191: Stepping into Leadership with Greg McKeown | Tanya Dalton Skip to the content
Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, podcast interview on The Intentional Advantage
September 22, 2020   |   Episode #:

191: Stepping into Leadership with Greg McKeown

In This Episode:

Since this season has been all about strategies for success, I knew that I had to have on Greg McKeown for a conversation. Greg is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Essentialism, and founder of McKeown Inc., a company with a mission of teaching Essentialism. In this episode, we talk about what it really means to be an essentialist and the steps you can take to find out what’s truly essential for you. He shares advice for actively pursuing the things that serve you and renegotiating what doesn’t!

Show Transcript:

The Big Idea

Becoming an essentialist.

Questions I Answer

  • What is essentialism?
  • How do I prioritize when everything is a priority?
  • Why do I always feel like I have too much to do?
  • How can I do less while still succeeding?

Key Topics in the Show

  • What it means to become an essentialist

  • Greg’s advice about the success trap that many people fall into

  • Discovering what doesn’t matter or serve you anymore

  • The importance of actively renegotiating in your life

Resources and Links

Show Transcript

This is The Intentional Advantage podcast with your host, Tanya Dalton, an
entrepreneur best-selling author, nationally recognized productivity expert, and
mom of two. This season is all about strategies for success, helping you confidently
step into leadership, purposefully, intentionally, and mindfully. Are you ready? Here’s
your host, Tanya Dalton.
Hello, hello, everyone, and welcome to The Intentional Advantage podcast. I’m your
host, Tanya Dalton, and have I got a show for you today.
As you know this season, we’re talking all about strategies for success. And when I
was sitting down mapping out the season, really thinking about who would be an
amazing, incredible guest, one name kept coming up: Greg McKeown. And I am
beyond thrilled to have Greg on the show today.
So Greg is originally from London, England, and he’s the author of the New York
Times bestseller, Essentialism. And he’s the founder of McKeown, INC., a company
with a mission to teach essentialism to millions around the world. Their clients
include Adobe, Apple, AirBNB, Cisco, Facebook; the list goes on and on. Now, Greg
McKeown is also an accomplished public speaker.
He has spoken to hundreds of audiences around the world, and he’s also spoken at
South by Southwest. He’s interviewed Al Gore at the annual conference for the world
economic forum. You can see why I was so excited to have him on the show today.
Now he is an amazing writer and the way that he speaks about productivity truly
speaks to me. And I know it will speak to you.
His writing has appeared or been covered by Fast Company, Fortune, Huffington
Post, INC. magazine, and the Harvard Business Review. And he’s been interviewed
on numerous television and radio shows. In 2012, he was named a young global
leader by the world economic forum. And he’s on the show today. I cannot wait to
get started with this episode. So let’s go ahead and dive in.
Tanya: Hi, Greg. So great to have you on the show. I’m thrilled to have you.
Greg: It’s great to be with you, Tanya.
Tanya: I want to dive right in because the name of your book and the name of your
new podcast is Essentialism. So I’d love for you to explain to my listeners, what does
it mean to become an essentialist?

