When I became CEO of Javelina in January, all of a sudden I had to do a bunch of things I’d never had to do before. The biggest one was thinking. This whole CEO thing requires quite a lot of thinking: about smart strategies, the best people, future challenges, and past lessons.
In my last blog post about getting the right people in the right seats, I talked about how in my former professional life, my strength was DOING. I was exceptionally good at having a list of action items and executing them all well. This skill is not very useful in my job as CEO because no longer am I solely responsible for my own to-do list. Instead, I am responsible for inspiring 11 other people to complete their to-do lists in the most amazing way that they possibly can. It’s no longer about the results I alone can generate, but about the outcomes I can enable others to produce.
When it comes to thinking, you don’t know exactly how long it’s going to take you, or how often you have to do it. It’s not something I can put on a to-do list and cross off once; thinking is a constant responsibility. And if I am not thinking about the right things, they will come up and demand my attention far too late. On multiple occasions since January, I have had to put out a big fire that was completely avoidable. In every case when a fire occurred, I had neglected to spend time analyzing and thinking about a particular part of the business.
And so, here is the question: How do I make room for this invaluable thinking time, when I can’t remove any of the other daily and weekly responsibilities from my list?
How do other American executives answer this question? They work more hours. A 2015 survey conducted by CEO.com found that CEOs work an average of 10-11 hour days, and an additional 6 hours on weekends – around 60 hours a week (this actually seems low to me). This compares to an average of 47 hours a week by full-time employees. According to Time, the way most CEOs account for this is to get around 2 hours less sleep a night than other full-time workers.
But I wasn’t sure that was going to work for me. Do you know what doesn’t make for high-quality thinking and planning time? Sleep-deprivation. And you know what else? I’m not the only one on the team who has more to do than they have hours in the day. Doesn’t everyone feel that way? When my team members come to me overwhelmed and stressed, it doesn’t seem acceptable for me to just tell them to do more and sleep less. And so, if I am going to be able to help those around me figure out how to manage time well, I have to do it myself first.
So I’ve been experimenting. I’ve tried different ways of managing my time and have read different theories of time management. I have been talking to friends, coworkers, colleagues to find out what works for them – and what doesn’t. I have paid attention to how I spend my time, and how long certain things take me. And now I have started doing things differently, testing to see what is effective and what isn’t. And it’s gotten a lot better – because I now spend a significant chunk of my time every week planning, analyzing, strategizing, and I believe the future of the business in stronger because of it.
Here are my top lessons learned about how to effectively manage your time, so you can do more of what you want and need to do (and less of everything else).
1. Track your time.
The very first step is to gain an accurate idea of how you currently spend your time. Chances are, you think you know. Almost guaranteed, you don’t.
This is because of how our brains perceive time. While our five common senses – sight, smell, taste, touch and sight – can be pinpointed to a single, specific area of the brain, our sense of time cannot. In fact, our sense of time comes from collecting information from all different parts of the brain and then putting it together to create a perception of time.
Have you ever noticed how sometimes time flies by and other times it feels like it’s moving backwards? This is because when we receive new information, it takes our brains longer to process it all. So new tasks, complicated concepts, or life-threatening situations will seem to take much longer. Things that are either easy, don’t take a lot of concentration, or don’t provide new information will take less effort to sort the information into knowledge. Therefore your brain thinks it takes less time.
Consequently, we are horrible at knowing how long things take with any level of accuracy. How can you plan your time effectively if you don’t for sure know how long things take you? If you asked me how long it takes me to write one of these blogs, I would say around 60 minutes. But looking back at my time tracker (we use an app called Toggl) reveals that each one takes me an average of 75 minutes. So, that means I am blocking out an hour to complete something that takes me an hour and fifteen minutes. By having an accurate idea of how long this process actually takes me means I do less of other things I want to do to make room for writing the blog.
Think about the multiplying effect of this phenomenon. If you are miscalculating everything you do by 10-30 minutes, it’s no wonder you may feel stressed for time or perpetually late.
So, lesson #1: track how long things take you to do and use that information to master lesson #2.
