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More on time management
What You Can do on Monday That’s Different
“Everything requires time,” Peter Drucker wrote. “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.” But what does this actually mean? We have all read countless articles from experts who offer up myriad time-management tricks. For our part, we wanted to get beyond the punditry and find real examples of effective practice from real executives. Among the 10 that we highlight: Cap your face time. Answer yesterday’s emails today. Don’t waste wasted time. Get real with the boss. Daydream. Don’t put yourself on the spot. Ditch Davos. Eat the big frog first. Leave the office at 5:30. And find an accountability buddy.
Peter Drucker liked to tell the story of the farmer who rejected outside advice, saying, “I already know how to farm twice as well as I do.” That’s how many of us are when it comes to allocating our time. We already know how to use it twice as well as we do; we just don’t.
This is hardly a new concern. One of the first great evangelists of time management was Benjamin Franklin, who released exhortations in the form of Poor Richard’s Almanack. “Dost thou love life?” asked Poor Richard. “Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” Poor Richard also warned readers that “lost time is never found again” and encouraged them not to sleep in, since “he that riseth late, must trot all day, and shall scarce overtake his business by night.”
As an aid to productivity, Franklin laid out a tight timetable for himself. Five o’clock was the hour to rise (after seven hours’ sleep), and noon to 2 was a break to “read or overlook my accounts, and dine.” Even Franklin, though, admitted that he could not always follow his own guidelines. “My scheme of order gave me the most trouble,” he wrote, because the outside world imposed demands of its own, making Franklin’s schedule “not possible to be exactly observed.”
Today, “time management” has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry, replete with books, blogs, gurus and electronic gizmos for tracking how you spend each and every hour of your day. But the fundamental challenge has always been the same: How do you focus intently and productively on what matters most, and leave aside the rest?
“Nothing else,” Drucker declared, “distinguishes effective executives as much as their tender loving care of time.”
What follows are the techniques employed by 10 effective executives to make the most of their time. We hope they’ll prove useful. After all, the best ideas aren’t just worth hearing; they’re worth stealing.
Before he served as CEO of the International Rescue Committee from 2002 until last year, George Rupp was president of Columbia University. There is no escaping the heavy face-to-face requirements of such jobs—the speeches, the staff meetings and, above all, the relentless schmoozing with donors and prospective donors.
Without such interactions, Rupp would not have been able to double Columbia’s endowment (to about $4 billion) during his tenure there or to triple the budget of IRC (to more than $400 million). But with too many appointments, Rupp would have had no time for doing everything else a leader must do, including mapping out a vision, setting clear objectives and planning for the long term. As Drucker warned, “one cannot meet and work at the same time.”
That’s why Rupp resisted—and still resists—the pressure to allow face-to-face obligations to crowd out everything else. Specifically, he is rigorous about stuffing all of his meetings into one part of his daily calendar so as to reserve big blocks of time in the other part. “I have established a pattern that allows meetings and appointments to consume only a little more than half of each work day,” Rupp notes. “So I have almost half the day to complete the other tasks that I need to do.”
Zappos, the online retailer, prides itself on fast service. But its CEO, Tony Hsieh, is always a day behind on his emails.
That’s very much by design. Hsieh calls his system “Yesterbox,” and the idea is this: Rather than treat your emails like baseballs launched in a batting cage, taking a swing at each as it comes in, let them all settle and then review the pile the next day.
The advantage? “When you get up in the morning, you know exactly how many emails you have to get through, there’s a sense of progress as you process each email from yesterday and remove it from your inbox, and there’s actually a point when you have zero emails left to process from yesterday,” Hsieh observes. Now, instead of finding days broken up and time stolen, Hsieh is generally able to complete his email in a single three-hour stretch.
Obviously, this system requires that you notify and gain acceptance from your co-workers, and exceptions must be made for emails that truly cannot wait. But the idea seems to have legs. When we contacted Hsieh to ask whether his method had any takers, he said that it did: “I’ve heard from several people who have tried it that it’s been life-changing for them.”
Perhaps, then, you’ll thank us for the tip. Tomorrow.
