Let’s get brutal about time management
Maurice Duffy

Written by Maurice Duffy

I was recently speaking with a highly talented Operations Director in the Iron and Steel sector. We spoke at length about the market, business challenges, dropping market prices, Asia Pac opportunities/ problems, manufacturing for a highly volatile world, and managing a truly global business. Many of the challenges he faces are enormous, and yet that’s what gives him a huge buzz and a sense of excitement. What dampened his spirit and his energy was the sheer volume of workload he had to manage, and the impact this had on his ability to be strategic, to build greater employee engagement and to have more time for his home life. Yes there are definite choices we make as leaders, and yes the easy and glib answer to his challenges from this consultant is to prioritise better, or to hand off more activity to his team. 

In our world of work, leaders are now expected to run at a faster pace, be highly productive, and be much more available. At the same time, there is a chronic sense of individual and collective slippage, less than optimal work performance, slower decision making, a significant erosion of trust, more damaged relationships and impending personal burnout.

Most leaders want to make more time: time to be more strategic about their business, to spend more time with their children/partners, to get fitter, or to invest in an outside interest or a hobby. It is true that in order to achieve more balance, create more time, they must slash nonessential time wasters and minimise tasks that are not core competencies. So why don’t we do it?

It's an unquestioned truth of modern life: we are starved for time. Extreme challenges at work, 24/7 connectivity, and a frenzied lifestyle provides barely enough time to breathe. We tell ourselves we'd like to read more, get to the gym more regularly, try new hobbies, and accomplish all sorts of goals. Yet do we really? We capitulate so easily and early, with the excuse/reality that there just isn’t enough time to do it all. Many leaders I meet just feel downright starved for time.

Working under the assumption that longer hours lead to improved productivity and output, leaders drive themselves and others to increase effectiveness, then try to ‘squeeze in’ good, quality time with their loved ones, in order to satisfy the work/life conundrum. However, when we are not making excuses to ourselves, we feel we are making great personal sacrifices. The family needs to understand it’s all for them!

In order to get ahead at work, to provide real leadership, to be seen to be making the effort, we spend less time with our children and our partners. Then we feel guilty and in order to compensate we carve out more family time, we try and go on holidays, yet the addiction to work, our insatiable desire for connectivity and/or to be seen to be working means we continue to work in personal time with the invasion and tension that delivers to family life. Sound like you? Ask your partner or look at your partner!

There has to be a better way. And yes there is.According to researchers Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal, high performing leaders demonstrate high degrees of both focus and energy. Their strong sense of execution enables them to apply their limited time to the greatest advantage. They draw on their ability to execute to sort through the multiple demands on their time, and target a few key contributions they want to make and that will make a significant difference.

However, to be an elite high performer does require a rather brutal approach to time management, and a deeper analysis of why we make some of the choices we do. Experience shows that time is not something that can be saved; it can only be spent more or less wisely. A question I often pose to leaders is how do they manage their time. I get the usual answers about prioritisation, to–do lists, more focus etc. When I explore further about what are the time challenges they are struggling with they usually offer something akin to the following list:

“I have to be seen to be in control”; “There is no-body else to do it”; “If I don’t do it now it will cause a traffic wreck later”; “It’s my boss”; “It’s the culture here”; “It’s all those meetings”; “It’s my Blackberry/iPhone”, and so forth. When I delve deeper as to why their time management solutions are not working they usually come up with the follow reasons: “The tools and solutions are just incapable of managing the mammoth numbers of tasks I face”; or perhaps, “I know I should be applying these time management solutions more effectively but I just don’t have the time to do it”. Great lines!

The brutal reality is that these leaders are either too busy being busy to see the woods from the trees, are enjoying the feeling of importance being busy gives them, have created a phantom workload by not addressing the things they should have swiftly and effectively, fail to make the difficult decisions they should have at the appropriate time, or do not have a relentless focus on sustainable productivity. Which all result in one thing – busyness!

Some of the realities are that many leaders are seduced by the notion that longer hours results in higher productivity. Many leaders are scared not to be involved in lots of stuff, because it might diminish their sense of importance, their feeling of being at the centre of things, or things just might happen outside of their control. The flaw in this thinking is that working harder works only up to a point – and beyond that point the personal consequences include reduced brain functioning, increased stress and health problems, decreased effectiveness, less value contributions and strained or failed relationships. It may not be happening to you today, but the day of reckoning will surely arrive.

The impact on teams and direct reports is also extensive: overwork tends to lead to mistakes that result in poor quality and re-work; misunderstandings and unnecessary conflict; lack of innovation; health and safety mishaps and extensive, unproductive meetings. The impact of overwork is sometimes clear and sometimes subtle – but it is insidious, leading to a long-term decline in quality of life and a business model that abuses individual ability to truly contribute. In a world where we can always find too much to do, a lack of clear personal purpose leaves us vulnerable to trying to do it all.

So let’s get real. We need to clarify what really matters to us, what really, really needs to get done – that which is going to make a difference to the people around us and the businesses we are in. Leaders who don’t have enough time to get things done often find themselves in a reactive mode. Disconnected from their sense of purpose and values, they are more easily driven by the meaningless, distracted by psychic vampires (those who burn our energy unnecessarily) than what their own innate sense of direction is telling them. Time management is about managing yourself and others to make wise and smart decisions, then executing with simplicity and ruthless energy.

I use the term ‘phantom workload’ to describe that which is the unnecessary work created when leaders take expedient but ineffective short cuts, addressing true non-performance issues or avoid taking on essential, difficult tasks. I use sustainable performance to describe what is productive and healthy and allows you to grow yourself and others, rather than shrink or overwhelm those around you by avoiding difficult, unpleasant, or anxiety-provoking decisions. Leaders need to go beyond doing current tasks differently and much more effectively to also address what they are not doing. Whether they call the tendency “avoidance”, “procrastination”, or simply “not getting around to it”, leaders need to take a hard look at the tasks they leave unattended before deciding that the benefits of not doing them exceed the costs.

Thus to me, “time management” becomes leadership development. As we face the tasks we typically avoid, as we execute where once we procrastinated, we strengthen ourselves to make hard decisions, face difficult people and situations with more grace, and stop ducking what needs to be addressed.True leadership doesn’t reveal itself by meeting expectations or failing to deliver on promises, it shows itself by exceeding them. Leadership looks past the obvious, beyond the optics, and it embraces the challenge of seeking the extraordinary, by doing the ordinary in an extraordinary way. Managing ourselves is the first step to being a leader.

Why do so many of us skip it and take the elevator to the top floor of managing others before we truly learn how to manage ourselves. Leadership is demonstrated by having the courage and drive to do more than just go through the motions or by allowing the motions to be what we do because we have not the time to do anything else. Surely those who work for us deserve our attention, not our activities, surely our families deserve our minds not just our bodies.

As I write this blog I see so much of my own self in the failings I describe above. Perhaps I have written this more for myself than you! I will act on this advice now.