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Greg: Becoming an Essentialist means that you create space to figure out what
really is essential; to develop the skills to eliminate as much of the non-essential as
possible . . . Meaning as much as the bottom 89% of the stuff that is coming your
way, so that you’re focused just on the 90% or above; and that you’re taking those
resources that you’re saving to make it as easy as possible to do what really matters
so that you’re not just doing what matters when you’re forcing it. When you’re really
working at it deliberately and consciously, but the default position becomes the
essential things happen. That’s what it means to become an Essentialist.
Tanya: I love that. And of course, my listeners here know how I feel about productivity
and it’s not about doing more; it’s doing what’s most important. So you can see why I
love Greg and his book. And it just speaks to me. I know you guys are gonna love his
podcast and his book. And I know, Greg, that you say that there are two kinds of
people in the world: There are people who are lost and then there are people who
know they’re lost. So you share a very personal story at the beginning of the book,
Essentialism, about how you came to realize that you needed to shift the way that
you worked. Would you say that’s when you figured out, ‘Oh, I’m lost?’
Greg: Well, it was definitely one of those moments and it was when I got an email
from my boss at the time, it said, ‘Look, Friday between one and two would be a very
bad time for your wife to have a baby because I need you to be at this client
meeting.’ And as it turns out Friday, we’re in the hospital, our daughter has been
born in the middle of the night, the night before. And so we’re, we’re there. And
instead of being able to be really focused, whole-self, wholeheartedly, on what is
clearly the most important thing in that moment, I’m feeling torn, pulled in too
many different directions, trying to keep everybody happy. And to my shame, I go to
the client meeting.
And even afterwards, I remember my manager saying, ‘Look, the client will respect
you for the choice you made,’ but the look on their faces didn’t evince that sort of
confidence. And even if they did, and even if they had, it’s clear that I made a fool’s
bargain. What I learned was that if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
And as I went then to study the question and to study why it is that people prioritize
the way that they do . . . I found that I wasn’t alone, that a lot of people, and maybe
especially in today’s environment, feel stretched too thin; work at home, both feel
busy, but not necessarily productive . . .
Feel like their day has been hijacked by other people’s agenda, whether it’s
individuals or whether it’s social media or whether it’s just the latest news gossip
that other people are trying to grab your attention, your time, your energy, your
resources. And so you’ve got to take responsibility for that yourself so that you can
make sure you’re operating according to those highest, most important activities.
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Tanya: Mm. I think that’s so true. I think it’s so true. And I think the good news is
whatever has been lost, can be found again. And you obviously have, have found a
way that really works, not just for you, but for millions of people. Really, you did that
for yourself. You shifted how you lived your life. You really made it so that you
focused-in on what’s most important.
I know for me, I have done that in my own life as well, which is part of the reason why
I’m so ultra passionate about productivity and helping people feel more productive.
Because as you said, you’re so busy making everybody happy. The only person on
that day who was not happy . . . Well maybe not the only one: your wife probably
wasn’t happy; but you were not happy.
Greg: Yes. I mean, one thing that I really relate to and what you just said is that what
happens next matters most. And so, however, we’ve been prioritizing the past,
however we’ve invested in the past, we have a chance in every new moment. Most
recent research suggests that now that that term that feels philosophical and
untouchable has the measurement and it’s between two and three seconds now.
And so that means that in every two or three seconds, we have a chance to make a
new choice. And so it’s what we do in this next moment. Are we going to use this
next moment–
Forget the past, forget all that burden, forget all that worry, put all that aside, and
choose what’s important now; what’s important next. And we just make one choice
towards things that really do matter to us and we can make a lot of progress.
Tanya: Yes. I love that because I absolutely agree. I really believe it’s the choices that
make us truly productive. It’s actively choosing and it’s okay if you’ve made wrong
choices in the past, it’s about the choice you’re making next. The next one that
comes to you now, we all know that one size fits all doesn’t really work for
productivity. So keeping that in mind, where do you think is a good place when it
comes to figuring out what’s truly essential? What are the best choices to make
versus what isn’t the best choice? What do you think?
Greg: I once was invited to go to a two-week program at Harvard Kennedy School
and was joined there by 50 really interesting curious people across the spectrum of
society, of working in all sorts of challenging global problems. And the basic purpose
of the meeting was to say, ‘Well, what kind of leadership is needed to address the big
intractable problems in society?’ Okay, so all sorts of issues out there. And the longer
that the program went on, the more the simplest idea in the world came to me. And
it was so simple. I thought if I say it, it’s going to sound naive. And it’s like, I was
hesitant; it took me almost to the end of the two weeks to put my hand up and to