When you start working for Debra Shriver, chief communications officer at Hearst Corp., you invariably get a brisk (some might say alarming) list of workplace rules to keep in mind. Among them: “If I have to remind you about a project, assume I think you are taking too long” and “If I have to remind or ask you a third time, assume I think you’ve dropped the ball.”
Office workers are interrupted—by themselves or others—roughly every three minutes, on average. Tweet this
The term “time management” started making appearances in the 1960s before taking off in the early ’70s, spurred in part by the publication of Alan Lakein’s How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. Tweet this
A typical executive today can expect an average of 30,000 outside communications a year, up from 1,000 annually in the 1970s. Tweet this
The average worker puts in only 1.5 hours of real work per day, with unproductive meetings filling much of the rest of the time. Tweet this
A hat-tip to Gloria Mark of UC Irvine and Daniela Gudith and Ulrich Klocke of Germany’s Humboldt University; Google Ngram; Bain & Co.; and Microsoft, America Online and Salary.com, respectively.
Shriver’s work is fast-paced, and she stays connected, answering correspondence promptly. (She’s no Tony Hsieh in this regard.) But she is careful with her time. In fact, consultant Julie Morgenstern has called Shriver “one of the greatest time managers that I know.”
One rule to which she adheres is “don’t follow brainwork with brainwork”—meaning that if you have to do some intense thinking, follow it by doing something light. But even more important to Shriver is the dictum, “Don’t waste wasted time.”
One spot where you’ll find an abundance of this is on airplanes, during which the only intrusion is the drink service. Since 2010, Shriver has published two books—Stealing Magnolias and In the Spirit of New Orleans—and she credits her output with making the absolute most of being sequestered on jetliners. “You can get a lot done in three hours of uninterrupted time,” she says.
It’s hard to manage a city of 240,000. It’s even harder when it’s a place that has, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, a “reputation for bitter and divisive politics.” And yet the metropolis with that reputation, Irvine, Calif., has also been ranked by the financial news and opinion website 24/7 Wall St. as the best-run large city in the United States.
Irvine’s manager since 2005 has been Sean Joyce, who, like all top administrators in cities with a council-manager form of government, not only oversees the administration of the city but also reports to the city council. It’s a tricky position. The time demands from below are extensive, but so are the time demands from above—and from multiple bosses, no less.
Joyce’s method of dealing with these challenges is, at heart, simple: He stays honest with himself about how much time he and the city workforce have to take on a particular task, and then makes clear to his bosses what tradeoffs this entails. To ensure transparency, Joyce favors periodic off-sites with the city council in order to compare goals and set realistic priorities. “While I make a commitment that we will strive to do all that they wish to accomplish,” Joyce says, “I also help them understand our administrative capacity.”
Even before he was part of the team that founded Intel Israel in 1974, Dov Frohman had come up with “erasable programmable read only memory,” or EPROM, a key technology for flash drives. As with many other innovations in Frohman’s career, EPROM was the result of taking time to stop and think.
This is why that Frohman, like George Rupp, would consistently keep half of his calendar blank. (He retired in 2001.) But Frohman was also careful not to fill up that empty space with myriad other tasks—writing speeches or making plans. Often, he’d just sit and ponder.
“In Western culture today, we live under the premise that ‘I’m busy’ means ‘I’m efficient,’ and if you’re not busy, that’s seen as a big, big problem,” Frohman has said. “If you look at the calendars of most leaders and managers, you see that there is no space for reflection, no space for reevaluating failures, no space for daydreaming, which to me, is an essential part of leadership, because just about every one of my breakthroughs were results of daydreams, including EPROM.”
In Western culture today, we live under the premise that ‘I’m busy’ means ‘I’m efficient,’ and if you’re not busy, that’s seen as a big, big problem.”
Founder, Intel Israel
When we first contacted Julie Morgenstern, who is best known for her “Inside Out” management bestsellers, she came prepared to discuss the ways in which various executives with whom she has worked manage their time. She did not expect to be asked if she had a good time-management practice of her own.
