The Unexpected Cost of Materialism


Today I found an old iPad charger in a drawer while cleaning out some clutter. This discovery made me take a moment to reflect. Why? Because I didn’t know I owned this charger. At some point I bought it and stowed it away. But that moment was lost in the archives. In fact, several months ago a friend asked me to borrow it because theirs stopped working and they had to wait for the new one to arrive in the mail.  When they asked, I told them no. I would have gladly loaned it, but I couldn’t share I didn’t have. And you might as well not own something if you don’t know that you own it or can’t find it.

I recently preached on some of the problems with materialism and consumerism at our church, so this has been on my mind. You can listen to the message here. But finding this charger clarified several things for me. Here are a few more observations that can fuel the movement to get away from “stuffocating” our souls with material things.

When you have too much stuff, you have trouble remembering what you own. If you do remember, then it is because you have devoted vital time and mental energy to keeping track of it. This is time and focus that should be spent on things that actually matter.  It can be like our own private version of warehouse management.  Simply trying to organize and remember what we already have can be exhausting, and expensive.

And if your house and garage are full, then something like this will probably happen to you:  You need something that you think you already own. But you don’t know for sure, and you definitely don’t know where it is. So you spend a lot of time and frustration looking for it. And if you can’t find what you are looking for, you may end up going to the store to buy another one anyway. Now you own 2 of them.

This whole arrangement is draining. And that is the real price of having too much stuff. It robs us of our time, focus, and emotional energy. And these are limited resources that  should be used for things that are really important, like God and people.  And it is not just exhausting when we are trying to find the thing we need. It is exhausting because thousands of things we might need some day are in the way of the life we are trying to live everyday.  How many of us know we should straighten up our stuff to make life more navigable, but the thought of spending several hours (or days!) is just too overwhelming?  What’s the answer? Lets go shopping!

Better to give deliberate thought to the meaning and purpose of our lives and then determine to only acquire and own what we need for that purpose.

You Can’t Slow Things Down by Speeding Up – Or- You Need Time To Delegate

The problem with being over-busy is that you might actually get more done. But this only lasts for a brief period of time at the beginning. But invariably the rushing/exhausted pace leads to bad decisions and the inability to make judgments about what is really important. This is the lesson I am trying to work out in my own life.

Here is more fuel for the fire on this whole discussion:

“If I take some time off – on a holiday, over the weekend, or even just not checking mail in the evening after closing time – my decisions get better. I don’t just keep grinding it out, trying to get strategic by processing ever more detail. I start to notice what is really important so I can leave the rest, or delegate it to someone more qualified or more motivated to do that thing.

“When running at full tilt I don’t even have time to think of passing it off to others.  I’ve seen this over and over again in my work with people leading teams. Things are stuck not because there is no one to do them, but because the person who has them on their plate doesn’t have (or take) the time to clarify who should be doing them.”

Source: You Can’t Slow Things Down by Speeding Up – Next Action Associates

Essentialism Chapter 6 Discussion Questions


Finding What matters

Questions for Essentialism

Chapter 6

This is a list of discussion questions to help work through the content of the book “Essentialism” By Greg McKeown.

You can Essentialism Questions Ch. 6

Major principles:

It is easy to get lost in the raw details and miss the significance of the facts. We have to learn to find the “lead” in our lives the way journalists analyze a story.

Key examples/illustrations

  • Nora Ephron’s experience in journalism class in finding the lead of the story.
  • Eastern Airlines flight 401 crashing a sound airplane by getting focused on a broken warning light.
  • Thomas Friedman filtering the conversation
  • The at Stanford and the development of the affordable incubator for premature babies, the “embrace nest.”
  • The importance of clarifying the question you are trying to answer when solving problems.

