Every September I find it hard to believe that summer is over. I know, I know; it's not technically over until September 22, but in North America it's already back-to-school time, Labor Day is behind us, and most of us are back from summer vacation. Psychologically we're all ramping up for Fall. And the on-ramp is always shorter and moves faster than I expect it to.
Anyway, the general rush back to work this week has gotten me thinking about my personal calendar and wondering why I always seem so overcommitted and so unable to spend time on what I consider meaningful work. I suspect many of you feel the same way.
In reflecting on that perpetual overcommitment, I was reminded recently of a powerful story I heard some years ago about being overwhelmed at work.
Picture this: The year is 1967, and the United States is mired in the middle of that horrible war in Vietnam. Imagine (if you can) that you are the United States Secretary of State. It's your responsibility to develop and oversee U.S. Foreign Policy – you are right at the center of the most intense public debate about foreign policy and the Far East that this country has ever known. Every day you read reports about U.S. successes and failures – and about how many young people died the day before.
You want to find a way out of the war without sacrificing American interests or weakening its role as the “leader of the free world,” but you are quite literally so caught up in the daily reports and daily debates with the White House staff, the other Cabinet Secretaries, and the Press that you have very little sense of progress, and no sense of how or when the conflict might end.
What does that feel like? What goes through your mind each morning as you are driven to your office, as you listen to the daily briefings, as you see another 20 or 30 or 50 Americans added to the “died in combat” list?
None of us here today can begin to imagine what that experience must have been for Dean Rusk; but a friend of mine, a full professor at Princeton University in 1967, had an opportunity at a Friday evening dinner party to ask Secretary Rusk about what being at the center of the storm was like.
As my friend Marvin reported it to me, he had asked Secretary Rusk point-blank "So how did your week go?" The Secretary stared right back at Marvin, sighed heavily, put his glass down, and said something like:
I come into the office on Monday morning, I read the daily briefing, I sit in on a conference call or two, I meet with my staff, I go to a Cabinet meeting. I write a few memos, and pretty soon its Tuesday. Then I go into the office, I read the daily briefing report, I sit in on a conference call, I meet with my staff, I meet with the Secretary of Defense, I meet with the President, I write some memos, and pretty soon it’s Wednesday.
Now I am not for a minute suggesting that Secretary Rusk was just biding his time, or avoiding important decisions. But I find myself thinking about his apparent acceptance of that daily routine - and what it must have felt like to be so overwhelmed by events - whenever I feel dominated by my daily To-Do list and I find it difficult to think about tomorrow, let alone next year or the year after that.
I wish there were simple answers for how to get beyond just getting by; I see ads and emails all the time extolling the virtues of this time management system or that technique for envisioning my future, and for how to delegate, how to concentrate, how to design a four-hour work week.
Those messages all make it sound so simple, and so compelling that I sometimes think maybe I am the problem. I certainly want to spend more time focused on the future, but I really don't think it’s that easy.
However, I think I may have figured out one small part of the puzzle.
All I can do is try to take back control – not just of my time, but of my commitments. Because today's To-Do's are the commitments I made yesterday, and my time tomorrow and the day after will get filled up by the commitments I make today. At least I presume it is a whole lot easier for me to control my commitments than it was for Secretary Rusk in 1967 (or than it is for Secretary of State John Kerry today).
So my commitment right now – not so much to you, but to me – is to be very, very careful about the promises I make to anyone other than myself. I don’t believe that’s selfish; it’s just absolutely necessary. Because when I choose to commit my time and capability in service or support of someone, then that commitment affects not only their future but mine as well.
If, like me, you want to create a future you’ve designed for yourself, rather than just drifted aimlessly into, choose your commitments with great care.
And look for specific suggestions in the near future for how to do just that.
As usual, your comments and reactions to any of these articles are more than welcome. Please send your thoughts to us at any time.