Her response to this question was that she’d get back to us in a day or two—adding that she’d effectively answered us in the process. “Don’t automatically respond to every request the minute it comes in, if you need time to think about it,” she explains. The idea is to get out of what Morgenstern calls the “reactive stance,” the result of feeling like you’re under the gun. The reactive stance leads to worse results, and we are notably vulnerable to it in meetings and other office interactions.
So take that extra time. “Eighty percent of the unexpected requests are truly not emergencies; it’s just the moment someone thought to ask you,” Morgenstern says. “We are far more efficient and effective when we come at things proactively rather than reactively.”
When Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. released the book In Search of Excellence in 1982, they found themselves with a bestseller on their hands and a lot of requests to respond to. Peters is naturally inclined to say yes, but “learned to say no nine and a half out of 10 times.” Today, he adds, “I’m damn good at saying no.”
Saying no, Peters counsels, is especially important for executives when invitations are asked to rarefied gatherings, like Davos. “You get out of touch,” he warns. “Your ego goes wild, even though you don’t know it.”
It also exacerbates another problem: Most “CEOs spend 95% of their time with people they know very well.” Such a lack of diversity of perspectives is dangerous for business. So learn to say no, particularly to swank affairs, and you’ll have more time on your calendar, which you can then “spend with people who are different,” Peters says.
There’s a saying—often attributed to Mark Twain (but almost certainly incorrectly)—that if you have to swallow a frog, do it first thing in the morning. And if you have to swallow two frogs, eat the big one first.
Merrillyn Kosier, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of mutual funds at Ariel Investments, abides by that principle (minus any actual frogs). The equivalent for her are major pieces of writing: strategic plans, performance reviews, big reports.
“Do the hardest thing first,” she advises, and “don’t let others hijack your day and zap your productivity.” When you’re done, she says, you’ll be left with “enormous confidence to do more.”
And one other thing: Don’t try to cheat by doing a couple of little things on the side while you’re trying to down that giant frog. “Multitasking is a trap,” Kosier says.
Sheryl Sandberg is chief operating officer at Facebook and author of the bestseller Lean In. At 5:30, however, she is routinely out the door and on her way home to dinner with her family.
“I’ve been doing that since I had kids,” Sandberg has said. In so doing, Sandberg has become a role model for parents trying to find the proper work-life balance. But it’s also forced her to become a better time manager—and, for her, that has meant “ruthlessly prioritizing.”
You can only do so much. There are five more projects you want to do, but you pick the three that are really going to matter, and you try to do those really well, and you don’t even try to do the others.”
Chief Operating Officer, Facebook and author of the bestseller Lean In.
“You can only do so much,” she says. “There are five more projects you want to do, but you pick the three that are really going to matter, and you try to do those really well, and you don’t even try to do the others.”
We’ll add that Sandberg is in good company. Alfred Sloan, the legendary chief of General Motors and one of Drucker’s favorite executives, made a habit of leaving work at 5:30, as well.
Executive coach Stever Robbins, host of the popular “Get-It-Done Guy” podcast, freely admits to being imperfect at time management. He tries to keep half of his time unscheduled, but he does not always succeed, and his effectiveness fluctuates.
Indeed, he says, everyone is vulnerable to drift and waste where time is concerned, and fancy time-management systems don’t make much difference. But there is one tool, he says, that seems to work especially well: “a live accountability buddy”—a friend or colleague who will keep you honest about your commitments.
To that end, Robbins even hosts “Do-It Days,” during which 10 people call into a conference line once an hour and announce, one by one, what they intend to accomplish in the next 60 minutes and what they accomplished in the previous 60. “We have this weird love of deeply abstruse systems,” Robbins says, but “with most people, there’s no deep dark reason they’re not getting things done.”
They just need someone to remind them that the clock is ticking—and to hold them to their word.*
The only way to know how you’re really spending your time is to track it carefully.
Peter Drucker identified four of them that are all too common—overstaffing, an excess of meetings, the “recurrent crisis,” and information that flows to the wrong part of the organization or arrives in the wrong form.
Ask yourself what would happen if you ceased to carry out a particular activity. If the answer is “Nothing,” then stop doing it.