The Vacuum Effect: Context Matters When It Comes to Time Management

April 9, 2024

Browse by CategorY
Jump into my free
5-day video lesson program below
jump in here!
want to get a taste of the bright method for free?
Welcome! We're all about realistic time management designed for professional working women here in this little pocket of the internet. I'm glad you're here.

Listen on Apple or Spotify

I keep seeing a theme in my time management work I want to talk about – the Vacuum Effect. Let’s dig into it.

To take my free 5-day program, the Reset and Refresh, click here: https://kellynolan.com/reset-refresh.

To learn more about and sign up for the Bright Method 8-week program, click here: https://kellynolan.com/the-bright-method-time-management-course-with-kelly-nolan.

Full Transcript

 Episode 49. Vacuum Effect

[Upbeat Intro Music]

Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!


Hey hey! All right, so today I want to talk about something called The Vacuum Effect, and I just made this up, so it’s very recently been coined by me. But it’s something that I have seen as a theme come up with the people I work with, and it comes out in a variety of contexts, so I’m gonna try to do my best at explaining what it is, but then we’ll bring it to life in a variety of contexts so I can explain how it plays out so that you can be on the lookout for when it’s playing out in your life and shift your perspective on it.

What is The Vacuum Effect? – 1:02

What The Vacuum Effect is is this tendency that we humans have to evaluate projects or tasks in a vacuum without context, and we do this both proactively/prospectively (like when we’re looking ahead) and retrospectively. We do this when we’re both planning and also when we’re kind of doing a postmortem on a project and we might evaluate how we did without remembering the context in which we did it. So we really evaluate things in a vacuum, and we make conclusions based on that analysis in a vacuum that aren’t necessarily accurate or fair to our future selves or our past selves. That is because things don’t happen in a vacuum.

Time is limited. Only so much fits into it. So context really matters here because there’s only a limited amount of time, so we need to evaluate what is the context. What else are we doing with that time? What else did we do with that time? What do we need to do with that time so we can make decisions in a more accurate way?

If we ignore the fact that other things are also pulling on that same bank of limited time, I think we really tend to fall into a trap. We either overcommit, we blame ourselves, we identify the wrong problem and try to solve it so that we don’t actually get the relief that we’re looking for. And everything, when we’re overcommitted, feels a lot more stressful. We feel a lot more buried in work. It’s not where we want to be.

So we really need to be aware of this Vacuum Effect and catch ourselves when it’s happening so that we can remind ourselves of the context, bring it in, and make better decisions and conclusions about how we want to spend our time, how we spent our time, and take the correct and more accurate and more useful lessons moving forward. So that was a little high concept. I think it’ll become more clear as we talk about it and how this plays out in a variety of time-management contexts.

Prioritization – 3:01

So the first one that comes to mind for me is prioritization. This is where I first started noticing this tendency. I talk about it in episode four of this podcast. But what I have noticed is a lot of traditional time management approaches, when they tech prioritization, tend to succumb to this Vacuum Effect, and that is that thing where — I talked about this in episode four, but a lot of traditional approaches kind of label each project based on its priority and then you decide which ones to prioritize. Very basic. But basically what you do is you look at each project and say, “Is this a high or a low priority?”

But the problem is that evaluation’s happening in a vacuum, and when we look at just one project or just one task at a time without anything else, everything seems like a high priority, or most of it, let’s say. Even if 75% of it looks like a high priority, “We’ve got to do this, we’ve got to fit it in.”

It’s not until you really see your limited time and then see how all these projects are vying for that limited time and competing for space in that limited time that we are better able at evaluating and prioritizing because we’re seeing the context. We’re seeing all these other things competing for the same spot of time, and it becomes more clear on how to prioritize, and then our priorities and our workload become more realistic.

So I just want to give a little example. This happens with tasks (small to-dos) as well. And I think it helps to play it out. So let’s pretend I have from two to three o’clock this afternoon free. And I have five things on my plate that I’m like, “These are the things I want to get done.” And, using traditional approaches, I might look at each of these and I’m like, “Yep, each of them is a high priority.” I look at them individually. I’m like, “They need to happen. They’re high priorities. Let me just do them.” But the problem is when those five things cannot get done in an hour.

