined about where to invest energies and where to step away resonated, but I’d allowed my time to be swallowed up by other people’s needs and agendas for years. As a leader, family member and friend driven by accomplishment, I felt the need to do it all. This modus operandi had become so ingrained and rewarded, the reason for change wasn’t obvious enough.
Several months later, I took on a new global job that required 50% travel – a good portion of it spent in London. This professional change spurred a complete reset of how I spent my time. The juggling that had been challenging became infeasible and I realized that if my in-person relationships with my husband and kids had to get packed into weekends and every other week, I was going to need a system to support me. Having less time at home was catalytic in helping me take that first critical step toward committing to the things that were most important to me and becoming aware that embracing other people’s expectations and drowning in to-do lists was taking me off track.
With the premises of Essentialism as underpinning, developing a system that works for me has been a 2 ½ year process of discovery and fine-tuning. While having very little time flexibility, I’ve found more balance and internal peace than ever before by investing in the fewest number of important things. As I prepare for another career transition, I’m delighted to celebrate how full my life is. These are the steps I took:
I first clarified my “non-negotiables.” This included creating a clear distinction between those things in life that were most important to me and separating those from everything else. My list was intentionally short: family and work. Deep relationships with my husband and kids, coupled with rewarding work that I love is where I make the highest contribution. Energy and time devoted to my non-negotiables come first.
I then examined “everything else.” This is a huge bucket and it probably goes without saying that all things in this category are not created equal. I’ve further segmented this into “to-dos,” “opportunities,” and “personal priorities.”
There are a lot of “to-dos” in life and if we’re not careful, the tasks and errands on our lists can run us ragged and leave little time for anything else. I’m a list maker and have spent years measuring progress via scraps of paper and piles of note cards. Today, I embrace the realization that while there are must-do tasks, crossing things off a list every day does not move me toward my highest contribution.
There are also “opportunities,” invitations, and possibilities. These are optional. They are not obligations and it important to remind yourself that you have a choice. Not wanting to disappoint someone else is not a good reason to say yes. If they are aligned with your priorities, make them priorities. If they are not, let them go – even if they are good opportunities. While I devote just a couple of sentences toward this topic, it is huge. Greg McKeown has a lot of provocative and useful commentary on this if you struggle with this like I do.
The third category I created to sort through everything else has provided the most upside for me: “personal priorities.” The label itself has been incredibly empowering and the things I’ve put here have enriched my life. This category and what I’ve done with it has been the difference maker.
Personal priorities are a mix of the aspirational “someday” things that rarely get attention and some really important things that are easy to let slip. Here’s my current list:
- Side Project (I have some business ideas to cultivate)
- Write (like this article, I want to write/publish more frequently)
- Read (for pleasure, for knowledge, and to escape)
- Board/Advisory Work (I’m on a non-profit board and mentor a woman leader who runs a social enterprise and a non-profit)
- Learn Spanish (my mentee’s organization is based in Mexico and I’m using Duolingo every day to learn Spanish)
- Marathon Training (I’m in the midst of a 20-week program training for the NY Marathon, this is a big mental and time commitment)
- Career Planning (meetings, correspondence, and network engagement)
- Time with Friends (an important thing that I’ve let slip)
While eight personal priorities may seem like a lot, I am actively working on all of these. I’m using a reminder app that allows me to establish a prompt and track momentum for each priority. For example, I want to do 15 minutes of Duolingo every day and write 3 times a month.
There are other things that I’m not doing because I have my two non-negotiables and I’ve also declared my eight personal priorities. This is not just ok. It is great! Having this level of clarity has been tremendously freeing. As Greg McKeown says in Essentialism, “Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?”
Being unapologetic about establishing non-negotiables and personal priorities has been a game changer. Now more than ever, I am confident in my ability handle curveballs that come my way and embrace new opportunities in life that are aligned with what’s most essential to me.