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How to get out of the weeds and make time for big-picture thinking

When you’re juggling meetings, conference calls, and an overflowing inbox, it can be hard to make time for what’s actually important.

How to get out of the weeds and make time for big-picture thinking
[Source photo: muri30/iStock; Angel_1978/iStock]

At my last job, where I was an executive at a growing startup, I often found myself struggling to find time to just think

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I blamed it on the norms of office life. My days were fully scheduled with meetings. My evenings were filled with events or networking catch-ups. Even when I did sit down to work, my desk sat in the center of an open floor plan, so I couldn’t escape the inevitable parade of colleagues dropping by. 

But now I work for myself, and I’m in control of, well, everything. And yet, recently I still found myself thinking that I didn’t have enough time to work on my business, instead of just in it. 

I’m not alone. One study reported that 96% of 500 surveyed leaders said time was a hurdle in being able to think strategically about their work. 

Ravi Raman, an executive career coach who has spent the past five years working with leaders in major technology companies, would go so far as to say that everyone he works with feels this way. “Without fail, and the higher you go in an organization, the less people feel like they’re able to dedicate time to it,” he says.

Do we just need more hours in the day? That’d be nice, but it might not solve the problem. Executive coach Melody Wilding says that there are often underlying factors that prevent us from giving ourselves the space and time we need—and groundwork we need to do before we start canceling meetings and booking strategic planning sessions. 

Here’s what the experts say are the real remedies for making time for what matters most:

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Understand your motivations for “busy”

Everyone’s busy, and that’s not exactly by accident. Wilding’s take is something that might be uncomfortable to hear: “It makes us feel useful and wanted, and especially for people who are leaders or traditionally high achievers, that’s how they source their self-worth—via accomplishments and what they get done.” 

Raman agrees, noting that even leaders who understand the value in strategic thinking can easily mistake productivity (think: checking items off to-do lists) for effectiveness. “Ultimately, I think people are sort of confused about what really is important,” he says. 

Taking time for thinking can even feel wasteful, Wilding adds. “[People] see it as a luxury or think they’re not worthy of taking that time. They think, ‘I have so much to do; that would be irresponsible.'”

So, step one if you’re feeling underwater, Wilding says, is examining your beliefs about yourself: What makes you feel worthy or deserving? How do you define success? It’s important to be as nonjudgmental as possible during this process. “Rather than blaming yourself, look at what it’s pointing you toward, and use it as a guide. What is this about? What might be going on that’s deeper?” 

When you understand what’s happening under the hood, you can approach your next steps with more clarity. 

Think differently about your role—and priorities

Here’s something else today’s leaders should consider: With scaling tech companies promoting people faster than ever and learning and development budgets being cut left and right, the speed at which we’re expected to evolve is unprecedented. 

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As a result, says Wilding, many executives today are still working the way they were when they were at a lower level. “They’re still operating with the same mindsets and habits, but their responsibilities and what’s required of them have completely changed.” So, getting out of the weeds requires thinking differently about your career than you have in the past. 

Raman is a fan of the Eisenhower matrix, a framework that has you filter your responsibilities by what’s urgent and nonurgent, important and unimportant. Whereas junior employees may focus mostly on urgent tasks, a leader needs to spend just as much (if not more) time on non-pressing but crucial ones. 

He recommends regular time audits, where you’re asking yourself, “Are you living in an urgent world for yourself? How much time and energy are you spending on nonurgent, very crucial things?” 

Set boundaries

Of course, making more time for these important tasks requires managing your time differently than you have in the past.

One of the things Wilding spends time on with clients is finding scalable solutions to managing their time, whether that’s having twice-weekly office hours to prevent colleagues from dropping by unannounced or shifting your employees’ one-on-one meetings to every other week instead of weekly.

Whatever you do, make sure you’re the one who’s taking control of your schedule. “Many people start with blank calendars and relinquish total control by allowing others’ to fill them up with meetings. They end up with a packed schedule of other people’s priorities—not their own,” says Ora Shtull, an executive coach who works with leaders at Fortune 500 companies. “To be true to your own priorities, start by blocking out your nonnegotiable activities on your calendar.”

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Raman also notes that you need to not just carve out any old time but the time that’s going to allow you the headspace to think clearly about the future. In other words, don’t just try to squeeze in a spare hour here and there. “I encourage people to think about not just their time but about when are they thinking clearly, well-rested, optimistic, and less caught up,” he says. “An hour at certain points of the week is 10 times as effective as an hour at other times.”

Be okay with letting go

Leaders also need to get comfortable with trusting their team members to take on tasks they’ve historically taken care of. While that can be hard, Raman says that often, executives quickly realize that things will get done if they’re delegated—and often better.  

Raman says that once his clients let go of some of their work, they find that between 10% and 40% of their schedule can be freed up. 

The lowest hanging fruit, he notes, is meetings. He tells executives to look at their calendar and pick two meetings they don’t really need to be at. Assign one to someone else on your team, and for the other, tell the organizer that you can’t make it. “Say, if it’s vital that I attend, ping me and I’ll be there. Otherwise, I’m going to focus on some other strategic work that needs my attention,” Raman recommends. Generally, he finds, the organizer is okay with it. Or it least it makes them think twice about whether they actually need to be there.

Shtull recommends taking a hard look at your to-do list for potential areas where you could let go of something. One of her tried-and-true models is the 4D test: “What can you delete? What can you delay? What can you delegate? What can you diminish?”

Ask a bigger question

Now, with your calendar and to-do list freed up, what do you do with this time? 

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Raman pushes his clients to think big. Instead of getting stuck in the pattern panicking about, “How do I get through this week, or that big meeting on Thursday?” he advises asking a bigger question about the business, like: “Who can we really be as a company? What’s really possible as a team? What would be great for us? There’s an infinite number of questions, but ask a bigger question, one that’s not reactive but creative,” he explains. “Notice none of those have a timeframe on them.” 

And once you’re clear on those answers? Don’t let them out of your sight. 

Raman asks his clients to set an intention, focusing on the questions: What would make today great? What would make this month really great, where you will feel proud when the month is done? Then, replay that question daily. 

“I ask them, as they get into work, before they go right into their reactive mode, to make sure that they are again asking the bigger question: What would make today really great?” he says. “It’s usually not just responding to 50 emails.”

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