“Everything requires time. It is the one truly universal condition. All work takes place in time and uses up time. Yet most people take for granted this unique, irreplaceable, and necessary resource. Nothing else, perhaps, distinguishes effective executives as much as their tender loving care of time.” – Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive
Twenty-four hours in a day. One hundred and sixty eight hours in a week. We all start with the same input. No other resource gives such an even playing field. It’s then up to us how we want to use it.
Yet for the critical resource that it is, we use it like it’s going out of style.
How many days go by and we can’t recall any worthwhile accomplishments? How many days are wasted on diversions and busyness projects?
Just Getting Through the Day?
It’s amazing how we treat our time. Employees have told me, “I may not always like what I’m doing, but I’d rather be doing something than nothing.”
And, “I like being busy, it makes the day go by faster.”
People who’ve fallen into the trap of “getting through” their day.
No! Stop It! When did our lives become something to merely get through? When did each day’s goal become mere completion? A box to check on a drudgery to-do list.
Why would we want our days to go by faster? At the end of our lives, will we look back with satisfaction at how quickly life passed by? Or would we rather have a cache of vivid memories, built from savoring our time and making the most of every moment?
Where Did The Day Go?
“I wasted time and now doth time waste me;” – William Shakespeare, Richard II
At one point in my career, I worked at least eleven hours a day. Even then, I still struggled to get everything done. And not just minor tasks. Core work that was critical to my job as manager.
I’d fallen into the busyness trap. I was focusing on the immediate and ignoring the important. There’s days I think back on and the only thought that comes up, is “just what did I do for eleven hours?”
I sat in meetings. I talked about emergent issues. The day flew by. But I didn’t get anything done. And my safety net was the ability to bring work home and do it later that night. Fun times, right?
And each day ended with the same depressing question. “Where did my time go today?”
So I started tracking it to find out. I am, after all, an engineer.
Know Where It Goes
“The effective executive therefore knows that to manage his time, he first has to know where it actually goes.” – Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive
Studies show that people are notoriously bad at estimating how they spend their time.
In The Truth About How Much Workaholics Actually Work, Laura Vanderkam shows multiple examples of how we overestimate our time working. Those who claimed to work on average seventy hour weeks, typically overestimate their time worked by twenty hours. (Maybe I wasn’t really working those eleven hour days…)
I wasn’t immune to this bias, either. Before starting, I figured my time would be split (somewhat evenly) between the following areas:
- Reviewing technical work
- Planning and progress meetings
- Resolving immediate issues
- Responding to daily requests
- Coaching and career planning
- Reviewing suppliers
- Recruiting and interviewing
- Developing recommendations
- Implementing new initiatives
So I tracked it. Every fifteen minutes was accounted for. Nothing complicated, I just took notes in my planner. Then compiled it at the end of the week.
After a month of tracking, the breakdown was described by one engineer as “pathetic.” And another as “so…that’s what you do all day.” In hindsight, sharing these details with my employees may have demystified their illusion on the importance of management. The results weren’t impressive.
- Various status meetings – 20%
- Responding to daily (routine) requests – 17%
- Resolving urgent (non-routine) issues – 14%
- Reviewing technical work – 14%
- Informal discussions – 8%
- Work planning meetings – 8%
- Developing recommendations – 7%
- Developing new opportunities and initiatives – 5%
- Recruiting – 4%
- Career planning – 3%
And I even knew that I was tracking my own time. I was conscious of it. It wasn’t exactly a double blind study. Yet I still spent around 45 percent of my time on low value tasks. I’ve been donating around 20 hours per week to low value work.
At least there’s plenty of room for improvement.
So What’s Important?
“Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.” – Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Work Week
It was easy to let my inbox drive the day’s actions. I didn’t actually need to plan or focus on complex issues. There was an infinite stream of emergent work to rationalize away the truly important – but uncomfortable – responsibilities.
And I’m driven by consequences. When it’s easy to rationalize and procrastinate off a difficult project, I’ll usually do it. The uncertain, future consequence of maybe missing a deadline can’t compete with the certain, immediate consequence of avoiding the difficult task.
So I needed to give myself a better consequence. I needed to make it a more conscious decision. I needed to define which activities were high-value and which correspond to a lower nature. To acknowledge that by choosing a low value activity, I’m knowingly avoiding the important. Then all sorts of ego and consistency biases jump on board to push me in the right direction.
What activities would demonstrate the most value? Which responsibilities, if I increased focus, would maximize my overall effectiveness?
Easier said than done. Obviously checking email and responding to trivial requests is low value. Ditto for goofing around with coworkers. But reviewing supplier progress and developing corrective actions? What about discussing employee development against their career plans? Or that cubicle volleyball league we started?
So I just try to ask, “Will I be able to add unique value in this situation? And will that value have a worthwhile impact on our future work?”
In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport poses a similar question when considering the relative value of tasks. He asks, “How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?”
I don’t think the method matters as much as just having some criteria.
By mine, progress meetings and discussions are relatively low value. I add little that’s unique. Another member of my team could easily step in and cover it. Similarly, budget and schedule issues are not my strength. My thoughts on go-forward actions aren’t exactly profound.
Conversely, coaching and mentoring are high value. I have a unique knowledge of my group’s strengths and development areas. I know where they want to take their careers. And I’m familiar with the organization to understand future opportunities. Technical recommendations, initiatives, and strategies are also high-value. Each of these has significant impact on the future of our organization and I’m in a position to positively effect them.
And I enjoy doing them. That obviously has some impact. In the end, I settled on the following high-value activities.