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‘Look, I just wonder whether the real problem is a prioritization era. I wonder if we’re
getting it backwards, that we’re doing this outside-in; that is we’re focused on all the
problems out there.’ You know, imagine, in fact, I didn’t say all of this, but now with
some hindsight again, imagine three concentric circles, right?
On the outside, there’s all the stuff out there. Then the next circle in, is our most
important relationships. And then the central circle, the core, is protecting the asset.
Well, I’ll talk about what that means in a moment, but what I wondered sitting there
with this group is, ‘What if we’re just doing the outside-in approach and that’s the
problem? It’s that we’re spending so much time solving problems out there . . . But
what if really what we need to do is to help individuals and families be able to be
happy at home. And that if we would do that, we might solve the problems out
And, and what surprised me at this moment was that I got like an enthusiastic round
of applause from the group. I thought I was the only person thinking it, but as it
turns out, basically the entire group felt the same thing, even though nobody had
said it up to that point. What I learned is that essentialists move from the inside-out.
They begin with protecting the asset. What is the asset?
It’s you; it’s the person listening to that. They are the asset. They are worthy of
protection. They need to be able to protect their mind, body, heart, spirit, in not just,
‘What do I need to do to survive?’, but a way that you can be full of energy and light
and are able, therefore, to show up differently to your most important relationships
and therefore to be able to show up differently out there in your business, in your
workplace, in the other challenges that you want to take on with the time that
The order really matters; an inside-out prioritization, I think is an important, simple
key to doing that.
Tanya: I love that. Yeah, because it is; that’s the foundation. I like to talk about the
foundation. If you don’t have that stable base, then nothing else seems to matter;
nothing else is going to work really very well. But I love that idea of working from the
inside out, because it really does start a lot of times with your mindset, the way
you’re viewing things, reframing, shifting the way that you’re thinking.
And I think that oftentimes one of the big traps that people fall into is the success
trap where they’ve experienced some success and that causes some problems
because then everybody else is like, ‘Oh, you should do more of that.’ Right? Even if
it’s not what you want to do. And I find that with a lot of the entrepreneurs that I
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work with, they say, ‘Well, I’m good at X and I’m good at Y and I’m good at Z, so I
should do all these things.’
And now, ‘Oh, people want me to add more of these things.’ And they want me to do
S and T and L and, you know, all these other things. The success trap is kind of like a
bear trap. So how do we deal with that? When people just have these expectations,
they want more and more from you because, ‘Well, you’re doing so good already;
give us some more.’
Greg: Well, the thing to realize is that success turns out to be a poor teacher, because
it teaches us that we can’t be wrong, that we just need to keep doing more of what
we’ve been doing before; but it can, in fact, turn out to be a catalyst for failure. If we
just keep doing more and more of what Jim Collins called the undisciplined pursuit
of more, if we fall into that, what happens is we start to plateau in our progress or
even fail altogether.
And it’s, it’s pretty clear to understand why we’re just saying yes to too many of the
good things that are already coming at us. The email, the possibilities, the things
that we think of, the things that we read about on social media; all of this adds up to
keeping us back from discovering what would actually be a higher point of
contribution tomorrow, next week, and next year.
So we need to become more selective than we think we do. We need to be . . . Well, I
suggest the 90% rule: we ought to be saying yes, just to those things that are 90% or
above important, the truly essential things. Now, the rest of it, it doesn’t mean you
say no to everything else, but you at least question everything else so that you can
start to invest in those things that will propel you forward rather than just keep you
going in the current level.
Tanya: It’s the idea of questioning everything, right? Like so often we’re just kind of
moving along at that same old pace, doing the same old things. And we forget that
we can stop and question what we’re doing. ‘Is this really what I want to do? Is this
really what I want in my life?’ And stopping, and really taking that moment to really
reflect on it is really powerful. I think sometimes we hang on to old dreams, old
visions of what we thought we wanted or what we did want at the time, but maybe
it’s changed a little bit now and that can make us feel stuck. Do you agree with that?
Greg: I was staring at myself one day in the mirror, dressed from head to toe in a
Stormtrooper outfit.
Tanya: Okay, let me stop you there, cause I already liked this story.