And so, The Bright Method approach is more to, let’s say, you’re looking at that one-hour slot in your calendar, and what you would do is calendar out those five things in your calendar. One thing might take 15 minutes. One thing might take 45 minutes. One thing might take 20 minutes. Something could even take an hour when you really think about it and calendar out, and you layer all these things over that one-hour block of time. And, obviously, they don’t all fit. There’s something about seeing, “Okay, I only have an hour. I have these five things.” You really can see objectively they do not all fit. “I’m not gonna get all these things done,” and it just becomes easier to say, “Well, this thing can move. This thing can move. This thing can move. These two things really need to stay, so I’m gonna work on these two things during that hour.”

That’s the difference of evaluating context versus doing it in a vacuum when it comes to prioritization. When we prioritize in a vacuum, we will over-indicate towards the high-priority things, and we still try and cram it all in. And so, the danger of that Vacuum Effect is we prioritize too much as a high priority, we try to do it all. Sometimes even people take the low-priority things and also still try and do them. It’s an unrealistic workload, so we fail to do it all. We often fail to do any of it well, and the danger of that is the high-priority things, the real things that you really needed to get done and get done well didn’t get done or didn’t get done well because you did not protect time and energy to do those things well. The time and energy that should have gone to those things was pulled away and diluted by still trying to do ten other things on top of those three big projects.

Instead, what happens when we actually use a system that shows us capacity, the limited about of time, the context of that, and then all the things trying to compete with it, we’re better at making more front-end decisions on what we are actually going to try to do, and that workload tends to be a lot more realistic, and we set ourselves well for actually doing the high-priority things well because we’ve protected time and energy to do it.

So I hope that kind of brings to life this Vacuum Effect of we, as humans, whether it’s traditional time-management approaches or our natural tendencies as humans, we so easily evaluate things in a vacuum, and then we overblow what is important and overcommit ourselves in that process, instead of looking at each project individually and asking, “Is this a high priority? Is this a medium priority? Is this a low priority?” We really need to see limits of time and then see the other things we’re trying to do with our time so that we can prioritize within that context.

If you’re interested in hearing more on this, definitely check out episode four on prioritization because I think I dig into this in a lot more detail and use maybe some analogies that will help bring it to life even more.

Procrastination – 7:46

The second context I have seen this come up with that really got me thinking about this as the whole Vacuum Effect is a constant thing in a lot of time-management situations and issues, is it came up in a procrastination context. In particular what triggered it for my brain was that a client was sitting there, and she was saying that she is a bad procrastinator, she only works under pressure really well. And as an example, she gave a certain project that she’s like, “I just didn’t do this ‘til the very end, and that’s my example of me being a procrastinator.”

But when we dug into it, because knowing her, I was like, “I feel like, though, you had a lot of other stuff going on at the same time. If the starting point was A and you got it done at, let’s say, C and you wanted to get it done at B, between B and C, and even between A and C, it’s not like you were just sitting there on a couch with your feet up.” Although, I mean, I do hope part of her life was spent that way in resting because there’s a lot of value in that as well. But on the whole, it’s not like between A and B or A and C she was just sitting there doing nothing. Once we dug into it, she was doing a lot of stuff in her personal life and her work life. And so, to me, the issue is less around, “Oh, you weren’t motivated to do it, and so, you didn’t do it, and you could’ve done it, and you just didn’t. And so, yeah, you’re a procrastinator.” It was more like, “You had a lot going on. Your workload prevented you from getting to do that until X period of time. Because, actually, you prioritizing all the other things you did during that time was the right decision, was the smart decision. And now, you got to it when you did because maybe you just have too much work on your plate.”

This really matters here because of the conclusions we draw from this. Context matters. If you are only evaluating how you performed on project A in a vacuum, and you wanted ideally to get it done at a certain time and you did it right before the deadline and you’re looking at that in a vacuum, sure, that looks like procrastination. But when you bring in the context of what you were spending your time on, suddenly it becomes less about procrastination and more about workload.

I really think there’s a danger here of this Vacuum Effect in that you are going to beat yourself up for being a procrastinator. You’re gonna think you only work well under pressure. It’s going to affect how you move forward and move forward on projects and narratives you have in your head about how you work, and you don’t tend to address, then, the real issue which really might be more that workload issue.

