Claiming Extra Time from Thin Air!

posted by dilip09 on November 2, 2019

One of the most common problems clients bring to my practice is their lack of time and how stressed they are as a result of their workload. They also complain that despite their overwhelming workload their boss keeps dumping more work on them to make matters worse and expects them to spend even more time working. Many are already working during the day, spending long hours at work and after going home are expected to take care of their offshore obligations with teams in India and other places. So, how does one deal with this never-ending demand for their time and even more importantly, their energy?!

This blog is not so much about time management; there is a plethora of advice and stuff out there on this topic and every aspect of time management is covered in what is available. Rather, this blog is about managing yourself so that you can be far more effective in your work and are able to manage your energy throughout the day so that you are doubly—or more—effective in what you accomplish: one from managing your workload better, and having less stress; and another from having more time to do things that can help you be more effective with the time you do have on your hands.

Pick three priorities: In any work situation there are multitude of priorities and it is impossible to take on all of them at once. Even if you are an individual contributor you can always decide on which three items on your plate are your current priorities after making sure that you have run them by your boss to get their concurrence on them. This does not mean you would not do some ad hoc tasks that pop-up now and then, but your boss must know that if she keeps interrupting you with too much of this ad hoc stuff your three priorities are going to take a hit. If you keep a running tally of these ad hoc tasks and let your boss know how it is affecting the three priorities, then she is less likely to interrupt your work with constant demand for your time for unplanned work. The same rule applies to anyone, all the way up to the CEO.

Saying NO: A corollary to the above item is your ability to say no. There is always some burning platform or fire happening and troubleshooters are in high demand, as a result. Although there never are any troubleshooters especially designated as such, but management feels that this is its prerogative to randomly pick people from their team to assign them to put out these burning fires. Although such troubleshooters constantly get kudos for their firefights, it fosters the wrong culture of making heroes out of such people. If things were done right the first time there would be less need for such firefights, but our current work culture does not allow this to be a standard practice, so we are stuck in this firefighting paradigm for now. In fact, if you adopt some of the practices listed in this blog you’ll be on your way to shift this paradigm in the right direction.

Although it is difficult to say no in some or in many cases, each interruption needs to be translated into a new agreement of dates for the agreed-to priorities to keep things in check. Otherwise setting up the three priorities as your first order of business in self-management does not make sense. Of course, you want to be able to make some accommodations to show flexibility, otherwise you are likely to be branded as a non-team player! Allow for these accommodations in how you plan your workload and capacity.

If you maintain the discipline of keeping track of such interruptions and re-negotiate your original commitments each time such an interruption occurs your boss will soon get the hint and find others to deal with their fires.

Managing stress: Most do not realize that stress is caused by our own reaction to how we manage ourselves. Let me explain: If your boss gives you an assignment and asks for you to give them an estimate for delivering the output, the normal tendency is to take an optimistic view of the effort and beat that to show your boss how efficient you are. Once you make that commitment you are now on a clock that is ticking and any surprises, lack of clarity on the assignment, or interruptions caused by unexpected and unforeseen events further exacerbate pressure for you meet that committed deadline. Now you are stressed and are working 24×7 to honor your deadline. See, how you caused your own stress in this simple, everyday example?

This is why I maintain that stress is caused BY us and not To us!

So, to avoid such stress make sure that you take a pessimistic—at least realistic—view of the task and allow yourself some breathing room when you commit at the front end. Always under-commit and over deliver and see how your stress melts away! In this mode of operation your stress becomes your motivator and your friend.

See, how by virtue of properly scoping the assignment and by negotiating the right date for its completion you have de-stressed yourself and bought yourself more time?  Do not let your boss hector you into speeding up the completion date; stand firm on your assessment of the task and its scope.

Hiring rock stars: This is yet another factor that radically changes the dynamic of how your team functions. If you are in a management role able to hire fresh talent always look for the rock stars and superstars. My formula (when I was head of engineering) was one rock star and two superstars for a team of 15-20 and coach them on how to mentor others in the team to bring up the caliber of the whole team. In most cases others rise to the challenge when they see these star performers working alongside of them and mentoring them to better their skills. When such teams start doing their magic, they affect nearly everyone in their ecosystem and set up new expectations of how work gets done.