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Greg: And, uh, and it was, uh, you know, this was like pretty state of the art
impressive Stormtrooper costume. And I’m looking at myself and I think, first of all,
‘How am I in this moment?’ But more than that . . .
Tanya: Good question.
Greg: But more than that, I wonder there’s, there’s no part of me that wants this
anymore. And I realize that this costume I am considering buying, you know, not
inexpensively, is a goal that I picked up when I was approximately 10 years old, when
the Return of the Jedi came out and my older brother said, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great?
Wouldn’t it be cool to own a movie-quality Stormtrooper costume?’
And there, I picked this idea, this goal, put it in my backpack, and had been carrying
it ever since. So now 30 years later, I am bound to fulfill the goal that I didn’t even
realize was a goal. I had never put it on my goal list. It’s just part of the mental
commitment, the baggage that we carry with us. And so I didn’t buy the costume,
but it did become a shorthand for my wife and I. Most often, her talking to me where
she will ask the question, ‘Is this a Stormtrooper?’
Tanya: I love it.
Greg: And that’s . . . We do need to do this. We need to discover what’s invisible for
us. We need to see, ‘Well, which things don’t matter anymore?’ Which things never
did matter, even though I picked it up because someone else thought it was cool;
someone else thought it was worth doing, and we just absorbed into our own
psyche. We have to be careful because goals are, as one of my professors once said,
the theory that works. Which is a good thing, but it also is a problem if we have
unspoken, unconscious goals, propelling behavior that isn’t really serving us
Tanya: The idea debt, right? Where it weighs on you; you’re putting in your
backpack, but it’s like a rock and then another rock and then another rock. And it’s
holding you back. Although the Stormtrooper costume sounds pretty cool. I have to
say, I’m not sure if I would go for the full outfit, but it’s fun in theory, to think about
dressing up in one, just once, just one time.
Greg: Well, dressing up is one thing, but if you want to purchase it, the expensive
thing, and then you’re going to hold onto it. The total cost of ownership, it can be
significant. It’s not just the cost of buying a thing; it’s then storing it, holding it,
maintaining it. Of course, it’s just a symbol. But, but I think in general, we
underestimate the total cost of ownership.

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Tanya: Well, it’s a lifestyle. That’s basically what we’re doing when we’re carrying this
around; when we’re dressing up as a Stormtrooper or doing whatever it is, it’s a
lifestyle that we’re picking up, right?
Greg: Yes. And being careful that we didn’t fall into the life of the nonessentialist by
default, which is what I think does happen to people; they feel that they’re just living
a life unaware that there was a real distinct choice being made. So they just live a
busy life because other people live a busy life. They’re just living a life full of all these
activities, because that’s what other people in their team do; that’s what other
people in their company assume they ought to do. That’s what their competitors are
doing. It’s not that you’re deliberately yourself saying, ‘I want a life that’s busy, but
not productive.’
Tanya: Yeah, I don’t think anyone actively thinks that they choose that. Right?
Greg: I think for a lot of people, I just, I just spent time with a, um, I, I got an email
from a woman about her husband and her husband’s an eye surgeon. And, uh, he,
he just always tries to do more than he can do. And he starts getting this rash on his
hands and it’s threatening his career. And still, he can’t manage to make time even
to set up an appointment and go to see a doctor himself. He would sit sometimes
with his head in his hands and say, ‘I can’t do it all. I can’t do it all.’ But then he’d
stand up and say, ‘But I have to.’
And this is his life. And then in the midst of this, they read Essentialism on this
multi-hour journey that they’re on. And they suddenly, he said to me, cause I spoke
to both of them after this; He said, ‘I never thought there was a different way to do
life. I didn’t know there was any other way to do it.’ So he wasn’t deliberately
choosing this unsustainable nonessentialist lifestyle, he just didn’t know there was
something else.
So he puts a plan in place and he renegotiates with his team at the office: ‘Okay. I’m
only going to work with patients that only I can serve; if they can be served by
anyone else in the office, or even other doctors, then I’m going to make that shift.’
And he does that. He renegotiates with–he was on the elder board at his
church–and he renegotiates there; he goes and councils together; he says, ‘Look, I
mean, my health is literally deteriorating. I need to protect this asset so that I can
contribute, make a difference.’ And that had never been done before, so that caused
some ripples, but he ended up in this healthier place all around.
So he’s . . . this summary: they both said this in different words, they both said, ‘Look,
Essentialism wasn’t just life-changing for him. It turned out to be lifesaving.’ That’s
provocative to me that we need to take our life back from these, this way of doing
life that isn’t really working, isn’t really serving us.

