Years ago, I read Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone and was very taken by it. The book – which is very good – is all about networking and building authentic relationships with those around you. One of the things I remember most was close to the end of the book where Ferrazzi explains that in order to execute all of his own networking advice he functions on “Ferrazzi time” – which is sort of like the opposite of “island time.” Ferrazzi states that he is constantly emailing people, taking phone calls, writing notes, meeting people, and otherwise perpetuating his world-class network. He’s incredibly busy and wears his busy schedule with pride: proof of his wildly successful career.

For years I thought about “Ferrazzi time” aspirationally. Like many New Yorkers, I equated being busier with being more efficient and more successful. This weekend I read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, a book that openly challenges that assumption*.

The book begins with an anecdote from the author where he talks about one of the happiest days of his life: the day of his daughter’s birth. However, as it turned out, a day that should have been full of joy and togetherness was marred by stress and anxiety. Sitting there beside his wife and newborn baby, McKeown was torn about responsibilities at work and specifically a client meeting that he was invited to attend that same day. Shamefully, he left his wife and daughter in the hospital and attended the meeting.

At first he thought the clients would be happy that he prioritized their needs over his own, but he soon learned that the clients reflected his own feelings of sadness and regret. This anecdote led McKeown to the powerful lesson that is at the core of the book:

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will”

“Essentialism,” as explained by McKeown, is the art of doing only what is absolutely essential to your success and happiness and letting everything else fall by the wayside. “Less, but better.”

Essentialism asks us these important questions:

How many of the hundreds of emails you get every day actually matter? How many meetings actually make a difference in the outcome of our companies? How much time do we spend on low value activities? How often do we say “yes” to requests without really thinking about the responsibilities we’ve just signed up for?

McKeown packs his book full of important lessons and anecdotes, however the one lesson I found most useful is quite simple.

Most people, myself included, have a default answer of “yes” when we are asked to do assignments at work. We love making people happy by accepting their requests and it strengthens our relationships when we do things for other people. However, McKeown recommends something subversive – flipping the “yes” paradigm. He recommends using a firm, but respectful “no” as your default answer when people ask you to do things. Or – if saying “no” is too difficult, delaying your answer until you can fully weigh the impact of the request.

McKeown asserts that this behavior not only allows you to focus more of your energy and effort on what really matters in your life, but also makes people respect you more for properly prioritizing your time.

Just about mid-way through Q1 of what is sure to be an incredibly busy year, this is a lesson I will dearly take to heart.

* Very special thanks to my friend Trevor Mengel for buying me the book!

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