Nov 10, 2020

Discovering the Essential (And Learning to Say No)

By: Polly Yakovich

Values Efficiency

Our team recently started a book club to stay connected during the pandemic, and we decided to start out with a book I read and loved called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. 

I think perhaps the most powerful endorsement I can give of the book is that I’ve already read it twice — and these days, it’s a real challenge for me to find the time to make it all the way through most books even once. I want to share how it’s changed the way I define priorities  and impacted how the team at A Brave New approaches our work. 


This book is so timely and important for career-driven folks to read. As we grow in our careers and start to demonstrate our abilities, we get more opportunities — from clients, from managers, from every direction. We’re driven to achieve and to keep attracting more opportunities. So “yes” becomes our default answer. For lots of good reasons, or so we think. But over time we get spread thinner and thinner. 

If you’re an entrepreneur or a business leader, you’re probably doing this, and so are the highest performers on your team. We have to say yes in order to get things done. 

Or do we? 

Getting the right things done

Essentialism is the practice of clarifying what really matters and using your time wisely to help you operate at your highest point of contribution. 


The biggest lesson that Essentialism brought home for me is that it’s not about getting more things done. And it’s also not about doing less just for the sake of doing less. It’s about getting the right things done.

To do that, we need to take back our ability to choose — and our ability to say no. Energy and time are precious assets, and if we choose to spend them on something, we subtract that spend from somewhere else. We all know which columns we personally tend to subtract from the most, whether it’s sleep, caring for our physical health, or spending time with family. These three categories would be high on my priority list if you asked me, but the way I spend my time would never tell you that. These are the first things I trade away when I feel like I have “too much” on my plate. A humbling realization.

Why we give up our ability to say no

Saying no is so hard, isn’t it? In my role, I know I need to be ruthless about prioritization, or my time is eaten up every day before I know it. But that doesn’t make it easy. I think there are a couple different reasons why. 

Sometimes, we say yes because our egos get the better of our judgment: “I’m the best person for this job.” Or here’s the more insidious version: “I’m the only one who knows how to do this.” 

clock-forest_blobOther times, we say yes to every task because we’re in a work environment where we haven’t been empowered to say no. Sometimes high performers get burned out because leaders haven’t made it clear that choices exist. In this kind of situation, the mental task of eliminating the nonessential is a lot greater. 

Often, the problem is that we don’t have a good way to differentiate between what’s important and what isn’t. When we get lost in a never ending list of tasks, it’s easy to lose touch with the actual impact of what we’re producing. We’ve missed the forest, and we’re just furiously chopping down trees. Dan Heath’s recent book Upstream also gives us great reasons to work on solving upstream challenges, not just playing whack-a-mole with the downstream consequences.

Becoming an essentialist

So what’s the solution? One is to Know what you value most (capital Know), and really put it first. What is non-negotiable? I think this is one of the most impactful parts of the book. We trade away ourselves, our priorities, and our lives when everything is a yes, nothing is ultimately a priority, and we don’t Know (choose and protect) our personal values. You can say you know what you value, but if you say you value sleep and every night other things crowd in and you end up again with 5-6 hours of sleep as a result, maybe you don’t value sleep, or your health, and instead value Netflix (oops, finger pointed at myself). Essentialism is about being clear about what choices we make or trade away when we aren’t making a conscious choice. 

You might be thinking, “Sounds great. But it’s impossible to live like this all the time.” It’s true, living as an Essentialist is not instantly achievable. It’s a practice. It’s a way of using our lives — our finite resource of time — to at least start thinking about the things that we value. And taking a sober look at how what we think about ourselves matches up to what we practice.

Here are some practical tips on how you can at least start pausing before saying yes to yet another thing, and put more of your focus on what matters: 

  1. Read Essentialism (I’d lend you my copy, but it’s getting pretty dog eared)
  2. Think about the Pareto Principle (80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes, or action) and think about what you’re doing that’s not getting you much return, and that you could cut out
  3. Set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) for things you want to accomplish
  4. Write down your top three essential tasks at the start of every day (and don’t do anything else until they are done, or return to them first between meetings) 
  5. Try time boxing to protect hours needed for your essentials (structure helps)
  6. Pause before you say “yes” or “no” (never make a default choice) and think about how it makes you feel, or how it relates to your values

It takes practice to stop deciding by default and start living by design. But there isn’t time for everything, so our choices really do matter. If  you really focus your time and energy, you’ll accomplish so much more. 

Check out this episode of our podcast for a deeper dive into my thoughts on the book, a great example of how I practice hard conversations on my mom, and some example of the power of prioritization. And read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

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