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Tanya: Yeah. I like the choice of words you use there: renegotiating. Because I think
we, we falsely believe that we don’t have the power to renegotiat; that it is what it is.
‘This is just how life is, and this is what everybody else is doing . . . so we should do
this.’ We’re shoulding, we’re shoulding, we’re shoulding. We’re shoulding on
ourselves all the time because we think this is just what everybody else does. But this
idea of renegotiating, that’s really powerful. That’s incredibly strong to think about
this idea of going to people and saying, ‘Listen, I need to change.’
I think that’s incredible. It’s incredible to make that shift and to really actively make it
happen. That’s impressive that he was so on fire with the idea that he actually went
and did it. That’s why we write books, right? So that people will take action.
Greg: Well, that’s just so, and, and I think a lot of people really believe that life is a
continuum. And on one end of the continuum, it’s the polite, ‘Yes.’ And on the other
end of the continuum is the rude, ‘No.’ And so if you think that, then what happens is
that you get trapped into giving a lot more polite yeses than rude nos.
And you certainly get to jump between the two. Maybe you give a lot of polite yeses
to your customers, and end up with a lot of rude nos to children, to the family, to
people that actually matter more to you because you think, ‘Well, they’ll understand.’
And what I want to encourage people to see is that there is this third alternative
where you can negotiate. That that’s the option.
So I had an experience not so long ago when I was trying to persuade one of my
daughters, Eve, she was 14 years old at the time, to read a particular book on this day;
it was a good book. And, uh, and I thought, ‘Oh, she can just read it today. She can
push through.’ And we didn’t have any sort of big argument, but she was pushing
Tanya: 14? That’s a big surprise. I have a 13-year-old. So yeah, I’m familiar.
Greg: So I came back to my office and I had a meeting here and she slips a note
under my door, all right? I’m going to read you the note. She said, ‘I already
expressed my unwillingness to read this book, but I’m willing to make a counteroffer.
I am not willing to read it all in one day today, but I’d be happy to explore the
possibility of reading it in the future, over the course of a few weeks. I believe it
would be best to wait until the end of my literature assignment. If you would like me
to read this book in place of a separate assignment, and over the course of a few
weeks, I’m sure that can be made possible.’
Tanya: I love it.

