I'm an expert at helping people cut out the clutter that's holding them back from success — here are 3 questions to ask yourself to reprioritize your goals

I'm an expert at helping people cut out the clutter that's holding them back from success — here are 3 questions to ask yourself to reprioritize your goals
Greg McKeown.Courtesy of Greg McKeown
  • Greg McKeown is a bestselling author, speaker, and creator of the new podcast "Essentialism," where he speaks with guests like Tim Ferriss, Arianna Huffington, and Drew Scott about how to prioritize what matters to you most so you can be more productive and successful.
  • McKeown, who says he's worked with companies like Apple, Google, and Twitter, explains that essentialism is a "less, but better" way of thinking — it's not about getting more done, but about discovering the best way to get the right things done.
  • He describes the case of Jerry Swale, a 56-year-old eye surgeon who was able to cut stress from his life by rethinking his schedule and adopting healthier habits.
  • To determine what to prioritize in your personal life, McKeown says to start by asking yourself: What is something essential that I'm underinvesting in?

I heard of Jerry Swale in 2016 when his wife, Beth, emailed me.

I'm an author and consultant who's worked with companies like Apple, Google, and Twitter to help their business leaders pare down what's not essential so they can make it as easy as possible to execute the few things that really do matter. Beth wanted help getting her husband to slow down, and she had heard of my work and wanted to see if I could help.

Jerry, 56, is an ophthalmologist, an eye surgeon, who for 30 years had been trying to "do it all." He said yes to every patient whether he had time to treat them or not. He was constantly doing favors for the other doctors in his practice. And this was all on top of the extra responsibilities he had taken on in his church and in his community.

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Beth told me he would often sit with his head in his hands, in a state of complete overwhelm, and say, "I can't do it all, I can't do it all!" But then he would stand up, and declare "I have to do it all!" He simply did not know there was any other way other than to try to do everything, for everyone, all the time.

When Jerry turned 56, he started having some health problems — like a skin condition on his hands that threatened to end his surgical career. He knew he needed to get to a dermatologist, but he was so busy, he didn't even have the space in his life to call and make an appointment.


Finally, on a long road trip with his wife, he realized: that space would not magically appear in his life. If he was ever going to get the medical help he needed, he would have to make the space for it. Which meant that for the first time in as long as he could remember, caring for himself would have to take priority over caring for his patients. So together with his wife, he worked out what he needed to do, and how he would go about doing it.

He wrote out what he would say, and then started emailing people. Everyone at his office understood his need to dial back his hours. They were supportive as he moved patients to other health professionals and kept those that only he could serve. He stepped down from the elder board at his church: an act so rare people wondered whether something untoward was going on. He assured people it was reprioritizing only. Then three other people followed suit and a needed conversation took place at the leadership level. He got to a dermatologist. He started riding a bike, which he loves. He started getting eight hours of sleep a night — a big change from the five or six hours he used to claim "was all he needed."

Soon after, his business partner retired with just a month's notice. A year prior, "that stress might have given him a heart attack," his wife said. But because of the changes he had made, he now had the room in his life to take on his partner's patients and surgeries, and quickly found other things he could cut out of his schedule to free up even more time. He no longer had to have it all. He only had to have the few things that really mattered.

Figuring out what was essential was, as Beth put it, "life-changing for him, maybe even life-saving."

There's never been a better time to think about what's essential in our lives

Consciously or not, at the start of the pandemic and related shelter-in-place orders, we all began asking the same question: "What's essential now?" It was the word of the moment. What businesses are essential? What workers are essential? What activities are essential? What expenditures are essential?


While those questions could seem a bit cold under the circumstances, they are important. They force us to think, perhaps more deeply than in a generation, about what really matters. Never has it been so important to discern the vital few from the trivial many.

Stay-at-home orders come and go. Even the threat of this particular virus will eventually leave us, hard as it is to imagine. But wherever the world is, wherever you are, as you read this, you will be faced with your own challenges. And the question "What's essential now?" will remain urgently relevant.

Stories like Jerry's are exactly why I wrote my book, Essentialism, in the first place, and have turned it into a podcast. I wanted to start a conversation with people about what truly matters.

If you want to get started, try pausing once this week and ask yourself the following three questions: What is something essential you are underinvesting in? Why does this matter so much to you? And what is the first, easy, enjoyable step you can take in under a minute to invest in that area now?

In times of unprecedented volatility and uncertainty, if you can't answer the question, "What's essential now?" then what's essential now is figuring out what's essential now.


Greg McKeown is the author of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal bestseller "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less." He is cocreator of the popular course "Designing Life, Essentially" at Stanford University, serves as a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum, and regularly speaks at companies including Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Salesforce.com, and Twitter. His new podcast "Essentialism" is available on all platforms — including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. Connect with McKeown on LinkedIn, and on Twitter and Instagram @GregoryMcKeown.