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Short on time? Try organizing your tasks around ‘long tail’ thinking

Many people opt to address issues that take only a slight effort, rather than taking their time to resolve problems that will recur in the future.

Short on time? Try organizing your tasks around ‘long tail’ thinking
[Photo: Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash]
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Sam sat rocking his sleeping three-year-old son. The room, which earlier was a flurry of games and activity, was now scattered with half-built Lego towers and puzzle pieces. Despite the mess, it was the most content Sam could remember feeling in a long time.

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Like most of us, work had been creeping into Sam’s home life even before the pandemic. Now that he was working solely from home, those once-blurred lines were now completely erased. Phone calls, late-night emails, and marathon Zoom meetings became the norm. Sam wasn’t working from home—he was living at work.

As this became clear, he tried to reestablish boundaries, pledging to finish work by 5 p.m., but his cell phone continued to ring. So, he committed to silencing his phone, but the urge to check his phone “just in case” was a constant temptation.

Finally, Sam reached his breaking point and decided he had to take more drastic measures. Not only would he leave his home office at 5 p.m.; he would also set an email bounce-back message explaining he had finished work for the day and would return all requests the next morning.

Instead of silencing his work cell phone, he turned it off. He asked his team to only call his personal cell phone for urgent items.

When the clock struck 5 p.m., Sam made himself unavailable for work and available for everything else. The difference was remarkable. He felt less anxious. He was more present for his wife and children. He found time to relax and recharge. And it wasn’t just his personal life that improved. Sam found he began to enjoy his work more. He made better decisions and found solutions he had otherwise missed. He couldn’t believe it had taken him this long to make these simple yet powerful changes.

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Investing in the “long tail” of time management

If you’re like me, you can relate to Sam’s story. Why do so many of us put up with problems—big and small—for so much longer than we have to?

Maybe because on any given day it usually takes less time to manage a problem than to solve it. In Sam’s case, it was easier to respond in the moment to every problem or request that came up than to establish boundaries and worry about disappointing others by being unavailable.

When we look at the equation from a longer-term perspective, however, our calculation changes. Once we add up the cumulative costs of the time and frustration from today, plus tomorrow, plus hundreds of tomorrows after that, suddenly it makes sense to invest in solving the problem once and for all.

Our time and energy are the most valuable assets we have in this life. Taking steps to do what I call “protect the asset” by severing his work from his personal life was an absolute bargain for Sam: a few minutes’ worth of courage and effort prevented hundreds of future frustrations.

This is the long tail of time management. When we invest our time in actions with a long tail, we continue to reap the benefits over a long period.

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Sometimes we get so used to irritations it doesn’t even occur to us to do anything about them. Even if we’re bothered by them and we complain about them, we still don’t really see them as a problem worth fixing. But what we often fail to recognize is that some tasks that seem “not worth it” in the moment may save us one hundred times the time and aggravation over the long run.

To break this habit, ask yourself:

  1. What is a problem that irritates me repeatedly?
  2. What is the total cost of managing that over several months or years?
  3. What is the next step I can take immediately, in a few minutes, to move toward solving it?

Once you start asking these questions, you’ll start noticing the small actions you can take now to make your life easier in the future.

The surprising power of striking at the root

Only when we commit to really solving the problem will we begin to make progress.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” When we’re merely managing a problem, we’re hacking at the branches. To prevent the problem before it even arises, we should strike at the root.

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If you’ve spent a lot of time hacking at the branches, you may have become good at it. But if that is all you are doing, the problem will keep coming back to haunt you. It is merely being managed, never solved.

When we really look, we can see examples of this approach everywhere.

  • A doctor who treats a heart problem through years of medication followed by highly invasive surgery instead of encouraging a patient to eat right and exercise.
  • An employee who repeatedly apologizes for completing a project late rather than improving their processes so the project is done on time.
  • A student who is exhausted from always pulling all-nighters before an assignment is due rather than blocking off time to work on assignments every day for a week before they are due.
  • A parent who bemoans having to tidy up after their children every day instead of reinforcing a positive habit around tidying up.

What about you? Are there any recurring problems or frustrations in your life or work? Rather than simply hacking at the branches, try striking at the root.

While the pandemic has forever changed how we work and live, we have the power to use those changes to reshape our reality. As we begin to emerge into a post-pandemic world, we have a rare opportunity to rethink not only how we work, but also how we can design a life that isn’t consumed by work. Striking at the root of our problems and making long-tail investments in protecting the asset will make sure it’s a life we want to go back to.


Adapted from Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most, by Greg McKeown. Copyright © 2021 by Greg McKeown. Excerpted by permission of Currency, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Greg McKeown is the author of Essentialism. His new book published April 2021 is Effortless: Make It Easy to Do What Matters Most.