This is the seventh in a series of blogs in which we will look at some of the common issues faced by modern leaders and how they can be addressed. Today, we will consider a subject of vital importance to every leader: time management.
What every business leader wants but can't get: more hours in the day or more days in the week! However, most can make better use of the time they do have available: an intervention by HBR showed that respondents were able to free up c.20% of their time by doing just 2 things really well: eliminating or delegating unimportant tasks.* Their work with executives resulted in "...[a reduction in] desk work by an average of six hours a week and meeting time by an average of two hours a week" (the breakdown is shown in Point 2 below).
I know that many reading these words will immediately think something like: 'It won't work for me; everything I do is necessary'. However, having accumulated many years of experience in leadership and in executive/management coaching, I have yet to find anyone whose diary is truly filled with only the most necessary or highest-value work. In reality, many have allowed low-value work to creep in. Worse, many positively incorporate such work because of a cultural bias that values being seen to be busy all the time. Better use of available time would not only reduce levels of stress and tension, it would also result in higher performance levels.
None of this is to say that there are not real and growing pressures on executives' time today, there most certainly are, as this chart showing the ever-increasing average number of executive communications per year shows (the figure for the 1970s is 1,000):*
Key contributory causes:
1980+ - rise of voicemail
1990+ - rise of email
2010+ - rise of virtual collaboration
The pressure on time is often compounded by an unwillingness to do things differently. Ironically, a common defence is 'I haven't got time to think about it'! My usual response to this objection is to ask if the pressure is likely to get better or continue getting worse? Invariably the answer is 'worse'. If one accepts that everyone has a maximum capacity and breaking point, either something will have to change or the person in question will break, so why not initiate change now before the unhappy event occurs?
The good news is that there are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the pressure. Not all of the following ideas will work for everyone, but I trust you will find some ideas that will help you reclaim control of your diary.
We will first consider individual measures that can be taken to manage one's own time budget and then look at steps to save time across the organisation as a whole.
INDIVIDUAL TIME MANAGEMENT
1. Identify low-value tasks.
It is a very simple tool, but the Eisenhower matrix (below) is a good place to start. List the tasks you have to do and put them in one of the quadrants. One of the keys to making it effective is to be ruthlessly honest in assigning tasks correctly: it is a common temptation to put almost all in the 'urgent and important' quadrant. Since the terms are relative, that cannot be the case.
Important tasks are those which significantly impact the ability of the organisation to achieve its main objectives.
When considering urgency, imagine you are two hours late for work because of an emergency and have to reprioritize your day. How urgent is the task? Is it a top priority, something that needs to be done today, that you would like to do today, that you would do if time allows, or something that can be dropped?
If you are still tempted to overestimate importance and urgency, ask questions such as the following:
Can I break the task down to identify the truly important and urgent aspects?
Can I get a time extension?
Would 'good' be good enough?
Does a cost-benefit analysis of the estimated time justify its position in this quadrant?
Another key is to ensure that tasks in the 'high importance, low urgency' quadrant are broken down and planned so that they do not become urgent as well.
The matrix should be updated regularly.
2. Decide what you will do (and by implication what you will not do).
Based on the Eisenhower analysis, what can you drop, delegate or redesign (break down so that individual elements can be dropped, delegated or outsourced)?
For delegation to be effective, it needs to be to the right person/team, with adequate resources (including time and authority) and with sound governance and reporting in place. Done properly, delegation can also be a good way of building engagement and of assessing potential for promotion.
The HBR intervention noted above resulted in the following time savings for managers when they delegated effectively (numbers are rounded):
It was notable that there was no decline in the managers' or their teams' productivity, and that "junior employees really appreciated their new opportunities and began to benefit from being more involved."*
3. Decide when you will do it.
Planning ahead for the next day, week, month and year will help you to think of the value of the tasks you add. Remember to incorporate unallocated time blocks for overruns and dynamic inputs.
4. Allocate freed-up time
When you identify low-value tasks that can be removed, ensure you positively allocate the freed-up time to the highest value activities. This could typically include coaching and mentoring employees, strategic thinking, listening to customers, spending time with the family, etc.
Failure to allocate the new-found time virtually guarantees that more low-value activities will creep in.
5. Commit to your plan
The pressures of work will almost certainly give rise to a temptation to forget your good intentions and return to the old way of doing things. When that happens, remember the incentive for change. Also, communicating your plan to others will add a level of accountability that will make it more difficult to backslide. It may also inspire others and generate ideas about who to delegate more to.
6. What else can you do?
Clarify expectations – how much detail is required? Does it need to be ‘spot’ on or is ‘good’ good enough? What do your stakeholders expect/need?
Re-use previous materials – copy, paste and edit emails, presentations, reports sections, training courses, etc.
Use templates and checklists – e.g. for annual accounts, pitches, events, meeting agendas, etc.
Share verbally – sometimes this is adequate and there is no need for a report/email.
Allocate time limits and stick to them – remember that work expands to fill the time available to do it (Parkinson’s Law).***
Do not multitask! - actually, we don't really multitask, we rapidly switch tasking. Every survey I have seen has shown this to be a less effective way of working than focussing on one task at a time. Doing a task better reduces the likelihood of having to do it again.
Manage your energy -
Block out your best times for work - most of us work best at different times of the day or night. Schedule the difficult tasks for those times when you are most alert. Additionally, working in undisturbed chunks of time of between 45-90 minutes and taking a short break in between facilitates better performance.
Get enough sleep, exercise and eat well. It sounds obvious but it is worth emphasising: there is clear evidence that those who are well-rested and healthy perform better than when that is not the case. They are able to get more done in less time and to 'surge' for longer.
