Set Your Life Priorities to Keep It All in Perspective

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Essentialism" by Greg McKeown. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you know your top life priorities? What can you do to put things into perspective and flesh out what’s really important in your life?

In our do-it-all culture, it’s easy to get swamped with distractions and trivial pursuits to the point where we lose sight of what truly matters. To connect with your life priorities, you need five elements: 1) space to think, 2) time to listen, 3) opportunity to play, 4) time to sleep, and 5) criteria to choose.

Here’s how to regain control and connect with your life priorities.

What Are Your Life Priorities?

According to Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, you need five elements in order to put things into perspective and connect with your life priorities: 1) place to escape and think, 2) time to listen and observe, 3) opportunity to play, 4) time to sleep, and 5) selective criteria for making your choices.

1) Space to Think: Get Away From the Routine

Create space for exploring and pondering options. It can be a physical space, for example, a room that’s conducive to creativity or free from distraction. Or it can be a mental space, a block of thinking time created by eliminating email, phone calls, texts, and other interactions for a certain period.

With our devices and constant connection, we’ve eliminated any chance of being bored, but we’ve also lost the time needed to think and process. Without smartphones and laptop computers, people used to sit around the airport or in the doctor’s office with nothing to do but stare into space and think.

Yet the busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedules, so that we’re choosing rather than reacting. To define your life priorities, you need to escape from the day-to-day pressures to be able to focus and concentrate. Unlike what some may think, focusing doesn’t mean obsessing about an issue or question; it means exploring countless possibilities.

2) Time to Listen: Look for Significance

Defining your life priorities involves more than just gathering information. It requires making sense of that information by noticing connections, piecing together the whole from the parts, and understanding what really matters.

The best journalists do this — they not only report information, they determine what it means and why it matters. Writer Nora Ephron recounted a lesson from a high school journalism teacher. The teacher assigned students to write the lead for a story about a trip by local teachers to a day-long colloquium about teaching methods. A number of famous people were scheduled to participate. The students all began their stories with the facts of the event, especially the notable people attending. However, the teacher pointed out that they had missed the significance for their audience, the students: there would be no school on Thursday. Ephron realized journalism wasn’t just about repeating facts, but also figuring out the point.

You can apply the following skills of journalists to make sense of information.

See the Context

Journalists try not to get bogged down in minor details but see the bigger picture instead. You can take the same approach in your work and personal life. Look for the lead or the significance. Connect the dots so you can see trends. Step back and look at the issue as a whole.

In 1972, Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashed in the Florida Everglades, killing more than 100 passengers. Crash investigators were puzzled at first because they couldn’t find any external contributing factors, such as weather, or any significant mechanical problems. It turned out that the pilots had focused on a malfunctioning nose gear indicator light (the nose gear itself still functioned properly) and didn’t notice until it was too late that the autopilot function had been deactivated. The crew focused on an insignificant thing and missed the bigger problem — the altitude of the plane.

Look Beyond the Obvious

Determining what’s important requires filtering out the unimportant or irrelevant facts, options, and opinions competing for your attention. When meeting with sources, New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman filters out the noise in order to listen for what’s not being said or what’s being said quietly. Nonessentialists half-listen while preparing to say something and miss the point. Or they’re distracted by the loudest voices. Like journalists, essentialists are keen observers and listeners who can see past distractions and inconsequential details and zero in on the significance.

Here are a few additional techniques to further sharpen your ability to filter observations and locate the most essential information:

  • Keep a journal. Look for the lead in your day or week; write the headline. Don’t write too much at first, so you’re not discouraged from keeping up with it. Every few months, re-read your entries, looking for patterns and trends.
  • Get first-hand information. Sometimes, you can get a better handle on an issue by taking a field trip. For instance, when a Stanford University design class needed to design a low-cost incubator for use in developing countries, they visited India for first-hand information. They learned that most babies were born in homes lacking electricity, so they designed an incubator that could keep a baby warm using heat from water. By getting into the field, they were able to learn the essential details for designing a useful product.
  • Seek a fresh angle. Mariam Semaan, a journalist from Lebanon, tries to bring a fresh perspective to topics or shed light on them in new ways. To do this, she reads everything she can about an issue in order to understand it in depth and spot what’s missing from others’ reporting.
  • Clarify the question you’re trying to answer. You need to be sure you understand what you’re trying to accomplish before you can weigh options and make decisions. 

