Know thy time
March 02, 2019
Nothing else, perhaps, distinguishes effective executives as much as their tender loving care of time.
Time is a reality that constrains everyone. It always has.
Julius Caesar had the same amount of time as a Roman peasant.
The CEO has the same 24 hours as the janitor.
The superstar athlete shares the same season as the benchwarmer
Contrary to what we might think, money is plentiful. Demand, not supply, sets the limits of growth.
Similarly, one can always hire more workers.
But one cannot rent, hire, buy, or otherwise obtain more time. The supply of time us totally inelastic. No matter how high the demand, the supply will not go up.
We don’t readily understand this: we spend our childhood with a sense that we have all the time in the world.
When summer break comes it stretches before us like it will never end. There’s a reason we glorify youth culture because we truly believe we’ll be “forever young,” but the saying is true, “all good things come to an end.”
The problem we have is we don’t value our time until most of its been spent.
Peter Drucker wants us to see the value of our time.
Time is the scarcest resource, and unless it is managed nothing else can be managed.
So, how do we manage it?
Thankfully, time is one of Drucker’s essential practices for becoming effective:
1. Time management
- Choosing our contribution
- How to use strength
- Finding the right priorities
- Making good decisions
We will get to others in due time, for now, let’s focus on time.
Start with your time, not your tasks
Most people start with their tasks. On the face of it that sounds like a good approach, after all, we need to know what has to be done.
What we don’t recognize is how tasks can multiply and grow to take up all available space unless we constrain them in some way.
A British civil servant named Cyril Northcote Parkinson observed that:
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
This simple idea became known as Parkinson’s law, and he gave the following example of how this plays out:
An elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.
When we start with what we need to do rather than the time available our tasks grow and grow until before we know it what should have been accomplished in relatively short order has become all-encompassing.
The “cramming” many people find themselves doing in college is another example of Parkinson’s Law in action.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: a professor assigns a paper to be turned in on the last day of the semester. What do many college students do? They wait until the day before to get started working on it.
The work of writing the paper “expanded” to fill the entire semester.
Parkinson’s Law is but one of the dangers that face us if we don’t begin with our time.
Another danger is that:
The plans always remain on paper, always good intentions. They seldom turn into achievement.
If we do not have a handle on our time then we can’t be sure we have the resources to carry out our plans, nor will we get around to allotting the available time to the important work that needs to be done.
The higher up in the organization he is, the more demands on his time with the organization make.
Most things of value take large chunks of time. Big problems require big blocks of time to understand, let alone tackle.
Managers can miss this point.
The manager who thinks he can discuss the plans, direction, and performance of one of his subordinates in fifteen minutes––and many managers believe this––is just deceiving himself.
We need time, but if we don’t guard it is quickly stolen from us. It doesn’t help that we fool ourselves into believing everything is alright.
That we have all the time we need to accomplish the important goals we’ve set.
And yet we only find time work on our unique contributions in drips and drabs. A little bit here and a little bit there in between meetings, emails, and other time thieves.’
So, what are we to do? How do we get a handle on our time?
Drucker has three steps every person must go through.
- Diagnose your time.
- Prune your time.
- Consolidate your time.
Step one: Diagnosing your time
The first step toward executive effectiveness is therefore to record actual time-use.
Drucker makes the point that most people have no idea where their time goes, and one cannot manage their time without knowing how they’re spending it.
It’s a problem of self-knowledge.
Part of this step, then, is to record how you’re spending your time.
To be clear, the method of recording doesn’t matter all too much. It could be something as simple as recording your time in a notebook like this:
8:30-9a Stand Up
9-10a Meeting with CEO
Again, the method doesn’t matter. You could use a spreadsheet, a time tracking app, or anything else. We simply want to have a place we can record our time for later analysis.
Track your time for at least a couple weeks so you have a good running average of how you are spending your time.
Once the tracking is done, it is then we can go back and examine if we’re using our days well.
Drucker has three suggestions to help diagnose how we use our time.
- Identify time waste
- Delegate what can you can
- Stop wasting others’ time
1. Identify time wasters
The question to ask is “what am I doing that doesn’t need to be done at all?”
It is amazing how many things busy people are doing that will never be missed.
Things in this category are not to be delegated, they are not to be done by anyone.
