Most people assign themselves far too many tasks than they can accomplish. Then, feeling time-bankrupt, they decide the only way to do everything is to go faster. They confuse activity and productivity, leading them to believe multitasking is the answer. The reality, however, is that they’re more distracted than ever and are making errors, which then take time to correct.

Missed deadlines, sacrifices in personal time, sleep deprivation and a lack of exercise become serious problems, and soon, people find themselves in a constant cycle of worry, fear, anxiety, pressure and stress. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.

The answer to stopping this cycle is also the secret to good leadership: becoming more self-aware through daily self-reflection. To be a leader at any level — whether leading yourself as an individual contributor, managing a small team, running a department or division, or leading a global company — you must invest in self-reflection to become more self-aware. As I summarize for my students in my values-based leadership classes:

    • If I am not self-reflective, how can I know myself?
    • If I don’t know myself, how can I lead myself?
    • If I cannot lead myself, how can I lead others?

The Cost of Being Unaware

People who are not self-reflective and lack self-awareness put themselves and their careers at risk. Research by Korn Ferry, a talent and organizational development consulting firm, has found that even high-potential leaders who lack self-awareness and “greatly overstate their abilities are 6.2 times more likely to be rated as a derailment risk by their bosses” than leaders who see themselves and their abilities more accurately.

In managing my career over the past 40 years, including as chairman and chief executive officer of a $12 billion health care company, Baxter International, and in speaking with leaders at all levels, I’ve witnessed the warning signs, as well as what happens when they aren’t heeded. Someone receives a “surprise,” and not a pleasant one, such as an angry spouse or partner or a health problem. When surprises go unheeded, they don’t just fade away. Instead, a relatively minor surprise or a small problem compounds into a major upset or a full-blown crisis — whether personal, professional or both.

Even in times of “sheltering in place,” the truth is that being at home does not guarantee that you are fully present. In fact, with people now working an average of three hours longer per day than before the pandemic, you need self-reflection more than ever. Otherwise, you will have no idea where and how you are spending your time.

Your 168

No matter who you are, what you do for a living, where you live or how productive you are, you have the same number of hours per week as everyone else: 168. The only difference is in how you spend those hours.

It’s not about “work/life balance” — a concept I find ironic, since the way it’s expressed makes it sound like someone is either working or living. Rather, it’s about pursuing life balance.

A tool I have used for years is a life grid, which helps me track my goals for how I spend my time and how I actually spend my time. There will be weeks when I’m on target and others when I am way out of balance. I’m only human, after all, and it’s about the pursuit of balance, not perfection.

Your 168 Chart

Allocating your 168 is not about following someone else’s pattern or prescription. We all lead different lives, and what is a top priority for one person may be less important for another. Much also depends on each person’s stage of life; for example, someone who is just starting a career will have different priorities than someone who is retired.

Your 168 should reflect your values. You won’t know what those values are, however, unless you devote the time to identifying them. Self-reflection is the key: a daily practice of about 15 minutes each day when you turn off the noise and distractions to contemplate these questions:

    • What are my values?
    • What do I stand for?
    • What is my purpose?
    • What really matters?

As self-reflection becomes a habit (one I’ve engaged in for more than 40 years), you can reflect on how you are living your life and spending your time. Questions I ask myself at the end of each day include:

    • What did I say I was going to do today, in all dimensions of my life?
    • What did I actually do today, and how did I spend my time?
    • What would I do differently if I could live today over again?
    • Knowing what I know now, how will I act tomorrow?

By becoming self-reflective, you will come to know your values, purpose and what really matters. This knowledge enables you to become more accountable to yourself as you pursue life balance; become a better leader; and experience a more satisfying, values-based life.

Self-reflection is the foundation. With greater self-awareness, you will know where and how you spend your time, when there are warning signs that need your attention, and when you are truly living a life that reflects your values. As a result, you’ll become a better leader, personally and professionally, as you know yourself, lead yourself and then lead others.