Questions for Reflection

  1. On p. 73-75 Nora Ephron’s account about the epiphany in high school journalism class is told. What is the difference between the “facts” of a story and the meaning or significance of a story?
  2. According to Ephron a good jounrlist is one that can not only see, sort and analyze the facts, but also give a sense of why it matters.  She says this works in life as well as journalism.  Are there areas in your life where you are swamped with data but don’t know what it all means? How can you make sense of this?
  3. In discussing the crash of flight 401, the crew focused on the light. The malfunctioning light was important, but not important enough to distract the crew from flying the plane. What are the warning issues in your life right now?
  4. Write a list of the top 5 priorities in your life (limit it to 5). How might the warning light issues in your life distract you from these?
  5. What is the 1 single problem that leads you to consistently hyper focus your attention from the big picture?  Explore the story of how this has been happening?
  6. McKeown recommends keeping a journal as a tool to see the lead in our lives and identify subtle patterns.  Complete one of the following sentences:
    1. I don’t take time to journal because _________.
    2. I do keep a journal but struggle with this because __________.
    3. I do keep a journal but I need to do better in this way ____________.
  7. If you keep a journal, go back more than 3 months and read over at least 1 month worth of entries. What are the headlines? What is the meaning of what you read?  What are the trends?
  8. McKeown tells the story of a design team attempting to create an affordable incubator (less than the $20K average cost) in order to save the lives of premature babies. The team was successful when they visited places like Nepal to see where children throughout the world are born.  Name 3 challenges that you are facing right now and think about how you can step away, and get a longer perspective for clarity.  Reflect on ways you can “get out into the field.”
  9. sometimes we face problems that are resistant to classical solutions. Think of the problems you listed in #8 and write down some of the unusual details. What are the ways in which your problems and context are unique?

Essentialism Chapter 7 Discussion Questions

The Value of Play


Questions for Essentialism Chapter 7

Download a printable pdf version here.Essentialism Questions Ch. 7

This is a list of discussion questions to help work through the content of the book “Essentialism” By Greg McKeown.

Major principles:

Recreation and play does not threaten a productive life, it is vital part of helping us grow and become more creative.

Key examples/illustrations

  • The story of Mr. Banks from the movie Mary Poppins. His dreary life is transformed by something as simple as flying a kite
  • Author Ken Robinson has expressed how our education system is killing creativity in children.  This transformation arrived with the Industrial Revolution.
  • Stuart Brown and the National Institute for Play. He has published scientific research about the impact of play on our brains.
  • The correlation between survival in animals (like the grizzly bear) and rates of survival.
  • Edward M Hallowell, psychiatrist, speaks about the effect of play on the executive function of the brain.
  • Throughout history many great discoveries happened during times of play.


  1. McKeown defines play as, “Play, which I would define as anything we do simply for the joy of doing rather than as a means to an end.” What are some activities in your life right now that fit this description? Use this definition to make a list of things you have done in the last 6 months for play.
  2. As children we did not need to be taught how to play.  Children play at all times, even during sickness and tragedy. What does this suggest to you about the importance of play?
  3. It is easy to view play as a waste of time.  Highly driven people and teams may even consider it something trivial or unproductive. What is your view? How do you feel about playing? What does your inner voice say to you when you stop work to engage in recreation?  What pressures or beliefs are communicated to you by your peers and culture regarding play?
  4. There are some people that are “all play and no work.” These excesses may prevent us from seeing the virtues and benefits of play.  Do you know someone in your life that is a productive and playful person? Someone who is highly effective and yet takes time for hobbies and recreation? Describe this person and their productivity as well as their play.
  5. The author uses the term imaginative play. What does this mean to you? Is there a difference between imaginative play and other kinds of play? Is one better than the other?
  6. Sir Ken Robinson says that imagination produces achievement. If imagination is a muscle, then play exercises that muscle. Do you agree with this?  Why? In your experience how has play helped you to develop your imagination?
  7. You have probably heard someone explain how they ruined a hobby by turning it into a “for profit” business.  How can you guard your important hobbies or play from the obligations that might destroy them?
  8. Stress kills creativity. Play can help to decrease stress. What stresses are you facing currently? How can you use recreation and play to decrease your stress?
  9. Which activities help you to feel light and free? Which activities help you to forget your problems?
  10. Many great discoveries and inventions happened during play. Have you ever had a breakthrough during a time of play?
  11. Many successful companies incorporate play in their corporate structure.  Examples include Google, Twitter, Apple, etc.  does your business or work encourage play? Why or why not?
  12. What activities outside of work do you must enjoy? Which activities would you like to try? Make a list
  13. How can you add these activities to your calendar next week?
  14. Which activities were your favorite as a child? Explore this.  Does this play history reveal anything about you or what you enjoy doing?
  15. How can you use this knowledge to help you learn how to play as an adult?

Is It Too Little Butter, or Too Much Bread? Another Brilliant Blog Post From Seth Godin

Seth Godin is the master of the short blog post. And that is refreshing! I follow his blog by email and have read several of his books. He always has a unique angle on things. This post was really enjoyable, and I read it out loud to my wife. I thought I would share it with you here. If you don’t get his stuff, wander over to his site and sign up.

