In a recent Making Sense podcast by Sam Harris featuring Oliver Burkeman titled Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman challenges how we understand and process time management. One of the main takeaways from this program is that time management is an illusion. Human beings have created this false sense of control over time to help us get from what we must do to what we want to do with our lives.
Time and Happiness
The use of the word illusion can seem dismissive of the effort people have put into developing time management or efficiencies. Alternatively, it is used to help illustrate what Burkeman calls our finitude. We only have a finite time on earth and the possibilities of tasks and projects will always be infinite. Our creation and use of time management techniques is about controlling our time to deal with task and projects to move towards what makes us happy in life. We tell ourselves that if we get more efficient, we will be able to complete more tasks with the time we have. However, Burkeman suggests that the better we get at something, the more time we will spend on it. There will always be more things to do and the happiness you daydream about will always escape you.
Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
Every person has a sense of being overwhelmed by having more to do than they can or are capable of doing. They fall into this efficiency trap where they believe if they could just focus more, they would be more in control of time. However, Burkeman says there is a fundamental mismatch between the amount of stuff that we think matters and the time and stamina we have available to do it. We ignore these limitations because recognizing them causes us psychological pain. Despite that, to get from unfulfilled to fulfilled, we need to make the conscious choices to not engage certain tasks. These conscious choices go against a leader’s natural instincts of completion and can be uncomfortable.
Not all tasks are equal in importance. Yet, leaders working towards a sense of completion delay important and fulfilling tasks. This delay is born out of the idea that important tasks require full attention that cannot yet be diverted from the busy work. These important tasks are often the ones that bring leaders the most fulfillment which is why they wait until their attention is undivided. If there are tasks to be done that are important and fulfilling, is that new email or text message more important? Can those routine tasks wait? The answer is likely ‘yes’. So, while new items are constantly filling up the backend of a checklist, put the list down and focus on those fulfilling and important projects.
A Focused Mindset
When I think about those in my professional life who are good at prioritizing their efforts, I admire them. I admire them getting big things done, them not being strapped to a ‘to-do’ list, their agility in moving through accountable solutions consistently without all the distractions. Most of all, I admire their mindset. Those that seem to manage larger items are the ones that look like leaders, rather than checklist completers. They seem much more in balance and the rest of us do not resent them for it.
Add These to Your Mindset
- Make your priority decisions about things that are of real value rather than small distractions. Don’t think in terms of time, think in terms of value. What is the most meaningful focused activity you can complete? You will find that those five smaller items (emails, meetings, and tasks) will likely also be solved while you focus on the big stuff.
- Forget about multi-tasking, it doesn’t work. This has been highly researched, and while it may feel like we are touching many things, it’s a time suck.
- If you have too many value items to tackle to meet organizational timelines, say so and ask for help. We admire others who are honest about what is legitimately able to be done. This allows better synergistic projects to be focused on and expectations become real.
- In the moments of focus, let go of what you cannot control, and embrace what you can fully. While you’re worrying about returning that email, writing that blog, or attending a Zoom call tomorrow, you are just distracting yourself. Finish that larger important item and the other 10 items will be easier.
Once while leaving for vacation, I put an away message on my voicemail that suggested if someone needed help, they could call a certain person (who had agreed to field my calls). When I returned from vacation, there were no messages. My takeaway was that I was not as important as I may have thought. It also forced my peers and team members to figure things out on their own. If you have a team, and you’re burdened with a multitude of small tasks, are you enabling them to be reliant on you? Think about creating a sustainable organization where you are focused on value and let others do the same thing. They will figure it out, and you will find more time.
And finally, as Burkeman suggested, this blog is not to deter you from learning about or from time management techniques. To a greater degree, it to help leaders recognize that time management is a lifelong struggle, especially for busy ambition people. We think this podcast will have an effect on you, and help you put your busy life into perspective. Perhaps even create more happiness and success for you.