I believe in procrastination. We all do it. But I don’t want us to over-diagnose ourselves or kind of overblow a narrative in our head about how we work when, really, it’s not accurate. Because if we identify a problem that’s not accurate, then we’re not solving for fixing the right problem. If you think you have a discipline problem in that scenario, when in reality it’s probably a workload problem, then you’re just gonna spend all this time being like, “If I just were more disciplined, I would have gotten that done.” When in reality, I don’t think there was a discipline issue going on. It’s just that you had a lot on your plate, and you got it done when you got it done. If you want it to feel differently, and that’s up to you, then we need to address the workload problem, not demand that you inherently change to become a more disciplined person, when I don’t think that was actually the problem going on.

And so, I think that’s just an important thing to realize, that the narratives we tell ourselves about our time management are important, and they do affect our behavior going forward. And so, you want to make sure that as you look back at projects and evaluate, if you are coming up with conclusions like, “I procrastinated,” just challenge that with, “What was I actually doing? Why didn’t I get that done in time?” Was it really a motivation or a discipline issue or was it, “I just had a lot of other things I had to do? If I want my life to feel differently going forward, I just have to manage my workload and not my discipline.”

I will also go off on a small tangent here because I find this kind of interesting, and I’m just kind of thinking out loud here. I do wonder if we tend to blame ourselves in this way on procrastination because, in a weird way, it kind of serves us. What I mean by that is we type-A women (and I very much include myself in this) tend to like to control things, and I very much fall into this camp. And if we can blame ourselves for not getting something done, that, in a weird way, is kind of like saying, “If I can just get it together, then I can get all of the things that I want to do done.” And that keeps the control in our court, right? Because if we can fix something, if we can fix our behavior, then we can do everything that we want to do, and that has its appeal because it keeps everything in our control a little bit more, which, to me, is a more comfortable place. When I feel like things and outcomes are out of my control, ugh, that’s when I get a little more stressed out and uneasy, where I’d almost rather blame myself to think that I can change the outcome and the future because I can just change myself. I can control myself, and therefore, I can control the outcome.

When, really, it’s probably a workload issue, which feels like it’s more out of our control. I don’t think it always is. It is more out of our control maybe than our own behavior, which is wholly in our control. But our workload on the outside feels a little more scary, but I do think it’s still in our control, so you don’t have to throw in the towel on that front. But I just think it’s interesting. I think it’s an interesting thing that we as women, the type of women listening to this podcast is my guess, I think we’re trained by society as women to take on more responsibility and accountability than maybe our male counterparts sometimes. So there’s an element of that going on. But also there’s an element of keeping control, and if we can blame ourselves, in a weird way it feels more comfortable because we can change our behavior going forward, and therefore, it’s still under our control.

I hope that makes sense. I don’t know. That was a bit of a tangent, but it’s really interesting to me that I get it. I like when things are my fault in a sense because then I can fix it going forward, and sometimes I wonder if I over-index into taking things on in my control. But then I’m solving the wrong problem again because I’m trying to solve a discipline or behavior issue when really I just need to solve the workload problem.

Let me just wrap up procrastination. Procrastination is that thing where if you’re evaluating and doing a postmortem on your project and how it panned out, you really want to make sure that you’re also bringing in context. So don’t just analyze, “Oh, we didn’t meet these deadlines,” and things like that. Part of it might be inherent in the project like this issue is more complicated than we thought. But also keep in mind other projects that you were working on, other projects that had to take priority for a period of time, other things that came up that might explain why a deadline was missed or pushed or whatever it might be that had nothing to do with procrastination or motivation, it was just a reprioritization of what was going on at work or just within the whole context. It’s important to think that stuff through so we can have the right narratives in our head about how we work and also solve for the right problems to avoid situations like that in the future.

Okay, so we talked about this in the context of prioritization and procrastination. I also think that this Vacuum Effect comes up in at least two more contexts that I can think of today. I’m sure it will come up in more.

