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Words of wisdom from Greg McKeown

The author of ‘Essentialism’ wants you to cut the word ‘priorities’ out of your life

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Illustration by Kyle Hilton

Greg McKeown’s daughter was only a few hours old when he had to decide whether to stay at the hospital with his wife and newborn or go to a meeting with a business client. He went to the meeting — and came to regret his decision. “I made a fool’s bargain,” he says. “What I learned from that experience was that if you don’t prioritize your own life, someone else will.”

That lesson and the soul-searching it prompted set McKeown on a path to a bestselling book. “Essentialism” established him as an internationally recognized expert on time management and acquired him clients that include Apple, Google and Pixar.

Now, he also has a podcast called “What’s Essential” and a new book in the works. “Effortless,” his latest title, is coming out next month.

Here, McKeown, a father of four who lives in Calabasas, California, explains why most people misuse the word “priority” and why using it correctly — every day — can diminish stress and regret in your life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

“The day my daughter was born set me off on a journey to really understand prioritization deeper. In my research, I found that when ‘priority’ came into the English language in the 1400s, it was singular. What did it mean? The very first thing — before all other things. By definition, you cannot have more than one priority. And for 500 years, the word meant a singular idea, and then it evolved and now we talk about ‘priorities’ all the time.

“Of course, you can have more than one important thing in your life — we all do. But we have to ask ourselves, every day, ‘What is the most important thing I need to do today?’ We ought to keep coming back to the question.

“If the answer to that question isn’t obvious, you can ask yourself a series of questions to figure it out. If I can only do one thing today or this week, what would it be? What is the one thing that will leave me the most satisfied? What will I care about a week, a month or 100 years from now? What one thing will make everything else easier?

“I don’t do this perfectly. And the days I don’t do it have a feeling: It’s frantic, it’s frenetic. The vibe of your day feels reactive. 

“Somebody once said to me, ‘I wish I’d read your book 50 years ago.’ They meant it as a compliment, but it made me a little sad when I heard this. Think of what he was saying. If your habit is to just live without ever asking yourself what matters to you, you can get off track without meaning to.

“Everyone gets off track. Everyone gets distracted. But an essentialist gets back on track much faster.”

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.