It’s no surprise that many of us overload our workday, assuming we can take on many tasks in a small amount of time. Yet, at the end of the day, we’re stunned to find that work remains unfinished. Despite past evidence, our predictive engines gum up, and we’re convinced we’ll be able to achieve the extraordinary in an ordinary day. This is called “magical thinking,” and it can cause you to disappoint others, miss deadlines, feel depleted, and lose your inspiration. But you can break free of this habit. First, realize that your workload is likely not temporary. Review past projects and what took up most of your time, so you can prioritize better in the future. Second, stop believing next time will be easier, and plan more time for your work, not less. Third, think about the end product and what you can reasonably do before agreeing to a project. Fourth, help others learn autonomy, rather than taking the time to fix their mistakes yourself. Finally, don’t assume you’re indispensable. Let go of your monopoly on work and build capacity in others instead.
We are master storytellers. We tell ourselves fanciful stories to motivate ourselves to get vast amounts of work done in small amounts of time. We jot down task after task after task, sure that we can complete them all within a standard workday. And yet, at the end of the day, we’re stunned to find that work remains unfinished and we have to dash to the finish line. We’re not deliberately deceiving ourselves about what we can do with our time. But despite past evidence, in the moment our predictive engines gum up, and we’re convinced we’ll be able to achieve the extraordinary in an ordinary day.
Welcome to the land of magical thinking. We’ve all traveled there, chasing the chimera of unfettered time. We persuade ourselves there’s no harm in overambitious plans because they help us overachieve. And especially with remote work, we are convinced of the need to show others our value through overwork. Yet when we indulge in magical thinking, we can disappoint others who depend on us, miss deadlines, feel depleted, and lose our inspiration.
Unshackling ourselves from time fantasies is complex. Our bosses like it when we show up in heroic capes and reward us handsomely when we do deliver. But eventually — sooner than we imagine — every hero tires out.
Consider the case of Francesca, a researcher at a top biotech firm. Francesca is a prominent thought leader and prolific publisher in her field. She’s also a valued collaborator for several colleagues and mentors dozens of women in their early career, all while adhering to a relentless conference speaking schedule and supporting a nephew suffering from a debilitating condition. While Francesca takes pride in her work, she realizes she has no time for some of her people management responsibilities, exercise, or planning a family of her own. Francesca longs for a more realistic schedule. As we started working together, she gradually realized she was in time debt: overcommitted, overwhelmed, and under-resourced. Not only were her health and personal relationships suffering, but her collaborators were disappointed and annoyed, carrying a disproportionate amount of their joint work.
Francesca’s patterns of overcommitment revealed five elements of magical thinking about her time — traps that many of my clients fall into. We devised antidotes for each.
My heavy workload is just temporary.
Francesca was tempted to say yes to an enticing position, chairing an international conference despite the hundreds of hours of work entailed. She reasoned that her current overload was temporary and named three projects that were nearly complete while disregarding the endless stream of new requests. She was unlikely to pause her assembly-line workload for a year to chair this conference. If you, like Francesca, indulge this common fantasy, objectively review your major projects in the past year. Which were planned and which were opportunistic? This paints a more realistic picture of how your future calendar will be populated and facilitates prioritizing the most impactful items and renegotiating the rest either by saying no, lowering expectations, or requesting help.
The next time will be easier.
Experience is a sage teacher but with our pace of change, additional challenges appear with each new venture. Francesca lulled herself into believing a new project would go faster than the previous one, but in the end, she had more late nights. Eventually she learned that despite expertise and planning, certain types of projects took about 20% longer than estimated. She learned to create a buffer and then add even more time post-buffer. For example, if she thought writing a summary would take two days, she added a half day to her estimate. Instead of promising delivery Tuesday, she estimated noon Wednesday for completion and committed to deliver by end-of-day Thursday. Evidence-based buffering helps you estimate more realistically and pushing out delivery dates accommodates the unexpected, reduces stress, and allows time for other parts of your life.
I will collect immediate rewards.
Our desire to please others forms a big obstacle to a realistic view of time. Affirmation from the boss or validation from colleagues are extrinsic rewards for being a can-do person whom everyone believes they can count on. The associated dopamine rush leads us to raise our hands when new tasks are up for grabs. Instead, first consider how colleagues will feel at the finish line if you submit subpar work, force delays on team members, or otherwise struggle to deliver timely, quality work on commitments thoughtlessly made in haste. Calculate what you can reasonably do based on pleasing others at the end of projects, rather than before they’re even launched. The sum of the parts of your work will add up to a manageable whole and your relationships will remain intact too.
Others will follow my instructions.
People from across the company (and sometimes outside it) sought Francesca’s expert opinion before issuing statements, writing briefs, or embarking on initiatives. Most of these people made repeated mistakes. To help, Francesca wrote a bulleted set of best practices for others to follow before submitting their work to her. However, most of her colleagues ignored her guidelines and continued dropping subpar work into her inbox, expecting her to provide extensive feedback or even to rewrite the document — and many times she did just that. Francesca had to retrain them. Instead of spending hours revising a document, she would simply return it and request that they follow guidelines 5 and 7, for example, before coming back to her. When you invest in providing documentation to help others be more self-sufficient, don’t rob them of the opportunity for autonomy by jumping into the details.
Without me, this work will be poor quality.
Francesca rarely made mistakes, and her work was widely cited and highly praised. She knew quality suffered when she didn’t devote large swaths of time to a project, convincing herself that only she could do certain things well. Instead, Francesca learned to dedicate some of the buffer time to coach her colleagues instead of doing all the work herself. It took them a few more iterations to nail a proof but armed them with skills for better results the next time. We are complicit in maintaining the myth that we’re indispensable or smarter than most. We want to be wanted and appreciated. But when we loosen our grip on the monopoly of having the answers, we build capacity in many instead of perpetuating dependence on the few.
When we depend on magical thinking to vanquish the tyranny of the clock, we diminish our capacity to get things done. By realistically confronting our fantasies, we increase our ability to make extraordinary progress without supernatural effort.