Become an essentialist to find happiness in your success

Dr. Joel C. Small offers direction in the quest for happiness and balance

I have found that doctors who experience a success/happiness imbalance are actually doing too much. Compounding this problem is their failure to identify what they most value, as well as what is essential. Furthermore, they fail to prioritize and delegate the majority of what they do, and finally, they are unaware of the necessity for establishing boundaries.

The following are four areas and how they might contribute to the success/happiness imbalance as well as its cure.

Identify what is most valued
I am continually amazed at how many doctors have no sense of what they value. In my opinion, identifying one’s core values and the ability to align these values with actions and behaviors is an absolute necessity in creating both happiness and success. Early in our coaching relationship, each of my clients is asked to conduct an exercise that is specifically designed to identify his/her personal core values. One of the cornerstones of professional and executive coaching is a commitment on the part of the clients to honor these values in all that they do.

I have heard coaching colleagues describe core values as being the guiding principles around which we make all of our personal and professional decisions. To many, core values are what is “right” or “true.” They are both the sail and rudder that guide our ship to a predetermined destination. When viewing core values from this perspective, it seems self-evident that they are critical elements for both success and happiness.

Take the time to define your core values, and then honor them as you follow the path to finding happiness and success.

Determine what is essential
Greg McKeown in his bestselling book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (highly recommended), states that when we fail to purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energy and time, other people (bosses, family, patients, staff, etc.) will choose for us, and before long, we will lose sight of everything that is meaningful and important. I can attest to the truth of this statement. By losing sight of what is important and meaningful, we create an imbalance in our success/happiness relationship. One of my clients stated that when she lost sight of what was meaningful, it was as if she were living from a set of values that were not hers. She was financially successful, and yet she felt as if she was working to fulfill someone else’s dream.

So how do we determine what is essential? The good news is that essentials are easy to identify. They are those actions and behaviors that only we can complete successfully and that move us closer to our goal while honoring our values. As an exercise, I have my clients keep a journal of their activities throughout the week. At our next coaching session, we review this journal and collaborate on determining which activities meet these criteria. The rest of the activities are categorized and left to deal with as non-essentials.

Prioritize and delegate
John Maxwell once wrote, “It is hard to overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” Once we adopt the philosophy of essentialism, the truth of this statement becomes very clear.  Quite simply, we do too many needless things that fail to advance our cause, honor our values, or serve our purpose.

Prioritizing and delegating are vital skills that free us from these needless tasks that drain our energy and distort our focus. When we lose energy and focus, we are no longer able to utilize our skills and time to their best and highest use.

Take the essential items list you have now created, and prioritize the items in order of their relative significance to achieving your goal. Those items that are highly significant will go to the top of the list while those that are moderately or minimally significant will go to the bottom of the essentials list or drop from the list entirely.

You now have a list of perhaps eight to 10 essential tasks that, once completed, have the greatest potential to provide you with both success and happiness. These are the tasks that should demand the majority of your time and focus. Those items that fail to make your essentials list are considered to be non-essential and should be delegated to staff or out sourced. This is not to say that these unessential tasks are insignificant. They may be quite significant. They just don’t have to be done by you.

As an example, I have a doctor-client and friend who finds himself in the office 5 days per week. His is a very successful clinician, but after 30 plus years of practice, he would like to find a way to cut back to at least 4 days per week in his dental office. He admits to being a poor delegator, so I asked him to keep a journal of his weekly activities for us to review.  We both had a good laugh when we realized that he had recently spent a good portion of his Friday afternoon checking the dates on the drugs in his emergency drug kit.  When we came across this item, I couldn’t help but say, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” He laughed as well and knowingly said, “You mean someone else can do this?” Enough said.

Create boundaries
Boundaries create clarity with regard to what is or is not an acceptable action or behavior. Consequently, they assist us in avoiding non-essential actions that cause us to deviate from our chosen path. For example, in my office, we want our staff to have the freedom and empowerment to make independent decisions regarding our patients’ overall experience in our office. We also want to expedite the decision-making process by making it as simple and clear as possible. My office staff knows that their actions are bound by only two critical considerations: Is their intended action consistent with our practice values and in the best interest of the patient? They find that this degree of clarity and simplicity enables them to effortlessly act within these boundaries and function expediently without agonizing over the decision-making process.

Values dictate the nature of our boundaries, and boundaries are intended to protect our values. In today’s world, our values are challenged on a regular basis, and the most successful and fulfilled doctors are those who make values non-negotiable. It is their self-imposed boundaries that make this possible.

Boundaries are vital to our ability to focus and use our energy efficiently. Boundaries come from a firm sense of commitment to what we value, and they can only exist if we respect ourselves enough to insist upon them. They are the natural progression of the process I have shared: identifying values, determining the essential, prioritizing, and delegating.

To receive a free copy of my “Core Values Exercise,” please contact me. I am also available for a complimentary coaching session to discuss your practice-related issues.

Joel C. Small, DDS, MBA, ACC, FICD, is a practicing endodontist and the author of Face to Face: A Leadership Guide for Health Care Professionals and Entrepreneurs. He received his MBA, with an emphasis in healthcare management, from Texas Tech University. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Dallas postgraduate program in executive coaching and limits his coaching practice to motivated healthcare professionals. He is a nationally recognized speaker on the subjects of leadership and professional development. Dr. Small is available for speaking engagements and for coaching healthcare professionals who wish to experience personal and professional growth while taking their practices to a higher level of productivity. Dr. Small can be reached at or

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