• Rob Orman

55. Too Much On My Plate with Christina Shenvi MD, PhD

Updated: Aug 30

The phrase “too much on my plate” and word “busy” are pervasive in modern discourse. But does it have to be so? We certainly didn’t start out that way as children! In this episode, Dr. Christina Shenvi walks us through the path to clear our ‘schedule plates’ and open space in our lives, get un-busy, and conquer the email inbox.

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Guest Bio: Christina Shenvi MD, PhD is an emergency physician at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where she is the director of the UNC Office of Academic Excellence and the newly appointed president of the Association of Professional Women and Medical Sciences. A frequent guest on Stimulus, Dr. Shenvi is a world class time managment coach where her goal is to help busy professionals find more peace with their schedules, feel less stressed, and use their time more effectively.. Her most recent Stimulus episodes were on Procrastination and Habits.

This episode is in support of the I AM ALS. I AM ALS was founded by Brian Wallach and his wife Sandra shortly after his diagnosis at the age of 37. He was given 6 months to live, and now 4 years later he is leading a revolution to find a cure. People often refer to ALS as rare, which is not really so. The lifetime risk is around 1 in 300. Since Lou Gehrig was diagnosed 80 years ago, available treatments have been shown to extend life a mere 3 months. I AM ALS supports research, legislation to fast track therapies, and provides critical resources to patients and caregivers. ALS is relentless, and so are they. The question is no longer if we'll find a cure for ALS, but when. This is an underfunded disease and every little bit makes a difference. We will match donations to I AM ALS up to $5000 -- get started here on our Stimulus Donation Page. And for your daily dose of positivity, follow Brian on Twitter.

We discuss:

The insidious path of getting to the point of having too much on your plate [02:00];

  • Feeling that you don’t have enough time to do everything on your plate is primarily a strategy problem. Are you doing the right things?

  • Often, because of lack of direction, people say “yes” to a lot of things . There’s no framework for why or when to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’

  • Sometimes this happens because a person loves too many things. Saying “yes” is mission driven.

  • Sometimes we underestimate how long things will take.

  • Sometimes we say “yes” to things out of a sense of obligation. We don't want to let someone down.

  • Often we sign up for too many things out of a need to prove ourselves and to show our value.

A framework for deciding whether to say “yes” or “no” to things [05:45];

  • Develop a values-based schedule, allowing your priorities to dictate your schedule rather than your schedule to dictate your life.

  • It can help to write down all the things that are important to you and see if there’s overlap with all of the things that you’re actually doing. Try to identify the things that you’re doing that don’t align with your values.

The 4 pillars Rob uses to help guide “yes” or “no” decisions [08:30];

  • Spark joy in the lives of others.

  • Be present as much as possible.

  • Be of service.

  • Facilitate awesomeness.

Why it’s problematic to think of life as a zero sum game makes [10:20];

  • If you see life as a zero sum game, you end up feeling terrible.

  • If you don’t see it as a zero sum game, then it’s easy to facilitate awesomeness in others.

The Japanese concept of Ikigai [13:30];

  • In Ikigai, there are 4 overlapping circles: what you’re good at, what the world needs, what you love, and what you can be paid for.

  • In the overlap or center of those 4 circles is where you will find meaning, reward, and achieve a sustainable life.

  • Ideally, choose to do things that overlap at least 3 of your circles.

Becoming more efficient by shrinking the amount of time you spend on things that are on your plate [15:45];

  • After you’ve removed things that shouldn’t be on your plate at all, then look at the individual things that remain and see if you can shrink it.

  • “Efficiency is in the small things, but it adds up over time.”

  • Start by doing an inventory of your time for a week. What’s been found is that we overestimate the time we spend on certain things and underestimate the time we spend on others.

The 5 Whys technique for understanding the fundamental bedrock of your motivation [19:30];

  • If we don’t understand why we’re motivated to do things, we can’t truly know how to fix them.

  • When we delve into the 5 Whys, questioning the reason we’re doing something, we often find there’s mixed motivation.