Evaluating New Projects – 15:30

One is evaluating new projects, and I’ve talked about this a lot in terms of putting a potential new project in the context of your calendar, seeing how it interacts with everything else in your life, things like that. I think that’s something that we don’t tend to know to do or know how to do. And so, that’s really a part where The Bright Method shines is by having you make your current workload and capacity very visual and then allow you to also put in a potential new workload option and evaluate whether it’s something you want to take on. And so, I just wanted to raise that. I think a traditional approach doesn’t help us avoid that Vacuum Effect, that we tend to evaluate new projects kind of in a vacuum. And it also doesn’t help us, even when we want to evaluate it with context, see how to do that in a real way. So if you want to check out The Bright Method on that part of it, you can jump into my free program to get a taste of it, and that’s at www.kellynolan.com/refresh.

But what I also wanted to say here is that there is that narrative in our society that if it’s not a heck yes it’s a heck no. And I tend to believe that from a high level. A simple concept. I really agree with it. What I also want to throw out there, though, is even if it’s a heck yes, that doesn’t mean that it can be a yes, and again, we can’t just evaluate projects in a vacuum. We can’t just say, “Oh, my gosh. this project seems incredible, and so, yes, I’m in!” We really don’t evaluate projects in the vacuum. Bring it into that context. Really understand your limited capacity. Really understand your current workload. See how that new project would fit within that. See what could be moved maybe out of your current workload to make space for this new project.

I’m not saying it has to be a no, but you really have to evaluate the context when you’re evaluating whether you should take on new projects because the danger of evaluating new projects in a vacuum is obviously overcommitment, and we want to avoid that so you can do everything you commit to well, and more importantly, really enjoy it and be able to enjoy all of it. Because that’s such a danger I see is that some of us just love so many different things, and so, we say yes to so many different things, but then we don’t get to enjoy any of it because we’re spread too thin and just really stressed out about it all.

Boundary Drawing – 17:47

The last context I see this play out in is a little bit different, but I think it applies, so I wanted to include it. It’s boundary drawing. And what I mean by that here is when you are asked to take something on, particularly at work, and you just have to say, “No,” or you have to say, “Later,” or you have to renegotiate a longer deadline, is talking about the project in a vacuum. You know, saying something like, “I can’t,” or “I can’t right now,” “I can turn to this in so many weeks,” whatever it might be, but really just talking about the project as if that’s all that’s going on right now.

And what I want to encourage you to do — and I think that people do this. I don’t think I’m probably blowing your mind, but it’s always a reminder I need, so I figured it can help with people too is don’t talk about the project in a vacuum. Talk about it in context with everything else you’re doing. “I can’t right now because I’m working on X, Y, and Z projects,” or “I need a longer timeline because of A, B, and C projects,” or “I can do this on this timeline, but we need to move these other projects out.” And the reason for this is — well, it’s twofold. One, I think reminding yourself of all the context is really important just for hoping to have you push back on some of this workload, the amount of workload, or the deadlines. But also to remind you of the value you are bringing to other projects, so you feel more confident when you’re drawing those boundaries.

So it helps you both with the motivation to draw the boundary but also the confidence when you are drawing the boundary. I think sometimes we feel like we’re gonna feel weak and soft if we’re drawing boundaries, where, in reality, I think there are ways to do it, and I think that doing it in and of itself exhibits leadership and being a real asset, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves of it. So when you’re talking about it, when you’re responding to these requests, by bringing in the context, not talking about it in a vacuum but bringing in the context of your other work, making your other work visible, you will feel more motivated and confident to do that.

In addition, and it’s related, is you are reminding the other person of the other value you are bringing. I’m a firm believer that our bosses and people we work with completely forget what we’re working on. “I have no idea what you’re working on!” And so, it’s really important to bring the context in so that you are reminding them of the value you are bringing, so they don’t hear just the no. They don’t hear just the, “Later.” They don’t hear the, “I’m overwhelmed.” They’re reminded of, “Oh, right! She is working on those three projects that are really important, and that makes a lot of sense.” And if they’re not and they can be adjusted to bring in this other thing, then it helps you have this conversation so that you can manage your workload well. I stumbled over that.

