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The Importance of Time When We Don't Have Enough

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash

A common problem that I help clients with is how to manage and deal with their increasingly overloaded work schedules that compete with their aims to spend less time running from meeting to meeting or the desire to find a better work/life balance.

An at times dysfunctional relationship with work can build up under the belief that

“…a leader must always be busy.”

Often the busy professional, especially those at elite professional service and financial service firms struggle to make sustainable change when it comes to their work. This isn’t because of the lack of intent or the will to change but often we ignore the powerful inclinations not to change that exist in all of us.

Reasons not to change

In order to make sustainable change, it is important to examine our reasons not to change:

Reason 1: What actions might we be taking that prevent our goal, in this case freeing up time in our work schedules. There are many activities that might fall under this heading but two of the more common ones that I have experienced and worked with my clients on are:

Ineffective delegation

Believing that we can do the job quicker and better ourselves or that our team members are already really busy and so not wishing to add to their workload are just two of the common reasons for not delegating when we should do.

Remember that there are many positives arising from giving our teams more work. For example, stretch assignments are a great way for team members to learn new skills. Open and honest communication with team members to assess their strengths and capacity for new projects and being there to support them is essential.

Monkey on your back

The classic 1974 HBR article by Stephen R Covey “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” describes the affliction of the boss doing their team’s work for them and at the cost of their own work.

It can often happen in a conversation or meeting when you say to a subordinate:

  • “…let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”

  • “…send me an email for my review.”

  • “…I will call them to see if I can speed it up for you.”

  • “…let me know how I can help.”

In each case, the boss is trying to be helpful but ultimately, they are taking on the work that others more junior to them should be doing. In Covey’s terms, the monkey has been transferred from the subordinate to the boss, who is now on the critical path, and make themselves (unwittingly) subordinate to their team member!

Reason 2: What potentially competing commitments are we making, that hamper our efforts to, in this case, more effectively manage our time. These competing activities will often take the form of not saying no, or not delegating enough or allowing ourselves to be drawn into things when we should really refer to a subordinate who is responsible for that area.

Self-reflection and being brutally honest are important here. Ask a trusted peer or mentor to help you to identify the actions that you consistently take that are preventing you from making these changes and be open to being challenged. It will probably feel uncomfortable at first.

Reason 3: Our limiting assumptions or beliefs, that get in our way and prevent us from making sustainable changes. I have heard the following comments from people that I have previously worked with and clients that I have coached:

  • “I don’t control my diary and have to go to these meetings”

  • “these hours are what the job requires”

  • “they won’t think I am committed”

  • “working long hours demonstrates that I am a hard worker”

Assumptions like these can limit our ability to make the change endure, so take time to identify the limiting assumptions. Reflect on and where possible make a change. This is where a challenging coach can help expose the underlying assumptions and develop tactics and strategies to overcome them.

Listen to the Experts

Don’t just listen to me, some of the most admired business people make the same observations and strictly control what they spend their time and hence devote their attention to.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in this interview with Charlie Rose talk about the importance of managing their time. You will have to forgive my inability to capture and trim online videos, but click the link and watch the two minutes section that starts at 15minutes 40seconds:

They emphasise the importance of time and more importantly that we (must) control our own personal time, that everyone will want some of your time and so a disciplined approach is essential.

Four key things jump out from their conversation about time:

  1. “You control your time.”

  2. “Sitting and thinking maybe much higher priority than a normal CEO thinks.”

  3. “It is not a proxy for your seriousness that you filled every minute in your schedule.”

  4. “I cannot buy time and therefore I had better be careful with it.”

These points are consistent with the reasons previously highlighted as to why sustainable change often does not happen so let’s reflect on each point in turn:

1. You Control Your Time - How to Take Back Control

I have previously written on this topic “Business and Busyness” where I used the metaphor of a frog swimming around in a pan of water that is steadily getting hotter and hotter. The life of the modern busy professional can at times seem like that of the frog. The rising water temperature is the pressure that builds up around them in a demanding workplace

Make small changes to how you operate and experiment to find out what works for you and what doesn’t.

2. Sitting and Thinking - Doer/Operator versus Leader Mode

Successful professionals appreciate that they are also paid to think, reflect and plan and not just always be doing stuff. Paraphrasing Bill Gates

“sitting and thinking is a much higher priority than is commonly thought.”

I talked about leaders reverting to doer/operator mode in a previous article about Elon Musk. A leader that dips back into doer/operator mode is fine especially for fire-fighting but the problem arises when fire-fighting becomes the norm rather than the exception.

3. Not a Proxy for Your Seriousness - Difference between Managers and Leaders

“Not a proxy for your seriousness that you filled every minute in your schedule” – I don’t think that I can add further to the important point that Bill Gates makes with this statement.

4. I Cannot Buy Time - Use your time wisely and invest in yourself and those around you

Whilst we may be clueless about the lifetime value that we get from investing in ourselves and developing others, we can safely assume that the long-term benefits dwarf the investments made. Compounded over time, the continuous learning we do will generate outsized benefits to a career and help maximise the potential level that can be reached.

“Generally speaking, investing in yourself is the best thing you can do. Anything that improves your own talents – nobody can tax it or take it away from you.”

No one pretends that making sustainable change in this area is easy. Self-awareness, reflection, being honest with oneself and discipline are essential ingredients to lasting change.


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1 Comment

This is a great article - thank you Rob. I love that 'whose got the monkey' article... and Warren B is, quite simply, a legend!

Have you read much of Ray Dalio's work? Another interesting investor with his own unique way of working/running a team...


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