If it doesn’t need to be done at all, then it doesn’t need to be done by someone else.
We need to learn to say “no” to those things which provide no contribution to ourselves or our company.
If you’re unconvinced that such time wasters exist in your day:
I have yet to see an executive, regardless of rank or station, who could not consign something like a quarter of the demands on his time to the wastepaper basket without anybody’s noticing.
2. Delegate what can be done by someone else
Once you’ve identified what you’re doing that doesn’t need to be done by anyone, the next question is “what am I doing that could be done by someone else?”
What are those things you do daily, weekly, monthly, etc. that are “necessary evils?” If it fits into that category then you need to ask if it’s necessary for you to do it.
The way we typically think about delegation is guilt-ridden.
If it means that somebody else ought to do part of “my work,” it is wrong.
Delegating is not pushing your work on others, rather, we want to stop doing anything that is not our work.
The only way [we] can get to the important things is by pushing to others anything that can be done by them at all.
Drucker describes delegation as,
Getting rid of anything that can be done by somebody else so that one does not have to delegate but can really get to one’s own work.
Delegating then is not getting other people to do our work for us, but rather is freeing us to do our true work. It enables us to make our unique contribution.
Rules for delegating
David Allen in his book Getting Things Done has some more helpful thoughts on delegation.
The question he says we should ask is similar to Drucker’s:
Am I the best person to be doing it?
If you aren’t then the task should go to someone downstream from you, but that isn’t always the case.
Delegation isn’t always downstream. You may decide, “This has got to get over to Customer Service,” or “My boss needs to put her eyes on this next,” or “I need my partner’s point of view on this.”
Allen provides a few ways you could delegate the work
- Written note
- Text or voicemail
- As an agenda item for your next in-person chat
- Talk to them directly
The recommendation is to start with email as it tends to be quickest, provides an electronic record, and the person delegated to can deal with it in their own time.
Keeping tabs on the task.
There are times you are responsible for ensuring the delegated work gets done. Especially if it relates to subordinates.
The GTD way of doing this is to have a list called Waiting For. In that list lives anything you’ve delegated to someone and you need to ensure it gets done.
3. Stop wasting other people’s time
Drucker recommends being bold here and simply asking people what you do that wastes their time.
This isn’t just water cooler talk.
The manner in which an executive does productive work may still be a major waste of somebody’s else’s time.
Are you inviting people to meetings who don’t need to be there?
Do you fire off emails for things you could find out through Googling?
Meetings are probably the biggest issue. People are afraid of hurting other’s feelings by not inviting someone to a meeting, even if they aren’t needed.
Those same people who don’t need to be there likely feel pressure to go because of the invite.
Invite the people who need to come, and send a summary to those who may need to know.
Step two: Pruning your time
Poor management wastes everybody’s time–but above all, it wastes the manager’s time.
Once our time has been diagnosed we start trimming wasted time.
This can be facilitated by looking at four problem areas where time waste often occurs:
- Lack of a system/foresight
1. Time waste from a lack of a system/foresight
Symptom: the recurring crisis.
The crisis that recurs a second time is a crisis that must not occur again.
If there is a crisis that occurs over and over again (end of year rush to do inventory, budget-related crises, etc.) we should create a procedure that ensures it’s always taken care of.
The definition of a “routine” is that it makes unskilled people without judgment capable of doing what it took near-genius to do before; for a routine puts down in systematic, step-by-step form what a very able man learn in surmounting yesterday’s crisis.
What we want are standard operating procedures for problems that regularly crop up.
Software engineers have an analogous rule for code called Don’t Repeat Yourself or DRY. It’s about finding places code has been written to solve the same sort of problem multiple times, and to consolidate it to one area.
These recurring crises aren’t unique. If you’ve faced them before, there should be an established way to deal with them.
A well-managed organization is a “dull” organization. The “dramatic” things in such an organization are basic decisions that make the future, rather than heroics in mopping up yesterday.
The heroics of mopping up yesterday are addicting, we get a rush from saving the day, but that rush also steals time from the real work of the organization. Make the problems routine, and then forget about them.
2. Time waste from overstaffing
Symptom: spending too much time dealing with interpersonal conflict.
If it takes one person two days to get a particular job done then how long would it take two people? The elementary school math answer would be one day, but the real world answer isn’t so clean cut.
