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How Relentless Prioritization Can Transform the Way We Work

You don’t have to be trapped in a perpetual time famine.

MirageC / Getty Images
MirageC / Getty Images

Happy Independence Day! I hope you get to take some time off. But if you’re like a lot of Americans, you’re just too busy, which is why we leave over 700 million vacation days unused every year. The cult of busyness doesn’t take off for the summer. 

It might seem like an inevitable fact of life, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes published a paper entitled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” meant to provide an optimistic counterpoint to the “prevailing world depression.” Economic progress, driven by “technological improvements,” was going to be so rapid that “100 years hence,” the grandchildren of his generation would be enjoying a three-hour work day. “For the first time since his creation,” Keynes wrote, “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

As we all know, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. Yes, Keynes was right about the coming age of science and technology, but the life they’ve produced for the grandkids is less the triumph of leisure than the triumph of busyness. Our problem isn’t what to do with all of our free time, it’s how to keep up with our inboxes. “I’m slammed” has practically become the default greeting. Variations on the theme include “I’m swamped” and “I’m underwater” and “I’m drowning.” In any other context, hearing these from a friend would prompt you to call 911. Now it’s just a way of saying “I live in the modern world and I’m overwhelmed with demands on my time.” 

This way of living and managing our time, of feeling constantly harried, behind and overwhelmed, is terrible — both for individuals and for companies. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Yes, we all have many demands. Yes, we’re all busy. But those aren’t absolutes, and we’re not at the mercy of all demands. That’s because time, of course, is relative. We create the conditions of how we experience time. And there’s a term researchers have for that feeling of never having enough of it: “time famine.” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about how Americans were “always in a hurry” and “restless in the midst of abundance” — but technology has dramatically accelerated both the pace of our lives and how perpetually overwhelmed we feel. 

A fascinating window on the rise of how time famine and busyness became status symbols can be found in Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. Schulte details the research of the University of North Dakota’s Ann Burnett. By examining 50 years of holiday cards, Burnett found that letter-writers gradually focused less on the highs and lows and meaningful experiences of family life over the previous year, and more on how busy they were, how hectic the year had been, and all the running around they had to do. It’s the growth of what Burnett calls our “busier than thou” attitude.

But the problem is that busyness doesn’t work — on any level. First, it’s usually based on multitasking, which, as researchers have found, really just means doing several things badly at once. Studies show that multitasking can reduce productivity by 40 percent.

And not only is busyness inefficient, it actually further reinforces the feeling of time famine. As Eldar Shafir, behavioral scientist at Princeton put it: “Feelings of scarcity, whether money or time, prey on the mind, thereby impairing decision-making. When you’re busy, you’re more likely to make poor time-management choices — taking on commitments you can’t handle, or prioritizing trifling tasks over crucial ones. A vicious spiral kicks in: Your feelings of busyness leaves you even busier than before.” Schulte calls this the “mental tape-loop phenomenon,” when we end up depleting ourselves “worrying about home stuff at work and work stuff at home.”

And it’s not just bad for our work and our relationships. Feeling constantly overwhelmed is a serious health issue. “Emotional distress due to overbusyness manifests as difficulty focusing and concentrating, impatience and irritability, trouble getting adequate sleep and mental and physical fatigue,” says Joseph Bienvenu, psychiatrist and director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “This is a vicious cycle, of course. Emotional distress leads to trouble with sleep and fatigue, and lack of sleep and exercise leads to more distress,” which activates the “fight or flight” response, triggering the release of the stress hormone cortisol. 

But we don’t have to live in a perpetual state of “fight or flight.” We don’t have to be at the mercy of our phones, our inboxes and our to-do lists. Those are all tools that should add to our lives, not consume them. And they can — if we start with what at Thrive we call “relentless prioritization” and “getting comfortable with incompletions.” They’re ideas we believe in so strongly that they’re two of our core cultural values.

Relentless prioritization is about relentlessly asking ourselves what’s essential to be completed today. And then focusing on what does have to be completed, which requires eliminating distractions — including random notifications, social media scrolling and clearing low-priority emails.

And when we do this, it sets us up for another of Thrive’s cultural values: being comfortable with incompletions. When we’re relentless in prioritizing what absolutely needs to be done, we’re then able to accept the idea that other tasks and projects are not going to be completed today. This is important, because it allows us to declare an end to the day, knowing that we’ve handed the essentials. And drawing that line between our day and our night allows us to let go of the day, which in which in turn allows us to go to sleep confident that we’ll return to work tomorrow recharged and ready to take on that day’s essential priorities. 

Determining that something isn’t a priority —  or, in fact, that it isn’t worth doing at all — can open up time and space for new possibilities. It’s a way of creating time affluence instead of being a slave to time famine.

It gets us out of the perpetual and self-reinforcing cycle of fight-or-flight, with our days and our nights — and our essential tasks and our insignificant chores — overlapping. 

It’s a principle as important at the organizational level as it is for us in our individual lives. That’s why we not only practice relentless prioritization internally, but work with other companies to help them embed it into the DNA of their company culture. A report by McKinsey stressed how urgent this has become. “Our research and experience suggest that leaders who are serious about addressing this challenge must stop thinking about time management as primarily an individual problem and start addressing it institutionally,” the authors write. “Time management isn’t just a personal-productivity issue over which companies have no control; it has increasingly become an organizational issue whose root causes are deeply embedded in corporate structures and cultures.”

The report also included a worldwide survey of 1,500 executives. Only nine percent said they were “very satisfied” with how they were managing their time, and only around half said that their time management “largely matched their organizations’ strategic priorities.”

So relentless prioritization isn’t just a personal value, it’s a competitive advantage for companies, a way to unlock the full potential of their employees and their business. And it’s one that has to be modeled at every level of an organization. Being mindful and taking control of the time that’s directly in front of us allows us to drive long-term goals. But it’s not just another box to check off on our to-do list. It’s a mindset. And when we choose to adopt it, our experience of time will change. And that’s going to have positive consequences that extend far beyond the workplace.

Time famine seems like a very modern phenomenon — and it’s certainly a hallmark of our always-on culture — but the idea of choosing how we spend our time goes back to the ancients. They didn’t have notifications pinging them every time a new email or text arrived, but they knew there was value in realizing that our experience of time is what we make it. “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it,” wrote Seneca. “Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested… So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”

That’s some timeless wisdom, for us, our children, and our device-crazed grandchildren. 

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