Greg and I have had the privilege of walking with over a dozen couples towards marriage through pre-marital counseling. From former basketball players, to former camp staff, we meet about 4 times in the months leading up to their wedding and try paint a realistic picture of what a thriving marriage looks like. When asking them about their relationship, none of them have ever told us that in 15 years they believe that they will most likely feel completely exhausted, no longer know their spouse, have a perfunctory relationship with their kids (mostly that of chauffeur), and that their children will probably have no true sense of who they are or how they are uniquely gifted. And yet how many families do you know that this is their reality? Or maybe it’s your reality. How in the world do we get from “happily ever after” to “I want out!”? And is there a way to prevent it from happening?
No life can be lived by a simple formula or system. I’ve tried. Schedules, lists, how-to’s. However, there are a couple or resources that serve as excellent guides for pointing us in the right direction.
In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown’s basic premise is that you can’t say that something is a priority and then be doing a bunch of different things that conflict with that priority. At best, you’d be a hypocrite and at worst, insane. It sounds so ridiculous in its simplicity, but it has been a principle that has changed the way my family and I do life.
“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.” -Greg McKeown
Here’s how this hypocritical insanity has played itself out in my home: Education is a top priority at our house. We homeschool our kids so that makes me their primary educator. I have five children, so the ability to stay consistent with my personal physical fitness regimen can be
tricky impossible at times. The way that I combat this is by teaching group fitness classes. Just a couple classes a week gets me into the gym, moving my body and talking with adults about…does it matter what we talk about? I’m talking with adults and that’s good for me.
So far so good, right?
Except here is the typical reality: It’s Sunday night and I have to teach a class tomorrow at 8:45am which means I need to be at the gym at 8:15. I’ve used the same playlist for 3 weeks in a row, so I need to spend some time changing it up. Thank you, Spotify. I experiment with some fresh variations of arm and leg exercises so that my class will experience something new and different. Greg gives baths and puts kids to bed. I don’t want to be looking at my notes for the entire class, so I run through my routine a few more times in my head. What will I wear tomorrow? Ugh. Same old leggings. Good night, Greg. Wasn’t there a sale going on at Athleta? I better check just in case there’s a deal on leggings. It’s 11:47. How did that happen? I set the alarm for 6. It seems to beep as soon as I fall asleep. I turn it off since I really didn’t need to get up that early (what was I thinking!). I wake up again at 7:38. What! How did THAT happen! I get dressed, brush my teeth, make a quick protein shake… and hear coughing. That will not work for us this morning. Greg, would you be able to stay home or get your dad to come over to watch her? You know she can’t be in the childcare coughing like that. Everyone else, get your shoes on we need to leave right NOW!
So, what started as a “2 hour per week commitment” to benefit my health, ended up absorbing a huge chunk of my life and my sanity. My priority had vanished in a sea of meaninglessness. Can you relate?
How do we avoid falling into this trap of allowing our lives to escape us? It’s starts with knowing who you are as a family. Defining your core family values is essential in making sure that, at any particular time or situation, your family is in a healthy place.
In the book, The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family, Patrick Lencioni portrays a fictional family that could be any of our families. He tells the story, in the form of a fable, of how one family is forced to wrestle with the fact that they are overwhelmed with the life they have created for themselves. Eventually they come back to the heart of who their family is, discover how to define the priority of their family, and learn how to stick to that priority.
My husband and I decided to give it a shot. Here’s how we answered our 3 big questions:
What makes your family unique? (a few words that drives at the core of who you are as a family)
We are a big family known by our unity, our active (but not rushed) lifestyle, our open and laid-back home, our love of the outdoors, and in how we seek to grow individual interests and provide life-giving opportunities for each member. We value both laughter and authenticity. All of who we are and what we do is rooted in our faith.
What is your top priority- rallying cry- right now? (a short-term goal where the bulk of your energy should be focused):
Moving out of our house by Dec. 30th.
Defining Objectives: Suitcases collected and packed, crate ordered/packed/shipped, Visa process completed, team assembled to help get rid of remaining house stuff, address changed on important documents
Standard Objectives: Faith, Education, Health, Marriage, Finances
How will we talk about and use the answers to these questions regularly?
Leverage each Sunday evening to track our progress on these questions.
This free pdf summarizes these key questions and organizes them in a nifty chart :
Notice that there is one thing (rallying cry) that we need to get done right now. In light of our pressing, short term goal, all of my teaching opportunities have been put on hold indefinitely since they would just create more stress and distract me from what is really important. None of our children are playing any winter sports so we can focus on being available to visit with family and friends before moving overseas. What will no doubt be an incredibly stressful time for our family, hopefully will be less so because of our intentional decisions to pursue less.
“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”- Greg McKeown
Our standard objectives (faith, education, health, marriage, and finances) must remain strong and we can ensure that they do through weekly, 30-minute check-ups. It is crucial to guard against meaninglessness taking priority over these standard objectives.
“We overvalue nonessentials like a nicer car or house, or even intangibles like the number of our followers on Twitter or the way we look in our Facebook photos. As a result, we neglect activities that are truly essential, like spending time with our loved ones, or nurturing our spirit, or taking care of our health.” -Greg McKeown
Think about what you want your life to look like in 20 years. Each decision we make today will play into the reality of what our life will end up being like in the future. Our decisions should also be made in the sobering reality that we are not even promised tomorrow. Pick somewhere to start- your closet, your calendar, or your wallet perhaps. Look at each item and ask yourself if it lines up with your core values, if it supports your current top priority, and if it encourages growth in your standard objectives. “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no” (Greg McKeown). Start ridding yourself of the excess stuff and activities and watch your family start to thrive in new ways.
Personally, one of the greatest benefits of clearly defining who my family is and what our main objectives are, has been to appreciate how diverse all families are in their core values and goals. It has helped free me of the temptation to compare myself, my situation, or my journey with others. Instead of feeling the need to justify the way we do life, we can come together as a community and encourage one another to stay single-minded in the area of our core values; to keep our priority the main thing and strip ourselves of all distractions. And when that happens, we all win.