3) Opportunity to Play: Use Your Imagination

Play is something we do for the joy of doing it rather than for a specific result — whether it’s flying a kite, creating something, or dancing. It might seem unimportant, but it’s essential in many ways. Play can improve health, relationships, learning, and organizations’ creativity. It stimulates the brain to solve problems.

We weren’t taught how to play as children —  we picked it up naturally. But as we got older, we picked up the message that play was a waste of time; we should be working and studying instead. However, play remains important as we grow older. It opens our minds and allows us to explore, come up with new ideas, or reimagine old ones.

Play is integral to essentialism because it enhances exploration. Play helps broaden the range of options available to us by allowing us to see new possibilities and connections. Also, it’s an antidote to stress  — stress undercuts productivity and can shut down the creative part of the brain. Play can even improve the executive function of the brain, the part that plans, prioritizes, and analyzes.

“All work and no play” is ingrained in most workplaces. However, a few companies are learning the value of play to spark creativity. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo initiated an improvisational comedy class to stretch people’s minds. Other companies promote play with their physical environments. For example, at Pixar studios, artists’ offices may be decorated as Western saloons or with Star Wars figures. Desk toys spark creativity, although they may seem like trivial distractions to the nonessentialist. 

4) Time to Sleep: Invest in Yourself

One of the most common ways we undermine our potential is by not sleeping enough; we steal sleep time to work more and fit more activities into our busy schedules. Our nonessentialist culture encourages this thinking by treating sleep as a burden or a waste of time that could be spent more productively.

In fact, research shows that a good night’s sleep makes us more productive, not less. A study of violinists quoted by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers found that the best violinists practiced more than students who were merely good did. But after practice, the next most important factor differentiating the best from the good violinists was sleep. The best averaged 8.6 hours (about an hour longer than the average American). They also napped longer than average. Researchers concluded that with more sleep the top performers were able to practice with greater concentration. So while they practiced more, they also got more out of their practice because they were better rested.

Another researcher likened having a sleep deficit to drinking too much alcohol — he said pulling an all-nighter or sleeping only four or five hours a night for a week creates an impairment equivalent to a blood-alcohol level of 0.1%.

Getting a full night’s sleep, on the other hand, may increase brain power and enhance problem-solving ability, according to a German study. While we sleep, our brains restructure information, creating new neural connections that open the way to new solutions to problems. If we’re running short on sleep, research shows that a nap can boost creativity.

Sleep allows us to function at our optimum level. High achievers like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recognize this. He says eight hours of sleep makes him more alert and energetic all day. Google provides “nap pods” for employees, a message to employees that sleep is a priority.

While some people can survive on fewer hours of sleep, many of them are just used to being tired and have forgotten what being rested feels like. While a nonessentialist thinks one less hour of sleep equals another hour of productivity, the essentialist knows that the opposite is true — one more hour of sleep equals even more hours of much higher productivity.

(Shortform note: for a popular book on the benefits of sleep and tips on how to get better sleep, check out our summary of Why We Sleep.)

5) Criteria To Choose

Most people use implicit and broad criteria when choosing how to spend their time. For example, they think, ”If other people in the company are doing it, I should be doing it.”  “When someone asks me for a favor, I should do it.” They don’t even know what their life priorities are because they don’t have specific criteria to flesh them out.

Implicit criteria don’t lead to the best decisions — those that allow you to make your highest contribution — or even to rational choices. But they add to your already full plate. You must use extremely selective and specific criteria to determine what’s most important in your life.

Set Your Life Priorities to Keep It All in Perspective

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  • How to do less but to do it better
  • Why you need to be disciplined in your pursuit of less
  • How you can learn to say no

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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