BTW, in addition to his blog he is always working on cool projects. I listened to his entrepreneur “Start UP School” podcast a while ago and was challenged. Find it here:

“Bilbo Baggin’s great quote about being stretched thin (“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”) reveals a profound truth:

Most individuals and organizations complain of not having enough butter. We need more resources, we say, to cover this much territory. We need more (time/money/staff) to get the job done.

What happens if instead of always seeking more butter, we find the discipline to cover less bread?

Spreading our butter too thin is a form of hiding. It helps us be busy, but makes it unlikely we will make an impact.

It turns out that doing a great job with what we’ve got is the single best way to get a chance to do an even better job with more, next time.”

Source: Seth’s Blog: Is it too little butter, or too much bread?

The Art Of Leaving Things Undone

Noble Art of Leaving Things Undone

“Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists of the elimination of nonessentials.”

-Chinese author and philosopher Lin Yutang

Maxwell, John C. (2008-11-16). Today Matters: (p. 67). Center Street. Kindle Edition.

Essentialism Ch. 5 Questions for Discussion- The Escape


Solitude Quote Picasso

Questions for Essentialism  Chapter 5

This is a list of discussion questions to help work through the content of the book “Essentialism” By Greg McKeown.

Download a pdf of these questions here: Essentialism Questions Ch. 5

Major principles:

In order to figure out what is essential we need designated times and spaces in order to think.  These must be free from other obligations and distractions.

Key examples/illustrations

  • “Do not call Monday” from Frank O’brien of Conversations
  • The at Stanford and their thinking spaces.
  • Isaac Newton and his time of solitude writing the Principia Mathematica
  • Jeff Weiner CEO of LinkedIn schedules 2 hours everyday where nothing is planned.
  • Bill Gates habit (think week) of taking 2 weeks off each year to read and think.
  1. Often our distracted schedules and frenetic pace prevent us from having time to think and reflect. How would you rate your life and schedule in this regard? Does the idea of carving out time for this seem like a reality in your life?
  2. Frank O’brien sets aside one day per month for his employees to get away to think and reflect. This helps them maintain a level of clarity and innovation.  Availability for this is also a barometer for him to understand his work force. “If somebody can’t make the meeting because of too much going on, that tells me either we’re doing something inefficiently or we need to hire more people.”   What does this barometer say about your life?
  3. It is often difficult to make time and space for reflection because of our daily demands.  We get caught up responding to needs and emergencies that we cannot extricate ourselves to improve the systems and organizations behind the emergencies. Which parts of your weekly/monthly schedule keep you from time to reflect?
  4. What is keeping you from scheduling uninterrupted time for peaceful reflection?
  5. Do you have a place where you can “escape” and think? How well is this working? List 3 possible locations you can use to escape the calls, tweets, emails, and emergencies that keep you from time to reflect.
  6. According to McKeown, “focus is not only something we have, it is something we do.”  What keeps you from “doing” focused work? Make a list of the top 5 interruptions and distractions in your life and business.
  7. What can you do to get several hours away from these top interruptions and distractions from #6?
  8. Does technology distract you? What aspects of your connectivity hinder you from the most important things?  (smart phone, social media, email, voicemail, etc).
  9. McKeown tells the story of the highly distracted executive that just couldn’t disconnect. In a moment of desperation he decided to give his phone away and to go to a motel with no internet access to get work done. He stayed there for 8 weeks until the major project was completed. What major project or life goal could you accomplish if you were willing to get away for just a day or two? Explore this idea before moving on.
  10. What nonessential things can you give up so that you can schedule regular (weekly/monthly) time for solitude and reflection?  List something to give up or “quit” this week for a higher purpose.
  11. Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn said his single most valuable productivity tool was planning 2 hours every work day where nothing else was scheduled.  (p. 68) Right now take a moment to dream (in writing) about how your life and work would change if you did this? What can you imagine would happen to your stress level? To your focus? To the way you treat others? To your productivity?
  12. Whether you take a whole day or week off to read and think, where can you build in a small amount of time to enrich your mind and soul through reading and thinking?
  13. List 3 books/articles that can help you understand your life/business/market better.  Take a moment to write out what the potential benefits of this. If you can’t think of any, write down the names of 2 people you can talk to for suggestions. What will you ask them?

Essentialism Ch. 4 Discussion Questions


This is a list of discussion questions to help work through the content of the book “Essentialism” By Greg McKeown.

Download a pdf of the questions that is more friendly for journaling here: Essentialism Questions Ch. 4

Major principles:

  • Every decision is a trade off. Since we can’t have it all, choosing one thing is not choosing another.
  • What trade off do I want to make? How can I do this deliberately rather than by default?
  • What can I go big on? Rather than “how can I do it all?” or “What do I have to give up?”
  • You need time and space to adequately consider the tradeoffs before you.