2. Plan things.
It might sound obvious, but planning your time will lead to significantly more effective use of that time when it shows up for real. How much time do you spend every day planning how you are going to spend the hours you have ahead of you? Do you sit down every morning and come up with an action plan for the day, or do you open your inbox and start at the top? Before you know it, lunch time arrives and you feel like you haven’t achieved anything. Sound familiar?
Planning is the most important part of the formula we call time management. Research shows that for every 1 minute you spend in planning, you will gain 10 in execution. This means that if you spend 10 minutes planning in the morning, you will gain 1 hour and 40 minutes in execution time that day! If you could just gain an extra half-hour a day through effective planning and time management, you would have 22 more days available to you per year. Just think what you could do with an extra 22 days a year!
My advice is this – start small. Carve out ten minutes each morning (or each evening for the next day) to plan out what you will do and when. Use the information you have about how long things take you to make a realistic plan. The realistic part is very important. Otherwise, you’ll fall at the first hurdle. Make a plan that you know you can stick to.
If you haven’t had a chance to track your time yet, think about this: what do you know for sure? If you think it takes you 30 minutes to get ready in the morning, but you’re late for work every day, then it likely takes you more than 30 minutes. Is there a meeting at work that runs over every single time? What can you do to either reduce the agenda, or extend the time of the meeting? It’s important to plan on the facts, not just your perception.
Also, when planning your day, make sure you include time for breaks, emails, and time to handle unexpected things that might come up. I think of this as “buffer time”.
Once you make a realistic plan for what you are going to do when – a plan based on how long things are actually going to take – you will likely discover that it doesn’t all fit. Which leads us to step #3….
3. Control what you let onto your to-do list.
When it comes to effective time management, lack of control is where most mistakes get made. We say “yes” to too many things. And we have a thousand excuses for this that are all versions of “it’s not my fault.”
- “I don’t control what projects I work on”
- “My coworker is out sick, so I have to do more”
- “When an emergency happens, I have no choice”
- “I have three kids”
- “My mother-in-law lives with us”
- “I have a 60-minute commute in traffic every day”
These things can all be true – and admittedly, they do make planning difficult. But here’s the dirty secret of time management: you control what makes its way onto your to-do list, and what gets booted off. Even if you get assigned tasks and projects that you can’t say no to, there are other areas of your life that you do have more control over.
Time management is a constant measuring act. We have a finite number of hours in the day. How do you plan to use them? If there’s more of something, then there has to be less of something else to maintain the same number of hours of activity. For most of us, we sacrifice sleep to make up the time. But that’s our choice. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some ideas to play with:
- If an extra project makes its way onto your work plate, communicate with your boss about whether something else can be put on the back burner to give time for you to focus on this new priority.
- Don’t be scared to say no to things. When someone says, “Want to get brunch this weekend?” it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “Work is intense at the moment and I want to take the weekend to lie low. Can I reach out to you in a few weeks when things have settled down?”
- Don’t assume every meeting has to be 60 minutes. Wherever possible, schedule 30 and 45 minute-long meetings. We default to an hour out of habit, not necessity. I’ve never met a person that isn’t thankful for shorter meetings.
- If someone asks for a getting-to-know-you type coffee or lunch and you feel overwhelmed already, politely explain and offer to answer questions over email until you have time for a proper face-to-face.
- Tackle your inbox from the bottom, not the top. The more responsive you are to email, the more it generates. Only reply to urgent emails right away. Everything else can wait for your scheduled inbox-time.
Will there ever be a time when the only way to get everything done is to get less shuteye? Of course. But it doesn’t have to be the default response – and it should never be. Perpetual tiredness only makes everything else harder.
If you feel stressed all the time, that there are never enough hours in the day, or that you are doing everything badly, then quite simply – you are saying yes to too many things. It might not be easy to say no to things, but it is possible.
Start out by listing your non-negotiable, completely vital things that have to happen no matter what. Then say no to everything else, and use that extra time gained to track and plan your time. If you do that one simple step, the panicked, stressed feeling that lives with you all the time will start to ease.
I’d love to know if these steps have helped you! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your time management moments or share tips of your own! I’d love to hear them.