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  • Writer's pictureJosh Wymore

1+1: Creating time surpluses + essentialism

Hey there! Here’s one leadership idea and one resource I’ve found beneficial this week:

A grapefruit sliced in half

This is Part 3 of a three-part series on time debt. See Part 1 and Part 2 here.

1 idea: Creating time surpluses

Early in my career, I got an exciting call from our university’s president over Christmas break. He wanted me to spearhead the development of a brand-new leadership program at our institution. If I said yes, I’d work closely with him and his team to dream up this program from scratch, write the curriculum, then recruit for and deliver it. I would have eight months to bring in our first class.

I was energized by the creative growth opportunity that the project presented, and I wanted to say yes. There was just one problem: I was already really busy. I knew that committing to this project meant some serious trade-offs. Saying yes meant I would either fail to meet my existing commitments on time (i.e., accruing time debt) or have to work way too many hours to keep up (sacrificing well-being). I needed a time surplus to take on this new challenge, and I didn’t have one.

I met with the president a week later and brought my dilemma to him. “I would love to say yes to this opportunity,” I said, “but there are five other projects that are competing for this same time. I don’t believe I could deliver on this project and still keep my other commitments.”

“Ok. What are they?” he asked.

I was surprised by his question. I just assumed he would accept my No at face value. Nevertheless, I paused, then rattled off the projects I’d been thinking of.

Without missing a beat, he told me that this new initiative was more important than three of my projects. He directed me to drop them and focus here instead. My eyes grew wide with surprise as I agreed to the plan. As I walked back to my office, I was dazed by the unexpected turn of events. I was also energized by this newfound clarity. That afternoon, I wrote to my colleagues to tell them I would no longer be pursuing those three projects per the direction of the president.

Stopping to take stock of my priorities enabled me to offload less-important work and use that time surplus to tackle something of strategic importance. That program not only brought immediate benefit to the university, it also turned out to be the highlight of my career up until that point.


What can you do to create time surpluses? Consider these four questions from Radical Humility by Urs Koenig:

  1. Delegate: Who else could do this? Don’t just think of who has the current skillset for it; also evaluate who would benefit professionally from the growth that this task would require.

  2. Drop: What do I need to stop doing? Make a “to-don’t” list of other tasks that could distract you from your top priorities.

  3. Defer: What can I do later? Consider whether your priorities are truly urgent now or whether anything is lost by postponing them.

  4. Do: What do I need to do now? What's truly important for this moment? What have you been putting off that needs to get done now? Once you have this list, make a plan and get to work!

1 resource: Essentialism

We live in a period of time where possibilities feel endless--and that range of choices can be overwhelming. How do we discern what is just noise and what is truly essential? That's a question Greg McKeown tackles in his bestseller Essentialism. Addressing this dilemma head-on is critical because "if you don’t prioritize your life someone else will.” Like me, you could almost miss out on a great opportunity because you're prioritizing the wrong things. 

You can find the book on Amazon or wherever books are sold.

Cover of James Clear's book Atomic Habits


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