Key examples/illustrations

  • Southwest airlines deliberately rejecting certain options so they could focus on their core business.
  • Businesses that choose a straddling strategy. Trying to imitate a competitor while keeping their old strategy doesn’t work.
  • Johnson and Johnson’s response to the Tylenol cyanide crisis.
  • Businesses with lengthy mission statements or lists of values.
  1. The chapter opens by talking about the financial success of Southwest Airlines which is an example of a business with an essentialist strategy. Southwest said “no” to many things so they could focus on their strategy.  What does this suggest about the promise of essentialism?
  2. A person that is chronically late and stressed is often trying to fit in “just one more” email or action item. This has a domino effect on other important things. What insignificant things are you attempting in the name of “efficiency” that are undermining your focus?
  3. Are there tasks/responsibilities that are a part of your routine just because they seem easy for you to accomplish?  Are there things that you are doing that are not a priority, but that you don’t quit because they are not difficult?
  4. We often multitask when we fail to recognize the reality of trade offs. What happens when you multitask? What trade offs are you making?  What are you giving up? What are you gaining?
  5. There is a difference between making trade offs deliberately vs. by default. Think of a significant disappointment in your life/business. Was there a tradeoff in your choices?  Was it one that you made intentionally or that you allowed others to make?
  6. McKeown suggests that lengthy mission statements and lists of values show the failure to grapple with the reality of trade offs.  Have you seen this? Do you agree or disagree?
  7. The nonessentialist says “I can do it all,” the essentialist says, “which problem do I want?”  What problems are you facing because of your attempts to do too much?
  8. Think of a choice that is in front of you right now.  Consider the options and ask “which problem do I want?” This will require you to think of the potential outcomes of saying yes to various possibilities. Reflect on this.
  9. McKeown says, “instead of asking ‘what do I have to give up?’ ask ‘what do I want to go big on?’”  Think of an upcoming personal decision and use these two questions to analyze it. Make a list. How does each approach affect your feelings about the decision?
  10. We often feel guilt because of FOMO, “fear of missing out.” How can being deliberate about your choices help with these feelings of fear or guilt?
  11. In order to make tradeoffs wisely we have to take lots of time for exploration and reflection before we commit.  Consider a recent life decision. Did you have time to truly explore the various options before choosing? Why? Why not?
  12. Mckeown says, “To discern what is truly essential we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make.”  What grabs you the most about this statement?
  13. Why do we need this “space” in order to make decisions based on “highly selective criteria?”

Photo courtesy of Daniel Oines. Some rights reserved

Essentialism Questions Ch. 3

You can download a journal-friendly version of the questions here: Essentialism Questions Ch. 3

This is a list of discussion questions to help work through the content of the book “Essentialism” By Greg McKeown. Why discussion questions? Because interacting with the material and thinking through how the principles apply in your own circumstances is more likely to produce real learning and lasting change.

Major principles:

Most things that occupy our time are NOT important. They are a part of the “trivial many” vs the “vital few.”

Key examples/illustrations

  • Boxer the Horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm
  • The difference in hourly rates for different jobs
  • El Bulli Restaurant
  • The Pareto Principle and the “vital few”
  • Warren Buffet’s investing strategy