The flip side to this approach is knowing how to manage such teams and how to set the right environment for their success. You as their manager have the duty to provide them the right environment and tools to let them be their best at what they do. As a part of this process is the management of these teams. Managing by exception after you have clearly laid out a thoughtfully planned task can greatly save your time keeping a vigilant eye on the team’s progress. This also avoids unnecessary meetings to communicate and to status what is going on. By developing the right communication tools (wikis) most meetings can be eliminated, saving time that is mostly unproductive.

As a part of this approach to building rock-star teams, you must PIP out subpar and mediocre performers with dispatch. It quickly improves team morale, which further speeds up workflow. PIP’ing out poor performers also frees up a managers’ time to focus on the right priorities by not having to babysit non-performers.

Automate: Much of our time is spent in taking care of routine activities, which can be automated. Using software tools many email and text responses can be routinized and modified on the fly to customize them for specific situations. Editing a standard text takes much less time to respond than it takes to compose one from scratch. Many emails are already providing auto response texts, but this approach can be extended by using specific apps such as TextExapnder by Smile.

In the recent few months and years increasingly sophisticated AI tools are available for managing emails and routine exchanges. Use them generously.  

The same applies to meetings, too. Most meetings are unnecessary and are wasteful. If you set up the mindset of managing by exception, once you set clear plans and expectations meetings become unnecessary. By some accounts an average employee spends nearly 40-50% if their time in meetings, some with three or fewer team members. Much time is also spent in organizing the logistics of these meetings, especially if they entail many cross-functional teams. Meetings in which many participate virtually (phone, video) are often ineffective.

Interruptions: Interruptions are disruptive because most underestimate their impact on a smooth workflow. How many times someone saunters by your desk, cubicle, or office asking for a minute of your time? By the time you are finished with them your flow has been disrupted and it takes a long time to pick up where you left off. Studies have shown that a mere five-minute interruption actually costs nearly 25 minutes of lost productivity. Feel free to post a Do Not Interrupt sign in your work area to prevent ad hoc “drive-by” interruptions.

Same thing applies to phone calls, where the calling party feels that all they need a few minutes of your time. So, if you are calling someone, first ask if they have some time to talk or ask them when it is a good time to talk. Someone answering your call does not entitle you to preempt their time without asking; they may have been expecting someone else to call them, instead.

Respecting your rhythms: During a typical day we all have our energy and mental acuity rhythms. Aligning your tasks to these rhythms can help you be far more productive in how you create your output, both in quality and quantity. Organize your day to align with these rhythms and you’d be surprised how much more productive your day becomes.

Knowing your work: There are two types of work in any organization at each level: technical work (work that develops new products, fixes broken things, makes old things better, customer escalations) and management work (strategy, planning, hiring, developing teams, motivating, setting accountabilities, etc.). As one goes up the chain of command one is expected to do commensurately less technical work and use that time to do management work. Longitudinal studies during the past 60 years have consistently shown that too many managers, including CEOs, spend too much of their time doing technical work (firefighting) that people way below their level can do, thus preempting management work that ONLY they can do. This happens at each level and the upshot of this is that critical management does not get done. This often results in long-term effects that are deleterious to an organization’s future, often eroding their competitive edge, or worse!

So, what is the remedy for this syndrome: Know the management work at each level and do the work that ONLY you can do. Leave the rest to those below your level to do according to their assigned responsibility and hold them accountable for it. This avoids micromanagement—the single most common reason why people leave a manger or an organization. It also unleashes great amount of time at each level to do the right things, which prevent fires that are so disruptive in the first place.

Time audit: One way to take look at how you spend your everyday time working is to do a diligent time audit by marking down each activity in its corresponding time slot on a day timer and by attacking those activities that do not add to productive work. Merely doing this exercise, including stamping out unnecessary meetings (most of them) can free-up almost 50% of one’s time on the average (up and down an organization).

These are just some of the areas where you find how time can be freed-up for you to do things that are more productive and rewarding. This approach works even better when it is embraced across a team, a group, and an entire organization. Recently, a German start-up adopted a five-hr. day and a 25-hr. week for its team with great results using similar strategies.

One can reduce their workload even further by more disciplined approach to their workflow. I have personally seen a 10:1 reduction over the years in the workload in my own practice despite my unusually heavy client load.

So, claiming and pulling time from thin air is not a myth; it is something we can all achieve with discipline, rigorous work habits, and continuous improvement.

Good luck!