The Problem of Time Management for Executives
Too many executives are way too busy.
Busyness is a pervasive and complex cultural problem that affects nearly everyone, but it affects executives with particular acuteness. After all, compared to most people, executives are held responsible for more results and are exposed to more demands on their time – but they’re only allotted the same 24 hours each day as anyone else.
They’re in high danger of spending those hours on activities that aren’t highly impactful. To make matters worse, even if they are able to allot time to high-value activities, there’s a good chance that those activities will be negatively impacted by distractions.
In other words, executive time management is hard. But it’s a crucial part of succeeding in an executive role.
Acknowledging that reality, let’s take a look at the problem of time for executives, and examine a few tactics that can help to manage it.
Why Are Executives Too Busy?
To unpack the problem of busyness, we have to dismantle an underlying assumption first: busyness isn’t a natural or unavoidable state – even for executives.
In fact, many of the factors that contribute to busyness are directly within the realm of executives’ control, which means that executives can actually choose to be less busy if they do so intentionally.
Some of these factors include:
A tendency to cling to old responsibilities. Many executives are doing a large amount of lower-level work that’s originated from past positions or from a lack of trust in subordinates. If they’ve been promoted, there’s a good chance that they’ve simply carried old responsibilities along with them into their higher role.
There’s less danger of this if they were hired from an external context, but there’s still the danger of micromanagement or taking on work that should be delegated.
A lack of trust in administrative assistance. Often, executives haven’t put in the time or effort to develop a strong relationship with an admin. The resulting lack of trust means that they spend a good deal of time working through their communication channels (like time-sucking email) or performing logistical coordination that could easily be accomplished by someone else.
Too many inefficient meetings. Meetings, of course, are often major contributors toward a state of busyness – and since executives are often the people with the power to approve action, they get dragged into meetings a lot. The problem is that many meetings don’t accomplish much and take too long.
A focus on accomplishing tasks rather than adding value. Finally, busyness arises from what can accurately be called an addiction to getting things done (even if those things aren’t valuable). Checking items off of a to-do list gives a dopamine hit, and since executives are usually high achievers, they often enter new roles used to getting regular boosts from accomplishing tasks.
Accordingly, they’re susceptible to taking on tasks that don’t add high-level value but do provide a sense of satisfaction when completed.
All told, there are a myriad of factors making executives busy. But the good news is that they can be minimized.
How Can Executives Manage Their Time?
“Productivity isn’t about time management. It’s about attention management.” That’s Adam Grant’s take, at least, as expressed in a March column in The New York Times. And it’s true; executives can’t control time, but they can control what they spend time focusing on.
The key is to focus on the activities that add value, not just the activities that add busyness. Here are a few strategies to help.
Batch tasks together. Work is more efficient and effective when similar activities are clustered together; it’s possible to get into a deeper state of focus and ultimately get more done. One helpful arena to employ this technique in is email. To implement task batching here, instead of keeping email open throughout the day, try designating certain times for email, working through communication in those frames, and closing email at other times.
This will minimize constant pinging back and forth and the attention problems that often result from those distractions.
Reserve (and protect) white space. White space (time without scheduled commitments) has been shown to be critically helpful in the high-level thinking that’s crucial to executive performance, but, because it’s never perceived as urgent, it’s often nonexistent or scheduled over.
A primary role for executives is to add high-level value, so be aggressive in scheduling time where high-level thinking can be done. Make it a priority that’s represented on the calendar, and then protect it.
Focus on people. While the accomplishment of checking to-dos off of a list can give a nice dopamine hit, executives often add the most value when they focus on people instead of tasks. In other words, don’t get busy by doing the work; focus on ensuring that others are empowered to do the work. This reduces personal busyness and also makes the organization healthier.
Be willing to go through withdrawal. The desire for distraction or low-level work really can be a physiological addiction, and as a result, intentionally metering email usage or task completion really can cause withdrawal. To combat busyness, executives have to be willing to go through it.
Ready for a New Approach?
Too many executives spend too much time on things that shouldn’t be priorities. Busyness and a lack of focus impede success – but they’re factors that can be overcome.
Work to understand the factors that are causing busyness. Be intentional about your time. Prioritize your focus on the activities that are the most meaningful in your role and will return the highest value.