Focus on the Essential

Author: Gopi Kallayil

Sixteen years ago, in the middle of the dot-com boom, I joined the founding management team of a Silicon Valley start-up. Working for a start-up is unbelievably stressful, and leading one is even more so. At our start-up, each day brought a myriad of challenges—the server kept crashing, the biggest deal we’d signed was about to unravel, our top networking engineer had decided to jump to a more well-funded competitor, and if we didn’t raise our next round of funding, we wouldn’t make payroll.

Finally, in the midst of the chaos, I called a friend who needed a break as much as I did, and, bags packed, we headed for Lucia on the Big Sur coast to go on a retreat with 11 Camaldolese monks in the New Camaldoli Hermitage. These monks are extremely tuned in to their inner-net, and they encourage their guests to observe the same focus on meditation, silence, and contemplation.

The retreat is in the mountains, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, on the craggiest part of the coastline. Suki and I spent our time in our rooms or just outside our rooms in our private gardens—wild sage, scrub grass, palms, olive trees—overlooking the ocean below. I spent hours there, soaking up the sun, staring out to sea, trying to calm my tightly wound nerves. Twice a day, the monks prepared meals and laid them out in the dining room, for us to take back to our rooms. In silence. It was a beautiful, beautiful experience.

If guests wanted to speak, we had to walk down the hill and off the property. Otherwise, we were encouraged to take our time to reflect in silence with nature and with ourselves. And yet, at first, instead of contemplating nature, I found myself contemplating the start-up. I kept coming back to our business plan—growth, differentiators, execution—the last thing I wanted to focus on. But there it was. Finally, instead of fighting my wayward mind, I just sat with my thoughts. Back to the business plan. A solid business plan was essential for our company to operate and for the employees to align with a common goal, to work as a team to get their work done. Most important, venture capitalists wouldn’t look twice unless we had a strong, focused business plan. We did have a solid plan that aligned with our mission, our meaning and purpose as a company. And that got me thinking about creating a business plan for my life.

For the past few years, since I’d heard David Pottruck speak at Wharton about the importance of aligning career choices with our meaning and purpose, I’d lived with that idea in mind, but I had not developed a specific plan. I had not determined essential principles to support my meaning and purpose. So at the hermitage, I sat in my garden, contemplating what those essentials might be. After a few minutes, I opened my eyes, picked up a pencil, and started writing down the organizing principles of my life.

I wanted to stick to one page. Simply, I wanted to be able to pick up that one piece of paper and say, “These are the organizing principles of my life.” When I’d filled my page, I decided I wanted more clarity. Could I distill my organizing principles into five words? I did. Five words. At any time, I could look at my essentials, tattooed, metaphorically, on my fingertips, and say, “These are the things that are most important in my life. These are my essentials. These give me meaning and purpose.”

For example, one of my essentials is health, which encompasses all aspects of health—spiritual, emotional, physical, mental, and financial. So I focus my time and energy on activities that support health and try to avoid activities that don’t. Saying yes to the essential allows you to say no to a lot of other things that are nonessential. I won’t go into the rest of my five essentials. It doesn’t matter what they are. Your essentials will be your own.

I will say that I now spend 80 percent of my life energy on those five essentials. The rest, about 20 percent, I treat as a distraction, an obligation—a meeting I have to go to or a dinner party I have to attend that might take away from the time and energy I could spend on focusing on meditation, or yoga, or even running the half marathons I take part in once a year with the simple goal of seeing if I’m physically fit enough to reach the finish line alive. I look at the distractions that take up 20 percent of my time as the tax I have to pay on what is a fabulous life. Focusing on my five essentials has changed the quality of my life, what I choose to do with my time, and the joy that manifests as a result.

Some find it hard to get started, to find the time to devote to creating a list. You don’t have to create your list all in one sitting. Some may find it hard to find anything that brings them joy at the moment. You can start to create your list by jotting down something that brings even the smallest lift at this point in your life. Or you may start out with a huge list—maybe 200 items. Then you can begin scything through the list, asking yourself, “What are things that are really not all that important?” Throw out items you spend time on that aren’t serving you well. Keep returning to your list over a period of time until you have a handful of essentials, preferably a single-digit number, fewer than ten, ideally fewer than five. Those are your top priorities and everything else is noise.

When I returned from the retreat in Big Sur, I took a hard look at where I was spending my time to see if I was distributing the hours in my day somewhat evenly across my essentials. Clearly I was not. At work, I was so keenly focused on driving the business forward that I’d lost sight of any of the essentials I wanted to bring to my business in the first place. And outside of work? There was no outside of work. I had some balancing to do, and I began right in my home life, creating balance.

You don’t have to sequester yourself in a monastery to create your list of essentials. Your car, your office, or your kitchen table late at night will work just as well. Just so it’s quiet, someplace peaceful, where you can find spaciousness within yourself. Sit down and ask yourself, What are my essentials? Be clear about what is most important to you. The process doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Your list can be very simple, whatever comes immediately to mind. Your family, for example, your health, your financial success. It doesn’t matter. Just get crystal clear, and narrow your list to a few objectives. Then, when chaos reigns, bring your attention back to what’s essential to you. When you’re feeling confused, focus on the essential. When your focus wanders, bring it back to what matters most. Just bring it back.

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