Recently, I read a book by Oliver Burkeman entitled “4,000 weeks: time management for mortals.” The essence of the book is that as humans, we have 4,000 weeks in our lifespan. Of course, part of that is spent in our youth and another part in retirement, leaving us with about 2,000 weeks in our working lives, assuming we work around 40 years.
How to use those weeks such that we have the best possible life and maximize our Maslovian self-actualization? The first question is of course what a good life looks like. The Greeks used the concept of Eudaimonia, which Plato defined as “the good composed of all goods; an ability that suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.”
Translating this to modern life is hard and will be different for everyone. I’m far from the right person to tell you how to have a good life. However, I can point out some observations concerning what doesn’t constitute a good life. The key one, to me, is busyness. For most of my life, I, as well as most people around me, have been busy: I had more things to do than I could fit into the hours of the day.
When I was younger, I always had more energy than I had time. If I could squeeze it in, I’d have the energy to do the task. Somewhere in the last decade, that has shifted around. The amount of energy I have available is less than the amount of time I have and I need to focus on energy management rather than time management.
Whether time or energy is the constraining factor, we’re constantly bombarded with requests, sometimes of the non-voluntary kind, to take on certain responsibilities or tasks. Sometimes these are one-offs and sometimes they require time commitments over a long period. They can be individual tasks or involve a team.
The challenge is that we’re social beings and we’re often flattered when asked as it makes us feel recognized as members of the community. Also, to maintain relations, we feel a strong need to say yes as the opposite could damage the relationship. And, of course, if it’s a team effort, it feels terrible to let your team members down by not carrying your part of the load. Team members will easily call you out and put peer pressure on you to fall in line and join in.
The result of all this is that many of us spend vast amounts of time on activities that add very little to our lives, our purpose or the people around us. We tend to accept too many responsibilities, projects and tasks and we run out of time and energy before we run out of things that need to get done. And that easily leads to stress and us continuously walking around with a feeling of insufficiency. Also, the quality of our work easily suffers as we’re so eager to push things over the finish line that we may deliver them incompletely or insufficiently thought through.
For all the time management literature promising us to squeeze more work out of every day, in my experience, the only way to solve the problem we’re discussing here is to be more selective. This means saying no to more requests so that we have appropriate time to do the tasks and carry the responsibilities that are important to us.
In my work life, I use three strategies to force myself to be more restrictive in what I take on. The first is the “hell yes or no” strategy: if a request doesn’t light a fire in my belly and trigger my enthusiasm but is more “meh,” the answer is no. One example is peer-reviewing articles. In the academic community, peer review is the key mechanism for establishing the publishability of an article. It’s a very poor mechanism, but it’s the least bad mechanism we have. As a professor, I get asked many times per week to review papers. When I was younger, I often accepted for all the reasons I mentioned above. These days, however, I’m much more selective and will only review papers that interest and excite me. Otherwise, I try to suggest reviewers I think will be passionate about the paper.
The second strategy is to ask myself whether I’d accept if I’d have to do it tomorrow. Very often, I get requests for talks far out into the future. My calendar often is quite empty around that time, making it very easy to accept, even if the location and the audience aren’t that relevant. When the time comes around, my calendar is of course filled to the brim and giving the talk becomes a major hassle and a poor experience (even if I love giving talks). So, instead, I try to ask myself if I’d accept the invitation if I had to give the talk tomorrow or later in the week. That puts the request in the proper context and makes it much easier for me to prioritize and, potentially, decline.
The third strategy is to reflect on whether the request aligns with my purpose. As I wrote in rule #2, my professional purpose is to do what I can to accelerate the adoption of new digital technologies in industry and society. Occasionally, I get asked to write something, record a video or give a talk for a group or community that I simply cannot picture supporting my professional purpose. In those cases, I find a way to say no.
One reflection is that many people find it hard to say no, but my experience is that this is mostly a matter of practice. Different from what you might expect, saying no often leads to people respecting you even more. This is especially the case when you can clearly explain why you’re unable to accept and, if possible, offer an alternative solution that doesn’t involve you.
We live in a culture of busyness and it’s fashionable to talk about how busy you are. However, busyness often causes a situation where you’re wasting most of your life on activities that actually don’t add much to your life. There’s no growth, it doesn’t align with your purpose and you don’t enjoy doing it. The only way out is to be more selective and decline more requests. There are several strategies we can use to select more carefully and ways in which we can decline without damaging relationships. Of the many quotes around this, one that I particularly like is by John Maxwell: the greatest enemy of good thinking is busyness.