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How to Escape the Tyranny of the To-Do List

By taking an aerial view of time, leaders prioritize what they truly value while reducing the frustration of crowded calendars.

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BY Leigh Buchanan - 24 Jul 2018

How to Escape the Tyranny of the To-Do List

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Overwhelmed leaders cringe at multiplying demands, such as identifying and recruiting talent, envisioning the next iteration of their product, or developing their public-speaking skills. "There are only 24 hours in a day," they plead.

True. But there are 168 hours in a week, 730 hours in a month, and 8,760 hours in a year. View time in that way and many of the larger-picture, often open-ended tasks that are constantly crowded out by in-the-moment demands appear more feasible.

Human beings generally look at time from a ground-level perspective, says Cassie Molignar Holmes, an associate professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management who studies the relative contributions of time and money to happiness. That is, when making decisions, people consider only the present and the immediate past and future.

Consequently, every decision to do something now incurs an opportunity cost. Performance reviews loom so you must prepare for those today, meaning you won't get to mull opportunities for global expansion. A night spent catching up on email equals a night spent not reading to your kids. "If you look at things from a ground level everything is a trade-off," Holmes says. "You are just trying to get things done. Not to mess up."

In a recent article in Consumer Psychology Review, co-authored with UCLA's Hal Hershfield and Stanford's Jennifer Aaker, Holmes suggests a way out of the anxiety and frustration caused by the need to let some things fall by the wayside. The idea is to take an "aerial view" of time: looking down on your life like a vast landscape viewed from a plane. Instead of gazing at the daily calendar page--with every half hour filled and the expectation that some appointments will be swept away by unexpected wildfires--look at the calendar by month or by year. The present, the past, and the future become equally real.

Not whether, but when

"From a ground's-eye view, the question is whether you have time to do something," Holmes says. "From an elevated perspective, the question is, when do I do it?" That perspective relieves stress, as the leader realizes that what she can't get done today or tomorrow she can still, eventually, get done. (Assuming, of course, that the thing is worth doing.)

Holmes points out that the aerial view also makes resisting indulgences easier. Instead of swinging back and forth between whether or not to order a bourbon at lunch, you focus on when you can order a bourbon--say, at happy hour on Friday, or a cocktail party next week.

Perhaps most important, the elevated view helps align actions with values. Day to day it is tough to find time for critical but far-horizon activities related to things like strategy, culture, and innovation. Holmes recommends blocking out a few hours on your calendar every week or month for those topics, leaving the specifics for how to spend that time to be determined by circumstances.

CEOs can ask managers to do the same thing for employees, scheduling a team-building session for two hours on the second Tuesday of every month, for example, which could comprise problem-solving challenges or a party to celebrate new hires. Seeing regular sessions designated on their yearly calendars for idea generation or culture-building reminds employees that these are things the business truly prioritizes.

Taking an elevated view, Holmes says, encourages long-term thinking so that, for example, it becomes less tempting to do things that immediately goose sales but may hurt the brand later on. "It helps you think more strategically," she says. "If you look at things from ground level, you are just reacting."

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