The Strategic Use of Time

“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”

Carl Sandburg, Pulitzer-prize winning writer

As one’s leadership responsibilities increase, their disposable time can decrease proportionately. More meetings, more email–seemingly more of everything that eats up time. A survey of 1,500 leaders on their time allocation showed that only 9 percent were “very satisfied” with how they spend their time and nearly 50 percent confessing that they didn’t spend enough time on strategic direction.

As leaders move to higher levels in an organization, it’s natural for them to continue applying their expertise to a wide variety of operational and tactical issues that arise, even if those issues are no longer within their realm of responsibilities. A three-year study of 39 companies in eight industries found that on average, 41 percent of a manager’s time is consumed by these discretionary activities that could and should be handled by others. While performing these unnecessary types of tasks is a natural inclination, it also does them a disservice in the long run. Their inability to let go of past tasks results in not cultivating new skills that will be instrumental to the firm’s future success and it hinders the development of other managers who should be fulfilling these responsibilities.

Leaders who are unable to delegate often rely more heavily on multitasking. One of the main ingredients in the multitasking recipe is email. It’s estimated that the average manager spends approximately 23 percent of their day on email, with one analysis calculating the time on email at nearly 50 percent.  It’s not uncommon to observe a leader in a meeting reviewing and responding to emails on one of their devices, while potentially important insights are shared by others and missed by them. A ten-year study of thousands of managers found that 40 percent continually work in a distracted state, characterized by a lack of focus and their mistaking activity for achievement. If the people and topics in a meeting don’t deserve your undivided attention, then why are you there in the first place?

While working on several things at once may provide a feeling of overachievement, it’s in fact a smokescreen for lower productivity. As researchers in a Harvard Business Review study concluded, “You may suspect that multitasking is counterproductive and new data suggest it is. The more workers switch tasks, the less they accomplish.”

To more effectively utilize time in your leadership role, consider the following ideas:

1. Dedicate chunks of time to a single task. The opposite of multitasking is to work on one task at a time–simple in concept, challenging to practice. Dedicating a significant portion of time to one task can boost productivity in two important ways. First, setting time aside to focus on one thing increases productivity by as much as 65 percent in some studies because the person is able to channel all of their cognitive processing power to a single item.Second, focusing on one task and not allowing any interruptions prevents those interruptions from wasting valuable time getting back to the original task. Research has shown that people take on average, 24 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption. Start blocking out 30-minute chunks of time to dedicate to single tasks.

2. Send fewer emails. While it can be difficult to limit the number of emails you receive, you do have influence over how many emails you send. One company’s total email output dropped by 54 percent over a three-month period after the company’s leaders reduced the number of emails they sent out. The company realized a gain of 10,400 man-hours over the course of the year, all started by executives limiting the number of emails they sent out to others.

3. Make Time Trade-offs. Before we can improve on a current state, we need to understand what the current state is. If we’re going to improve our ability to allocate time effectively, then we first need to determine where our time is currently being spent. For one typical week, record the areas you invest time and add up the amount of time in each area. Then determine which areas you should eliminate your investment of time, decrease your investment of time or increase your investment of time.

People want more time. What most people really need is greater discipline in how to use the time they already have.