  • Ideally we should choose to do things for joy, growth, or meaning, but often we do them out of negative motivation (eg. fear, guilt, shame, or to prove something to yourself/others).

Self worth theory, which helps explain both why we overwork/overcommit as well as why we sometimes procrastinate [25:00];

  • We tend to get our sense of worth and value from our abilities, accomplishments, and performance.

  • If we’re afraid we're going to fail, then we may withhold effort or procrastinate. That way, if I don't do a good job, we don’t think that it's our fault.

  • It also explains why we overwork. We overcommit because we have tied our self-worth to what we accomplish.

  • If we can be open to the idea that our self-worth is set and not tied to our accomplishments, then we can free ourselves to make decisions which align better with our goals.

The concept of Stoic meditation and the Ozymandias exercise [30:10];

  • Stoic meditation is an exercise in clear thinking which allows you to contemplate which of the thoughts that are going on in your head are causing your feelings.

  • The Ozymandias exercise summarized in this Shelley poem demonstrates how power and achievements are not lasting, while art stands the test of time.

“I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The constant struggle of determining if your work is aligning with your values and using Stoic indifference to suspend self-judgement [32:00];

  • We can strive to be indifferent to things that don’t affect our ability to pursue our life’s mission. “Consciously untangling that assumption is an ongoing life practice, but it is life changing.”

“We have to use our prefrontal cortex to consciously undo and unravel each time we notice ourselves making that connection of 'I did well, therefore I have more value' or 'I didn't do well, therefore I have less value'. The more we can free ourselves from that, then we're free to work purely out of motivation, joy, meaning, service. And we're also going to avoid doing things out of shame, fear and guilt.”

Choosing to do things vs. “I should” [33:40];

  • When we do things because we feel we should, then we’re giving up control outside of our circle of control. Instead, we need to have agency over what we choose to do.

  • “The way in which “should” comes up as a problem is when we think it should be this way and reality is a different way. And so we're banging our heads against reality and reality always wins.”

Examining your motivations and abandoning that thought of “I should do” can be freeing. It makes you feel lighter, freer, more engaged, more creative, more excited.

Reframing the notion of being too busy [40:44];

  • When replying to an inquiry about how you’re doing with “I'm so busy”, you imply that you have no control over what's on your plate.

  • It is common for people to spend their day being “too busy”, yet by the end of the day they haven’t really accomplished anything.

  • Here’s a strategy to tackle this: 1) strategically take things off of your plate, 2) do a time inventory, 3) break up your tasks into deep and shallow work.

Deep work [43:30];

  • Deep work requires a lot of focus, time, and creative energy.

  • Set yourself up for success with deep work by clearing your schedule, your physical space, and your digital space. Remove your phone from your work area so it is not a distraction.

The importance of creating a system for shallow work [46:15];

  • When making your daily calendar, insert shallow work breaks around your larger blocks of time devoted to deep work.

  • If we don’t schedule in time for shallow work (such as responding to email), it will encroach on our time for deep work. And then we'll find ourselves flustered with never having really done either task well.

  • When a ping-pong thought enters your head, disturbing your deep work, cognitively offload it by having a system or place to put it (such as on a to-do list). Writing it down restores your ability to focus and do the more difficult task that you were working on.

The freedom gained from managing your email inbox [51:50];

  • Shenvi modified David Allen’s system from Getting Things Done. She schedules short blocks of time throughout the day to check email and then places each into the category of “Do, Delegate, Delete, Defer or Unsubscribe”.

  • If a response will take less than two minutes, do it now.

  • Anything that can be handed off to another person/assistant, delegate.

  • Immediately delete emails when they’re no longer needed.

  • Defer an email that will require deep work by either flagging it or putting it in a “deep work” folder. Then add it to your To-Do list or calendar.

  • Unsubscribe from anything recurrent that you don’t want or need.

  • Create a file and folder system that will work for you.

  • Archive emails prior to a certain date into their own file labelled “Inbox prior to [x] date”.

And more.

Shownotes by Melissa Orman, MD

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