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Greg: So to me in that little example is elements of a successful negotiation.
Tanya: Yeah. I mean, she should be a lawyer.
Greg: Well, it certainly to me captures the idea that, that you don’t just have to say
polite ‘Yes’ / Rude ‘No.’ There is this other option. You can step into negotiating the
essentials. You can step into saying, ‘Let’s look at the trade-offs. If I say yes to this, I’ll
be saying no to something else. So let’s talk about that. Let’s not pretend that I can
simply say yes to everything and I’ll somehow magically be able to do everything.’
And I think that actually literally in her life, I can see that her mental health is really
great because she’s not trying to simply do everything that everybody is doing. She
knows has a choice. And that’s just what I want for her in her life, is to know that she
is empowered and you’re not empowered unless, you know, you can negotiate.
Tanya: I think that’s so true. And you’re right. She did it in a very adult way for
someone who’s 14, quite frankly. And she did. She, she didn’t . . . it wasn’t even an
absolute, ‘No;’ it was a ‘not now.’ And I think that’s the thing: there’s lots of ways that
we can say no in ways that reconcile with us. I like to say that being kind and being
assertive are not mutually exclusive. And we have to stop believing that they are
because we can be good and kind and thoughtful while still saying no. And I think
no is such an important word for us to own and to really step into and feel good.
Greg: Yes. And if that’s a bit overwhelming for somebody, at least they begin with the
pause. I remember a woman who was, had young children at home and she would
go into meetings and would come out with five extra things that she was supposed
to do. Everybody asking you to do things because she’s capable because she’s
delivered well in the past. And soon she found, ‘Everybody wants more.’ So it’s just
what we’ve been talking about, this paradox of success. And so she just learned the
simplest thing: ‘Let me just check my calendar and I’ll get back to you.’ The pause
allowed her to be able to really look at the trade-offs.
‘Well, if I do say yes to this, how long will it take? Well, let me look on the calendar.
Where would I schedule it? Well, if I’m putting it on the calendar, what things
already on the calendar, what already on my plate will have to be pushed out in
order to do this?’ And just even the pause alone is empowering because it helps you
to be able to not just reactively say yes when you have no business saying yes; in fact,
you can’t even deliver on that yes.
So the pause, I think is maybe the gentle way to get to negotiation and even to the,
Tanya: I love that. I think that’s so true because I think so often you’re right: We’re
reactive rather than being proactive. And we don’t, we don’t realize that we can just
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take that minute to decide, to actually choose. So I love that you’re instilling that in
your kids. It’s obviously something I’m working to instill in my own children as well,
but really just having people understand the choices they have. So I’m curious in
your new podcast, Essentialism, which I know has come out, can you tell me what
listeners can expect? Like more talk about these kinds of things or what kinds of
topics are you tackling in your podcast?
Greg: I’m so delighted to be doing this podcast because ever since I wrote
Essentialism, I’ve had this unparalleled opportunity to talk to people all over the
world now about what matters to them; what doesn’t matter to them; the struggle
between the two. But what I realized now years into that is that for me, the
conversation, isn’t a perpetual ongoing thing. Every day, I’m talking to people. Every
day, I’m learning things, I’m being reminded of the ideas. But for the average person
who reads the book, who gets into Essentialism, they find themselves on their own.
And I’ve had a lot of people say, I suppose it’s a compliment too, but that they’ve read
the book two times, three times, five times; an agent in Hollywood recently told me
he’s read it 17 times, which is quite a thing really.
But really what they’re saying too, is that it’s not enough to read it. Once you get
pulled back quickly into the habits of nonessentialism. And so this is a podcast,
Essentialism with Greg McKeown, it comes out every Monday. It’s a conversation it’s
with a variety of people.
Tanya: I love that.
Rachel Hollis is today’s podcast, of course, Go Wash Your Face; and many other
interesting publications and perspectives. Arianna Huffington was, well actually we
launched four last week when we first began the podcast so that people get a flavor.
Arianna Huffington was there; my wife was the very first episode: the most important
person to me.
Greg: I was so pleased that was first. From property brothers, Drew Scott and his
wife, Linda. Each of them is a conversation; it’s just to me, at least, rich, present; it’s
less of an interview and just a real conversation. What matters to them? What’s
going on in their world? What are they not investing in? That is important that they
wish they were, and that grapple that we’re always grappling with in our lives.
So it’s . . . that’s what it is: it’s a conversation. And the idea is to spark each week, this
evaluation, ‘Where am I at? And where do I need to adjust?’ And then Wednesdays,
there’s just one more piece to it, which is every Wednesday, people sign up on
essentialism.com to the newsletter there. It’s One-minute Wednesday, and that
reinforces whatever the podcast has been about. And just in one minute, you can
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read and then have a moment again, to reflect so that you can continue the
conversation in your own life and with the people that matter most to you.
Tanya: Sounds fabulous, it really does. I know that my own copy of Essentialism is
underlined, dogeared, and worn out. And you have, you graciously offered to do a
giveaway of a book. So I’ll share the details about that in just a minute. But I do think
your podcast sounds like such a great way to keep yourself accountable, to keep
yourself on track. And I think that is going to be such an incredible tool beyond the
book. The book is great, I’m excited about the podcast.
So thank you so much for coming on the show today. I know we’re going to do a
little extra segment here in just a minute that we’ll be sharing with my Facebook
community. For those of you who are listening, you’re going to want to pop on over
there to hear a little bit of extra. We’re going to do some random questions with
Greg here in just a minute, but Greg, thanks so much for coming on the show with
me today.
Greg: Thanks, Tanya!
Tanya: So I think you understand why Greg was on my short list of ideal guests this
season. When we’re talking about strategies for success, I love the way that he talks
about focusing-in on what’s most important. You hear me talking about that all the
time here on the show.
And then a lot of times it is: it’s shifting our perspective. It’s tweaking the way that
we’re looking at things. It’s making these little shifts that make a huge difference.
And speaking of making a huge difference, make sure you are signed up to attend
my free Masterclass, Achieving the Million-dollar Mindset.
This masterclass training is something I am really excited about because I want to
help other women business owners expand and scale and grow their businesses
with success while not really feeling like they have to sacrifice their home life.
And that’s what we’re going to be talking about during this free Masterclass. You can
sign up at tanyadalton.com/masterclass. You’re going to want to show up live. It’s
going to be a lot of fun and you’re going to learn a lot. So,
Tanyadalton.com/masterclass. I would love to see you there.
Next week on the podcast, we’re continuing the idea of strategies for success by
talking about why women hesitate, what holds us back, what keeps us from
stepping into success the way we truly dream of doing it. So we’re going to be
talking about that next week.

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© The Intentional Advantage

In the meantime, I want you to think about what you learned from today’s episode.
What did you think of when it came to what is truly essential? Because when we
focus-in on what matters most, that’s the Intentional Advantage.