A few weeks ago I was feeling overwhelmed at work. I sat down and pulled out a blank piece of paper and started listing the things I feel responsible for. I listed at the “single click” level — so, I grouped “like” responsibilities with “like” … as in, “I feel responsible for the successfulness of the team,” not listing out individual people. In a matter of less than a minute I’d listed out 27 things I feel responsible for and I wasn’t nearly finished, and I could feel my chest tighten.
Which is, of course, against medical advice. I’m supposed to be reducing my stress, not subjecting myself to more of it voluntarily. So I put the pencil down, flipped the piece of paper to the back of my clipboard pile for the week, took a few deep breaths and decided to refocus myself on one thing that I am responsible for instead of letting my mind race with what I feel responsible for and I got to work.
Later that day, I happened on this tweet:
And the “too many” was too familiar for my brain to ignore. It got me thinking about Dunbar’s number: the theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom a human can maintain stable social relationships. In other words: most people can maintain somewhere between 100 and 250 social relationships at a level where if you bumped into the person on the street you’d feel comfortable chatting with them.
And that made me wonder: do humans have a fixed capacity when it comes to the number of things we can manage? Relationships, tasks, responsibilities, appointments, demands on our time: What is the equivalent of Dunbar’s number for responsibilities?
So far I haven’t found an answer. But in my week’s reading, I did find some more nuanced research by Dunbar and team that I hadn’t seen before, about the heirarchy of relationships within that 150 social connections:
Our studies suggest that we devote about 40 per cent of our available social time (and the same proportion of our emotional capital) to an inner core of about five shoulders-to-cry-on. And we devote another 20 per cent to the next 10 people who are socially most important to us. In other words, about two-thirds of our total social effort is devoted to just 15 people. (source)
And that gave me an idea.
What if we spent 40% of our working time focused on the “inner core” of not more than our three most important responsibilities: our deepest work? And then devote another, smaller (20%?) of our time to our six or so must-do activities? The dividing lines here would vary by job and role, but in my world this would mean I’d be spending 40% of my time on strategy and innovation work; and 20% of my time on sidebars, drive-bys, my activity-based (tactical) client work, and the communications that keep projects and other people moving but that can easily take all day if I let them. That would mean about 2/3 of my working time spent wisely, on my most important and must-dos. This ruthless prioritizing would require me to set aside things I feel responsible for but are not actually.
And if you’re thinking with dread about how the other roughly 1/3 of your work time would get remaindered, how’s this for a noodle-baker?
What if you could reclaim some of that time? We’re not all “knowledge workers” here — a lot of my friends work in service industries — and not all of us have the kind of job that would allow for a shortened work day or work week that’s been the darling of the business features the last few weeks. But what if a bit of that time could get put to tackling a creative project, or spending a little extra time in a work activity that brings you joy? If you can carve out even one little lull in the day to spend a few extra minutes on a task or project that lets you exercise your creativity — that, at the end of the day you’ll remember it — it’s an accomplishment.
Fewer responsibilities. Better productivity. I’m going to give it a try for my timeboxing experiment this week.
Now I’d like to hear from you: How do you manage what you feel responsible for, what you are responsible for, and the limited time you have to service what’s most important and necessary each week? Share your thoughts with me here.
Credit where due for supplemental reading:
- Teacher tweet by Kate Clanchy, a writer and teacher I follow on Twitter who shares student poems that stop me in my tracks and catch my breath on the regular. Follow her on Twitter.
- The more nuanced Dunbar’s number research I mentioned is from a Financial Times article by Robin Dunbar himself, which could only have come out of a British research university (and caveat: is a partly tough read for the sober and/or mostly sober among us).
- Know when to say no tweet by Cheryl Ingram, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategist and entrepreneur and a force of a content creator. I first heard Cheryl in a must-listen episode of the Microsoft Women in Business and Technology podcast about inclusion at work. It was stan at first listen hearing her entrepreneurialism, strategic orientation and fierceness come through in her story and in how she talks about both what she does, and how she does it.
- Cal Newport’s recent article in the New York Times touches on experiments with four-day work weeks and five-hour work days. Professor Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and an influential writer on deep work and digital minimalism (those should be capitalized, since they’re two of his book titles, but it looks weird so I’m letting it ride).
Randomness that’s worth your time:
- This episode of HBR Women at Work (subscribe, it’s awesome) with researcher Ashley Whillans discussing the difference between commercialized “self care” and actually taking care of ourselves.
“Actually, the ideal employee works really hard when they are in the office, and then goes home at a reasonable time. They have a really great, really fulfilling self-care-filled life outside the office. Because when you have a whole self, that’s not just work. You perform better.”
2. I pre-ordered Girl Decoded: a scientist’s quest to recalim our humanity by bringing emotional intelligence to technology by Rana el Kaliouby earlier this week and I can’t wait to read it. Pre-orders are super important for authors so please consider placing an order if this strikes your fancy!
In a captivating memoir, an Egyptian-American visionary and scientist provides an intimate view of her personal transformation as she follows her calling–to humanize our technology and how we connect with one another.
Rana el Kaliouby is a rarity in both the tech world and her native Middle East: a Muslim leader and CEO, a woman in charge in a field that is still overwhelmingly white and male. Growing up in Egypt and Kuwait, el Kaliouby was raised by a conservative father who valued tradition–yet also had high expectations for his daughters–and a mother who was one of the first female computer programmers in the Middle East. Even before el Kaliouby broke ground as a scientist, she broke the rules of what it meant to be an obedient daughter and, later, an obedient wife to pursue her own daring dream.
3. Finally, a reminder to keep it simple.
That’s all for this week, and thanks so much for reading this first issue of Fewer Better with Sara Lobkovich. I’ve been blown away by the enthusiasm around this launch, and greatly appreciate you subscribing!
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