Using Time Strategically

Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.

—Carl Sandburg, American poet and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer

As one’s leadership responsibilities increase, their disposable time can decrease proportionately. More meetings, more e-mail, seemingly more of everything multiplies and eats up time. A survey of 1,500 leaders on their time allocation showed that only 9 percent were “very satisfied” with how they spend their time and nearly 50 percent confessed that they didn’t spend enough time on strategic direction.1 As leaders move to higher levels in an organization, it’s natural for them to continue applying their expertise to a wide variety of operational and tactical issues that arise, even if those issues are no longer within their realm of responsibility. A three-year study of 39 companies in eight industries found that, on average, 41 percent of a manager’s time is consumed by these discretionary activities that could and should be handled by others.2 While performing these unnecessary types of tasks is a natural inclination, it also does them a disservice in the long run. Their inability to let go of past tasks results in not cultivating new skills that will be instrumental to the firm’s future success and it hinders the development of other managers who should be fulfilling these responsibilities.

Leaders who are unable to delegate often rely more heavily on multitasking. One of the main ingredients in the multitasking recipe is e-mail. It’s estimated that the average manager spends approximately 23 percent of their day on e-mail, with one analysis calculating the time on e-mail at nearly 50 percent.3,4 It’s not uncommon to observe a leader in a meeting reviewing and responding to e-mails on one of their devices while potentially important insights are shared by others and missed by them. A 10-year study of thousands of managers found that 40 percent continually work in a distracted state, characterized by a lack of focus and their mistaking activity for achievement.5 If the people and topics in a meeting don’t deserve your undivided attention, then why are you there in the first place?

While working on several things at once may provide a feeling of overachievement, it’s in fact a smokescreen for lower productivity. As researchers in a Harvard Business Review study concluded, “You may suspect that multitasking is counterproductive and new data suggest it is. The more workers switch tasks, the less they accomplish.”6 Citing a cumulative body of scientific research, authors Derek Dean and Caroline Webb conclude:

Multitasking makes human beings less productive, less creative, and less able to make good decisions. If we want to be effective leaders, we need to stop. . . . When we switch between tasks, especially complex ones, we become startlingly less efficient: participants who completed tasks in parallel took up to 30 percent longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence.7

Leaders lacking a disciplined approach to applying their expertise and time can also become meeting magnets, where they are pulled into far more meetings than they actually should attend. One study showed that 60 percent of a CEO’s time is consumed by meetings.8 Unfortunately, all meetings are not created equal. Executives at the highest performing companies spend half their time in decision-making meetings and less than 10 percent of their time in report-driven informational meetings.9 Think back on the meetings you attended this past week: What percentage of these meetings were focused on decision-making and what percentage were purely report-driven and informational?

Perhaps this is why nearly half of all leaders surveyed concluded that the way the spend their time does not really match up with the organization’s strategic priorities.10 If you’re constantly being pulled into meetings without firm decision-making intent or an agenda not aligned with key priorities, you’re wasting precious time. As management guru Peter Drucker noted, “Time is the scarcest resource, and unless it is managed, nothing else can be managed.”

As a leader’s responsibilities increase, so too does the need for individual think time. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner explains the transition:

There will always be a need to get things done and knock another To-Do item off the list. However, as the company grows larger, as the breadth and depth of your initiatives expand, and as the competitive and technological landscape continues to shift at an accelerating rate—you will require more time than ever before to just think. That thinking, if done properly, requires uninterrupted focus. . . . In other words, it takes time. And that time will only be available if you carve it out for yourself.11

For those with an “activity = achievement” mindset, this is a particularly challenging idea. However, in a study of more than 1,000 executives, the number-one response of how highly satisfied leaders invest their time was “alone.”12 Unfortunately, additional research shows that only 11 percent of a CEO’s time is spent alone.13 The great leaders don’t hope this individual think time magically appears on their calendars. They make it happen. LinkedIn CEO Weiner shares his approach to making think time happen:

If you were to see my calendar, you’d probably notice a host of time slots greyed out but with no indication of what’s going on. .. . The grey sections reflect “buffers,” or time periods I’ve purposely kept clear of meetings. In aggregate, I schedule between 90 minutes and two hours of these buffers every day (broken into 30- to 90-minute blocks). It’s a system I developed over the last several years in response to a schedule that was becoming so jammed with back-to-back meetings that I had little time left to process what was going on around me or just think.14

Ranked the number-one CEO in the world by Forbes Magazine in 2012, CEO Jeff Bezos is also a believer in individual think time. He uses a quarterly solo retreat as a way to transform thinking into new value for customers. Amazon’s fulfillment center for third-party sellers is just one example of the innovations that his individual think time has generated. Bezos said, “I just lock myself up. There are no distractions from the office. No phones ringing. It’s just because with a little bit of isolation I find I start to get more creative.”15 Why then, don’t most leaders create individual think time? An Economist Intelligence Unit survey of 377 executives found that two-thirds of leaders in the bottom-performing companies cited the challenge: “We are too busy fighting the daily battle to step back.”16 When your team becomes too busy to stop and think about the business, prepare the lifeboats because there’s obviously more time being spent rearranging the proverbial deck chairs than getting important tasks accomplished.

The other reason individual think time is often overlooked is because the organization already has a strategic planning process in place. Leadership assumes that all of the thinking will take place during the scheduled time. The reality is that there is often lots of process and little new thinking. A process driven by the goal of filling out templates rather than generating new insights is doomed from the start. Tesla Motors and SpaceX founder Elon Musk said, “The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking.”17 The key is to carve out time for both individual and group thinking on a continual basis to ensure you’re harnessing insights in a proactive manner.

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