Power Law graph from Forbes

  1. The chapter opens with a quote from Richard Koch, author of several books on the 80/20 (or Pareto) principle: “MOST OF WHAT EXISTS IN THE UNIVERSE— OUR ACTIONS, AND ALL OTHER FORCES, RESOURCES, AND IDEAS— HAS LITTLE VALUE AND YIELDS LITTLE RESULT; ON THE OTHER HAND, A FEW THINGS WORK FANTASTICALLY WELL AND HAVE TREMENDOUS IMPACT.”  This idea can seem at odds with common sense. Do you agree with Koch? If so why? If you are having trouble accepting this idea, why?
  2. McKeown mentions the story of Animal Farm and the horse “Boxer” who’s answer is to every problem is to work harder. Based on the ideas in this chapter what are the possible outcomes of such a strategy?
  3. Why are there limits to the value of “working harder?”
  4. Some types of effort yield more and better results than other kinds of effort.  Have you experienced this in your life before?
  5. What makes something essential or important for you? Make a very short list of what makes something truly important or vital to your life.
  6. Which activities are you spending your time on that are low yield? Which are high yield? Put another way, which activities are minimum wage or less for you? Which produce the greatest results in terms of money, outcomes, happiness, quality, etc.?
  7. After a certain amount of time, “working more, working harder” results in a plateau of productivity.  This can happen because of exhaustion, loss of resources, discouragement, mental fatigue, etc.  Are there any areas in your life where you are seeing a plateau of results? Do the hard work of being honest with yourself.
  8. Diversification is a common strategy for investors. Yet according to “The Tao of Warren Buffett,” billionaire Warren Buffet makes 90% of his money of just 10 investments. What factors drive the emphasis on diversification rather than focus? Where do you see these factors at work in your life?
  9. Take a moment to look up “power law theory.” You can do a brief search, or here is an example of a write up from Forbes. A power law distribution is very different from a normal “bell curve.”  This distribution shows some of the science behind the big idea in this chapter. Some people/ideas are far more influential than others.  What is your major impression from the power law theory? Take a moment to write this down.
  10. Power law theory demonstrates that most “inputs” (people, products, sales accounts, ideas, activities) in the tail fall below median. They do NOT yield average results, they produce below average results. What activities in your life are in the long tail, bringing you lower-than-average results? How can you exchange them? Which one can you quit this week?
  11. Talking about high performing employees, Mark Zuckerberg said, “Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. They are 100 times better.” This is not only true of people, it is true in many areas of life. Which things might you do that are even 10x more effective than the “pretty good” activities that take up most of your time.
  12. Most people fail to become essentialists because they don’t know the difference between important vs unimportant.  How can you learn  the difference in your own life?
  13. Does it seem insulting or distasteful to say that most things are “unimportant?” Why?
  14. Marketers work hard to convince people that their products/services are important. Part of their success comes from the fact that their audience hasn’t decided ahead of time what is truly important.  This can lead to people constantly looking for success through purchasing a new product or software, changing to the newest and hottest business strategy, reading another self help book. Where do you see yourself influenced about what is important by outsiders?
  15. McKeown recommends that in light of these principles we spend ample time considering what is truly essential. Take time right now to make an appointment with yourself every week for reflection on your schedule and activities.


Speed Kills- Why The Pressure to Go Faster Is Eating Our Souls

Speed Kills – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sometimes you read an article that powerfully says something you were already thinking, but had trouble putting into words.  This is one of those articles for me.  I am admittedly addicted to the same craving for speed that afflicts the rest of us. But more and more I am feeling cheated. I am feeling like I want to raise a protest. I want to “stick it to the man” that keeps yelling “SCHNELL!”

Mark Taylor has done a good job showing the deleterious effects of a lust for “more and more, faster and faster” on several dimension of our culture. He specifically discusses the impact on capital markets, communication, and education.

“The faster we go, the less time we seem to have. As our lives speed up, stress increases, and anxiety trickles down from managers to workers, and parents to children.”

Our ability to do things faster has had exactly the opposite effect that thinkers and politicians predicted.  We thought that being able to finish a job sooner would allow us to clock out and go home. That we would now have time for recreation, art, and family. Nope. Instead, “Contrary to expectation, the technologies that were supposed to liberate us now enslave us.”  He writes:

“With the emergence of personal computers and other digital devices in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many analysts predicted a new age in which people would be drawn together in a “global village,” where they would be freed from many of the burdens of work and would have ample leisure time to pursue their interests. That was not merely the dream of misty-eyed idealists but was also the prognosis of sober scientists and policy makers. In 1956, Richard Nixon predicted a four-day workweek, and almost a decade later a Senate subcommittee heard expert testimony that by 2000, Americans would be working only 14 hours a week.”

The quest for speed has been paired with our desire to measure success with numbers. This has destroyed or dismissed hard-to-count virtues like creativity, reflection, and problem solving. And Oh, yeah, what about happiness?  There is a difference between “rapid information processing,” the kind of thing we do when reading and writing online, and “slow, careful, deliberate reflection.”  By the way, when was the last time you read anything about “slow, careful, deliberate reflection.”   Yeah, me too.  Probably in too much of a hurry.  We are too busy to ask whether our pace is actually good for us.

By the way, when was the last time you read anything about “slow, careful, deliberate reflection.”

One of the other bad effects of speed is that it tends to diminish complexity in favor of simplicity. Now, simplicity is a good thing. But not everything is simple. And paradoxically, arriving at the kind of simplicity that is truly valuable takes a LOT of time. Greg McKeown has argued for this in his book Essentialism.  If you are going to figure out what is truly important you will need time and space to do it.

Life is moving too fast, and we are NOT better off because of it. Read this article and take another step toward deliberately slowing down.