- Reviewing technical work
- Developing recommendations
- Resolving emergent technical and personnel issues
- Career and work planning
- Developing new opportunities and initiatives
- Recruiting (initial resume review and final interview)
These are the areas where I’ll have the most impact. If I want to make the most of each day, these should be the areas that are the dominant use of my time.
Conversely, low-value activities fill in the remainder. Meetings and daily requests. Briefings and budgetary reviews. Metrics and audits. I doubt I’ll ever be able to completely eliminate them. But hopefully they’ll just fill in the gaps. And no longer dominate the day.
“Prioritizing requires leaders to continually think ahead, to know what’s important, to know what’s next, to see how everything relates to the overall vision. Prioritizing causes us to do things that are at the least uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful.” – John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership
So yeah, high-value activities are defined. Nothing left to do but start delivering value.
Except they’re often too high level. And if I can’t see a clear action, it’s too easy to fall back into the busyness trap. Or I’ll revert back to that reactive posture and allow others to dictate my day.
And then I’m back to answering emails all day. Or scanning social media sites. Or reading random Wikipedia pages.
Setting weekly priorities helped curb this daily laziness. Every Monday morning, I set a list of weekly priorities. Specific actions that I can take that will deliver on those high-value activities.
It’s like having a ready-made set of actions that I can turn to when I need direction on what to do next. It highlights key actions and helps me allocate my time throughout the week.
I try to answer, “What actions, if completed, would have me consider this week to be successful?”
An example for this week includes:
- Develop new department training plan to improve technical depth and increase engineering engagement.
- Review technical recommendations for Design X and Issue Y.
- Review supplier Z development plans and suggest improvements to their process.
- Work with Engineers A, B, and C to review current work plans against their career aspirations.
- Review hiring progress against resource demands and revise strategy as needed.
- Interview top candidate for mechanical engineering position.
- Charter a team to review our internal career planning options and recommend improvements.
- Research and better understand at least one new technical concept.
Maybe they won’t all get done. Probably they won’t all get done. But now I have a target. And I’m excited about the prospect of focusing on high-value areas.
“It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule if you don’t face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work, and then adopt the habit of pausing before action and asking, ‘What makes the most sense right now?'” – Cal Newport, Deep Work
Cal Newport’s advice builds off the idea that we often drift through our days on autopilot, allowing distractions to fill the vacuum caused by a lack of focus. His solution is to schedule every minute of our days. To provide structure and thoughtfulness to each activity and guard ourselves from devolving into a day of distractions and meaningless tasks.
And there’s a big difference between not choosing to do something and choosing not to do something.
So I started scheduling my days. Every block is accounted for. And I actively plan out blocks of time to tackle my top priorities for the week.
And then things change. Someone interrupts with an urgent issue. “How dare they! Don’t they know I’m on a schedule!”
Or maybe it’s not really a big deal. I can revise it and move on. I typically see about four revisions in a day. Things come up. Plans change.
Each day isn’t about rigidly sticking to the plan. It’s just about being intentional in how I use my time. And actively using it in areas that will be most impactful. And reminding me to do “what makes the most sense right now.”
“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way: the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.” – Cal Newport, Deep Work
Outside of the time spent on low value activities, there was another disturbing tendency. My average task duration was around thirty-five minutes. And taking meetings out of the formula, the average drops to twenty-three minutes. Twenty-three minutes.
This one was especially eye-opening, showing how distractions lead to compounding distractions, further preventing us from focusing on our core work. In 27% of cases, actually delaying people’s return to their focused activity by more than two hours.
And there’s the notion of attention residue and the work that Sophie Loren has done to show that our minds are unable to automatically switch and immediately focus when we shift tasks.
There are warehouses full of paper from studies on the evils of multi-tasking. Yet most of us still do it. Some with delusional pride, others with the shame of an addict. We’re masochists on our ability to focus and produce at a peak level.
Who can really focus in twenty-three minutes? Is my attention span that bad? I suppose years of television conditioning have limited my attention span to the length of a Simpsons’ episode.
If we want to make the most of our time we need to maximize the consistency of our focus. There’s an obvious difference between intensely focusing on a task for hours and building up that same total in twenty-three minute increments.
So when I schedule my day, the top priority is to carve out as many uninterrupted lengths as possible. Without intentionally scheduling these sessions, it’s easy to fall back into a day absorbed by twenty-three minute, distraction filled shallowness.
Measure and Manage
I’m a sucker for data. Ah, engineering. I had to get rid of my Fitbit because I spent too much time analyzing the minutiae.
So I try to keep it simple. I pull the totals and review. See what there is to learn. Bucket the total hours into various categories and check my effectiveness.
It’s data. And it’s only useful if I do something with it. Last week, it was still too much time spent in low value activities (37%, ugh). Which just means that next week’s schedule needs to change. And I need to increase focus on the important over the immediate.
Our Time Is Ours
“The supply of time is totally inelastic. No matter how high the demand, the supply will not go up. There is no price for it and no marginal utility curve for it. Moreover, time is totally perishable and cannot be stored. Yesterday’s time is gone forever and will never come back. Time is, therefore, always in exceedingly short supply.” – Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive
Our time is ours to use. Then it’s gone. We cannot store it or regain it. We can only hope to use it effectively.
We all know that distractions are more available and better engineered than ever before. And the ever-increasing focus on collaboration pulls us in many different directions.
But these aren’t insurmountable obstacles. We’re not powerless in the face of them. They can be managed and put to effective use with intention.
It’s just a matter of focus. Decide what’s valuable. Set priorities. Schedule. Evaluate the results.
I don’t have a specific goal. I don’t know if an optimal balance will ever define itself. So I’ll be happy that each week brings progress and focus. And gets me a little closer to Drucker’s effective executive. And Ferriss’s new rich. And Newport’s craftsman.