So what I mean by that is, let’s say you don’t make your other work visible and you’re like, “Okay, I can take that on. I need an extra two weeks.” And so, now you’re working on four projects. You just might be killing yourself to get those four projects done. Where if instead you were like, “Hey, I can do this. I’d really like to push it out a month because I’m working on A, B, and C,” your boss could say, “You know what? Actually this new project takes priority over A and even B, so let’s have you work on C and this new project, and then let’s move out A and B by two or three months.” That is a great outcome for you even if it looks different than what you anticipated because your overall workload, hopefully, is more realistic, and that’s an outcome you might not have gotten to if you had just stayed quiet about your other projects that you were already working on.

And this is also somewhere I really believe The Bright Method shines because it makes your current workload visible and specific in front of you. You’re very clear on what you’re supposed to be working on, what you wanted to work on. And so, when something else comes in, those specifics are at your fingertips really quickly so you can bring them into the conversation more quickly and more easily and with specifics that helps these conversations be a lot more productive than they might have been without those specifics right at your fingertips.

All right? So I hope that this kind of made sense by playing it out. I hope that you can kind of — my goal for you today, from a practical standpoint, is just to catch yourself. When you’re planning ahead or you’re evaluating something backwards or you’re evaluating how a project’s going in the middle, don’t forget the context. Bring in the context because, at the end of the day, our time and our energy is limited, and that means that the context of what else you’re trying to do with that time is very important when you’re evaluating your own time management and planning your own time management in terms of how you’re spending your time. Really think about this in the context of prioritization. Don’t prioritize in a vacuum. Look at all the things you’re trying to accomplish in limited periods of time and understand your priorities based in that context, and then punt out or eliminate things that don’t need to be prioritized during your limited time right now. This will really help you avoid overcommitting.

Also, on the procrastination front, before you determine that you are a procrastinator in this context, really also ask yourself, “What was I using that time for?” Those things probably were higher priorities, and then you can evaluate things on that front, and that is really important so that you have an accurate narrative in your head about your own time-management tendencies and can solve for the right problems if there are problems. If you’re like, “That was not enjoyable to be doing that thing that last minute, how do I solve this going forward? Maybe I need to work on — the two months before that type of deadline, I need to really clear out some of my other work to make sure that I’m not stretched too thin so that I can do this not at the last minute.”

Also think about evaluating new projects. We’ve talked about this before, but really evaluate with the context and then when it comes to boundary drawing (the fourth point), really make sure that when you are drawing boundaries, you are also making your other work visible so that you’re bringing the context into the conversation and not just talking about projects in a vacuum.

All right! Let me know what you think. Let me know if it makes sense. I kind of just came up with it, but it is a theme of things that I see play out again and again and again, and it is something that I think The Bright Method really helps solve this by making the context visible. I mean, when you put everything in your calendar and make it visual and see how it all interacts, that is essentially what we are doing is overcoming The Vacuum Effect, seeing how everything comes together and seeing the context for everything that also draws on the bank of time around the things we’re trying to do.

If you want a taste of it, again, you can check that out at www.kellynolan.com/refresh. It’s a free five-day program. And if you are interested in learning the full Bright Method, I just released the dates for it. You can’t sign up for it yet, but the dates are now up for the fall 2024 program. So you can go to www.kellynolan.com/bright. You can sign up for the waitlist there for the fall, and once you sign up for the waitlist, there are some great “add to calendar” features where you can add both the enrollment time and then also all the call times to your calendar now, because I know that you’re really busy, it’s good to block your availability now to protect time for it down the road because, while you don’t have to come to the group calls (they’re all pre-recorded and made available for you), they really are so valuable, and so, we want to protect the time for you to be there if you can.

All right, if you have any questions, let me know! You’re welcome to email me or message me on Instagram, and thank you for being here, and I’ll catch you in the next episode!

[Upbeat Outro Music]

Add a comment
+ show Comments
- Hide Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

check out my 8-week bright method time management program

Want to learn the full Bright Method, a system designed for working women that reduces stress and ups your peace of mind when it comes to managing it all (personal and professional)?

Learn more
Want to focus on email first?

Reclaim your time from your inbox

Spending too much time in your email inbox? You’re not alone. Check out my short’n’sweet, self-paced email management course to help you reclaim control over your inbox.

LOVE these strategies?



Hello, more breathing space.

Learn three realistic time management strategies desgined for professional working women that you can implement in just 20 minutes. Enter your info below & get the free guide in your inbox in a minute.