Fred Brooks made an observation in his book The Mythical Man-Month that “adding human resources to a late software project makes it later.”
This is known as Brooks’ law.
It’s counterintuitive. It seems like adding more resources should always speed up a project, but less can be more for a few reasons:
- There is a ramp-up time before people are actually productive, and during that time they’re an active drain.
- Communication overhead increases exponentially as more workers are added.
- Some tasks are simply less divisible. Adding more people to a task such as cleaning hotel rooms would decrease the amount of time it took until you added so many people they got in each other’s way. Other tasks are not so straightforward: “nine women can’t make a baby in one month.”Brooks’ Law
One should only have on a team the knowledges and skills that are needed day in and day out.
A balance that takes work to maintain.
3. Time waste from disorganization
Symptom: too many meetings.
Meetings are such a fact of life that they aren’t questioned as to whether or not they’re necessary. That shouldn’t be the case.
Meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization. For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.
Meetings occur for a few reasons, but the main one is to facilitate cooperation. So, we meet in order to ensure that everyone is on the same page, and all the information that is in the head of various people is disseminated.
Too many meetings signify that work that should be in one job or in one component is spread over several jobs or several components.
Too many meetings occur when people don’t know what they need to in order to do their work.
The people who call meetings often don’t know who should be there so the invite is too wide, and more time is wasted than needs to be.
Meetings can be reduced if the required coordination across jobs and department is lowered.
Meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule.
Something else that fits into this category is empowerment failures. This comes from Tim Ferriss, in Four Hour Work Week, and he defines it this way:
Instances where someones needs approval to make something small happen. Here are just a few: fixing customer problems (lost shipments, damaged shipments, malfunctions, etc.), customer contact, cash expenditures of all types.
Each empowerment failure requires more of your time as you either provide the solution or approve the action to be taken.
The solution is to establish rules to empower people to act without intervention.
This can be a set of standard operating procedures for dealing with particular situations or detailed FAQs for your employees that offers answers for what to do when problems arise.
4. Time waste from miscommunication
Symptom: lack of up to date information.
This usually comes in two forms:
- Out of date information.
- Information in the wrong form.
The first issue is one of information rot. You no longer trust the information as presented because you aren’t sure it’s current.
Time waste enters the picture because the person who uses the information must verify its accuracy or risk being burned by expired data.
The second usually occurs when one department has information in a particular form, and someone else needs it in another form. One of the two groups will be forced to spend time converting the information into the form they need.
Step three: Consolidating your time
The point of all of this is to know what time we have to make our contribution. It’s usually not as much as we think:
Senior executives rarely have as much as one quarter of their time truly at their disposal and available for the important matters, the matters that contribute, the matters they are being paid for.
Those of us in less senior positions might have a great deal more than that, but the modern workplace has a way of stealing time from us that we’ll never get back.
So, we must search for blocks of time.
Even one quarter of the working day, if consolidated in large time units, is usually enough to get the import things done. But even three quarters of the working day are useless if they only available as fifteen minutes here or half an hour there.
A few tips on how to do this:
- Work one day a week at home. This requires flexibility with your job, but many companies are open to this sort of arrangement.
- Batch your meetings to particular days of the week. This is common advice today, but Drucker was ahead of the curve.
- Schedule time to yourself in the morning. Work part of the day at home, and then come in around lunch.
It’s important now more than ever to ensure this time doesn’t have constant low-grade distractions from your phone, so, put the phone in another room.
Our brains are novelty seeking machines, and when we work deeply on something difficult the escape hatch for our monkey-minds is to reach for our phones to find stimulation.
There’s a great quote in Deep Work from author Neal Stephenson describing the importance of having large chunks of time to his task of writing books:
If I organize my time life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time . . . there is a bunch of email messages that I have sent out to individual persons.
There is no life hack for producing quality work. Newport puts the formula like this:
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
In order to get to that high-quality level of work we need to ensure we have both the time to spend (we’ve consolidated our time), and we’ve eliminated any distractions we may have during that time.
We have to know our time and control our time. Once we actually know what time is ours to do with as we please we must guard it jealously and use it wisely. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.
“Know Thyself,” the old prescription for wisdom, is almost impossibly difficult for mortal men. But everyone can follow the injunction “Know Thy Time” if he wants to, and be well on the road to contribution and effectiveness.