Take holidays and avoid the need to keep checking the laptop. Total separation from work is not possible for most, but try scheduling email and message checks first and last thing each day?
Managing energy in these and other ways is a great way of saving time. A leader who is well-rested and energetic can hardly fail to get work done more quickly, and to a better standard, than one who is weary and stressed.
Keep a time log - most people grossly overestimate the amount of time they spend on high-value activities and underestimate that spent doing other things. A time log provides quantifiable evidence of where your time really goes (if you have never done this before, you will almost certainly be shocked!).
Make time to think - I ask every executive coachee to schedule strategic thinking time into their weekly routines. This is a time to ask questions that would otherwise get lost in the rush of everyday work. Few ever want to do this but, without exception, all those who have done so have benefitted. As one client said: 'I am still busy but now I am busy doing the things I should be doing in a manageable way'. He went on to explain how his team was also happier because he was delegating more appropriate tasks to them and not micro-managing.
Know when to say 'no'! That's right, even to new business sometimes! Is your bottom line worth losing your health for? Not that this should be done lightly, but I believe people are more productive, and generate healthier returns as a result, when they are working to a high but manageable capacity.
Key Personal Time Management Skills to Develop:****
Awareness: think realistically about your time by understanding it is a limited resource and how it is and should be used.
Arrangement: design and organise your prioritised goals, plans, schedules, and tasks.
Adaptation: monitor your use of time, review changes to your arrangement and adjust as required.
ORGANISATIONAL TIME MANAGEMENT
In addition to coaching and promoting the above disciplines with your immediate reports, there are steps that can be taken to reduce wasted time across the whole organisation.
Here are some ideas:
1. Develop leadership, team working and organisational health competencies.
Given that these are the core areas of Aspire MCL's service lines, I suspect that many will not be surprised that I mention them again. But think about it: well-led teams with highly engaged people working in an environment with minimal politics and a healthy culture can hardly fail to make better decisions in less time - and they will continue doing so. There are several ways this relates specifically to time; here are just some:
a) Clarity around mission, vision, values, strategic objectives, etc.
If people have clarity about the organisation's priorities they can focus their efforts and resource usage more intelligently.
There will also be fewer requests for more information. Having a single, clear and temporary top priority helps further. In addition to intensely focussing everything on what really matters, decisions that have to be made when there are conflicting choices that would service different (but valid) goals will be quicker.
Note the importance of communication here: no use having such clarity if your staff do not have the information.
b) Better delegation
A healthy organisation with the right people in the right place doing the right things the right way will make delegation much easier and reduce the time that would otherwise be lost due to confusion and unnecessary 'back and forth' information flows.
c) Improved decision making
Good leaders make effective decisions, i.e. decisions that are theirs to make (within governance boundaries), timely, clear and well-communicated. They also understand that not all decisions will be correct, but that a wrong decision is still much better than no decision. They will relentlessly push for more benefits from the good decisions whilst quickly spotting wrong decisions and adjusting course as required.
2. Adopt zero-based time budgeting.
The idea here is to develop time budgets from scratch each year rather than just 'rolling over' historical figures. This provides a good opportunity to identify what has changed and what can be reduced. It is simply using the same approach as that used to manage financial investments, i.e., treat the total amount of time available as fixed so that new initiatives have to be balanced by cutting/reducing others.
Meetings are a common source of potential time savings: who really needs to be there? How often is necessary? Would online suffice? MS Office and other programs default to 30-minute slots - do you need an hour or would 50 minutes be enough? etc. It also helps to consider who can authorise a new meeting and if another can be cancelled to balance the requirement. Another big win can be realised by exercising meeting discipline, e.g., all arrive on time and well-prepared.
3. Revise the business cases for old, ongoing projects.
Often, many projects continue beyond their useful time for bad reasons, e.g., the sunk cost fallacy, or even that no one can be bothered to formally call a halt! It is also common for people to become emotionally attached to 'their' projects. Formally reviewing long-running and old projects can help identify those which have run their course and should be stopped or changed.
4. Remove unnecessary hierarchical layers.
A study by Bain and Company in 2015***** showed that a junior manager added work equivalent to about a third of someone else’s time. The amount of work added increased with seniority and most senior executives created work for more than four people including themselves.
A lot of time can be saved by getting the balance right between having the necessary number of management layers and a flatter, more agile organisation.
The above lists are certainly not exhaustive, but I trust there are several ideas that you could adopt, both individually and organisationally, that will make a difference to your time budget. Others have done so and testify to their efficacy. The great irony though is that many executives and managers will claim they are too busy to do any of this! They therefore condemn themselves to go faster and faster until something (or someone!) breaks.
This is a busy world and the demands for our time are increasing, but it need not be an overwhelming one.
Question: what would you add to the above lists? Please add any suggestions or observations that could help others in the comments box. Thank you.
As noted above, this is the seventh blog in a series addressing leadership issues. If there is a topic you would like Aspire to cover in subsequent releases, or if you would like a no-obligation consultation to discuss any of Aspire MCL's services, please comment or email email@example.com. We will not spam you!
Aspire MCL - unleash YOUR leadership potential
* Make Time for the Work That Matters, Birkinshaw and Cohen, HBR Magazine, Sept 2013 (Make Time for the Work That Matters (hbr.org))
** Adapted from Bain and Company Survey, 2014, reproduced by HBR
***Adapted from Saunders, E. G., HBR, 5 Strategies for Getting More Work Done in Less Time, 7 Jan 2019
**** Based on - https://bit.ly/AspireMCL098
***** Article by Michael C. Mankins, Chris Brahm and Gregory Caimi, Bain and Company Survey, quoted by HBR School Publishing