I recently started working with several clients who have the common leadership challenge of time management. Luckily, the July/August Harvard Business Review contains a perfectly relevant article, How CEOs Manage Time. While my clients are not all CEOs, the article still has recommendations and takeaways that are applicable to any leader.
Set priorities. The authors learned from their research that it is important to have priorities for how your time is spent, on broad initiatives and specific issues, and for both deadline-driven goals and open-ended matters. They also found that setting priorities, and deliberately choosing to spend time on activities that further your priorities, is one of the most important tools for making progress on multiple work streams, and for using time effectively, even when you must respond to unexpected events. Aligning time allocation with priorities is so critical that the authors recommend a quarterly tracking and review of how your time was spent vs. your priorities, and adjusting priorities and time allocations as needed.
Plan for the unexpected. Most clients I work with face some form of, “I have a plan for the day, then a crisis pulls me away, and my day is shot.” The article corroborates that on average, 36% of a CEO’s time is spent in a reactive mode, dealing with unfolding issues. If you know at 8am you have a full schedule, and then you add another 36% to that day, you are in for a long day every day. You can’t add hours to the day, but you can free up time to deal with the unexpected. The authors suggest taking a look at everything that you do and asking if it is a habit (personal or organizational), or if it serves an important purpose to you. This is a starting point to determine what you must be doing vs. what you can delegate. (Another takeaway from the article: CEOs rely heavily on their direct reports).
Schedule alone time. So where do you find the time to set priorities, audit how your time is spent, and determine what to delegate? If your calendar is filling up with obligations, start scheduling time for yourself. Not only is this necessary for time management but it is also critical for leaders to remove themselves from day-to-day operational activities to dedicate time to reflection, preparation, strategic thinking, planning ahead, and the future. The authors founds that common pitfalls are making these blocks of time too short, and not using the time for the intended purpose, instead being distracted by immediate matters (particularly email inboxes). Block off the time on your calendar, and be diligent about protecting it.
Rethink your meetings. CEOs in the study have on average 37 meetings per week and spend 72% of their total work time in meetings. It is critical to be judicious with your time in meetings. Ask yourself:
- Do I need to be there? What are your role and responsibilities for the meeting? Is your attendance essential? Can someone else attend instead?
- Can meetings be shorter? The authors found that meeting length was frequently a result of habit, and a default length like one hour was an organizational norm. Can meetings be cut back to 45, 30, or 15 minutes?
- Can meetings be more efficient and effective? Have an agenda that includes purpose, topics, and intended outcomes. Be thoughtful about who must attend, be clear about required preparation, and start and finish on time.
As people move into and upward in leadership positions, they assume new and different responsibilities and may suddenly find themselves overwhelmed. New approaches and strategies can help you make the most of your finite availability.